Challenges and Opportunities for International Engagement in Fragile States
Challenges and Opportunities for International Engagement in Fragile States
Ten Conflicts to Watch in 2024
Ten Conflicts to Watch in 2024
Speech / Global 10 minutes

Challenges and Opportunities for International Engagement in Fragile States

Presentation by Donald Steinberg, Deputy President, International Crisis Group, to Overseas Development Institute, London, 17 July 2009.

I would like to begin by thanking the Overseas Development Institute for bringing us together for this session in their series on "Development, Security and Transitions." Today, we are addressing the question of how the international community can most effectively engage in fragile states, especially those emerging from conflict, in order to build stability and restore human security.

My presentation is intended to provide an overview for the other panellists addressing the nature and challenges of modern peacebuilding and stabilisation efforts, and the changes that have occurred over past decade or so that require a much more comprehensive approach and have raised the stakes in terms of the consequences for failing to effectively stabilise fragile societies. I will discuss the associated - if not causative - factors related to instability, conflict and fragility, and how these impact on the interlocking challenges these societies and their international benefactors face in creating or restoring stability and sustainability, including:

  • re-establishing personal and state-wide security;
  • rebuilding responsible governance institutions worthy of popular support;
  • restoring economic systems able to provide jobs and resources for meeting post-conflict expectations;
  • addressing demands transitional justice and accountability;
  • restoring civil society networks polarized during conflict; and
  • addressing the regional context.

I will also discuss both the reinforcing and synergistic nature of these challenges and the contradictions among them, as well as the sequencing. And I would like to conclude by mentioning the various adjustments, including institutional, that are being made to address these factors.

I start from the premise that the traditional dividing line between issues of hard national security and soft issues of human security have become hopelessly and permanently blurred.  Today, there are no "hard" and "soft" issues: crises no longer remain in their separate and distinct boxes, any more than they respect national borders. There is a broad and growing recognition among practitioners and theorists alike that conflict prevention, conflict resolution and post-conflict reconstruction form the bedrock of diplomacy and the promotion of international security interests around the world. You cannot achieve or even adequately address the fundamental goals of promoting governance, sustainable development, and international stability and cooperation in the presence of mass violence.

The second major change is a growing complexity. I often address the incoming senior official of the UN country team missions on the challenges they will face. In July, as I spoke to leaders of UN missions in Kosovo, Congo, Sudan, Nepal, Haiti, Côte d'Ivoire, Liberia, Central African Republic and Timor Leste, there was a broad recognition of the fact that they now no longer stood at the top of a pyramid of international engagement, able to systematically implement, article by article, the mandate of a well-crafted and coherent Security Council resolution.

Today, they must be a combination of diplomat, military commander, humanitarian relief coordinator, development expert, personnel manager, public affairs officer, and even psychologist. They are asked not only to keep warring parties apart, but to implement security sector reform, demobilise and reintegrate armed combatants, support transition justice mechanisms, administer elections, empower and protect women, conduct humanitarian demining, return of refugees and IDPs to their home, and a host of other duties.

Further, negotiations are no longer just between two warring parties, but now include input of regional organisations, special envoys from dozens of countries, civil society actors, and even track two negotiators empowered by who-knows-whom. Regional actors have become increasingly important. Consider, for example, the role of ASEAN and China on Myanmar; the Arab League and African Union on Sudan; SADC and South Africa on Zimbabwe; Brazil throughout Latin America; and India on Sri Lanka and Nepal. And there are organisations like International Crisis Group only too willing to share our wisdom and tell them how to do their job.

The stakes of game have risen dramatically, as global implications of failure have become more profound: the failure to consolidate peace and stability in a country no longer just impacts on people of that country, but opens door to training camps for global terrorists; permits new routes for trafficking of persons, arms and illegal drugs; promotes flood of refugees across borders and even oceans; facilitates incubation of pandemic disease; and even brings piracy.

