A New Agenda for Peace: Start with a Look in the Mirror

06 October 2016   ·   Jonathan Cohen

In his speech at FriEnts 15th anniversary on 14 September 2016, Jonathan Cohen asked: How can we make peacebuilding more effective? His answer: Involve locals, broaden peace negotiations, make interventions less securitized and more political and be aware of power relations. Above all, peacebuilders should recognize the political impact of their own actions.

Reflecting on the quarter century of conflict and peace work since the United Nations launched an Agenda for Peace in 1992 one can ask whether or not we need a new agenda for peace. We have become much smarter as a community of actors, but we still face a world with devastating violent conflicts. In devising what we as practitioners should do, I would like to suggest five elements that our agenda for peace should encompass – this is not a new agenda for peace, these are things we have long known:

  1. Firstly, it should be an agenda for peace that addresses the root causes of violent conflicts that perpetuate insecurity;
  2. Secondly, one that does not allow peacebuilding to become a hostage to securitization;
  3. Thirdly, one that finds coherence in how multiple peacebuilding actors – in governments, multilateral agencies and civil society – use the diverse tools at our disposal in more coordinated and complementary ways;
  4. Fourthly, it should be an agenda that finds a creative and empowering balance in the relationships between those who experience violence directly and those who seek to work with them in preventing violent conflicts and transforming conflicts into opportunities for development;
  5. And finally, it needs to be an agenda that moves beyond short-term crisis response and short-term investment. Meaningful peacebuilding and conciliation requires long-term commitment to both processes and people immersed in conflict, not one-year grants. It also requires a commitment by us to be reflective practitioners, open to learning from our experience and being changed by it ourselves.

Recognizing the peacebuilding potential of the people affected

As Director of a peacebuilding Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) supporting local actors living through violent conflict, I ask what does an agenda for peace look like to the people with whom we work in such societies? These are courageous people exploring peacebuilding opportunities in a world that is more connected but also working in contexts where governments are frequently reducing the space for civic action.

Recently, I sat with colleagues from Kashmir, where for the past two months a curfew has been in place. They are working across the Line of Control that divides them in areas of trade, education and political dialogue to build confidence that a different future is possible. They reflected that their agenda for peace is predicated on solidarity and the partnerships that give them the space to work for peace. Furthermore, they eloquently stated that without addressing the social and political aspirations of people affected by violent conflict, lasting peace cannot be achieved.

Clearly the 1992 Agenda for Peace’s top down approach perceived engagement in peace through a much narrower lens than we perceive it today. And it was blind to the gendered nature of conflict and to the roles women play and could play in building peace – UN Security Council Resolution 1325 was several years off. Our work in the Philippines, where a Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed in 2014 after 40 years of war in Mindanao, has shown the major contribution of women peacebuilders, as well as the value of applying a gender lens to understanding the conflict, to address some of the power structures and imbalances that underpin the conflict dynamics.

Let’s involve locals, broaden peace negotiations, and make responses more political!

Drawing on the above elements to inform a new agenda for peace, I would like to emphasize three key peacebuilding challenges where experience shows a difference can and must be made:

Firstly, the capacity of people affected by conflict is too often ignored, yet models developed and supported primarily by external actors have been shown to be inadequate. Let’s not romanticize the local, but let’s also recognize that pioneers of peace come from communities experiencing violence. Working in the Central African Republic over the past four years we have seen Local Peace Committees take on roles as mediators and provide spaces to resolve inter-communal conflict amidst extreme violence and insecurity. The Nobel Prize-winning Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet that established an alternative, peaceful political process at a time when the country was on the brink of civil war is a striking example of people driving a process to prevent escalation. What is our role in enhancing the efforts of such actors to build peace? 

A second challenge is that peace interventions are too narrow – official negotiations are essential to end fighting but they are never sufficient to secure and sustain the peace. Elite talks produce exclusive outcomes. Complementary tracks and paths are needed to facilitate a more inclusive political transition out of violence. Inclusivity has rightly become a critical dimension of the work of peacebuilders and development practitioners alike. The peace agreement signed in August in Colombia is an example of innovative approaches to inclusion, for example in the way it brought victims to the negotiating table. But we should consider whether the classic design of peace talks inherently excludes issues and people who are not wielding arms. Can we consider different formats, multiple and interconnected paths to peace?

Thirdly, we face the challenge that prevailing responses to armed conflict remain reactive and securitized – they prioritize military or overly technical statebuilding approaches. The rise in ‘violent extremism’ only increases the temptation to resort to and rely on security, military and counterterrorism strategies. Yet, the more we do so, the more we undermine painstaking conflict prevention efforts and inhibit space for negotiated political solutions. And the more we constrain the space to include groups like the FARC or the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, from Colombia and the Philippines respectively, from the struggle for peace.

Domestic power relations matter

Supporting capacities to prevent and respond to conflict is about the technical competence of peacebuilders inside and outside conflict regions, but even more so it is about the relationships between key stakeholders in a conflict setting. Paying attention to these in how we design capacity building programs matters. Strong states and societies are not just about the technocratic capacity of their institutions but are shaped by the relationships and interests that underpin them. This requires honest engagement with domestic political realities and being realistic and aware of where power lies. It means ensuring that there is sufficient political and conflict analysis within our programming.

More coherence between political and technical approaches

Yet, current donor frameworks and approaches are not necessarily equipped to deal with the implications of this. In part they are too inflexible. But we also need to be more aware of how donor interventions themselves have political impact – and how different agendas can be contradictory.

There needs to be coherence between political and technical approaches. One recent example has been the controversy in the UK over its support to Saudi Arabia and the latter's role in Yemen. Another area of tension is between counterterrorism and conflict prevention policies.

Peacebuilders need to be sensitive to the political implications of their engagement

As a community concerned to address these challenges we must be cognizant of the personal qualities that we as outsiders, as international NGO representatives, lawyers, researchers, officials and diplomats, mediators, police advisors, consultants or deployed experts, bring to building peace. We are stakeholders and we influence conflict dynamics in contexts of fragile relationships and broken trust.

If we want to reach the aspiration of goal 16 of the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda, it is not from technical advancement alone that a new agenda for peace will emerge. We do need to improve our technical approaches and ensure that these are sensitive to the political implications of our engagement as civil society and government actors. So let me suggest that we need to look in the mirror, reflect on who we are and how our actions affect situations: then we can ask what it really takes to be effective peacebuilders ourselves.