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Peacebuilding: Six Golden Rules for Policy Makers

Keynote Address by Gareth Evans, President, International Crisis Group, to the UN Office at Geneva (UNOG)/Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces (DCAF) Seminar on Security and Peacebuilding: the Role of the United Nations, Geneva, 27 October 2005

It has taken a long time for peacebuilding to get the policy attention it has always deserved. Especially in the United States: doing the washing up is never as much fun as the doing the cooking, to employ one of those Mars v. Venus metaphors that Americans tend to enjoy and which irritate Europeans so much. But peacebuilding has certainly now come to centre stage – first in the context of its failure in Afghanistan with the contribution that made to al-Qaeda and 9/11; then with the conspicuous continuing problems of the coalition on the ground in Iraq; and now in the context of the current negotiations to create in the UN system a new institution dedicated to this function. Everyone now wants to know how to do the job better. (Or at least just about everyone: some unhelpful governments and their representatives in New York always seem to have to be excluded from these generalisations.)

In this respect this seminar, focusing on the security dimensions of peacebuilding but doing so in the context of the task as a whole, could hardly be more timely. In setting the scene for it, I thought it might be helpful to distil from my own experience what I will call the six golden rules for policymakers. That experience has not involved actual participation on the ground in any mission, which obviously brings additional perspectives that others will contribute. But I have been involved, as a government minister and NGO head, in designing, and arguing for, and analysing the successes and failures of, such missions over just about the whole post Cold-War period, starting with the first really big post-conflict operation, in Cambodia. And perhaps that does enable me to contribute at least some broad-brush perspectives of my own.

Rule 1: Conceptualise the Task Properly.

The most important single conceptual understanding to get into the head of anyone involved in peacebuilding policymaking is that peacebuilding is not the end of the process of conflict resolution - it’s the beginning of a new process of conflict prevention.

The basic point of peacebuilding, both before and after war, is to create, or recreate, structures and capacities that will enable internal conflict to be resolved before violence breaks out. Every society has conflict between individuals and groups – political, economic, legal, social. The point is not to eliminate but to contain and channel it, by developing institutional structures and processes capable of relieving each of these pressure points as they arise.

We are now much more conscious than we were even a decade ago that deadly conflict is much better understood as having a cyclical than a linear character. To meet the challenge of dealing with it, in situations that are less than stable, it’s helpful to think of the appropriate responses as involving first of all, longer term structural preventive measures – administrative, political, legal, economic and military (including particularly DCAF’s business, security sector reform) as the case may be (‘pre-conflict peacebuilding’); then, as a situation deteriorates, shorter-term conflict prevention or peace maintenance measures (preventive diplomacy, preventive deployment); then, if violence breaks out, diplomatic efforts to resolve it (peacemaking) and then, if that fails, military means (peace enforcement); then, if peace is restored, at least superficially, peacekeeping operations to maintain it (at a minimum, monitoring ceasefires and the like); then – finally- structural measures for the purpose of post-conflict peacebuilding. At this point we have come full circle: those structural measures are essentially exactly the same kind of measures that are, or should have been, involved in pre-conflict peacebuilding.

The object, of course, is to get out of the cycle at this point, and not go round it again. Sustainable peace cannot be guaranteed just because a diplomatic peacemaking initiative has apparently been successful – think of the horror still to come after the Angola agreement of 1991 or the Rwanda accords in 1993. Nor can it be ensured because a clear-cut military victory has apparently been won – think of Afghanistan and Iraq right now. The focus must again be on structural prevention, and post conflict peacebuilding is a hugely complex and often hugely costly enterprise. When peacebuilding is neglected or mismanaged it’s only a matter of time before the boil erupts again: peacebuilding is the front line of conflict prevention. Understanding the task in these terms, crucial though it is as the foundation for everything else, is not quite the end of the story. Every separate peacebuilding situation has its own specific context, and that too must be properly conceptualized and understood from the outset if policy is not to go off the rails. In particular, there is a huge difference between a post conflict situation which is basically benign, and is very likely to remain so, and where just about all the focus can be on managing the transition to either a pre-existing normality or a new one; and one where there still remains those with great capacity to act as spoilers, and where the transition has to be somehow managed side by side with an atmosphere of ongoing emergency.

