Picture: Rick Bajornas / United Nations Photo Taken on January 10, 2017 – Secretary-General António Guterres addresses the Security Council ministerial-level open debate on conflict prevention and sustaining peace. The upsurge in inter and intra-state armed conflict, and responses to this violence, have led to a questioning of the credibility, legitimacy, effectiveness and efficiency of our peace and security architectures the writer says.
By Cheryl Hendricks
The upsurge in inter and intra-state armed conflict, and responses to this violence, have led to a questioning of the credibility, legitimacy, effectiveness and efficiency of our peace and security architectures.
The war between Ukraine and Russia, return to power of the Taliban, recurrence in conflicts, in for example, Ethiopia and Sudan, rise in violent extremism, and more recently the escalating violence between Israel and Palestine, as well as the distrust in our political systems and security institutions, is sending us back to the drawing board for creating sustainable peace. There have been many workshops, seminars, papers and policy briefs aspiring to rethink peace and security. Most recently the United Nations (UN) ushered in a New Agenda for Peace and the African Union (AU) sought to reset preventative diplomacy and mediation at its 14th High Level Retreat on the Promotion of Peace, Security and Stabilityin Egypt in October 2023.
This article reviews some of the limitations in reimagining more sustainable peace. In particular, it highlights that the solutions proffered are inadequate for the global and continental transformation that is required at this historical juncture. Many highlight that the global order and conflict contexts have shifted, but few advocate the need to revisit our peace and security architectures and its toolbox for conflict management beyond emphasising the need for inclusion, flexibility, lack of political will, and the need to refocus on conflict prevention. This paper focuses on some of the critical issues that we must address if we are to move forward with a constructive peacebuilding agenda.
Prevailing Thoughts on Rethinking Peace and Security
For the UN, our peace and security challenge is largely cast as normative, that is, the violation of agreed international law, including a pushback against human rights and gender equality. Their emphasis is on upholding the principles of the Charter (sovereignty and the peaceful settlement of disputes); employing diplomacy, confidence-building measures, and concentrating on prevention; as well as reinstalling trust between and within states, universality of principles, and the extension of solidarity.
The New Agenda also calls for a dismantling of patriarchal power structures, people-centred responses and prioritising comprehensive solutions. There is very little that is new in terms of the conceptualisation of the problem and its redress, i.e. there is no questioning of the normative framework – established by and for a global order of yester-year – and little innovation around the structures, systems and processes for conflict management. The New Agenda is essentially telling us to try harder to implement the same old peace agenda inscribed since 1945.
Major actors have jettisoned the very foundations of our peace and security normative frameworks and tools, and we therefore cannot pretend that we can simply go back to a world that was
The AU posits the challenge as its marginalisation and exclusion by the international community – the need for a seat at the table in intergovernmental forums, the lack of political will to implement what is seen as a robust toolbox; the need to include women and youth; and the challenges for intervention posed by sovereignty and subsidiarity. Here, too, the emphasis is on merely ‘making the circle bigger’ – not transforming the tables or questioning the systems and structures.
However, while all this supposed rethinking and new peace script articulation is taking place, we are witnessing violent assertions from below, interstate wars that have fractured the global order, the reinsertion of binaries into our peacebuilding discourses, the lack of consensus in our apex security institution, all rendering our conflict management architectures moribund. The world is now watching, seemingly helplessly, as seven decades of investing in normative frameworks amount to nothing more than the paper it is written on.
What rethink is necessary?
Major actors have jettisoned the very foundations of our peace and security normative frameworks and tools, and we therefore cannot pretend that we can simply go back to a world that was. The current wars (whether by non-state actors from below or by the states themselves) have created a major break with our international norms and peace and security architectures that no tinkering will fix. How are we then to recreate global governance structures and peace and security structures that are more just, equitable, democratic and that have the necessary policies and practices to compel peaceful conflict management?
First, the European political construct of sovereignty and territorial integrity, the glue of the Westphalian state system, is a key part of the challenge to sustaining peace. It is posited as a key principle for peaceful co-existence between states (do not intervene in the internal affairs of other states), but has in fact been used to justify colonialism, authoritarianism, abuse of human rights, genocide, and so forth. Governments often use it as a protective shield for their continued abuse of their populations.
Bauder and Mueller (2023) note that “sovereignty is not naturally given” but it is often “claimed, asserted, and enacted by those with the ability to do so.” We cannot have effective supra national institutions if we continue to hold onto this dated concept. It is also a myth to speak about the equality of sovereignty between states in a system with vastly unequal distribution of power. If we are to shift meaningfully from a state-centric discourse of peacebuilding to a people-centred one, we must begin to interrogate the principle of sovereignty and develop a new construct of peaceful co-existence between states.
It is also a myth to speak about the equality of sovereignty between states in a system with vastly unequal distribution of power
Second, we not only need a new consensus for co-existence between states, but also within states. We have to go back to basics to determine how we want to live together, govern ourselves, participate in governance and hold accountable those entrusted with implementing mutually agreed-upon state objectives. This implies that we must rethink our social contracts and political systems – key conflict management tools – to ensure that they can provide the desired sense of belonging, restoration of dignity and rehumanisation associated with democracy and development. If trust in our political systems and global governance institutions has waned, then we must rebuild it by fostering the necessary consensus for co-existence and fulfilling our commitments.
Third, if the tables we have built as part of our conflict management tools are unable to resolve the complex violence confronting the world, then we (as women, youth, AU, etc.) do not simply need a seat at these tables. We need to engage in the hard task of rethinking the actors, the norms, the structures, processes and practices that can get us to the desired just, peaceful and equal state of being that we yearn for globally, regionally and nationally.
This may indeed mean that we begin to think through whether or not it is an opportune moment to innovate on the UN and the AU. Usually, these transformations of our structures occur when there is a shift in global politics and geo-strategic interests; when conflict contexts have changed; when the institutions are no longer fit for purpose, and when there is a lack of trust in the institutions. The time may well be nigh for this. We can no longer focus solely on providing technical solutions (tools in a toolbox) to fundamentally political challenges.
Professor Cheryl Hendricks is the Executive Director of the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation.
This article was published on ACCORD