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International peacebuilding capacity: taking the courageous option

November 15, 2015

Sometimes here in London, you wait an hour for a bus, then three come along at once. The UN seems to be facing a similar phenomenon: you wait several years for a policy review, and then ten come along at once…  Not only has the new set of Sustainable Development Goals just been agreed, but a whole slew of other reviews have been going on, into women peace and security, peacekeeping operations, the least developed countries, and international approaches to drugs, to name but a few… And of course the 21st Climate Change Conference (COP) takes place next month in Paris, too.

I haven’t travelled on all these buses, but I did take a look at the 2015 Report by the Secretary General’s Advisory Group of Experts (AGE), tasked with reviewing the UN’s peacebuilding architecture. I was impressed.

Different fruit tree varieties

When ‘groups of experts’ are asked to make recommendations to august national and international bodies in need of improvement, they have four broad choices:

  • The pointless option. Recommend only the high-hanging fruit, i.e. actions which may indeed be logical and sensible on paper, but are politically out of reach. Good for impressing one’s fellow experts, but not at all useful.
  • The lazy option. Recommend only the low-hanging fruit – palatable and easy to pick options which are logical and useful, but which probably won’t make enough of a difference on their own. Good for ‘expert’ career purposes possibly, but not a responsible approach.
  • The pick-what-you-like option. Recommend both low and high-hanging fruit. This can sometimes be just a version of the lazy option, with the high-hanging fruit only there for decoration and to impress one’s fellow experts. But if done intelligently, it’s a skillful approach which cleverly leads the target institution first to pick the low-hanging fruit, then gradually work its way up the tree towards some of the harder-to-reach fruit, following links the authors make between the low- and high-hangers.
  • And finally, what civil servants often call the “brave” or “courageous” option. This is when the experts simply say it’s the wrong tree, and needs replacing with one of another species. When a civil servant says something is brave she often means it’s not politically feasible. In which case, this option may seem a bit pointless. But sometimes, when the politics are aligned, this is the right approach to take.


Congratulations to those who wrote the AGE report. Because they took the brave option, and although that’s a risk, I think they may have chosen wisely.

The UN was founded to make and keep the peace, but because of politics it’s never fully taken on board what this entails. Since the end of the Cold War it’s become better at making peace deals, and at supporting these initially, with peacekeeping projects. But peace needs not only to be agreed and kept – it also needs to be built. This is the thrust of a concise and easy to read AGE report.

The report is premised on the fact that the SDGs which UN has just agreed say that “societies [should be] liberated from violent conflict, [and have] the capacity to manage the drivers of violence”. It also reminds us that this absolutely in line with what the UN Charter originally intended.

Developing this idea, the report rightly claims that the UN therefore has a mandate and a responsibility to make what it calls “sustaining peace”, a core principle and central aim of its work, wherever this is needed. “Sustaining peace” recognises that many societies need outside help in managing their conflicts without violence, and embedding the culture, political systems, and political economies needed to do this. The AGE report recognises this takes decades, and needs to continue long after the kinds of crises (coups, civil wars, outbreaks of civil unrest, etc.) which tend to spur UN peacemakers into action.

From short-term peacekeeping to longer-term peacebuilding

While the UN does have plenty of successes under its belt, the UN system taken as a whole is far too focused on crisis aversion and crisis response, and not enough on true crisis prevention and long-term peacebuilding.

So the authors are saying that the UN peace tree is the wrong species. Its peacebuilding capacity is too dispersed: because building peace needs all kind and manner of sectoral support – economic, political, social, etc. – on which various parts of the UN have the capacity to deliver in principle, but which is not being mobilised with peacebuilding goals in mind, so often misses the point… Or else it is too centralised, because the UN Peacebuilding Support Office has many of the right ideas and skills, but insufficient clout and resources; and the UN Peacebuilding Commission was set up wrongly, so it too misses the point…

Fundamentally, the authors say the UN needs to redefine peacebuilding around the central idea of Sustaining Peace, and then redesign the UN’s structure, systems and approaches to be able to deliver on that mandate. So one of the first steps now is for the UN to agree on this at the highest levels – both the Security Council and General Assembly – and then put in place the mechanisms to deliver it.

The politics

Civil servants might say this is “brave”, therefore unfeasible. And there remains a risk that all UN organs will simply say they can each deliver parts of the peacebuilding function, and with a little bit of re-branding and re-labelling, we will see business as usual yet again: three cheers for the UN’s ability to avoid change. But I am cautiously optimistic the AGE’s report will be taken seriously, for the following reasons:

  • Apparently the AGE’s terms of reference took a full seven months to negotiate internally within the UN system. At the time, this must have seemed a real drag for those involved. But in hindsight one would have to acknowledge this was probably time well spent, obtaining buy-in from influential member states and UN organs that new trees might need to be planted.
  • The Sustainable Development Goals which were agreed in October this year included Goal 16, calling for the promotion and maintenance of ‘peaceful and inclusive societies’, with access to ‘justice for all’, and ‘effective, accountable and inclusive institutions’. At the beginning of 2015 it was still not certain Goal 16 would survive the negotiations. But now that it has, and is enshrined in the SDGs, there is a political moment to be seized, before member states start to row back on what they have agreed. The AGE’s report is a call to seize this moment.
  • Third, the rise in violent conflict which we seem to be witnessing just now, must surely convince international decision makers that a new paradigm is needed.
  • And fourth, sometimes it just makes sense – even politically – to do what makes the most sense.

Nevertheless, to quote the AGE’s report (para 187):  Implementing [Sustaining Peace] requires…. a change in mind-set among member states, and a number of the recommendations contained in this report require legislation, either from the General Assembly, the Security Council, or both. Despite the political opportunity which exists, changes in mind-set can never be taken for granted. It remains quite feasible that the AGE’s recommendations will be enacted in the letter, but not in the action.

To paraphrase earlier political insurgents therefore: Now is the time for all good people [and member states] to come to the aid of the party. Let’s make sure that support for sustaining peace is restored to where it belongs: at the heart of the UN system. The question facing the UN in conflict-affected contexts henceforth should be quite simple: how can we help liberate the people in this society from violent conflict, and develop a stronger capacity to manage and resolve the drivers of violence, knowing that it will take a generation or more?

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