International Alert Strategic Perspective 2005-9

This is an armed and warring world. There have been over 125 armed conflicts of varying scale since the end of the Cold War at the end of 1989, with a combined death toll in that period of at least 7 million people, of whom 75 percent are generally estimated to be civilians. Forty armed conflicts were active during the course of 2004. The vast majority of these armed conflicts are not between states but within them, albeit usually with external involvement.

While internal armed conflicts in many ways became more visible via global media coverage in the 1990s than they were in the preceding decades, any impression this might have given that the world situation was deteriorating was and remains misleading. Though there was an upsurge in the number of armed conflicts in the early 1990s, there was also a heightened effort for peace; indeed, the global push for peace at the turn of the millennium is a revolutionary departure by the standards of the post-World War II period and indeed of the whole modern era:

  1. In the first four years after the end of the Cold War, the United Nations authorised more peacekeeping operations than it had in the four decades that the Cold War lasted;
  2. In the 15 years since the end of the Cold War, the world has achieved more peace agreements than in the previous two centuries.

It is an indication that peace efforts have had some degree of success that the number of armed conflicts each year has fallen significantly following the early 1990s upsurge. Different estimates disagree on the scale of the change but all agree on the trend.

With the Cold War over, the 1990s were also a period when concepts of security that emphasised the human dimension emerged into mainstream discussion and the policies of leading states and international organisations. The development of the human security concept fitted well with a greater emphasis on peacemaking in the previously ignored internal conflicts that plagued the world’s poorer countries. The new approach made the security of ordinary people as important an object of policy as the security of states and eroded both the moral and the intellectual legitimacy of Cold War strategies that too frequently sacrificed human rights and freedom in the name of larger state interests.

These positive trends of the 1990s, however, turned out not to be secure. There are several reasons for this. Perhaps the most visible for most observers lies in events since September 2001 and the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon. In their wake, US policy became more forceful and more tightly focused on what the US administration takes to be US interests. The UN and European Union have tried to develop a response that retains elements of the emerging human security framework alongside a focus on the threat of international terrorism. The balance between these two policy trends is precarious. Amid the new global sense of insecurity, the official naming of some insurgent groups as terrorists makes it more difficult to achieve negotiated settlements in violent conflicts.

Another reason why the initial gains of the 1990s were uncertain is that successful negotiations do not of themselves ensure peace. Only about half of all negotiated peace agreements last for more than five years after they are signed. Some agreements break down because of bad faith and hidden agendas, some because of breakaway factions continuing the fight, and others because of the consequences of war – the destruction of lives, livelihoods, communities, social cohesion, human values, hope and belief in the future. And over and above all these factors, peace will not endure if the long-term causes of the armed conflict are not dealt with in the peace process. The stakes and risks are high, and what seems at first like a post-war period may turn out to be only an interlude in the fighting.

Peace, in short, is difficult. It does not come ready-made at the moment a peace agreement is signed. Attempting to rush it will probably be not just unsuccessful but counter-productive. It has to be built in a continuing process that encourages the attitudes, the behaviour, and the structural conditions in society that lay the foundations for peaceful, stable and ultimately prosperous social and economic development. Peacebuilding is the work of encouraging and facilitating this process.

It takes time – usually more than a decade – because it has to address the root causes of conflict, and it therefore takes patience and determination on the part of those who live in the conflict zones and those who seek to contribute from outside. It needs the participation of the population of war-torn societies, or it will have no social basis and no durability. And peacebuilding needs a wide-ranging and strategic approach – a broad palette of activities that address issues of security, the socio-economic foundations of peace, governance and the need for justice and reconciliation to recover from the wounds of war – so as to get to grips with not only the consequences but also both the proximate and the root causes of armed conflict.

What is true for building peace after an agreement is also true for preventing armed conflict from erupting. To cut the risk of conflict escalating out of control also requires sustained effort to promote the attitudes, behaviour and conditions that can sustain peace.

Peace cannot be made on behalf of people in war-torn and war-threatened countries and regions, but work can be done to equip them with knowledge and skills that will radically improve their chances of avoiding violence. For people, politicians, communities and countries to build and sustain peace requires the assistance of people and organisations with a professional knowledge of what is required and an ethical commitment to providing it – organisations such as International Alert.

During the 1990s and into the 2000s, awareness about peace processes has grown. Some governments and inter-governmental organisations have learned not to expect quick and decisive results and understand that progress towards sustainable peace is uneven. There are several international NGOs whose work is wholly or partly focused on peacebuilding, while international development and humanitarian NGOs increasingly acknowledge the importance of addressing the inescapable peace and conflict dimensions of their own work, often in partnership with a specialised NGO. But there remain widespread deficiencies in knowledge and understanding of how peace processes work. The policy world needs more insights into the practical consequences of its decisions and priorities — as do other actors, including international companies and NGOs — and there are uncertainties and often arbitrary limitations in the funding environment. The peacebuilding sector, then, is of increasing significance and scale but by comparison with the fields of human rights, development and humanitarian assistance, is relatively new and small and could be vulnerable to changes in political fashion.

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  • Date:
    April 2005
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