New responsibility – new pathways? Peacebuilding in the 21st century

The public panel discussion in the evening of 7 May marked the official beginning of the FriEnt Peacebuilding Forum 2014. In their welcome statements, Thomas Silberhorn, Parliamentary State Secretary to the Federal Minister for Economic Cooperation and Development and Monsignore Pirmin Spiegel, Director General and Chairman of the Catholic Development Agency Misereor ad-dressed the around 200 guests and presented their views on responsible engagement in conflict environments.

Mr Silberhorn emphasized in his speech that the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development advocates for more civil conflict prevention and peaceful conflict resolution. Strong partnerships, new perspectives and out-of-the-box-thinking are needed for this engagement. Networks like FriEnt are important as they help to facilitate this exchange with other stakeholders and perspectives. Similarly, the experience of “new” actors like the emerging powers and the fragile states themselves needs to be considered and involved. The New Deal for Engagement in Fragile States is, according to Mr Silberhorn, till date the most convincing approach for a redesign of engagement in fragile contexts, stressing the individual ownership of the states concerned and providing a framework for donor activities. Pirmin Spiegel reminded with regard to the current debate on Germany’s “new responsibility” that international responsibility starts on the very own doorstep - and with the understanding that one’s politics can create an impact on conflict dynamics in other countries.

In his opening of what turned out to be a lively and entertaining discussion, Dan Smith recalled that our world is fundamentally changing. 2014 does not only mark the 20th anniversary of the Rwanda genocide. With Syria, the Central African Republic, or South Sudan, it is also a year of severe open conflicts that show signs of humanitarian catastrophes. In the global sphere we see emerging pow-ers, the effects of climate change and growing inequality in the industrialized world, all of which are challenging the way we live. Still never before in history so many people have enjoyed to live in democracies. The realm of peace has also grown over the past decades, although the post-cold war trend of a decline of violent conflict has come to a halt. The key question therefore is what we need to do to let the realm of peace further expand.

Looking at new responsibilities in global initiatives, Francesca Bomboko noted that while Germany has been rather active in the post-2015 development goals process, it has not been a big player in the New Deal for Engagement in Fragile States. It were rather the old colonial powers (like Belgium, France, and the UK in Africa), big neighbors (like Australia in Southeast Asia), or the UN themselves, who nursed the partnership with the fragile states that have subscribed to the New Deal.

Emmanuel Bombande added that the inherent danger of the New Deal is that it applies to “fragile” states only, thus labelling these countries in a negative way. On a positive note, the engagement of civil society organizations in formulating the New Deal agenda is a window of opportunity. Still it would be more helpful to expand the scope of peace and state building and talk about the individual needs of all countries concerned. A real new pathway lies rather in promoting overarching initiatives like the ECOWAS Conflict Prevention Framework.

“You need a long-term perspective!”

Ellen Løj took up the challenges resulting from the “CNN effect”, which results in short-term atten-tion spans for specific conflicts, and a focus on one conflict at the time. So if politicians are not capa-ble to multitask and think middle- to long-term, there will be one crisis after the other but no sus-tainable prevention of countries relapsing into violence. At present the focus lies on Ukraine, which is good, but no more on Syria, which is a problem – and there are many similar situations. So it is essential to have a long-term perspective.

While Dan Smith recalled that a short attention span of politicians can be countered by functioning institutions that keep issues on the long-term agenda, Franziska Brantner suggested that on the European Union level a division of labor among EU foreign ministers might help. When it comes to prevention, we still do not care enough for conflicts that have not yet hit the media. The focus should lie on those countries where there is an escalation of tensions. But as flexible EU funds are only available for crisis management, they require to characterization of a beneficiary as conflict or fragile state. Countries understandably have reservations in accepting such label, so there is a need to change eligibility criteria for EU funds. Foreign ministries and people on the ground realize this, but the decision lies with the finance ministers, and they do not consider this a priority. 