So the neat sequence from peace enforcement to peacekeeping to peacebuilding is often in practice not nearly so neat, and in a number of missions will require overlapping competencies from the outset. Given the extent to which spoilers do so often arise to throw into disarray the best laid positive plans, in an ideal world every peacebuilding mission would have, even in apparently benign ceasefire monitoring or post-conflict peacebuilding situations, a military component, fully empowered under Chapter VII of the UN Charter to deal forcefully with just about any contingency that arose (and would of course meticulously apply exactly the right degree of force, neither more nor less than principle and practice required when the occasion arose to use it). We don’t live in such an ideal world, but that shouldn’t stop us trying to get there.

Rule 2: Allocate Functions Appropriately.

In an ideal peacebuilding world, as in an ideal humanitarian disaster relief world, all the relevant international players would leap to their stations with alacrity, produce all necessary resources and deploy them efficiently – and with perfect cooperation between them. But of course that doesn’t happen. Coordination - the allocation of the right horses to the right courses, and ensuring that they stay in the right stables and run in the right races on the right tracks, and don’t kick and gouge each other in the process - is something for which everyone acknowledges the necessity in principle but drags their feet in practice.

The UN system is getting much better at it, but there is still some distance to go. Too much planning is still unsystematic and ad hoc, partly a function - as is so much else in the UN system - of the acute neuralgia of many states to contingency planning being done on any assumption that state breakdowns, or conflict, or post-conflict intervention will actually occur. And there are still acute difficulties in the biggest coordination task of all when it comes to all kinds of peace operations: getting an appropriate mix and match of mission, mandate and resources.

High-level coordination – between all the different UN programs and agencies, the international financial institutions both global and regional, regional organisations, bilateral donors, and the countries under stress themselves - is one of the really critical roles envisaged for the new Peacebuilding Commission, approved at the September UN World Summit. But there is still a long way to go to negotiate this into operational reality – getting agreement, in particular, as to its precise composition, and even more important, as to whether, or for how long, the reporting line should be to the UN Security Council (in my view, and that of the High Level Panel, a consummation devoutly to be wished if one wants this body to be effective, and not just a new layer of bureaucratic ritual) or whether, and when, it should be to ECOSOC, the UN’s unhappily rather dysfunctional Economic and Social Council.

Rule 3: Commit the Necessary Resources.

Peacebuilding is never cheap, although it will always look that way when measured against the costs of waging another war and then cleaning up after it. The resources to support peacebuilding are rarely available on anything remotely like the scale that the U.S. administration has been spending - albeit until now to no great effect - in Iraq. And even if the initial response to a particular situation is one of wholehearted support, the trick is to sustain that over the long haul, when attention spans wane, fashions change, the caravan moves on, it’s no longer possible to get governments to attend donors’ conferences - or if they do, they lie and double count even more shamelessly about what they will actually deliver.

Given the long and lamentable history of ad hoc donors’ conferences, and rapidly waning attention, and generosity, once the immediate crisis is over – in peacebuilding as, again, in humanitarian disaster relief - the other great rationale for the proposed new Peacebuilding Commission, with its permanent existence, professional support staff, floating support fund, and engagement on an ongoing basis of all relevant funding bodies, is its capacity (hopefully given teeth by its relationship with the Security Council) to ensure the sustainability over time and at the necessary level of post-conflict reconstruction efforts.

Rule 4: Understand the Local Political Dynamics.

One size of peacebuilding certainly does not fit all, and it is crucial to recognize that every such task - not least every post-conflict peacebuilding situation - is likely to require a quite different approach, adjusting to local circumstances. In East Timor, with a new state being created, there was effectively no human infrastructure with which to work; in Afghanistan, by contrast, although the country was physically destroyed, there was a highly educated diaspora available to be recruited; in Bosnia and Kosovo there was plenty of human potential, but in environments where there had been no previous state; in Iraq there was again plenty of sophisticated human potential, and a well established state, but a more hostile environment than had been anticipated.

It is critical to have a close understanding of both the cultural norms and the internal political dynamics of the society that one is trying to rebuild. It is important to be acutely sensitive to those norms, but at the same time not so deferential that the larger task of state building is put at risk. In Iraq, for example the coalition’s precise arithmetic weighting of its preferred governance institutions, from the Interim Governing Council onwards, to exactly reflect Shiite and Sunni, and Arab and non-Arab, proportions of the populations seemed at first sight clever. But for the first time in the country’s modern history sectarian and ethnic identity were elevated to the rank of primary organizing political principle, and the danger that the country will disintegrate on religious and ethnic lines, previously much exaggerated, is now enormously real.

