With “Sustaining Peace” can the UN turn rhetoric into action?

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon beats a traditional drum with Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza during a dinner hosted by Mr. Nkurunziza in Bujumbura, Burundi in June 2010. © UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

Gizem Sucuoglu

Tanisha Hewanpola

In April 2015, Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza announced that he would be seeking a third-term of office—a move that his opponents decried as unconstitutional. Protests and clashes between opposition supporters and security forces followed. Amid a rapidly deteriorating climate of serious human-rights violations, extrajudicial killings, intimidation, media suppression, and the stoking of ethnic tensions, fears of widespread violence rose, triggering mass cross-border displacement.

For nearly a decade prior to these events, however, Burundi had been largely hailed as a success story for United Nations-assisted peacebuilding. Following a devastating civil war that left 300,000 dead, Burundi had passed a new Constitution and held relatively peaceful elections in 2005 and 2010, successfully integrated various rebel groups into a new national army and police, and instituted a power-sharing form of government that guaranteed quotas for women, ethnic groups, and other minorities. The relative stability that ensued enabled around half a million refugees to return home, and the economy grew, albeit modestly.

The wave of political instability and violence last April set back much of this progress, and Burundi quickly found itself back on the UN Security Council’s agenda. Nkurunziza’s controversial reelection that July exacerbated the political violence, ethnically divisive rhetoric, refugee flows, and growing authoritarianism that had taken hold.

The episode was a prime example of the deep and ongoing challenges that the United Nations faces in preventing conflict and building peace. At inception, conflict prevention was one of the organization’s principal goals. Through the first article of the UN Charter, Member States pledged to “take collective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to peace.” Since then, the rhetorical commitment to prevention has continued. In recent months, all of the candidates to replace Ban Ki Moon as Secretary-General have highlighted conflict prevention as a priority, and each of the 2015 reviews (which are aimed at making the organization more “fit for purpose” and responsive to global challenges) emphasized prevention as the primary formula for peace. In parallel, the UN improved its ability to identify early warning signs of conflict, through such initiatives as Human Rights Up Front. However, as the Burundi case shows, early warning has rarely led to early action, and the UN has too often been unable to act in a timely and effective way to prevent countries from lapsing or relapsing into conflict.

One key reason for this has been the chronic lack of systematic attention that countries at risk of lapsing or relapsing into conflict have received. Instead, the priority has been the urgent need for the UN to respond to the crises of the day. Scarce attention and resources have consequently been diverted from longer-term structural-prevention efforts that seek to address root causes of conflict and prevent violence. Better balancing of these priorities could save lives and resources in the long term.

When the UN’s Peacebuilding Architecture—the New York-based Peacebuilding Commission (PBC), Peacebuilding Fund (PBF), and Peacebuilding Support Office (PBSO)—was established in 2005, it aimed to help bring attention to countries’ peacebuilding priorities, under the framework of national ownership. However, the sensitivity of some Member States to the possibility that conflict prevention efforts could lead States’ sovereignty to be violated resulted in the curtailment of the UN’s peacebuilding mandates from the outset. Conflict prevention was excluded, and peacebuilding was limited to post-conflict situations, where the ravages of war had already been borne out.

For Burundi, the establishment of the UN’s Peacebuilding Architecture had the potential to bring much needed intergovernmental attention and resources. In 2006, it was one of only two countries that were referred by the Security Council to the Peacebuilding Commission. Between 2007 and 2014, the Peacebuilding Fund provided more than $60 million to fund post-conflict peacebuilding activities in Burundi. Financing from other donors poured in as well and the Peacebuilding Support Office employed dedicated specialists to the country. Following the immediate post-conflict period, however, international attention waned, and with it, the associated political and financial support. The Peacebuilding Commission—which had proved to be a useful venue for convening relevant actors to discuss in-country developments beyond the strictures of the Security Council—was shown to be ill-equipped to secure donor support on the scale required, and to reacting to indicators that the risk of violence in Bujumbura and beyond was increasing.

By the time Burundi’s political crisis erupted in 2015, the UN presence on the ground had dwindled, with much of its field expertise lost during the transition from a Security Council–mandated peace operation to a UN country team structure. Budget cuts, incomplete security-sector reforms, inadequate reconciliation, a failure to address ongoing political divisions from the previous conflict, political malfeasance, rising ethnic tensions, and misdirected development assistance (which focused on institutional reform, rather than on the provision of services to communities), all took their toll.

The 2015 Advisory Group of Experts, which was tasked with reviewing the UN’s peacebuilding architecture, starkly revealed how inadequate the existing architecture was to the task of bringing a long-term approach to conflict response. This was in part because of the aforementioned prioritization of urgent humanitarian and military responses—especially in light of the scale and number of simultaneous crises that were occurring across the globe, which were triggering vicious cycles of conflict and response, and overloading the Security Council’s agenda. Beyond this, however, the Advisory Group found that the post-conflict focus of the peacebuilding architecture had, in effect, stifled its potential to provide advice, convene key actors, and bridge different parts of the UN system to prevent conflict. The impact of this cleavage between peacebuilding and conflict prevention was having profound consequences. The Advisory Group pointed to the urgent need to bridge different parts of the UN system around a long-term vision of peace, one that did not follow the common sequenced model for UN intervention, of humanitarian action, peacemaking, peacekeeping, peacebuilding and development.