“Where elephants fight the grass suffers”

On a more cautious note, Franziska Brantner stated that we have to admit that the international community has limited attention, resources and will. In Syria, the limits of international engagement are particularly visible. Emmanuel Bombande, who demanded that countries need to be more persuasive in their call for a reform of the UN Security Council, seconded that position in pointing out that where we have paralysis due to a disagreement between the Permanent Five, we end up with situations like in Syria “where elephants fight the grass suffers”.

Ellen Løj brought forward the establishment of the International Criminal Court (ICC) as a great progress in international peacebuilding efforts. There is a catch, however. When you are exercising Transitional Justice and move to speedily you can also upset progress – in Cambodia it took 20 years to go ahead. Francesca Bomboko also warned of negative consequences of pursuing Transitional Justice too vigorously, in particular during peace negotiations that need to integrate former belligerents. Emmanuel Bombande equally stressed that we all agree that people who are behind mass atrocities need to be brought to justice, but Transitional Justice is also about the careful balance how to achieve that. 

On China’s role in peacebuilding, Emmanuel Bombande pointed out that its engagement in Africa is on two levels. China is a troop contributor for Mali which is positive. At the same time the country invested 10 billion dollars, which is not direct peacebuilding but still helps overcome the continent’s huge infrastructural needs. Admittedly, China is engaged in Africa for self-interest, for resources, but everyone is. IN the end, the balance is important – presently there are both positives and negatives.

“No matter how nice the chicken can dance, the hawk will never be impressed”

Referring to lessons learned Francesca Bomboko emphasized that we have learned that it is possible to build peace. Africa is not just one mess but there is tremendous progress, in particular in Western Africa: despite ongoing problems there is no civil war in Senegal, Cote d’Ivoire, Liberia, Sierra Leone or Guinea. So we have to pay attention that those countries in crises get the support to proceed to peace. It is important to build institutions for security and justice, but of course there is no one size fits all approach.

Emmanuel Bombande remarked that it does not matter how nice the chicken can dance, the hawk will never be impressed. So all preventive efforts won’t succeed if we do not change our mindsets. Developing countries need to build institutions that have mediation capacities and convening power to manage crises and keep them from escalating.

Ellen Løj added that basic security is a precondition. Hence in post-conflict situations you need minimum national capacities for security and the rule of law. With regard to civil society she pointed out that without women’s groups, there would have hardly been a way to stop the conflict in Liberia. But in post-conflict countries where institutional capacities are very weak, the capacities of civil society are also severely limited. It needs to be recalled that there are many cases where donors had a strong interest in supporting CSOs but created only “Letterbox NGOs” without any base in society. But definitely peace cannot be built with government alone; it must be built with the people, engaging local chiefs and religious leaders saying no to violence. But caution is also appropriate towards a discourse that suggests that all local actors can be integrated into peacebuilding and development processes at all times.

Franziska Brantner also believed that we focus too much on drivers of conflict and do not know enough about the drivers for peace.  The overall tendency is to focus too much on “troublemakers”. We also would need to talk more about arms exports, trade agreements and climate change, and their impact on conflict.

“If I were you I wouldn’t start from here”

The debate was fuelled by many questions and comments from the audience and, as usual, they were diverse in their assessments and suggestions. Most critically, doubts were expressed whether the discussion had brought out new responsibilities, new pathways at all. In particular, when engaging stakeholders on the ground it would be essential to talk about social contracts or the lack thereof. Moreover, we need to refrain from bilaterally designed top-down approaches. But on the ground it is rarely possible to agree on joint priorities.

On a more positive note, it was pointed out that there is hardly a better time to start a forward looking discussion than now. The 10 year review of UN Peacebuilding Architecture and other relevant multilateral initiatives are coming up, where peacebuilding needs and approaches could be fed in constructively.

In his concluding remark, Dan Smith suggested to bear in mind that even though conflicts are highly complex, there is no alternative than to start with peacebuilding from where we currently are. Oth-erwise we end up with the punchline of a popular anecdote, where advice is given: “If I were you, I wouldn’t start from here…” In reality, not to start from here is not an option.

Andreas Wittkowsky
FriEnt-Team, Centre for International Peace Operations

Download pdf Version