Tackling State Fragility: The New World of Peacebuilding
Tackling State Fragility: The New World of Peacebuilding
Speech / Global 9 minutes

Tackling State Fragility: The New World of Peacebuilding

Keynote by Donald Steinberg, Deputy President, International Crisis Group to the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association Conference on Peacebuilding, 1 February 2010.

Your Excellencies:  It is an honour to address the opening session of the International Parliamentary Conference on Peacebuilding.  I would like to begin by thanking the CPA UK branch for bringing together 80 international parliamentarians from three dozen countries for this important conference on tackling state fragility.

Our discussion here today is given added urgency by recent events around the world – whether a devastating earthquake in Haiti, the Afghanistan donors’ conference here in London last week, an on-going constitutional crisis in Northern Ireland, or the new threats of terrorism emanating from fragile and failing states around the Red Sea, such as Yemen and Somalia.  Each month, International Crisis Group publishes an update on some 70 situations of ongoing or potential conflict, which regrettably demonstrates that deadly conflict is not an aberration affecting only a few countries.

My presentation will provide an overview for other sessions this week by reviewing the challenges of modern peacebuilding and stabilization efforts.  I will begin by addressing changes in the global environment that enhance and impede our efforts at peacebuilding, and then go on to consider the factors associated with instability, conflict and fragility.  I will conclude by outlining what I consider are the six interlocking challenges facing these societies and their international partners, including restoring security, building a responsive political framework, kick-starting the economy, ensuring a balance of reconciliation and accountability, promoting civil society, and getting the regional context right.

New Realities in Addressing State Fragilit

I start from the premise that the traditional dividing line between “hard” issues of 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 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

Further, the stakes of game have risen dramatically, as global implications of state fragility and failure have become more profound.  Failure to consolidate peace and democratic governance in Afghanistan, Colombia, Somalia, Sudan, Yemen, and beyond no longer just impacts on people of those countries, but opens door to training camps for global terrorists; permits new routes for trafficking of persons, arms and illegal drugs; spawns a flood of refugees across borders and even oceans; disrupts international trade and investment; facilitates incubation of pandemic disease; and even brings piracy.

In addition, resources to address these concerns 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 organizations – has largely tapped out the supply of troops and civilians, while the global financial and economic crisis has essentially closed the assistance larder 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, be it for Afghanistan or Zimbabwe or any country in between?

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 rebuilding."

Gone, too, are the days when the international community believed it could ignore or run roughshod over the priorities of its domestic partners.  Too frequently in the past, it seemed as if bilateral donors and international financial institutions treated developing countries as laboratories to test out their latest theory of development.  In fact, we have found that local ownership is the sine qua non for success, in the form of executive, legislative and judicial branches of government, community councils, institutions of civil society, and the people themselves.  This does not mean ignoring vital universal principles, such as transparent governance, accountability and basic human rights.  But it does mean that the donor community cannot substitute its priorities for those of the country itself.

Factors Associated with Fragility and Conflict

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

  • Is there responsive governance, rule of law, and opportunities for political participation?  Societies must have safety valves to permit the peaceful redress of grievances.
  • Is the economic system accommodating rapid urbanization and population pressure?  A quick route to conflict is when alienated urban youth do not see opportunities within their societies and are susceptible to fanatics or zealots.
  • Do institutions of civil society draw populations together across religious, ethnic, class or political divisions?   Such institutions are often the first victims of “divide-and-rule” polarization that characterizes conflict situations.
  • Is the country located in a stable region?  Countries in bad neighborhoods risk spill-over from armed combatants, refugees and arms flows; those in good neighborhoods receive a powerful dampening effect on potential violence.
  • Has violence become normalized in the society?  Aspects to consider here are the role of the military in political life, rates of domestic violence and rape, and the proliferation of small arms.
  • Is the society open, internally and internationally?  Closed political systems, economies, and media environment are dangerous. Conflicts are like mushrooms: they grow best in darkness.
  • Has there been upheaval during the past 15 years? Contrary to the warning you get on an investment prospectus, past record is an indicator of future performance.

Interlocking Challenges

These are among the factors we need to monitor as indicators and potential triggers of conflict.  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.  Again, these challenges are to restore state and human security, to build a responsive political framework, to kick-start the economy, to balance national reconciliation and the need for accountability, to promote civil society, and to address the regional context.  I would like to address each of these challenges briefly

On security front, international peacekeepers can provide a buffer, but credible local security forces – both defense forces and policies – must quickly take over to provide 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. 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 a legitimate political framework. We must help build credible governance at national and local levels; transform armed movements into political parties; and ensure that effective legislatures and judiciaries counter-balance the power of the executive, which grows during conflict periods.  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.  Decentralization and local empowerment must be balanced against need for strong central authority in fragile states.

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.  In societies facing massive youth unemployment, it is little surprise that renegade leaders have lured disaffected young people with a siren song that offers quick if venal empowerment.

The fourth challenge is coming to grips with past abuses and atrocities. Nations and individuals who have suffered from grievous treatment must balance accountability and national reconciliation, but too often, peace agreement provide blanket amnesties in which men with guns forgive 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 rule of law and eliminating a culture of impunity.

A fifth challenge, often ignored, is re-creating 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 polarized during conflict, often due to conscious "divide-and-rule" strategies by national or factional leaders.  Women in particular are not only the primary victims of conflict, but a key to peace consolidation.  Bringing women’s groups to peace table improves the quality of agreements reached, and involving them in post-conflict governance reduces the likelihood of returning to war.  The single best investment to revitalize agriculture, restore health systems, and improve other social indicators after conflict 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.  Comprehensive peace-building must recognize differing yet often synergistic roles to be played and interests to be pursued by neighboring 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 organizations can serve this purpose.

Building the Domestic Constituency for Engagement

Minister Fraser-Moleketi will speak in a moment on the specific role of parliamentarians in these processes.  In addition to questions of insisting on government accountability, holding the pursestrings, helping strengthen parliaments and political parties in post-conflict nations, and using new EU structure to encourage good policies in that context, parliamentarians are vital to building a domestic constituency for national efforts to stabilize fragile societies and ensure successful transitions from conflict to lasting peace.

In this regard, I want to suggest that we too frequently underestimate the ability of our fellow citizens to understand and support the multiple purposes served by such engagement, and I will conclude with a final story.  In October 1993, I was serving as deputy White House press secretary at the time of the “Black Hawk Down” disaster in Somalia.  In response to the deaths of 18 American servicemen in Mogadishu, there was a firestorm of calls from Washington politicians for the immediate withdrawal of all U.S. forces from Somalia.  While President Clinton resisted this call, he did decide on a six-month timetable for their removal.

In March of the following year, when the troop withdrawal was complete, President Clinton traveled to Fort Hood, New York, from where the troops had originally come.  In a private meeting with the families of servicemen, one woman stood up and asked in a very aggressive manner, “Mr. President, what explanation would you have for a wife whose husband died in Mogadishu?”  As the President started to respond by citing America’s strategic interest in the Horn of Africa, another woman got up and said, “Mr. President, I can answer that.  You should say that the woman’s husband died a hero, in the finest tradition of the U.S. military and the United States, helping save the lives of hundreds of thousands of starving Somalis who couldn’t save themselves.”  When she finished, the whole room broke out in applause.

Our fellow citizens get this agenda.  They can connect the dots – frequently better than we can – between our strategic, security, and humanitarian interests.  We underestimate their commitment and concern at our peril.  Thank you.

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