Ilwad Elman: peace processes need a fundamental rethink

Ilwad Elman is lead convener on youth, peace and security on the International Commission for Inclusive Peace. (Credit: Ilwad Elman)

“To me, peace is not just the absence of war,” says Ilwad Elman. “Peace is autonomy and agency. It’s peace within yourself, and the freedom to be a part of the processes that ensure your own wellbeing.”

Thirty-one-year-old Elman is a Somali-Canadian peace activist who works for the Elman Peace and Human Rights Centre in Mogadishu, founded by her mother. She is also one of the key figures behind the Principles for Peace, an initiative launched last year and led by Geneva-based organisation Interpeace that is looking to create a new blueprint for peacebuilding.

The commission of experts helping shape the principles, who include current and former political figures as well as civil society leaders and peacebuilders such as Elman, will meet in Geneva today to discuss their findings so far, drawing on more than 80 consultations carried out in 10 countries.

“We're not necessarily rewriting new standards for peacebuilding, but rather taking stock of everything that we've invested in for decades as a global community through the multilateral system, and recognising that these processes are no longer fit for purpose,” Elman tells Geneva Solutions.

Born in the country’s capital Mogadishu, Elman left Somalia when she was a child after war broke out in 1991. The daughter of activists, Elman’s mother fled the country with her three daughters, spending time living in a refugee camp in Kenya before they were granted asylum in Canada. Elman’s father Elman Ali Ahmed stayed behind, and was later killed in the conflict.

In 2010, watching as the violence that engulfed her home country continued to rage, Elman decided to leave the comfort and safety of Canada and travel back to Somalia. There she joined her mother, who had already returned to the country to continue her husband’s legacy by founding the Elman Peace and Human Rights Centre in Mogadishu.

Through the organisation, Elman advocates for the voices of all those impacted by conflict to be heard, particularly women and young people. She is one of the country’s best-known champions of peace and security, and her organisation has spearheaded a community-based approach to peacebuilding that specialises in countering violent extremism among young people taken in by armed groups.

Elman is the lead convener on youth, peace and security for the International Commission on Inclusive Peace, the initiative's body of experts. Other members include former director general of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) Yves Daccord, Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad of Jordan and the International Civil Society Action Network (ICAN)’s founder and director Sanam Naraghi Anderlini.

Following its meeting in Geneva, the commission will go on to conduct a further year of consultations with the first draft of the Principles expected to be released in December 2022. Geneva Solutions caught up with Elman after the first day of preliminary meetings to hear more about the initiative.

Geneva Solutions: What is this initiative all about?

Ilwad Elman: It’s about recognising that there need to be more stakeholders at the table, localising peacebuilding and showing that it’s not just about political peace but also social peace. It’s about engaging with different stakeholders and actors, including women and young people, not viewing entire communities as just beneficiaries or implementing partners.

What’s the role of the International Commission?

We’re conducting grassroots consultations with people in conflict regions, doing in-depth case studies on present and past peace processes, and thematic consultations to establish where we are and devise a plan for where we are going.

There are a lot of interesting findings that are coming out, but it’s not new knowledge. These are frustrations that many peacebuilders like myself have seen in the field for a long time. But what we've been doing for the last year is gathering evidence behind these issues, so they can't be just written off anymore or considered circumstantial or contextual, but are recognised as consistent frustrations throughout the peacebuilding world.

These consultations have spanned more than 100 countries over the past year. What are some of your key insights?

One of the consistent messages that has been coming out from communities in conflict but also from practitioners, academia, government and different UN agencies themselves is that the current peace processes are too narrow or exclusionary, and they're heavily driven by the international community or external actors. This has created some challenges in peace processes where many communities are saying that responsibilities are diffused because there are so many different actors involved in the process. This means it's hard to assign blame, or credit for failure or success.

Another key message is that local ownership is viewed as lip service, or a nice box to tick after conflict. We’re hearing from a lot of civil society organisations that feel processes that could be led by the communities themselves are being led by international organisations or external actors, and this is creating dependency instead of resilience. This is of course detrimental to any prospective, durable peace process.

What has been coming out a lot too is that there’s an obsession with the proverbial peace agreement ‘table’, but no long-term investment in the full continuum of the peace process. These should be multifaceted and can take decades. It’s not just about the nice papers that we sign when we get the parties to the table.

There’s also the question around who is actually empowered or supported through a peace process, and how legitimate a process can be when the actors or the brokers of it are not even considered legitimate in their community themselves.

You're the lead convener on youth, peace and security within the commission. Do you think young people are overlooked in current approaches to peace processes?

I think the youth, peace and security agenda is a great example of where we have all the right resolutions but very little meaningful engagement of young people in the peace and security process.

In many contexts, young people are seen as a burden or potential perpetrators, when we know that they are the ones that are overwhelmingly affected by conflict and have been inheriting it generationally. I’m an example of that too – my country Somalia has been in conflict my whole life.

