Global Policy Forum

Challenges Ahead for UN Peace Commission


By Simon Roughneen *

International Relations and Security Network
January 24, 2006

The new UN Peacebuilding Commission created in December is hoping to tackle the daunting task of ensuring post-conflict peace and rebuilding the world body's tarnished image that field.

In late December, the UN General Assembly (GA) and the UN Security Council announced the creation of a new Peacebuilding Commission. The new body - a subsidiary organ of the UNGA and UNSC - will, according to Resolution 1645, "marshal resources at the disposal of the international community to advise and propose integrated strategies for post-conflict recovery, focusing attention on reconstruction, institution-building, and sustainable development in countries emerging from conflict".

Roughly half of all countries that emerge from war lapse back into violent conflict within five years. With half of all the peace agreements signed since the end of the Second World War and implemented since the Cold War, the challenge remains to convert conflict resolution into sustainable peace. This means acting coherently across a range of policy areas, including political, economic, social, legal, and security-related.

The new commission emerged as part of a wider process of UN reform, initiated in 2003 in the wake the UN's failure to prevent the invasion of Iraq by the US and Britain, and a perceived wider crisis in terms of the UN's long-term viability - termed a "a fork in the road" by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. Part of the response was to initiate a High Level Panel on Threats, Challenges, and Change, which published a weighty report in late 2004. Among the recommendations of that report was the proposal to create the UN Peacebuilding Commission, which was accepted by UN member states during September 2005 UN World Summit.

However, some question what the Peacebuilding Commission can mean in practice, and how the new body will function effectively as an agent of peace in post-conflict countries. After all, the commission is limited to an advisory role, bringing together a diverse array of actors together in an unprecedented format within the UN system. As Peter Wallensteen, a professor of Peace and Conflict Research at Uppsala University, and a member of the High-Level Panel, told ISN Security Watch: "It remains for this commission to assert itself - it has the potential to be effective - but it rests on a consensus between north and south."

The five permanent members of the Security Council will be permanent members of the commission, and will have greatest leverage over what the commission does and where. The commission will feature 31 members chosen mostly on a variegated rotating basis from the UN Security Council, from countries contributing to UN peacekeeping forces, donors, and with reference to regional and national actors depending on the particular peacebuilding case to be addressed.

Johan Galtung has been a pioneering figure in peacebuilding thinking in recent decades, as the director of the Transcend University in Romania, and is active in mediation work around the world. In an interview with ISN Security Watch, he stressed the political realities that would frame the context in which the peacebuilding commission operated. "I fear that the commission will act in the interest of the great powers - particularly the US and the UK. In ways, they are generations behind in their thinking on peace - to them peacebuilding equals maintaining the status quo, which will not lead to any peace where there are global and societal inequalities and injustices," he said.

Prioritizing peace

The need for political consensus is matched by the need for a successful marriage between different policy areas. As a policymaking term, peacebuilding means dealing with the diverse aspects of ensuring that a country does not fall back into violent conflict. It means incorporating conflict resolution, governance-economics, development, legal and electoral reform, and security issues such as peacekeeping. The commission will also require a functional consensus between a series of diverse actors, for the first time bringing the security, development, human rights, and humanitarian arms of the UN together in a structured, institutional setting.

With a committee membership of 31 states, provision for international financial institutions such as The World Bank, and regional actors who will be involved on a case-by-case basis, the commission hopes to demonstrate its legitimacy. Rob Ricigliano is the director of the Institute of World Affairs at the University of Wisconsin. In an interview with ISN Security Watch, he said: "There are difficulties of bringing all these different disciplines and people together, who had previously worked in relative isolation from each other. The Department of Homeland Security in the US demonstrates the challenges that emerge when a new agency is set up to bring a series of different strands together."

According to Wallensteen, the commission "will be a good place for security and development perspectives to work together - that I think will prove to be one of the enduring strengths of the commission".

As the resolution establishing the commission outlines, peacebuilding requires "a coherent, coordinated, and integrated approach" with recognition given to the fact that "development, peace, and security and human rights are mutually reinforcing". In Galtung's opinion, the commission will be hampered by its incomplete conceptualization of what "peace" means. "Conflict is caused by a broken relationship. The commission will just look at peacebuilding as something to be conducted within a particular place, as if the relationships between states, identities, etc. are not a factor. When a marital conflict occurs, you describe a relationship breaking down, not a man or a woman having a unilateral problem," he told ISN Security Watch.

No prevention mandate

A study by the US-based Rand Corporation published in 2005 showed that UN Peacebuilding operations have had a two-thirds success rate. The new commission will seek to harness international resources and formalize a structure for what have hitherto been ad-hoc arrangements on a county-to-country basis.

However, given the UN's patchy record in peacekeeping and inability to intervene effectively in many cases where conflict has broken out - from Iraq to Rwanda to the Balkans to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) - the credibility of the new peacebuilding commission will be questioned from the outset. As seen by the many relapses into conflict even after agreements are reached - Sri Lanka and Cote d'Ivoire are among the latest examples of this phenomenon - conflict is cyclical, and peacebuilding thus requires a conflict prevention dimension if it is to work as the thinking intends.

As Wallensteen told ISN Security Watch: "The commission is too ‘post-conflict' in its focus. The High Level Panel mentioned the need for the proposed commission to have a preventative function, to be able to react to early warning indicators of a crisis. This makes perfect operational sense given that half of all conflicts are repetitions of previously so-called resolved conflicts."

The commission will likely take on only four-six cases of peacebuilding annually, which will allow it to determine which cases it deals with, and thus give itself the optimum chance of success.

Wallensteen would have preferred if the commission was a subsidiary of the Security Council, rather than the novel format of being a subsidiary advisory body of the General Assembly and the Security Council. "The link with the General Assembly is needed, but the link with the council needed to be much stronger and more direct," he said.

A litmus test for UN reform?

So with a limited scope and mandate - the commission might best be seen for now as a test run, both in terms of its own peacebuilding agenda and more broadly, the bigger picture of UN reform.

The UN reform agenda is linked to the conceptualization of the peacebuilding debate. To Galtung "peace is about equality". "The commission cannot hope to function effectively when it will be run by an unequal and unreformed Security Council. There is not one Muslim country on the council, and yet the commission may well attempt to operate in a Muslim society," he said. Ricigliano told Security Watch: "The commission is now somewhat of a poster child for UN reform, a litmus test. The thinking will be ‘if we can manage this, then we can manage other things'. However, as such the commissions' work may be overly politicized."

The recent Human Security Report published by the University of British Colombia and funded by a number of donor governments reported that over 100 violent conflicts have ended since 1988. To ensure these conflicts are not re-ignited, the Peacebuilding Commission could have a vital role to play.

However, despite the commission's mandate to build peace, this may be sacrificed for the bigger picture of UN reform. It may well be that the more difficult or politically sensitive cases for peacebuilding are left off the commissions' agenda, at the outset at least, to give the body a fighting chance to prove it can build peace, and give the UN and its member states the opportunity to revitalize the public image of a somewhat tarnished organization.

About the Author: Simon Roughneen is a senior ISN Security Watch correspondent.

More Information on UN Reform
More Information on the Peacebuilding Commission


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