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Building peace – and a belief in the future
Building peace – and a belief in the future
Remembering Javier Pérez de Cuéllar’s “Piecemeal” Approach to UN Peacemaking
Remembering Javier Pérez de Cuéllar’s “Piecemeal” Approach to UN Peacemaking
Op-Ed / Global

Building peace – and a belief in the future

Originally published in Global Agenda

Along with the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and international terrorism, state failure is one of the big three security problems that will preoccupy the world in the first decades of the 21st century. What can be done to confront the problem – and to contain the threats? What should be the guiding principles of intervention, peacekeeping and regeneration? Gareth Evans analyzes the lessons of the past and offers some pointers to the future.

The problem of fragile, collapsed and internally warring states is one that must be confronted systematically by the international community. Along with the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and international terrorism – with which the failed states issue is now inextricably linked – this is one of the big three security problems that will preoccupy the world in the first decades of the 21st century.

The most familiar contemporary examples of failed and failing states are Afghanistan, Liberia and Somalia. In addition to the existing failing states, a number of new ones continue to emerge right across the arc of instability from west Africa to east Asia.

These are countries where – as a result of government action, inaction, incapacity or huge internal division – there is a major threat to the country’s own people or a threat to others through the export of drugs, trafficked humans, fleeing refugees, health pandemics, environmental catastrophe or terrorism.

During the 1990s both Afghanistan and Sudan provided a home base for al-Qaeda while it planned and carried out terrorist attacks on US targets. Islamic fundamentalists from around the world were taught terrorism skills and techniques at training camps there. They then went across the world from the US to Indonesia to put their newly acquired skills to use.

The development community has been preoccupied from the outset with the issue of state fragility – the capacity of governments to perform the most basic public functions and deliver the most basic services to their own peoples. The security policy community, by contrast, has been traditionally much less focused on these issues. But the events of the past decade brought home the need to be involved.

So are there any lessons we can learn from the way in which we have so far been helping states at risk? How can we stop them sliding into the kind of decay that generates so much misery for their own peoples and, increasingly, those of other nations too?

What can we do, in particular in post-conflict situations, to rebuild some semblance of confidence in the future and ensure that any peace will be sustainable? And what can we do in failing state situations to reduce the chances of any mass violence breaking out?

Self-evaluation, like peacebuilding itself, is a wearying business: so many good intentions, so much frustration, so little certainty that we can do better next time.

But, that said, there are lessons to be learned and applied from all our accumulated experience, for better or worse, in trying to rebuild societies in crisis both before and after war. Maybe, for a start, we should try to follow the following 10 principles.

  1. Understand the overall task. The basic need is to create, or recreate, structures and capacities that will enable internal conflict to be resolved before violence breaks out. Every society has conflicts between individuals and groups – political, economic, legal and social. The point is not to eliminate, but to contain and channel them, by developing institutional structures and processes capable of relieving each of these pressure points as they arise.

    The conflict containment structures and capacities that need to be applied in a postconflict environment, to prevent violence from recurring, are essentially exactly the same as those that need to be applied in failed or failing states to prevent violent conflict breaking out in the first place.

    This means, institutionally, that exactly the same kinds of people, in national and intergovernmental agencies, that work on pre-war structural conflict prevention should also be working on post-conflict peacebuilding.

    Sustainable peace cannot be guaranteed just because a diplomatic peacemaking initiative has apparently been successful – think of the horror still to come after the Angola Agreement of 1991 or the Rwanda Accords in 1993.Nor can it be ensured because a clear-cut military victory has apparently been won – think of Afghanistan and Iraq right now. The focus must be on structural prevention, and post-conflict peacebuilding is a hugely complex and often hugely costly enterprise. It has all too often been neglected or mismanaged, and when this happens it is only a matter of time before the boil erupts again.
  2. Recognize outsiders’ limits. We know that outsiders have a critical role in peacebuilding, with the degree of importance depending on the local capacity for recovery and the local legacy of war-related hostility.

