Sustaining peace needs a strong civil society

As the Syrian war reaches yet another new low with the fighting in Damascus suburbs, the need for a renewed impetus behind international efforts for peace could not be more urgent. Across the world, people are looking to the United Nations to give the leadership on preventing conflict while concern mounts after more than a decade in which the UN was missing from too many major peace and conflict contexts.

So the Secretary-General António Guterres deserves loud applause for stressing from the moment he took up his role last year that his emphasis would be on preventing conflicts. Now, he has brought out his landmark report on Sustaining Peace. Its overall framing of sustaining peace hits the spot. He reinforces the notion that peacebuilding needs to occur at all stages of the conflict cycle (not just after the guns have fallen silent), and places weight on dealing with the root causes of conflict if we are to move toward long-term peace and stability. This is the strategic priority that is so badly needed.

He is categorical and unambiguous that peace needs to be a core objective of development assistance, not an add-on. This is particularly welcome. Now we must all make sure that it goes beyond the right rhetoric and translates into the right action. Member states need to act to connect development and peace interventions.

There are solid commitments to the role of women and some welcome ideas on Innovative means of financing peacebuilding, such as through social impact bonds, or a tax on the trade of specific arms. The Secretary General’s recommendation need to be wholeheartedly backed.

Where the report could have done with more weight is in highlighting the role of civil society in conflict situations. The report rightly emphasises the importance of community level engagement, but fails to grasp the really big nettles.

It is imperative for the UN to address the shrinking civil society space which is happening in more and more countries. Clamping down on the voices of civil society is often in itself a risk indicator for conflict. The Global Terrorism Index found increased rates of terrorism in states that abuse human rights and supress the population. By contrast, a vibrant civil society holds government to account, and helps amplify the voices of the marginalised and those who suffer most.

Civil society can also play a vital role in sustaining peace processes. The UN must create more space for civil society and broader segments of the population beyond armed actors in the development and execution of national peace agreements and peacebuilding strategies. Too often, civil society is an add-on to a peace process late in the game or is brought in on the side of the actual process. Yet half of all peace deals fall apart within five years. If we are going to change that damning statistic, we need to ensure that civil society can feed their concerns into peace deals so that the root causes of conflict are addressed. And both before and after a deal is brokered, the active engagement of civil society in reconciliation is key for the healing of a society. Civilians need to be front and centre of peacebuilding too – if peace is to sustain.

In 2015, the then Secretary-General’s Advisory Group of Experts (AGE) report underlined “inclusive national ownership”. It said “much as peace cannot be imposed from outside, peace cannot simply be imposed by domestic elites or authoritarian governments on fractious populations that lack even minimal trust in their leaderships or each other. Too often ‘national ownership’ is equated with acquiescing to the strategies and priorities of the national government. In divided post-conflict societies, such an approach risks perpetuating exclusion”. As such, the UN needs to be more active in brokering this “inclusive national ownership”.

The Sustaining Peace agenda as set out in the UNSG’s report does not contain the soaring aspirations of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the urgency of the World Humanitarian Summit or generational commitments of the Climate compact. The peace and security agenda continues to be hamstrung by states who choose to prioritise the notion of sovereignty over people, no matter what the cost. But whatever the political minefields that have to be negotiated, the UN’s principal mandate is to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war. The member states of the UN have been falling short of this commitment for too long.

So the UN should be roundly applauded for reinvigorating the Sustaining Peace agenda. Now the member states must back this document with real action. When it comes to civil society, that action needs to be to protect it, include it, and draw on its expertise in promoting peace.

Photo: © Callum Francis Hugh/International Alert