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What makes some societies more peaceful, resilient, and capable of responding effectively to conflict and crisis than others? Though we are still searching for clear and convincing answers to this question, we do know that peace is more than simply the absence of violence - truly peaceful societies tend to have the necessary institutions, norms, and values in place to resolve problems in non-violent ways that are generally deemed fair. They are also marked by an absence of violent rhetoric in their public and political spheres, and are often able not only to bounce back from disasters like the COVID-19 pandemic, but to constructively adapt and transform in response.

Trust and Locally-Owned Solutions

Without local ownership, any peace process is likely to eventually crumble

One key characteristic shared by the most peaceful and resilient societies in the world is the presence of a social contract legitimizing political authority, and enabling diverse groups of people to resolve their differences without resorting to violence. The trust that underpins that social contract - between people and their governing institutions, and among different ethnicities, religions, and regions - does not simply emerge spontaneously. It is rooted in the historical experience of a society, and shaped by shifting values and patterns of behaviour over time. A certain degree of this trust is essential for fostering peace and resilience, and for preventing conflict from becoming violent. In order to foster this trust in the most fragile and conflict-affected countries and communities, local leadership (and, ultimately, local ownership) of the peacebuilding process there is often required. This is due to the well-documented truth that while international efforts to build peace may grant short-term stability, a truly long-term peace will rely on key stakeholders in any society having a say in their own governance, political systems, and peacebuilding processes.

As has been the case time and again throughout the course of history, a lack of sufficient local agency and ownership of a peace process means that even the most robust international efforts will crumble - at least as soon as positive external reinforcement and controls disappear. The hard-won evidence gleaned from many years of efforts at peace-making and peacebuilding is that peace truly needs to emerge from within a society, and cannot be imposed by external actors. Nor can it be imported to one place based on experiences in another. Local ownership does not simply mean government ownership - it must evolve through process-oriented and inclusive peacebuilding strategies that are designed to engage with every part of a society. The notion of local ownership must not be romanticized, and the assumption should never be made that it is inherently good while external or international influence is bad. However, any successful effort will feature inclusive processes that enable legitimate and constructive forms of local agency. Not ensuring such an approach risks enabling continued violence.


A Voice for the Young

Most young people are in the parts of the world most prone to conflict and violence

In 2014, the United Nations reported that there were more young people in the world than ever before in human history - with an estimated 1.8 billion inhabitants aged between 10 and 24. Of this 1.8 billion young people, nearly nine out of 10 live in less-developed countries, the UN reported, where poverty is most prevalent, access to critical health care and schooling is the lowest, and conflict and violence are most frequent. It has been estimated that by the year 2030, the number of young people will grow further to 1.9 billion - and that most of this growth will take place in Africa. The importance of these young people to establishing and maintaining global peace was recognized by the UN’s Security Council Resolution 2250 on Youth Peace and Security (YPS), which was adopted in 2015. The resolution urges member states to give young people a greater voice in decision-making at the local, national, regional, and international levels - and to consider mechanisms that can enable them to participate meaningfully in peace processes.

A subsequent, independent YPS Progress Study was developed by an advisory group of experts including young leaders, and published in 2018. The study proposed ways to support the full and equal participation of young people at all decision-making levels, and noted that education for young people everywhere is indispensable for building peace, preventing violent conflict, and addressing the systemic exclusion of young people. The study also called for genuinely inclusive forums to shape the lives of young women and men, and for the means to ensure that young people have a seat at the table when peace is being negotiated, or reconciliation and reconstruction are being planned. It demanded the full economic inclusion of youth, in ways that go beyond employment and involve the development of communities in ways that support the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. In addition, it cited the need to better protect young people from violence and its traumatic effects, and for the better protection of human rights and the enabling environment necessary to work towards peace - including through peaceful dissent and protest.

Social Cohesion and Civic Participation

Communities with strong ‘horizontal’ ties are more likely to rebuild after a disaster than emigrate

Social cohesion is essential for sustaining peace and building resilience - and has been linked to relatively high levels of civic participation. The willingness of leaders to positively engage is intimately tied to levels of trust, and to the shared belief among citizens of any country that they enjoy a shared morality. In times of crisis, a socially-cohesive society can work across divides more effectively, by including diverse groups in formal governance processes and in informal networks. Social cohesion does not necessarily entail the sort of homogeneity of values that can surface in authoritarian societies; where the latter exclude certain people and suppress diversity, the former incorporates it. Civil society represents a broad array of interests and is not monolithic, and an active civil society and civic space are critical for peace and resilience. The ability of any member of civil society to exercise a­­gency is necessary to express and mediate grievances - and to do so in non-violent ways. When civil society participation is constrained by political or business interests, the incentives for violent resolution only increase.