    But what matters is that outside peacebuilders recognize not only what they can do, but also what they cannot – including takingownership of another nation’s land and people, even temporarily. If that mindset exists, any attempt at building peace-sustaining institutions in that country is destined to fail.
  3. Allocate functions appropriately. One of the tasks for those seeking to recover traction for multilateral cooperation on security issues is to try to produce more consensus than exists at the moment. When it comes to peacebuilding functions, it is crucial to determine who (particularly the UN) should do what and when – immediately, over a medium transition period and in the long term.

    In pre-conflict situations, responsibility has been assumed in an almost completely ad hoc fashion: by bilateral aid donors; a constellation of international organizations including the World Bank, UNDP and many specialized agencies; and a multitude of humanitarian and other NGOs. All of them are largely dependent for their effectiveness on the degree of local support and cooperation they receive.

    In post-conflict peacebuilding, a pattern has developed of a de facto protectorate or trusteeship arrangement being established. Sometimes these are UN-led (as with UNMIK in Kosovo and UNTAET in East Timor). Sometimes they are non-UN, but still with broad international support and legitimacy (as with the Office of the High Representative in Bosnia & Herzegovina). And sometimes they are run just by the military occupiers – as now, controversially, in Iraq.

    There is no common mechanism available, and, perhaps, there will never be, for acceptable exercising authority that could allocate roles among the various relevant players and determine priorities.

    But for both pre- and post-conflict situations, an idea worth revisiting (perhaps by the UN secretary-general’s just established High Level Panel on global security) is to vest in the now largely defunct UN Trusteeship Council a central role in the reconstruction of failed states. The Council is presently prevented by Article 78 of the UN Charter from exercising any responsibility for actual member states.
  4. Pursue multiple objectives simultaneously. If conflict or mass violence is ever to bestopped from occurring, or recurring, there are a myriad of structural and governanceimproving measures that can be usefully applied. 

    The task is multi-dimensional: the necessity to address effectively not only immediate security needs, but economic and social needs, governance and participation needs, and justice and reconciliation needs as well has certainly been the central conclusion of every peacekeeping mission, successful and unsuccessful, of the past decade.
    The established toolbox of available strategies is large, embracing political and diplomatic measures, legal and constitutional measures, economic measures and security sector measures. But too often one or more compartments have been neglected.
  5. Coordinate effectively. Although coordination is acknowledged by everyone as a necessity, at least in principle, it is often lacking. The UN system is getting much better at it, but there is still some distance to go.

    Too much planning is still unsystematic and ad hoc. It is partly a function – as is so much else in the UN system – of the acute neuralgia of many states to contingency planning based on any assumption that state breakdowns, or conflict, or post-conflict intervention will actually occur.

    And there are still acute difficulties in the biggest coordination task of all when it comes to all kinds of peace operations: getting an appropriate mix and match of mission, mandate and resources.
  6. Commit the necessary resources. Peacebuilding is never cheap, and the resources to support it are rarely available on anything remotely like the $20 billion scale that the US administration has been granted by Congress for Iraq. Certainly they are not equally available for what is the almost equally pressing problem of rebuilding post-war Afghanistan, a much more comprehensively failed state. Not much more than one-twentieth of that sum has, by contrast, been approved.

    If reasonable resources are ever to be obtained for what is necessary, the perennial problem of finding plausible political reasons for spending taxpayers’ money has to be addressed.

    One helpful argument in the present context is that inaction may be more costly than intervention in the long term. In a 1999 study for the Carnegie Commission on Deadly Conflict, it was estimated that the costs to the international community during the decade of not intervening to prevent genocide ended up at some $4.5 billion, whereas the cost of effective early intervention would have been around $1.3 billion.
  7. Understand the local political dynamics. One size of peacebuilding certainly does not fit all, and it is crucial to recognize that every such task – not least every post-conflict peacebuilding situation – is likely to require a quite different approach, depending on local circumstances.

    In East Timor, with a new state being created, there was effectively no human infrastructure with which to work. In Afghanistan, by contrast, although the country was physically destroyed, there was a highly educated diaspora available to be recruited.

    In Bosnia and Kosovo there was plenty of human potential, but in environments where there had been no previous state. In Iraq there was plenty of sophisticated human potential, along with a well-established state, but a more hostile environment than had been anticipated.

