Good intentions, complex realities

Building Sustainable Peace
Edited by Tom Keating and W. Andy Knight
United Nations University Press
Tokyo / New York / Paris

When the Cold War effectively ended some 15 years ago, there was great hope that the world would soon move into a new era of peace and prosperity.

The superpowers, it was reasoned, would spend less on nuclear arms and other weapons, freeing funds for peaceful development. Moreover, it was felt, they would also be less likely to instigate and fuel the proxy wars that raged in many parts of the world as ideological tensions were played out.

But the post-Cold War era "has proven to be the world’s most violent period since World War II," according to David Beer. He counts some 93 armed conflicts in the last decade and a half, and some 5.5 million deaths from them — of which 75 percent were civilians.

Mr. Beer, a superintendent with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police who did extensive peacekeeping work in Haiti, is one of 19 contributors to a new book titled Building Sustainable Peace. (Many of the other contributors are also Canadian, a fact which reflects Canada’s historic contribution to peacekeeping. Peacekeeping was first proposed in 1956 by Canada’s then Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Lester B. Pearson, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for that effort. Since then, Canada has participated in virtually every major UN peacekeeping mission.)

Edited by Tom Keating and W. Andy Knight, both professors of political science at the University of Alberta, Building Sustainable Peace takes a broad-brush look at the challenges of dealing with the kinds of regional, civil, and/or "brushfire" conflicts that have arisen in such numbers around the world since the United States and the Soviet Union ended their conflict.

Scholarly in approach and prescriptive in tone, the book considers the entire regime of what has become known as "peacebuilding" — which is an evolution from peacekeeping and includes those activities related to rebuilding war-torn societies such as disarming warring parties, decommissioning and destroying weapons, repatriating refugees, creating or rebuilding justice systems, training police forces, strengthening civil society, and reconstituting governance systems.

The essays in the book examine both specific aspects of this process, such as humanitarian intervention and/or strengthening civil society, and specific case studies, such as efforts to build peace in Haiti, Kosovo, Somalia, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and East Timor, among other places.

While the essays offer diverse viewpoints, a number of themes nevertheless emerge.

First, many authors take it as a given that in many instances, international efforts to build peace in a specific region or country will require military action or force. "Even in the most forward-looking operational frameworks of conflict prevention and peacebuilding, the option to employ preventive action in the form of military or armed humanitarian intervention will inevitably be featured," writes Melissa Labonte in "Humanitarian Actors and the Politics of Preventive Action."

That said, the problems accompanying such use of force in peacebuilding receive much consideration. In his essay "Commodification, Compartmentalization and Militarization of Peacebuilding," Kenneth Bush suggests that the introduction of outside military forces to help stop a conflict — and also to provide security and reconstruction efforts afterwards — often creates as many problems as it solves.

"[T]here are instances where so-called peacebuilding initiatives have had negative peacebuilding consequences," writes Dr. Bush, an assistant professor at St. Paul University in Ottawa. As one such example, he offers the US$456 million UN Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK), which in his view displaced indigenous efforts to rebuild Kosovar society with an overbearing footprint of foreign military forces and international aid.

"[R]econstruction would have been put on a more solid footing if it had been built around civil society instead of humanitarian commodities and services," he writes, noting that Kosovar doctors, teachers, and police officials could earn up to ten times more money by working as a drivers, guards, or interpreters for international agencies than they could at their own professions. "The ultimate net impact was a contribution to the incapacity — rather than capacity — of civil society to rebuild itself on a foundation of tolerance and respect."

A number of authors also pointed out that Western-led humanitarian intervention is sometimes seen as an extension of Western imperialism and/or neocolonialism.

"[M]ost peacebuilding interventions by Western (or Northern) actors can be accused of being ethnocentric and ‘top-down’ in the sense that they try to impose external values on the target society within which the peacebuilding initiative is being undertaken," writes co-editor W. Andy Knight.

This leads many of the authors to a second common theme: that successful peacebuilding must rely more on the South.

Jean Daudelin writes that if countries such as Brazil, Mexico, Nigeria, South Africa and others were more involved, "the anticolonialist/anti-imperialist argument would lose much of its force, and the truly global meaning of intervention would be emphasized. Without them, the legitimacy of interventionary regimes would be flimsy and their ultimate sustainability doubtful."

And while force may sometimes be necessary, it cannot be the only tool for peacebuilding, say many of the authors. The stress the need for an integrated, holistic approach, one that includes participation by both international and local civil society organizations and seeks to address underlying social problems such as poverty, which so often lie at the root of conflict.

Sumie Nakaya, in her essay "Women and Gender Equality in Peacebuilding," analyzes the impact of women’s participation in peacemaking and reconstruction efforts in Somalia and Mozambique, and concludes that women’s groups have much to offer in peacebuilding efforts. "They form support groups, generate environments conducive to reconciliation, and lead community development," writes Ms. Nakaya.

Another theme that emerges: countries and international organizations participate in peacebuilding when it suits their national interest, while disregarding conflicts that do not.

Mr. Daudelin recounts, for example, the desperate request for more troops made in 1994 by General Romeo Dallaire of the UN force in Rwanda. General Dallaire said he could stop the genocide then with 5,000 men, according to Mr. Daudelin. But the UN Security Council instead reduced his contingent from 2,548 men to just 270 men, leaving General Dallaire to stand by helplessly while some 800,000 men, women, and children were killed.

Satya Brata Das suggests that a number of structural changes at the United Nations might help boost international unity of action in peacebuilding. Among other things, he calls for the establishment of a UN High Commissioner for Peace and a permanent global fund (based on an international tax on defense spending) to be used for post-conflict reconstruction.

"Under the aegis of a UN High Commissioner for Peace, the international presence should be diverse and multilateral enough to banish any taint of imperialist intent," writes Mr. Das.

For Bahá'ís, who have long advocated the establishment of a genuine international force that could be used to keep or build the peace, the book will be of some interest. In the Bahá'í view, the only long-term guarantee of peace is a united international system that is committed to and willing to act on the principle of collective security. The book’s somewhat fractured picture of the present state of international peacebuilding and its shortcomings supports this view.