UN Photo/Isaac Billy

From Conflict Response to Prevention? Designing the Future of International Peacebuilding

UN Photo/Isaac Billy

The global implications of violent conflict that occurs in one part of the world have become painfully evident, for example, through the current refugee crisis and the spread of international terrorism. UN peacekeeping efforts in recent decades have been commendable and progressive, including mediation of armed conflict, the development of UN regional political offices, and multidimensional peacekeeping missions that strengthen national governance structures and the rule of law. However, some UN peacekeeping missions have produced mixed or poor results. For instance, the UN interventions in Bosnia Herzegovina and Afghanistan suffered from incoherent strategic planning, and were not able to end conflict, in some areas even prolonged it. Such and other examples thus illustrate the need to reassess the wider peacebuilding approach, particularly with regard to forging sustainable peace in fragile and conflict-affected environments.

On the occasion of the seventieth anniversary of the United Nations, international peacebuilding must be streamlined with the aim of strengthening conflict prevention. Reactive, military aspects of peacekeeping—whilst important—have arguably received too much attention at the expense of preventive peacebuilding measures. There is a persisting imbalance in UN peace operations that privileges stability and the cessation of hostilities over activities aimed at preventing conflict and building durable peace. Although both elements are inextricably intertwined and peace operations play a crucial part in the immediate restoration of peace, the UN must place greater emphasis on conflict prevention. A practical step would be the expansion of the Peacebuilding Fund (PBF), for instance by re-directing commitments to increase UN peacekeeping capacity and capabilities, as pledged by national leaders at President Obama’s Summit on Peacekeeping. If symptoms continue to be prioritized over root causes, that is, as long as peacebuilding and preventive action are marginalized in favor of peace enforcement, violence and instability may persist in and beyond fragile and conflict-affected areas.

This recognition of the importance of conflict prevention has implications for the internationally recognized concept of the ‘responsibility to protect’ (R2P), which is not limited to the aspect of military intervention that has, nevertheless, received much public attention. Introduced by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) in 2001, R2P in its original formulation comprises the responsibility to prevent, to react, and to rebuild. In light of the manifold—new and recurring—violent conflicts worldwide, the international community has come up short in its efforts to implement adequately R2P with a view to prevention, despite ICISS’ proclamation that prevention is the “single most important dimension of the responsibility to protect.” However, R2P, as endorsed by the UN in its 2005 World Summit Outcome Document, remains limited to the protection of populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity, and is institutionally largely separated from and financially favored over conflict prevention. If the international community seeks to achieve a truly comprehensive UN peacebuilding framework focused on conflict prevention, it needs to:

  1. Resolve persisting political tensions and dissent between key actors, such as the UNSC and the UN General Assembly (UNGA) or aid-recipient and donor countries in the Peacebuilding Commission (PBC), to improve the coherence of UN peacebuilding;
  2. Expand the mandate of the PBC, currently limited to post-conflict peacebuilding (a part of implementing R2P), to an active role in conflict prevention;
  3. Reconceptualize the concept of R2P, to include violent conflict beyond genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity, and to include the responsibility to prevent by expanding the role of international conflict prevention under R2P Pillars One and Two;
  4. Undertake internal reforms to expand political and operational capacity related to R2P, with a particular emphasis on resolving inter– and intra-institutional fragmentation within the UN and its member states, and thereby facilitating coordinated preventative action by and across UN bodies and agencies;
  5. Undertake deep structural reforms, beyond technical improvements of the PBC’s functioning, to better connect UN entities and member states with other transnational actors, including business and civil society, and to tap existing networks and resources in the field of conflict prevention.

In a globalized era of simultaneously growing interstate cooperation and intrastate challenges, conflict prevention should constitute a key pillar of international peacebuilding and engage global governance actors beyond the limited membership of the UN Security Council. A comprehensive reform of existing structures is critical, most notably the improvement of institutional linkages and coordination between both the various ‘fragmented’ UN bodies separately dealing with the maintenance and restoration of peace, and between the UN and other transnational actors within civil society and the business community. The UN Peacebuilding Support Office (PBSO), in conjunction with the Peacebuilding Commission, must develop long-term coordination mechanisms to ensure coherence across peacebuilding initiatives and stakeholders inside and outside the UN. Important linkages, in this regard, could be established with other conflict prevention mechanisms pertaining to, for instance, the Organization of African Unity (OAU) or the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Additionally, ‘smart coalitions’ could expand stakeholder participation beyond—albeit possibly coordinated through—the PBC, comprised of states and international organizations, but also civil society groups, the media, business, and regional organizations, as recommended by the Commission on Global Security, Justice & Governance.

While the UN review of its peacebuilding architecture, especially its introduction of the concept of “sustaining peace,” is a vital first step, it remains to be seen how successful the implementation of the review’s reform recommendations will be. The difficulty will be to realize these recommendations in a timely and effective manner. In this context, the 70th anniversary provides an opportunity for the UN to reform and revitalize its overall approach to peacebuilding, privileging the need for a more comprehensive framework for prevention to better foster a more durable and just peace in fragile and conflict-affected environments in the years to come.

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