    It is critical to have a close understanding of both the cultural norms and the internal political dynamics of the society that one is trying to rebuild. It is important to be acutely sensitive to those norms, but at the same time not so deferential that the larger task of state building is put at risk.

    In Iraq, for example – not a failed state, but certainly a very fragile one now – the coalition’s precise arithmetic weighting of the Interim Governing Council and its offshoots to reflect exactly Shiite and Sunni, and Arab and non-Arab, proportions of the populations seemed at first sight clever.

    But, for the first time in the country’s modern history, sectarian and ethnic identity has been elevated to the rank of primary organizing political principle, and the danger that the country will disintegrate on religious and ethnic lines, previously much exaggerated, is now becoming real.
  8. Make security the first priority. While security cannot be the only priority of peacebuilders, there can be little argument against it being the first priority.
    Without law and order – imposed through an effective military or police presence, or both – there won’t be much chance of securing higher order objectives like fostering the rule of law, participatory government and more participatory economic and social institutions. Afghanistan continues to be the starkest contemporary example.
  9.  Make justice and the rule of law a higher priority. In post-conflict situations too much attention tends to be focused on democratic elections as the primary target for peacebuilders: the critical exit signpost. Not enough attention, before as well as after war, has been directed to the establishment of a viable justice system and something approximating the rule of law.

    This is not just a matter of consolidating a sense of personal security. It is about creating the minimum conditions for serious economic activity and foreign investment, for which the most generous aid in the world is no substitute if a broken country is ever to get back on its feet.

    Getting the balance right between justice and reconciliation in post-conflict societies highly traumatized by internal mass violence is one of the most difficult of all peacebuilding tasks.

    The only rule of thumb is that there is no rule of thumb, and that outsiders must listen very carefully indeed to what local people are telling them. Sometimes people just want to draw a line under the past and move on.
  10.  Know when to get out. All intrusive peace operations need, as has often been remarked, if not an exit timetable, then certainly an exit strategy. The vesting, as soon as humanly possible, of real authority, responsibility and sovereignty in the people of the country being rebuilt must remain the overriding objective of those outsiders engaged in peacebuilding.

    Peacebuilders need to know when to leave, if the rebuilding of a failed state is not to turn itself into a permanent occupation.

    That said, the point has been well made that many of the worst peacebuilding mistakes of the past decade had more to do with leaving too soon or doing too little than staying too long or doing too much.The intervention in Somalia may have been mismanaged, but the manner of the country’s abandonment in 1993 was sadder still. Ten years later it is still a comprehensively failed state.

    Whatever one might feel about how Iraq was entered in 2003, no one can seriously argue that the international community’s only responsibility now is to leave. The consequences of Iraq becoming a failed state will be immeasurably more serious for the global community than any case, even Afghanistan, that has gone before.
Op-Ed / Global

Remembering Javier Pérez de Cuéllar’s “Piecemeal” Approach to UN Peacemaking

Originally published in World Politics Review

Javier Pérez de Cuéllar, the former Secretary-General of the United Nations, died this week.  In this piece, originally published in World Politics Review in February, our UN Director assesses his legacy.

When Javier Pérez de Cuéllar turned 100 in January, his current successor as Secretary-General, António Guterres, sent a congratulatory message stating that “I have often reflected on your example and experience for inspiration and guidance.” This sounds like a standard diplomatic pleasantry, but there may have been a more to it than that.

As UN chief from 1982 to 1991, Pérez de Cuéllar, a former Peruvian diplomat, was intimately involved in ending Cold War conflicts from Afghanistan to Central America. Guterres, since his appointment in 2017, has warned that the U.S., China and Russia risk starting a “new Cold War” if they do not rein in their current tensions. Senior UN officials, who have spent recent decades focusing on ending violence in the developing world, wonder if and how the international organization can work in a new era of great-power competition.

This February, Guterres warned that a “wind of madness is sweeping the globe” as governments fuel conflict and ignore climate change. “Security Council resolutions,” he added, “are being disrespected even before the ink is dry.” Perhaps unintentionally, he echoed Pérez de Cuéllar, who told the UN General Assembly in 1982—when the Cold War was still very much a reality—that “we are perilously near to a new international anarchy” in which Security Council resolutions were “increasingly defied or ignored by those who feel strong enough to do so.”

