Seton Hall Graduate Degree in International Affairs
Seton Hall Graduate Degree in International Affairs

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The UN Secretary-General’s Disappointing Peace-Building Proposal


A Liberian with her country’s flag at a tribal ceremony in which she is performing, 2013. The author writes that countries in transition from war to peace, like Liberia, need to focus on economic ambitions as well as political ones to become stable. STATON WINTER/UNMIL

Since the end of the Cold War, a diverse group of countries at low levels of development emerged from intrastate conflicts and embarked on a complex transition to peace, stability and prosperity. All aspects of such transitions are closely interrelated and reinforce each other.

Simultaneous security, political, social and economic activities compete for scarce resources during transition. Since the main objective must be to avoid a relapse of conflict, the peace — or political — objective must always prevail over the development, or economic one. The United Nations, led by the secretary-general, is uniquely positioned to support countries in this transition to reconcile security and political objectives with social and economic ones, done through impartiality and conflict-sensitive policies.

As Margaret J. Anstee, the first female UN special envoy who chaired the UN colloquium on peace and conflict resolution in 1995, clearly stated, peace-building is essentially a political task and is thus fundamentally different from normal relief or development activities. It took the World Bank more than a decade to recognize this fact with negative consequences for transitions.

The record of the last 25 years speaks for itself. As I show in my new book, “Obstacles to Peacebuilding,” more than 50 percent of the 21 countries that started transitioning from war to peace under the watch of a UN multidimensional operation (military and civilian contingents) relapsed into conflict within 10 years. Moreover, even those that kept a tenuous peace ended up unable to stand on their own feet, with unviable economies and high aid dependencies, even for food security.

The list ranged from Mozambique, Cambodia, El Salvador, Angola and Rwanda in the 1990s to the Central African Republic, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, Liberia and South Sudan in the 2000s.

While promoting my book in Europe in October, just after Secretary-General António Guterres proposed his reform agenda of the peace and security pillar of the UN, I was often asked whether his proposal could help improve the record.

In discussing the UN record, the task is not to assign blame to the world body for the crises themselves (the Security Council  establishes peacebuilding operations only in countries that are in deep crisis), but rather to evaluate how the organization could transform itself to conduct such operations in a more cost-effective, inclusive and sustainable way.

With that caveat and having personally supported Guterres as a candidate for secretary-general because he was the best-qualified person for the post (to the chagrin of female colleagues that believed I should have supported a woman), I was highly disappointed with his proposal.

Guterres posited that UN member states encouraged him to take “bold and meaningful reforms,” but I found nothing bold and little that was meaningful in his proposal. Its only redeeming feature is placing “peacebuilding” in the “political department,” which is common sense given the political nature of the challenge. Such a proposal, however, cannot but invoke déjà vu since Boutros Boutros-Ghali and Kofi Annan, former secretaries-general, recommended the same thing years earlier but failed to deliver.

Guterres’s call to eliminate “silos” is also common sense and not unlike the integrated approach to peace-building that Boutros-Ghali called for in his 1992 “An Agenda for Peace” proposal.

Moreover, the need to eliminate silos in peace-building was famously called for by President Bill Clinton in Sarajevo in 1999 when he said, “It is not enough to end the war; we must build the peace — and this cannot be done with a silo mentality.” For the record, his government did not attempt to overcome such silos and neither did later United States administrations in Afghanistan or in Iraq.

Indeed, eliminating silos and carrying out an integrated approach is easier said than done, and there are basic elements missing in Guterres’s reform proposals to make this integrated approach operational. By establishing these proposals through existing resources (cost neutral) to please donors and by ruling out reallocation of resources from development or other areas to peace and security to please the Group of 77 countries, the UN will not have the basic technical and operating capacity that most analysts contend the organization lacks.

Just moving offices and people around — without changing mandates, expertise and budgets or being able to acquire young talent — is not going to remedy some of the obstacles that have affected the peacekeeping record, particularly to address the much-neglected economic aspects of a country’s transition.

As academics and practitioners alike have recognized, a fundamental obstacle has been the inability of the UN to support countries to reactivate their economies in an inclusive and sustainable manner. This support is sine qua non to ensuring that a large majority of a country’s population receives a “peace dividend” in terms of better lives and livelihoods, so that they can embrace the peace process and be agents for peace rather than spoilers.

Terrorist groups increasingly finance themselves through drug and other racketeering activities that thrive in insecure areas lacking alternative livelihoods. At the same time, extremist groups such as Boko Haram, ISIS, Hezbollah, Hamas and the Taliban increasingly recruit people by providing jobs, services and other necessities to those deprived of them by incompetent and corrupt governments and misguided aid policies.

Rebuilding war-torn economies effectively must become a critical aspect of peace-building. This is imperative not only to stop acting as recruiting agents for insurgencies but also to reduce the growing global repercussions of failed states in terms of refugees, terrorism, organized crime and other human and financial struggles.


We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Graciana del Castillo is a senior fellow at the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies at The Graduate Center, City University of New York, and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

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