In April 2016, UN Member States, acknowledging the importance of bringing coherence to conflict prevention and peacebuilding efforts, resolved to rectify this situation. Overcoming their own endemic divisions and longstanding disagreements about the contours of the concept of “prevention,” the General Assembly and Security Council laid out, in identical resolutions, a narrative of how the UN could bridge its silos and work together with common purpose around the core concept of “sustaining peace.”

The “sustaining peace” resolutions, which were heralded by UN officials as “visionary,” suggest a fundamental shift in the way the organization looks at conflict and prevention. However, in many ways this shift signals a return to its founding goals, and to earlier notions of how it should work in pursuit of those aims.

The adoption of such far-reaching and comprehensive resolutions was no small feat. It sends a clear message from Member States that UN business as usual is no longer adequate to preventing conflict and sustaining peace, and that a change in approach is expected.

The resolutions call for a long-term, holistic perspective to sustaining peace, to be brought forward in all of the organization’s engagements—before, during, and after conflict. They emphasize the need for the UN to pivot away from a linear approach to addressing conflict, and toward a continuous, cross-pillar, and cross-sectoral approach to prevention. They reflect the fundamental need for all parts of the UN system, at both the intergovernmental and operational levels, to understand their responsibility for sustaining peace, and to be held accountable for achieving it.

Among the resolutions’ key innovations is the expansion of the work of the Peacebuilding Commission beyond post-conflict situations. In keeping with the principles of national ownership and inclusivity, the role of the Peacebuilding Commission has been enhanced, to enable it to provide a venue where conflict prevention priorities and cross-cutting thematic issues can be brought to the attention of Member States, the UN system, and other relevant actors. A recent series of Peacebuilding Commission–related events, including the Commission’s Annual Session, a dialogue with ECOSOC on implementing the Sustainable Development Goals in conflict affected countries, a visit to West Africa, and an interactive dialogue with the Security Council, point to the current enthusiasm for enhancing the Peacebuilding Commission’s capacity to take the sustaining peace agenda forward. However, this energy and interest will need to be built upon in a coordinated way over the coming months. This could include the Peacebuilding Commission working with other UN bodies to provide additional opportunities to broaden understanding—including within Member State delegations—of the interrelated aspects of the sustaining peace agenda, and the linkages between humanitarian, development and peacebuilding efforts.

Preventing conflict, just like sustaining peace more broadly, is a monumental task, which no one body or organ in the UN system can undertake singlehandedly. The call in the resolutions for Member States and the system to be jointly responsible for implementing the sustaining peace agenda will require clear communication channels to be set up. Mexico’s recent establishment of a Group of Friends on Sustaining Peace has the potential to serve a key role, helping to bring leverage, legitimacy, resources, and support to the agenda.

As the process of advancing the UN prevention agenda takes hold, one of the major challenges likely to arise is the current lack of a definition of “conflict prevention”—one that encompasses what different parts of the UN system understand by the term, which tasks fall within its remit, what gaps in the system need to be filled in order to achieve it, and how to improve coordination and coherence in order to ensure progress. As Youssef Mahmoud, Senior Adviser at the International Peace Institute puts it, the policy, programmatic, and financial implications of the renewed focus on prevention needs to be fully appreciated, and have adequate resources to match such efforts. The prevention aspects of recent reviews and processes on peace operations, World Humanitarian Summit, preventing violent extremism, and the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda may provide some useful insight into how the different parts of the system can work together to identify key issues, plan prevention activities, gain political support, attract resources and capacities for implementation, and engage in follow-up and evaluation. The upcoming review by the UN Development Group, which will focus on the capacities of agencies, funds, and programmes to undertake conflict prevention, could also catalyze these discussions.

To address the multi-faceted challenges of prevention, the UN will also need to draw upon, in an integrated and strategic manner, its full array of tools, including its monitoring and early warning systems, common analytical and strategic frameworks that connect mission components, and cooperation between the UN and regional and subregional organizations. It will also need to address the current fragmentation between peacebuilding discussions at UN headquarters and the realities on the ground. This will require establishing more flexible, context-specific approaches that enable global processes to support national and local-level peacebuilding, and which ensure coherence between political analysis and operational capacities, promote the agreement of realistic UN mandates that are adequately resourced, facilitate different UN actors as they work together around their comparative advantages, and encourage effective on-the-ground leadership around a common purpose and a long-term vision.

The adoption of such far-reaching and comprehensive resolutions was no small feat. It sends a clear message from Member States that UN business as usual is no longer adequate to preventing conflict and sustaining peace, and that a change in approach is expected. The success of these resolutions, however, will ultimately be measured by how effectively they are implemented. On the prevention side in particular, this will require bold leadership from both within the UN and among Member States.

While conflict prevention has long been a difficult issue for the UN to make real progress on, the sustaining-peace framework provides an opportunity to put into action the UN’s longstanding rhetorical commitment to conflict prevention, by making sustaining peace a common driver of UN action across all of the organization’s pillars. Strong leadership from both the current and next Secretary-General will be critical to taking the collective support and energy behind the sustaining-peace agenda and transforming it into a renewal of focus and purpose for the organization.

Gizem Sucuoglu is a Senior Program Manager at New York University's Center on International Cooperation. | Twitter: GizmouS

Tanisha Hewanpola is a career diplomat in the Australian foreign service. Most recently, she co-chaired the intergovernmental negotiations of the UN Security Council, and General Assembly, leading to the adoption of the 2016 Peacebuilding Architecture Review resolutions (commonly known as the 'Sustaining Peace' resolutions). | Twitter: Tanisha_H