Interpeace’s Hiba Qasas: ‘Peace is more than a political process’

Hiba Qasas at the GFDRR World Reconstruction Conference 4 Geneva, May 2019. (GFDRR)

“Most peace agreements tend to fall apart after seven years,” says Hiba Qasas, head of the secretariat of the Principles for Peace initiative, speaking over Zoom from her office in Geneva. “So evidently something is not working.”

A veteran peacebuilder who spent nearly two decades working within the UN, Qasas is one of the key figures behind the Principles for Peace initiative, which is looking to reshape the way the world approaches peacebuilding. Unveiled by Geneva-based peacebuilding organization Interpeace in December 2020, the aim is to develop new principles and standards that will guide local, national and international actors to achieve more effective and sustainable peace processes that best serve the needs of the people directly affected by conflict.

These new principles are being developed by an independent International Commission made up of current and former political figures, civil society leaders and experts at the forefront of international peacemaking. The commissioners have spent the last year consulting with local and national actors, including peacekeeping organizations and members of civil society, to establish standards that can be used to guide future peace processes and be applied to each unique, conflict-specific context.

The International Commission will meet in Geneva on 12-13 November to discuss their findings so far, drawing on more than 80 consultations carried out in 10 countries a year since the initiative was launched. They will then conduct a further year of consultations, with the first draft of the Principles expected to be released in December 2022.

Ahead of the meeting, Geneva Solutions spoke to Qasas to discuss the initiative, its progress so far and how her own experience of conflict has shaped the way she sees peacebuilding.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Geneva Solutions: The initiative is looking to reshape peace processes. Why is a change of approach needed now?

Hiba Qasas: We face an era of alarming conflict. We have over 56 state-based conflicts right now, which is the highest since World War Two. Humanitarian needs have been at a record high for a few years now. If we’re looking at the recurrence of conflict, around 90 per cent of the countries that have experienced conflict in the last three decades have experienced civil war before, meaning they’re not able to sustain peace. If we look at the duration of peace agreements, most peace agreements tend to fall apart after seven years. So evidently something is not working.

So why are the old approaches to peace not working?

Because the nature of conflict is changing, and the actors in conflict are changing. We have had more non-state armed actors appear in the last eight years than in the last 80 years. Yet despite all of these changes, the peace and security architecture has not necessarily evolved over the past 50 years. So we have a system that is not fit for purpose. It is not fit for the kind of challenges that we're facing today, let alone the kind of challenges that we will face tomorrow with the shifts we are seeing in the global landscape – shifts like the fractures we’re seeing in the social contract globally, climate change and the rising expectations of populations.

There’s a growing fatigue with the poor track record of peace processes which has given our initiative impetus. We need to rethink and reshape these processes to make them more sustainable and inclusive. We also need to close the gap between the aspirations of real people and how peace processes are actually conceived and structured, which is seldom according to the priorities and perspectives of affected populations.

What are the key flaws that mean these systems aren’t fit for purpose?

There are a set of flaws that we see repeated again and again in different peace processes. One is the heavy focus on ceasing hostilities, which sees ending the violence as the main objective of a peace process. No one is disputing the importance of silencing the guns – it’s a moral imperative. But that doesn’t need to be to the detriment of laying the foundations for more sustainable peace. This view that silencing the guns equals success often undermines longer-term prospects. The heavy focus on ceasefires often means peace processes tend to be highly exclusive affairs or elite bargains and are not inclusive of the civilian actors. This modality also makes violence the main currency.

Processes with short-term objectives also often overlook the underlying grievances that constantly fuel conflicts, meaning conflicts are more likely to recur. It’s like putting a lid on a boiling pot. We might manage to keep the lid on the pot for a short time, but the water inside will keep bubbling up and up as the temperature rises, knocking the lid off again and again.

These elite bargains and political settlements are also typically highly exclusive, sometimes not even including all the elite actors responsible for the conflict let alone women, youth or the wider civilian population. That means these processes fail to look at peace in its broader sense. Peace is more than political peace. It needs to be rooted in its social foundations to make it legitimate.

Another problem with this ‘short-termism’ is the obsession with the negotiations-at-the-table model which views mediation as the main solution. It’s definitely one of the tools in the toolbox, but it shouldn’t be the only toolbox.

Can you give some real-life examples?

Looking at recurring conflicts in parts of the world gives a strong indication of what we’re doing wrong here. If you look at Afghanistan, the US alone spent over $980bn in stabilisation but there was almost a correlation between more stabilisation funding being invested in Afghanistan and incidents of violence. The stabilisation objectives weren’t necessarily achieved and, if anything, that funding ended up empowering the wrong actors, supporting patronage and fuelling corruption.

