Reshaping peacebuilding for the 21st century

A member of one of the reconciliation villages in Bugesera sharing story on their reconciliation journey after the 1994 genocide against Tutsi. The village, which hosts both genocide survivors and families of genocide perpetrators, was built by Prison Fellowship Rwanda; Interpeace’s partner in the "Strengthening social cohesion through trauma healing pilot programme in Bugesera". Credit: Constantin Ashimwe for Interpeace.

A new global initiative has been launched to reimagine the way the world approaches peacebuilding.

As the year draws to a close, there are over 50 active conflicts around the globe and more than 79 million displaced people. Two-thirds of these conflicts are protracted crises that have been active for eight years or more, leaving populations wracked by wars which seemingly have no end. Yet even when peace is reached, it is all too often short lived. Most peace processes fail after seven years, and 35 per cent of peace agreements are never implemented. A new global initiative hopes to change this.

A new approach to peace. The Principles for Peace initiative, unveiled last week by the Geneva-based peacebuilding organisation Interpeace, seeks 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 will be 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 will spend the next two years consulting with local and national actors, including peacekeeping organisations 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 main purpose of this effort is to really create a new reference point for how to design and implement and monitor peace processes going forward,” says Scott Weber, president of Interpeace, which will be hosting the initiative’s secretariat, supporting the work of the commission and participating in the project. “We have the Geneva Conventions for behaviour during war but we don't have a similar type of guidance to help us behave properly in building peace, and therein is the challenge to create that new reference point.”

A flawed system. The initiative seeks to identify the shortcomings of current peace processes. While every process faces unique challenges, Weber explains there are a number of common factors that often render them ineffective - one being the attempt to “throw the same tools” and apply the same peacebuilding methods to very different situations.

“There is no one size fits all,” explains Weber, who is keen to stress that the initiative will not suggest a “cookie cutter approach” to peace processes, but rather highlight how such an approach is doomed to fail. “Context is everything. The context should determine what’s relevant, when and how.”

Conflicts are typically deeply rooted in societal, historical and cultural tensions. Failure to acknowledge these contexts means that, even if peace is temporarily reached, the process and results will not be relevant nor entrenched in the society, making recurrences more likely.

Lack of accountability. Today, Weber says, peace processes are typically facilitated by external actors, reverting to a “top-down” approach that involves an “elite” - be they international organisations or a national elite. He explains that this too is partly to blame for their lack of effectiveness. Not only do these processes often fail to represent the needs of the people directly affected, but they lack accountability for those on the ground who are expected to implement peacebuilding day-to-day.

For example, a survey conducted this year found that 80 per cent of Malians felt they had no ownership over or even understood the Mali Algiers agreement - a peace accord signed in 2015.

“Often countries and populations feel that they are victims of the peace process that was carried out in their society, and that they're left dealing with the consequences of how these processes were done without any influence on them or any ownership of them,” explains Weber. “And then we wonder why countries fall back into conflict not long after those processes are run.”

Valuing sustainable solutions over quick-fixes. With external actors come external reference points of what counts as a “successful” peace process, which Weber explains are all too often focused on bringing an immediate end to fighting rather than establishing long term solutions for the societies affected.

“Peace processes tend to be focused on ending the violence and not building legitimate peace,” says Weber. “It's what we in our lingo call being focused on ‘negative peace’ - stopping the shooting - but not focused enough on ‘positive peace’, which is about building legitimate institutions, building trust in society, and building a social contract that will allow everyone to live together with a state that is legitimate.”

He explains that there is also a divergence between what goes on in formal negotiations and peace talks, and the actual peace building process on the ground. “We conflate a mediation process and negotiation with the peace process,” he says. “We need to reframe what we mean by a peace process to look at a 20 - 25 year timeframe, with efforts at various levels, not just the elite-driven behind closed doors talks.”

Change is long overdue. Rather than seeking to condemn all aspects of current and past attempts to usher in peace, the initiative aims to mould a new approach that is shaped by lessons learned. “The old ways of doing things” have undoubtedly achieved many things, Weber says. “It’s not that everything is bad, it’s that we need to build off the good parts, and really go further now because we're in a 21st century and we need a different set of reference points,” he adds.

“What we're trying to do is to recognise that a lot of the things that have guided the design and conceptualisation of what a peace process is and how they're run are based on concepts and reference points that are outdated...and yet we continue to apply them and hope for a different result than what we're getting,” says Weber.

He explains that at a time when many sectors are grappling with how to “build back better” after the global pandemic, there is a new readiness to rethink peace processes.

“There's a growing understanding that you can look at the situation and say, ‘It’s broken’, or you can look at it and say, ‘Here's an opportunity to make a change,’ ” says Weber. “I think there's a mood of not just looking at how we get back to the status quo pre-Covid, but how we transform some of those fundamentals that we have been operating with, because the world has changed.”

“Every crisis is also an opportunity,” he continues. “We've just gone through what many could argue is as traumatic an experience as a war globally, and I think there's a moment of renewal and rethinking across a number of fields.”