COVID-19 Awareness

Whatever Future Holds for Peace Operations, Peacebuilding Must Be More Local and Plural

UN Police part of the UN Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) hold an awareness-raising session for COVID-19 prevention. (MONUSCO/UNPOL)

Any assessment of unfolding global realities and those that lie ahead can give little hope to those yearning for a more just, peaceful, and prosperous world. The claim that war is in decline could become a self-defeating prophecy. Conflict and confrontation, rather than diplomacy, seem to be the new norm. Global military expenditure in the last decade is at an all-time high, and climate change is already shaping the future of conflict. So is the proliferation of terrorist groups and other entrepreneurs of violence, some of whom like the Islamic State are regaining strength.

Further disconcerting and disruptive is the existential impact of COVID-19, which is endangering the lives and livelihoods of many people, at a time when the international immune system is badly compromised. For fragile states, the pandemic poses formidable threats. Although many countries on the African continent have thus far shown remarkable resilience and savvy adaptability, a number of them are still expected to be deeply affected by the pandemic as it progresses. They are already struggling to respond to the socioeconomic hardship it is generating, with women and children bearing the brunt of the burden. Some will have greater difficulty containing militant groups and armed insurgencies that have capitalized on widespread anger over corruption, nepotism, and inequality. In other countries, where leaders have chosen power over people, an activist generation is rising up, largely peacefully, to lead change and at times changing leaders long believed to be omnipotent and immovable.

All the above is taking place at a time when consensus behind the universality of human rights is fraying. Conversations about human rights and shared values are increasingly muffled, or magnified, depending on whether the country where rights are being violated is viewed as a friend or a foe. Some powerful nations have increasingly defined the rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in their own terms, prioritizing religion and property as the most important unalienable rights. At a recent debate in the United Nations Security Council on human rights and peacekeeping, there was no agreement on the role of human rights components within peacekeeping missions.

This cursory overview of a world that seems unmoored and in disarray has undeniable implications for the UN’s work, particularly in the area of peace and security. The organization’s continued relevance in the years to come will partially be judged by the ways it adapts its peacekeeping and peacebuilding tools to address the challenges and opportunities brought about by a world in flux. This may not be easy in a context of diminishing financial resources and political will and at a time when the Security Council, with its legitimacy already dented, continues to view conflicts from the lens of global political competition among its powerful members.

The Future of Peacekeeping: More Stabilization and Less Peace?

Against this background, what could the future hold for peacekeeping? A cornucopia of predictive studies and scenarios have recently been produced about the various adaptations this multilateral tool of conflict resolution is undergoing and might undergo in the future. This is all happening as member states continue to scale down some existing operations and call for greater operational effectiveness.

For my part, I envisage two possible future scenarios. The first could take the form of a series of stabilization missions or presences dedicated primarily to shoring up the waning fortunes of faltering states of strategic importance. These are states that have proved unable to withstand the full weight of the internal headwinds unleashed by the ongoing global turmoil. The UN Security Council, guided by the self-interest of the most powerful among its members will spare no effort to prevent some of these faltering states from collapsing, particularly in a state-based world order already under stress.

In cases where these states are confronting armed insurgencies or grappling with terrorist groups, such peacekeeping presences, which may not necessarily be led by the UN, would be mandated to use force to protect state institutions, neutralize armed groups, and deter attacks on civilians, leveraging the sharp end of the Kigali Principles on the protection of civilians. And in so doing, the Council would likely sacrifice on the altar of stability “we the peoples” and their legitimate aspirations, without a passing nod to human rights and the rule of law when they are most needed.

This, of course, does not mean that the UN would abdicate its Charter responsibility as the custodian for human rights simply because some powerful nations have lost their normative and moral compass. It means that under this scenario, there would not be a meeting of the minds in the Security Council to affix to these types of missions a robust human rights component and the usual panoply of peacebuilding tasks.

However, as is the case with the G-5 Sahel, the setting up of a parallel arrangement such as a human rights compliance framework could be envisaged. Furthermore, in order to ensure that peace is not a casualty, the UN system on the ground could team up with local and regional organizations to leverage their comparative advantages and normative frameworks to help address the underlying governance, development, and human rights deficits that are at the root of much of the instability.

The second scenario concerns countries that have undergone post-authoritarian, post-uprising political transitions. In this case, the UN, in close collaboration with regional organizations and at the express request of the host country, may deploy a special political mission to assist these countries in managing such transitions with particular emphasis on good offices, economic development, and humanitarian assistance. The recently established UN Integrated Transition Assistance in Sudan (UNITAMS),  despite initial birth pangs, could be a forerunner of the type of political assistance the UN Security Council could agree on.

More Local and Plural Peacebuilding

In order for peacebuilding to have a fighting chance under the first scenario, and a meaningful presence under the second, it has to make room for alternative paradigms and differing perspectives about how conflict should be prevented and peace built and sustained.

Despite the promising shifts ushered in by the 2016 UN resolutions on sustaining peace and some advances in understanding the core local dynamics of sustainably peaceful societies, peacebuilding, however defined, remains largely unchanged. Peace and conflict continue to be treated as a necessary binary, with the former being conceived as the absence of the latter—an approach that produces only half the peace.

One of the silver linings of COVID-19 disruptions is that local agency for achieving sustainable peacebuilding outcomes has taken on new meaning, now that outside experts can no longer travel and have to use digital means to communicate and coordinate with local counterparts. Given that there is only so much they can do from a distance under the best of circumstances, local peacebuilders may finally get the space all to themselves, and not occupy the role of local “implementing partners” as they have often been relegated.

As the effects of the global economic recession caused by the pandemic become increasingly felt, international funding for peacebuilding will become scarce. For local peacebuilders, this means getting by on a shoestring while looking for innovative ways to draw on their internal resources, experiences, and indigenous knowledge systems and values, often neglected in pursuit of externally stimulated quick fixes. At the same time, it must be recognized that some indigenous approaches have not always promoted gender equality, and therefore must be combined with international norms and standards for the promotion and protection of women’s rights. Nonetheless, for many Africans, the pandemic presents a unique opportunity to forego the old habit of looking outward for ideas and solutions, a habit some feel may prove to be more devastating for the African populace than the pandemic itself.

Even before the pandemic, the African Union had started to shift the continent towards an alternative peacebuilding paradigm that hinges on the continued decolonization of the inherited African state and society in order to give rise to what some have called decolonial peace. Other organizations, such as the African Peacebuilding Network, have begun to foster and promote African-centered knowledge production on sustainable peacebuilding that offers alternative narratives to peacebuilding discourse in Africa beyond the dominant Western-centric frameworks.

In parallel, a recent study has brought to the fore a different understanding of peacebuilding as practiced by rising regional powers like Brazil, India, Indonesia, South Africa, and Turkey. For these countries, peacebuilding incorporates development, infrastructure, health, education, job creation, mediation, as well as post-conflict reconstruction and institutional support.

In order for the UN to anticipate and prepare for the plausible futures outlined above, and accommodate advances in thought and practice around peacebuilding, it has to explore new pathways for keeping and building peace that draws on the science of sustaining peace and on the wisdom of local peacebuilding actors. This requires a conscious leadership that challenges existing knowledge systems and assumptions, while identifying and amplifying what is already working. It is this strength-based and inclusive leadership that stands a better chance of helping the organization measure up to the inevitable change on the horizon.

This article is part of a series exploring the future of United Nations peacekeeping.