In an ideal peacebuilding world the planning and execution of missions would be totally sensitive to local cultures and political dynamics – and offer exactly the right degree of local buy-in to ensure both the perceived legitimacy of the mission and the legitimacy of the local institutions being restored to health. Mechanisms would be found to build an inclusive political community – a system of governance that would fully reflect local political dynamics and be sustainable.

The real world, as always, falls short of the ideal. But we can do better. We know that outsiders have a critical role in peacebuilding, just how critical depending on the local capacity for recovery and the local legacy of war-related hostility. But what matters is that outside peacebuilders recognize not only what they can do but what they cannot, including taking ownership of another's land and people, even temporarily. If that mindset exists, any attempt at building peace-sustaining institutions in that country is destined to fail

Rule 5: Pursue Multiple Objectives Simultaneously.

If conflict or mass violence is ever to be stopped from occurring, or recurring, there are a myriad of structural and governance-improving measures that can usefully be applied. The task is multidimensional: immediate physical security must always be the first priority, but it can’t be the only one. Peacebuilders have to effectively address economic and social needs, general governance and participation needs, specifically economic and anti-corruption needs, and justice and reconciliation needs as well. The established toolbox of available strategies is large, embracing political and diplomatic measures, legal and constitutional measures, economic measures and security sector measures, including of course the security sector reform strategies that are so effectively promoted by our co-host today, DCAF. But too often one or more compartments have been neglected.

My own feeling is that the most fundamental of all peacebuilding tasks, more important even than establishing a notionally representative government, is establishment of respect for the rule of law – with all that that implies in terms of viable rule-making institutions and non-corrupt courts, judges, police and penal system. To this day, not enough attention is given to this issue: it’s always toward the bottom of the list. But it is all about not just consolidating a sense of personal security, but about creating the minimum conditions for serious economic activity and foreign investment, for which the most generous aid in the world is no substitute if a broken country is ever to get back on its feet.

On the issue of getting the balance right between justice and reconciliation, in post-conflict societies highly traumatised by the internal mass violence, it has to be acknowledged that this is one of the most difficult of all peacebuilding tasks. The only rule of thumb is that there is no rule of thumb, and that outsiders must listen very carefully indeed to what local people are telling them: sometimes most people just want to draw a line under the past and move on.

Rule 6: Know When It’s Time to Leave.

All intrusive peace operations need, as has often been remarked, if not an exit timetable certainly an exit strategy. The vesting, as soon as humanly responsible, of real authority, responsibility and sovereignty in the people of the country being rebuilt must remain a key objective of those outsiders engaged in peacebuilding, but this won’t mean much until the foundations for effective, sustainable, robust civil society have been laid. In post-conflict situations too much attention on the civil side continues, despite all the lessons of the post Cold War years, to be focused on democratic elections as the primary target for peacebuilders, failing to recognise that if a new civil society environment has not had the chance to find its feet, with viable new political groupings formed, elections are, as often as not, just likely to give new legitimacy to discredited old-regime power wielders.

While peacebuilders must know when to leave if the rebuilding of a failed state is not to turn itself into a permanent occupation, many of the worst peacebuilding mistakes of the past decade have had more to do with leaving too soon or doing too little than staying too long or doing too much. The intervention in Somalia may have been mismanaged, but the manner of the country’s abandonment in 1993 was sadder still: a dozen years later it is still a comprehensively failed state. And whatever one might feel about how Iraq was entered in 2003, and how it has been comprehensively and tragically mismanaged since, it is very hard to seriously argue that the only responsibility now of the international forces is to leave – before any kind of genuine consensus has been reached on a new constitutional disposition, before competent home-grown security forces have been rebuilt, and before any kind of agreement has been reached between Iraq’s neighbours about how to maintain regional stability in the event that Iraq’s governance system does disintegrate.

If these six rules become firmly embedded in the consciousness of policymakers, it may be that this will improve the quality of the work-in-progress that contemporary post-conflict peacebuilding so clearly represents - good in parts but with some distance to go in others. But in a really ideal world of, course, we would become so good at both long and short term conflict prevention strategies so long before the prospect of deadly conflict ever arose, that circumstances calling for post-conflict peacebuilding would never again arise. Well, we can dream.