Finally, resources are simply not as plentiful as before. The proliferation of peacekeeping missions - roughly 100,000 personnel under UN missions and 70,000 under other regional organisations - has largely tapped out the supply of troops and civilians, while the global financial and economic crisis has essentially closed the assistance pantry for peacekeeping missions and post-conflict reconstruction alike. When was the last time anyone talked about a new Marshall Plan for a specific reconstruction effort? While the international community provides vast amounts of disaster assistance once conflicts emerge, regrettably, we struggle to find resources to prevent these emergencies from occurring or to rebuild societies. Too often, we seem to say: "Billions for relief, but very few pennies for prevention or reconstruction."

This reality places premium on anticipating where conflict will emerge and addressing the root causes. In assessing where to put our ounce of prevention, the effort to predict where conflicts will emerge has become a cottage industry. Research has identified a number of prime "associative" factors. Among the most salient are:

  • Lack of political participation, responsive governance, and rule of law. Societies must have safety valves to permit the peaceful redress of grievances.
  • Rapid urbanisation and population pressure coupled with weak economies. One of the quickest routes to conflict is when alienated youth do not see opportunities within their societies and are susceptible to fanatics or zealots.
  • Absence of institutions of civil society that draw populations together despite religious, ethnic, class or political differences.
  • "Location, location, location."  The role of neighbors in either mediating or fuelling disputes is fundamental. Countries in bad neighbourhoods risk spill-over from armed combatants, refugees and arms flows; those in good neighbourhoods receive a powerful dampening effect on potential violence.
  • Militarisation of society or, put otherwise, normalisation of violence. This include the role of military and security forces in political structure, and the proliferation of small arms and light weapons.
  • Closed nature of society, especially to international influences. Closed political systems, economies, and media environment are dangerous. Conflicts are like mushrooms: they grow best in darkness.
  • Upheaval during the past 15 years. Contrary to the warning you get on an investment prospectus, the past record is an indicator of future performance.

These are among the factors that we need to monitor as indicators and potential triggers of conflict. We cannot do much about many of these factors, nor can we stop natural disasters that often translate into conflict. Still, every drought does not have to become a famine, and every weak or poor state is not condemned to instability and abuse.

In studying more than two dozen successful and failed peacekeeping efforts since World War II, we have found that six key challenges must be addressed nearly simultaneously, since each of these challenges feeds into the others. These six challenges are restoring security, building a political framework, kick-starting the economy, ensuring justice and accountability, promoting civil society, and getting the regional context right.

On security front, international peacekeepers can provide a buffer, but credible local security forces must quickly take over to provide a sense of stability, normalcy and rule of law to everyday life. International support for security sector reform is usually essential to ensure that forces are well-trained, disciplined, and adequately paid so that they do not exploit and abuse the populations they are supposed to protect. Women must be amply represented in these forces, in part to ensure that law enforcement is "community-friendly" and that women who have been abused are comfortable coming forward with complaints. There must be effective programs to disarm, demobilise, and reintegrate ex-combatants, including militias. Child soldiers must put down their AK-47s and pick up schoolbooks.

The second challenge is to restore legitimate political framework. We must build confidence in government at national and local levels; transform armed movements into political parties; and build effective legislatures and judiciaries to counter-balance the power of the executive. The quick-fix of creating a government of national unity including all competing forces is rarely a viable long-term solution. Similarly, the premature holding of elections can create a winner-take-all power dispensation that is itself a prelude to new conflict from disempowered minorities. A culture of accountability and transparency must emerge in government, along with an effective system to protect human rights. Decentralisation and local empowerment must be balanced against need for strong central authority in fragile states.

Third, economic renewal is often defined in strictly physical terms as the rebuilding of roads, clinics, schools, power grids, and houses. In truth, long-term development means reviving agriculture, creating conditions needed to attract local and foreign investment, ensuring greater equality in income distribution, and creating jobs. As noted, in the wake of youth unemployment rates of upwards of 90 per cent in some countries, there is little surprise that in addition to their brutal forced conscription of child soldiers, renegade leaders like Foday Sankoh, Joseph Kony, and Jonas Savimbi have lured disaffected young people with a siren song that offers quick if venal empowerment and meaning to their lives. But meeting expectations of a post-conflict peace dividend in the current financial crisis will be difficult: not only is foreign assistance under siege, but foreign investors are increasingly seeking safe havens and eschewing risky post-conflict countries, diaspora communities are slashing their remittances homeward, and weak commodities prices and rising debt servicing requirements are taxing local reserves.