If we look at Mali, the EU is investing a lot of resources in supporting the Malian armed forces to strengthen the security institutions and reduce radicalisation, but there have been reports of extrajudicial killings and human rights abuses for a while now which is rendering this overly securitized, militarised approach self-defeating because the population who are subjected to that are becoming more radicalised.

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Hiba Qasas in her former role as chief of crisis prevention, preparedness and response for UN Women, speaking at the WSIS Forum 2018 (ITU Pictures)

So we are seeing mistakes repeated again and again and the same solutions are being applied while expecting different results, so it’s high time to rethink our approach. We need to recognise these flaws, and get pragmatic about how we can ensure the short term exigencies do not undermine the long-term prospects of more sustainable peace. Our urge to stabilise countries and end the bloodshed should not be to the detriment of what makes peace legitimate in the eyes of people and what makes it take hold in a society. That’s the spirit of the initiative, and that's why we're trying to come up with a new frame of reference and a common compass that will guide decision-makers.

You grew up in the West Bank during the First Intifada. What do you think your own experience of conflict has taught you personally about peace processes?

My life and the life of everyone in my family was shaped by conflict and insecurity in so many ways. I grew up in Nablus in Palestine, with no access to services, interrupted schooling, curfews. Basic freedoms were a very rare commodity to have. I remember how liberating it was for me to travel in Europe for the first time when I joined the UN and it was the most liberating feeling to be able to travel between countries when as a child I could not even contemplate travelling between towns without checkpoints.

My background is one of seeing international engagement but experiencing disappointment. Seeing attempted peace processes fail. Seeing emphasis on things that were different from our priorities and desires to live a safe, secure and dignified life and to have prospects. When I joined the UN, it was interesting to hear how far the underlying assumptions of what drives violence and how to build peace differ from the reality for someone living in a crisis context.

I truly believe that peace is more than a political process. We need to broaden the frame of reference and recognise that the legitimacy of peace is rooted both in its social and economic foundations and its context.

Since you launched the initiative last December the International Commission has been working with your 120 partner organisations to carry out consultations in different countries looking at some of the key issues we’ve talked about. What have they found out so far?

So far we’ve concluded 86 consultations in 10 countries since we launched, where we’ve been working with civil society actors and peace builders, but also moving beyond the usual suspects to engage with parliamentarians as well as youth, women and different constituencies to unpack their views on what peace looks like in their societies at what processes should deliver.

A few common threads have emerged during these consultations, whether we're hearing from people in Ukraine, or Sierra Leone or Afghanistan or the Central African Republic. Firstly, that peace is more than political peace. As I said, the international community has a dominant focus on political processes and power-sharing, but in the eyes of those whose lives are shaped by conflict peace is more than the absence of violence. Secondly, with power-sharing should come responsibility-sharing and accountability – for different actors to provide the social and economic foundations for peace – and that peace processes should not enable corruption.

Inclusion is also a key issue. Most peace processes at the international level are highly exclusive, with women barely involved meaningfully in peace processes – they still only account for around six per cent of mediators and nine per cent of negotiators. But when we’re talking to people on the ground their concerns go beyond the inclusion of women and youth. We need to move from tokenism and a “tick-box” exercise of inclusion to actually having a peace process that enables more pluralistic and equitable societies, and responds to the diversity of the population in a way that supports a more sustainable and inclusive peace. Associated with that is the importance of bringing local responsibility and responsible leadership to the front and centre of peace processes.

Reconciling some of the short-term priorities of peace processes with these long-term needs and aspirations of populations is the only way to allow peace to actually take hold in a society.

Do you feel there is momentum for change within the peacebuilding community?

I worked for the UN for almost 17 years, but I stepped out of the system to work on the system. And when I left it was with a sense of ‘fed up-ness’. It’s the definition of insanity to do the same thing again and again and expect different results. To see that what we’re doing in Yemen, Libya, or Mali what we know has not worked in Iraq or Afghanistan. As someone from a crisis country, I found that frustrating and it made me fed up with the system.

I think there is momentum now because I think practitioners in this space share that sense of ‘fed-upness’. Now, we need to create this bottom-up pressure to influence decision-makers. We need to breathe life into the peace movement because there's almost complacency with the failure of peace processes, as if it's inevitable. It's been there for a long time, and the time is ripe to break from this poor track record.

Does this ‘fed-upness’ extend to the UN?

I think there’s a sense of realisation that the multilateral system is facing significant challenges and it will need to evolve in order to be more relevant to the kind of challenges we're facing today and the changing nature of conflict. And I think the secretary general recognises that the UN needs to really rethink its approach and strengthen its relevance to be more effective.

The International Commission is meeting in Geneva at the end of this week. What happens next?

The consultations will continue until March next year. By late March we’ll have the first iteration of the Principles, then we’ll run consultations to validate them and test them out in different countries until the end of 2022. Then comes the process of formalising them and anchoring them into the international system, hopefully with a resolution and support from member states at the UN.