A community’s resilience (whether in the face of a pandemic or violent conflict) depends on the strength of the connections among its members - its “social capital.” Higher levels of cohesion enable communities to rejuvenate faster and more efficiently after experiencing major shocks. By overlooking the importance of building social cohesion, communities only further open themselves up to new stresses. Investments made in disaster mitigation and recovery therefore ought to be focused on social, rather than physical, infrastructure. Peace efforts cannot be sustained without support from and engagement with local communities in addressing the inequalities that serve as root causes of conflict, in bridging top-down and bottom-up approaches to peacebuilding, and in developing a local blueprint for conflict transformation that can foster a more resilient society. Communities that have relatively strong “horizontal” social ties (among different groups of people rather than between people and authorities) are more likely to return after a disaster and rebuild, rather than emigrate. These communities are also likely to have an easier time acting collectively to reduce crime, creating systems of informal insurance, and providing mutual aid when the government proves incapable of providing such services.

Image by Harry Quan

Human Rights and Peace

There are examples of transitional justice mechanisms providing a path to reconciliation in war-torn countries

It is often said that there can be no sustainable peace without justice and accountability. And, peace is often a prerequisite for meaningful efforts to apply justice, for social commitments to upholding human rights, and for adherence to the rule of law. The connections between human rights violations and political violence are made obvious in nearly every daily news cycle. According to the Institute for Economics & Peace’s Global Terrorism Index 2019, when conflict arises in countries with high levels of political terror - including extrajudicial killings, torture, and imprisonment without trial - it accounts for more than 99% of all deaths from terrorism. According to the Index, one of the more worrying recent trends has been a surge in far-right political terrorism; the number of far-right attacks collectively increased by 320% over the previous five years in North America, Western Europe, and Oceania. Meanwhile the number of arrests in Europe in 2019 linked to right-wing terrorism increased for the third year in a row, and the “Positive Peace” score for the US had fallen by 6.7% over the previous decade.

The establishment of human rights norms has been critical for the progress made in the years since World War II. However, many argue that the past decade has witnessed a reversal of this trend. This may intensify grievances and undermine the institutions that normally help societies resolve conflict in non-violent ways. Without strong human rights regimes and norms, the resilience of any society to violent conflict can be negatively impacted. There are many examples where the presence of a vital civil society and human rights defenders in post-conflict settings have contributed to violence reduction, enhanced security and accountability, resilience, and restoring dignity. There are also a number of examples from war-torn countries where peace agreements based on conflict-sensitive, transitional justice mechanisms have provided a path to reconciliation. In Rwanda, for example, the “gacaca” transitional justice process used community-based courts to address the country’s 1994 genocide. The courts are widely seen to have left a mixed legacy - with some citing their effectiveness in terms of easing tensions between ethnic groups, while others have argued that they fell short in terms of punishing perpetrators for their crimes.

Peace and Human Development

Two-thirds of the world’s extreme poor will live in conflict-affected areas by the year 2030

The Pakistani economist Mahbub ul Haq led the establishment of the Human Development Report at the United Nations Human Development Programme in 1990, alongside the Human Development Index (HDI) - a now-widely-used measure that takes well-being into account as opposed to just income levels. “Freedom from Want” and “Freedom from Fear” are essential aspects of the HDI, and the very notion of “human” development has helped move the general concept beyond mere economic growth to include progress in education and health - making way in turn for a broader conceptualization of human welfare. Haq’s work played an important role in guiding the formation of the Millennium Development Goals in 2000, which established a set of targets for 2015. More recently, the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (with targets for 2030) have established an even more comprehensive and holistic vision of human development - which can be both a reason for and consequence of peace and resilience. The goals are important not least because it is well established that relative levels of conflict, violence, peace, and resilience are strongly associated with grades of human development.

It is important to recognize that human development is multidimensional, in order to help guide more balanced approaches than those that have been overly focused on economic outcomes. In many contexts, the degree to which situations remain peaceful or do not at least partially depend on the state of human development - and in particular, on how resources are distributed across ethnic, religious, and linguistic groups, as well as among age groups and between rural and urban areas. Meanwhile the degree to which agencies and workers pursuing crucial international development efforts aimed at addressing poverty and deprivation are subjected to conflict can determine the long-term sustainability of those efforts. By the year 2030, up to two-thirds of the world’s extreme poor will live in countries characterized by fragility, conflict, and violence, according to the World Bank. In response to this trend, the World Bank unveiled an “FCV” (fragility, conflict, and violence) strategy in 2020 focused on crisis prevention, investing in conflict-prone areas in order to bolster local institutions and social safety nets, and increasing the number of staff on the ground in the most challenging environments.