The fourth challenge is coming to grips with past abuses and atrocities. Clearly, nations and individuals who have suffered from grievous treatment must balance immediate accountability and long-term national reconciliation. Too often, transitional justice is addressed through amnesties tantamount to men with guns forgiving other men with guns for crimes committed against women and children.  There is no one-size-fits-all approach to transitional justice: whether it is action by local courts, the International Criminal Court, a truth and reconciliation commission like in South Africa, the gacaca community court system in Rwanda, or ad hoc international tribunals in cases where local courts are inadequate, ensuring accountability is essential to rebuilding concept of rule of law and eliminating a culture of impunity.

A fifth challenge, often ignored, is re-creation of civil society. Groups of academics, lawyers, teachers, unions, and women are the glue that holds society together and serve as safety valves to permit the peaceful redress of grievances. Such groups are frequently polarised during conflict, often due to conscious "divide-and-rule" strategies by national or factional leaders.  Disadvantaged minorities, including IDPs and refugees, must be drawn into the mix. Women in particular are not only the primary victims of conflict, but a key to peace consolidation. Bringing women to peace table improves the quality of agreements reached, and involving women in post-conflict governance reduces the likelihood of returning to war. The single best investment to revitalise agriculture, restore health systems, and improve other social indicators after conflicts is girls' education. It has been said: "Educate a boy and you educate an individual; educate a girl and you educate a community."

The final challenge is getting regional context right. Neighbours are best positioned to provide a powerful dampening effect on potential violence. Comprehensive peace-building must recognise differing yet often synergistic roles to be played and interests to be pursued by neighbouring countries, each with its special relationships and contacts with key actors. It is often useful to have formal structures: ad hoc "friends groups" or conflict resolution committees of such regional and sub-regional organisations can serve this purpose.

As we review these requirements, it is important to recognise the need for sequencing and application to the unique situations in each country. In all cases, there will be a hierarchy of requirements: in many situations, the need for a restoration of security - not only military stabilization but addressing the needs of human security - is the first among equals without which little else - governance, economic reconstruction, rebuilding civil society, and the rest - can take place.

Further, we need to acknowledge the internal contradictions at play within and among these categories. For example, if societies re-establish security through a strengthening of the military and/or a reliance of regional warlords, this can pose a serious threat to the re-establishment of a credible governance structure. Similarly, empowering and providing legitimacy to the national government can easily empower leaders whose interests are more related to their own interest - including "rent-seeking opportunities" and consolidation of personal power - than to more altruistic goal. Stated simply, an election might get you an Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, but it might also get a Joseph Kabila.

My fellow panellists will address the new tools that are being developed to address these challenges. These include integrated peace operations that flow naturally from peacekeeping missions; the UN Peacebuilding Commission, that is helping coordinate the actions of relevant UN agencies, bilateral donors, international financial institutions, governments, and civil actors; in-house government coordinating bodies, such as START in Canada, S/CRS in the United States, to draw together the various economic, social, humanitarian, and military efforts to support reconstructing states; and the NATO "comprehensive approach".

I want to go back to the beginning of my presentation. I said then that the dividing line between "hard" and "soft" issues has blurred or vanished. While that may be true in reality, unfortunately, mindsets in the corridors of power have yet to internalise this notion. Non-military tasks related to conflict prevention and peace consolidation still suffer from "second-class" citizenship among foreign actors. Indeed, they are too often referred to as "soft side" of foreign policy.

In fact, there is nothing soft about holding warlords and other human rights violators accountable for past abuses or insisting that women have a seat at the table in peace negotiations and post-conflict governments. There is nothing soft about ensuring that roads and villages and farmlands are free of landmines; that governments are empowered to deliver health and education services to the population; or that neighbouring countries and world powers alike cease their meddling and play a positive role in building regional peace and security.

These are in fact among the hardest the challenges we face in stabilising fragile states, and I suggest the Overseas Development Institute for drawing us together here today to move this process ahead.

Thank you.

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