Now is time to boost peacemaking


Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Alexander Stubb
Alexander Stubb

Director of the School of Transnational Governance at the European University Institute and former prime minister of Finland

Picture of Jan Eliasson
Jan Eliasson

Chair of the Governing Board at Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), former deputy secretary-general of the United Nations and former Swedish minister for foreign affairs

Picture of Andrew Gilmour
Andrew Gilmour

Chief Executive Officer at Berghof Foundation, former assistant secretary-general for human rights of the United Nations and former director for political, peacekeeping, humanitarian and human rights in the Executive Office of the Secretary-General

More investments urgently need to be made in increasing international cooperation, preventing conflicts, and mitigating existing ones.

The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic are increasing insecurity, tensions, and conflict in many parts of the world. Governments are facing huge domestic challenges to overcome the pandemic and revive their economies. In this worsening situation, there are also severe pressures to cut governmental funding for development cooperation and peacemaking. It would be a great mistake for donor countries to cut such funding, as it would make it even more difficult – and inescapably more costly – to prevent and resolve violent conflicts. Failing to honour our moral and prudential obligations to promote peace would have disastrous effects on people living in conflict-afflicted areas, and would indirectly affect other regions as well, including Europe and North America.

The rules-based system of international cooperation should never be taken for granted. During the Trump administration, we saw the United States retreat on many issues into self-imposed isolation and a weakening of consensus around international agreements. This heightened divisions within the United Nations Security Council that undermined the UN’s role as the final guarantor of global peace and stability.

International efforts to prevent and resolve conflicts remain weak, and fewer conflicts receive diplomatic attention or mediation support. A few official peace processes do exist, such as the Libyan process, but external actors, including European states, continue to support competing sides, to the serious detriment both of Libya’s civilians and its future as a viable state. In this case, the key challenge of EU and UN diplomacy is to work together effectively to build on local gains and end the disastrous proxy war now being waged in Libya.

The long-running wars in Afghanistan, Ukraine, Syria, Yemen, South Sudan, and Libya continue to cause misery for tens of millions of people. Parts of the Sahel in Africa are in acute crisis as inter-ethnic violence and jihadism have led to protracted instability. The Tigray region in Ethiopia risks destabilising fragile balances in the Horn of Africa, with ramifications for the rest of the continent and across the Red Sea.

People’s basic needs are not being met and human rights are not respected, and these violations inevitably form a breeding ground for resentment and unrest

The fundamental drivers of these conflicts have not been adequately addressed. People’s basic needs are not being met and human rights are not respected, and these violations inevitably form a breeding ground for resentment and unrest. Climate change, the COVID-19 pandemic, and reignited geopolitical tensions are all exacerbating existing local conflicts. While local and national dialogue and informal support for formal negotiations can help defuse local tensions, they are not matched by effective engagement at the international level.

However, there are signs that cooperation is possible if there is the will for it. The extension of the last remaining nuclear arms control treaty between the United States and Russia is reassuring proof that major powers can work together to avoid conflict. Efforts to revive the Iran nuclear deal are also encouraging. And we shouldn’t forget that the UN is still the most important diplomatic forum where we can address and overcome common global challenges.

In building peace, international actors also need to rethink how peace processes are structured. Many exclude key groups, such as women and youth, which results in unsustainable and unjust outcomes. Sustainable peace is not possible without broad participation of societies, including minorities. In some instances, conflict parties themselves can settle their differences. But they also need a peace process that is supported, not undermined, by the international community. Relatively small additional investments in preventing and solving conflicts could bring significant results. According to a recent report by the Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP), a reduction of just 2% in the global economic cost of violence is roughly equivalent to all the overseas development aid spent in 2019. With more peaceful conditions we would save resources for productive economic activities and people’s wellbeing. These positive developments will be felt far beyond the borders of conflict countries.

Difficult as it is, we must resist the temptation to use the devastating impact of the pandemic on national budgets as a justification for reducing commitment to peace and security. Economic recovery at home and international peacemaking are not mutually exclusive or competing responsibilities – they are equally pressing and can be tackled together.

An abbreviated version of this article in Finnish was originally published in Helsingin Sanomat on 13 March 2021.

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