Splattered Paint

Humanitarian Action in Response to Conflict

Funding to address conflict with humanitarian aid falls well short of what is needed

Increasing incidences of deadly conflict around the world mean efforts to deliver crucial humanitarian aid face a new operational reality. Roughly 85% of all humanitarian relief operations are conducted in response to conditions created by violent conflict - and more than two-thirds of humanitarian relief spending is directed at protracted crises that last eight years or more. Ceaseless conflict continues to create more humanitarian needs than current spending can address. According to a report published by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, a record 68.5 million people were forcibly displaced by conflict in 2017, and the economic cost of conflict and violence rose to $14.8 trillion that year - equal to 12.4% of global GDP. Meanwhile the amount requested through UN-coordinated humanitarian appeals rose to more than $23 billion by 2017 (up from $4.8 billion as recently as 2006), targeting slightly more than 100 million people worldwide. However, while funding for consolidated appeals made for humanitarian aid amounted to $14.2 billion in 2017, that left more than $9 billion in unmet requirements, according to the report.         

The scale of current political and humanitarian challenges demands a fundamental change in the way that aid is delivered - as well as in the ways we think about how to best make any required changes. Humanitarian action has a tremendous impact on current and future peace and conflict dynamics, and on the resilience and capacity of local communities. Without addressing the root causes of conflict and violence, humanitarian needs will only continue to grow at an unsustainable pace. There must be a greater focus not only on “Do No Harm” practices (which are borrowed from the medical practice, emerged in the wake of situations such as the genocide in Rwanda, and include ways to prevent the negative effects of some types of intervention), but also on their potential long-term impacts on resilience and sustainable peace. The health of the “humanitarian, development and peace nexus” formed by key institutions of global governance, and the UN system in particular, is critical for transforming the way international actors deliver aid - and for helping them address long term peace and resilience.

Inclusive Peace Processes

Most peacebuilding efforts have only managed to achieve a temporary cessation of conflict

Since the end of the Cold War, there has been an increase in international conflict and a serious deterioration of relations between world powers. The primary cause of the world generally becoming a less peaceful place is the inability of an increasing number of countries to resolve their own, internal conflicts. Peace processes are usually thought of as just a series of negotiated steps to end war. But they should also include add-ons and actions necessary to help societies fundamentally strengthen their capacity to resolve conflict in non-violent ways. Most peace agreements fail within about seven to 12 years, or are simply not implemented at all. This is primarily because of a lack of inclusion of different ethnic, religious, and political groups, of people of different genders and generations, and of people who would benefit through local ownership. The deteriorating state of world peace has demonstrated the need for ever more inclusive processes - for the first time since the 1970s, more armed conflicts were started than were ended in the five-year period beginning in 2010.

A significant portion of these new conflicts did not stem from older conflicts, and several have developed into more intense civil wars - such as in Syria and in Yemen. This trend has only been accelerated by the international community’s failure to build a sustainable peace. Of the 103 countries that experienced some form of civil war between 1945 and 2009, more than half suffered from more than one during the period, and some 90% of the active conflicts during the 2000s began in countries that had already experienced a civil war. This underlines a disturbing fact about international peace-making and peacebuilding efforts: a large portion of those that have been initiated to resolve conflict have only been successful at achieving a temporary cessation of violence. Meanwhile more than a third of the established peace agreements have not even been implemented. The outcomes of ongoing peace processes in Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, Syria, South Sudan, and throughout the Sahel region of Africa will affect global security and migration flows for many years to come. More inclusive approaches to peacebuilding must therefore be adopted, to ensure durable peace agreements.

Global Governance and Maintaining Peace

A shared security architecture is a necessary check on proxy conflicts and populist movements

While the United Nations has been largely successful in its efforts to limit international conflict since its formation at the end of World War II, the nature of conflict is changing - and creating new challenges. The inability of key legal instruments of the international system such as the UN Security Council or the Responsibility to Protect (a global political commitment) to contain increasingly-internationalized proxy conflicts - which have spiked since the end of the Cold War in places including Yemen, Syria, and Libya - has led to critical failures that undermine international peace, security, and resilience. In a globalized, interconnected world, impactful global governance is necessary. The internal peace and security challenges in one country can negatively impact broader regional and international political dynamics, making normative frameworks and a shared security architecture essential. While global governance is primarily centred on the actions and decisions of UN member states, global efforts are increasingly being led by private sector actors and non-governmental organizations. No single organization, however, can conduct all of the multifaceted tasks required to consolidate peace processes.

Partnerships are therefore an indispensable element of the international community’s efforts in post-conflict settings. The African Union, the Economic Community of West African States, the European Union, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the Commonwealth of Independent States, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization have all mounted major operations of their own - oftentimes with the authorization of the UN Security Council. Cross-cutting issues such as humanitarian crises, conflict resolution, human rights, the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, climate change, natural disasters, arms control, refugees and migration, trade rules, and peace processes are all potentially affected by international global governance. Relatively recently, a number of negative related trends have emerged - such as the rise of populist political movements in a number of countries, new constraints on civil liberties, the continued systemic perpetuation of socio-economic inequalities, compromised electoral processes, increasingly prominent anti-rights groups, and attacks on the freedom of the press. These have undermined the institutions of global governance, and impacted political support for multilateralism generally - and can therefore be seen as a threat to maintaining peaceful societies.

Source: World Economic Forum

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