What we consistently see is that young people are engaged with peace processes only to the point that it serves external actors, whether it's peer-to-peer engagement or sports or the ‘non-threatening’ elements of peace processes. But when it comes to processes that are closer to hard security measures, such as negotiations and mediation, young people are always kept at bay.

What have you been doing over the past year to tackle this?

Over the last year, I've been leading consultations with young people all over the world to not just hear their frustrations but also their solutions. And when I ask them what needs to be done differently, or how these new principles could empower them to be more involved in peace processes, they’re not proposing particularly lofty or wishful ideas.

They're very practical about how they want to improve legitimacy in peace processes. They’re also very bold in the way they are looking at engaging with various stakeholders, including non-state actors, saying that in order for us to build meaningful peace we need to have all actors at the table. It’s been refreshing to collect all these different views and see that there are so many similarities in their priorities.

Young people can no longer be ignored in these processes. Where they have been systematically excluded, they've been leading their own innovative interventions around the world. So it’s in the interest of governments and different external actors to get involved with young people, whose initiatives are a lot more intersectional, forward-thinking and innovative than old processes.

Your organisation, the Elman Peace and Human Rights Centre, champions grassroots, community-led peacebuilding in Somalia. What has your own experience of conflict taught you about what’s needed in peace processes?

My work in Somalia is very much embedded in working directly with communities. Our recipe for peacebuilding is to work with the overwhelming majority, which tends to be young people who’ve either picked up arms or been co-opted by armed groups, and provide them with an alternative, dignified livelihood. We also then work with them to reach other young people that are still within these groups. This came out of necessity, because we didn't have sustainable or legitimate peace processes in place in Somalia. So we decided to solve peace at the frontline of the conflict.

I think this is also the realisation of why this initiative is important now. The preconditions for peacebuilding that are set out in UN resolutions are not fit for purpose today. In the context of Somalia, the government is not in a position to negotiate with terrorist groups. But does that mean that we just wait? That’s not an option.

What I also see in Somalia is that the localisation and inclusion agenda of young people is still very cosmetic. It's tokenistic and it’s only used when it’s beneficial to different actors. So part of my motivation for being involved in this initiative is to work out how we can instrumentalise the lived experience of young people and bring those voices to this global process.

What would these principles look like in practice in Somalia?

The process that is being led right now in Somalia is not fit for purpose. It’s a result of flawed engagement from the offset, and we're still living with those repercussions today. We invested in a power-sharing model years ago that is still plaguing society, and that makes it next to impossible for women and young people to engage and for us to revise it, while it’s still invested in by the international community.

I think Somalia is the key example of when the international community or external actors propose a solution without consulting the community. We have warlords that are now senators. If there is any dispute, they resort back to old violent habits. We have a power-sharing system based on tribes that makes it inherently impossible for women to engage because of the patriarchal systems. We need a new frame of reference. So in relation to Somalia, these principles would at least create new momentum to do things differently.

Yesterday was the International Commission’s first day of meetings. What happened, and what do you hope to achieve over the next few days?

We had meetings with member states to brief them about the initiative. We also held meetings with a group of ambassadors and UN agency heads and peacebuilding organisations, and another meeting with the Group of Friends of the Responsibility to Protect. The idea of these meetings is not just to introduce the initiative, but to also outline how it cannot succeed unless everyone is involved in the process and working together.

Personally, I’d like to dive deeper into what we're doing to demonstrate the novelty of this initiative to the various actors that we're meeting with. But most importantly it’s about creating opportunities for partnership. Everyone in the commission recognises that this cannot work if we don't have all parties at the table. Even the commission makeup – with all of us from different backgrounds, whether it be government, academia or civil society like myself – showcases the whole of society approach that we are taking to the initiative. We’re looking to build such partnerships while we're here together in Geneva.

What happens next?

Over the next two days, we'll consider the way forward and take stock of what's been achieved and learned in the last year. Then over the next year, we'll be focusing on listening, collecting more evidence and riding the momentum that exists right now to ensure that we're able to implement these principles after all of this work has been put into it.

I'm going to continue running consultations with young people, both in-country and virtually. It's essential for the commissioners to get out of our own echo chambers, which is why we're consulting with so many different actors.

We also need to develop partnerships, because we don't want just to write a report that will live on the shelves. There needs to be a strategy, a roadmap and a way forward, so that after the two-year consultation period is finished we actually have action points and authority, as well as the principles that can lead to practical action.

Are you hopeful that there is momentum for this change in the peacebuilding world?

The threat that we're facing globally is too dire for people not to recognise how important this initiative is right now. There are more than 56 active conflicts in the world today, and conflicts are increasingly recurring. On average, post-conflict peace lasts only seven years, and a third of peace agreements are not even implemented. We can't keep applying the same old processes and expecting a different result. We don't have time anymore to not try to invest in something different.

The stakes are simply getting higher than ever. We've emerged from the pandemic. We're battling different issues like climate change. We're seeing the repercussions of years of interventions in places like Afghanistan. It's clear that a fundamental rethink is due, and business as usual isn't fit for purpose anymore. This is being recognised by the people we're meeting with, which gives me hope that there's a lot of appetite for change right now.