Most secretaries-general have lamented the state of the world in similar terms at one time or another. But Pérez de Cuéllar remains an interesting case study in UN leadership because, rather than simply complain about the state of the world, he made a real contribution to resolving crises involving its biggest powers, earning their respect along the way. His efforts included backchannel diplomacy with Russia and China over Afghanistan and Cambodia, and a drawn-out but ultimately successful effort to persuade the five permanent members of the Security Council to find common ground on ending the Iran-Iraq War. His tenure culminated with successful UN mediation in the Cold War proxy conflicts in Nicaragua and El Salvador.

Pérez de Cuéllar was even able to engage directly in mediating disputes involving the permanent Security Council members, something that had stymied his immediate predecessors, U Thant and Kurt Waldheim. Thant had, for example, alienated Washington by trying to play a diplomatic role in Vietnam. In his first year in office, Pérez de Cuéllar attempted to broker a deal between Argentina and the United Kingdom over the Falkland Islands, or Islas Malvinas, after Buenos Aires captured the disputed archipelago. While that outreach failed, Christopher Mallaby, a British diplomat involved in the talks, recalls that the British government was impressed by the “able and impressive” secretary-general.

Pérez de Cuéllar’s “piecemeal” approach to peacemaking remains a useful point of reference for the UN at a time when it appears incapable of resolving major geopolitical crises.

In 1986, he arbitrated talks between France and New Zealand after French intelligence operatives sank the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior, which had been monitoring a French nuclear test in the Pacific, while it was moored in Auckland. The French government ultimately agreed to pay New Zealand $7 million in reparations. It is hard to imagine any of the permanent Security Council members acceding to such arbitration now.

Why was Pérez de Cuéllar able to pull off such diplomatic feats? In part, he was lucky. Contrary to his bleak assessment in 1982, rapprochement between the Western and Soviet blocs created more space for the UN to help resolve conflicts that all sides wanted to end.

But as Alvaro de Soto, a close adviser to Pérez de Cuéllar, noted in a recent chapter on his former boss in a history of successive secretaries-general and the Security Council, he also brought important character traits to Turtle Bay. De Soto highlights Pérez de Cuéllar’s absolute commitment to impartiality in dealing with the U.S., Soviet Union and other powers, and his extreme discretion in quietly handling problems like Afghanistan. He also knew when to pick his battles. Rather than throw himself into addressing every conflict at once, he tended to step in only after other diplomatic actors had exhausted themselves. In the case of Central America, for example, he waited for regional diplomacy to lose steam before pushing UN mediation.

Overall, de Soto notes, Pérez de Cuéllar handled Cold War crises “piecemeal” instead of trying to resolve the core differences between Washington and Moscow, “relying on the judicious choice of individual conflicts that might lend themselves to practical solutions… in the expectation that they would lead in the long term to the return of some degree of largely absent cooperation.”

What guidance and inspiration might Guterres and his team take from these lessons today? It is important, of course, not to overstate current similarities or parallels to the late Cold War. Pérez de Cuéllar worked in the shadow of a nuclear standoff, but had the good fortune to cooperate with global powers that were in the process of building bridges and wanted to settle their differences—although, as de Soto notes, the trajectory of this process was hardly clear at the time. Guterres, by contrast, finds himself navigating a very fluid environment in which the major players at the UN are increasingly unwilling to compromise, creating fewer opportunities for peacemaking, even though the specter of major conflict among them remains relatively remote.

Pérez de Cuéllar’s “piecemeal” approach to peacemaking remains a useful point of reference for the UN at a time when it appears incapable of resolving major geopolitical crises like the ongoing wars in Ukraine and Syria. But the UN may still have openings to address other challenges, such as cementing peace in Colombia, where the landmark peace deal with FARC rebels has yet to deliver on all of its promises, or supporting the current transition to civilian rule in Sudan, where the interests of the U.S., Russia and China may diverge but are not irreconcilably far apart.

The UN cannot solve all the world’s problems, but it can fix some of them as opportunities arise. That is a realistic but nonetheless important lesson to learn from Javier Pérez de Cuéllar’s stewardship of the organisation in a new era of global tensions.