Peacebuilding of the Future: The Challenges

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Keynote Address at the Peace Building Commission, Annual Session 2016

Hon. Chairperson
Hon. Secretary General
Your Excellences
Ladies and Gentlemen,


Transitions are periods of potential danger in a nation’s history. They are moments when we can move forward or moments where we may slip back into cycles of perpetual violence. They are interregnums where we must act with caution and wisdom. The nation state should take the lead but the international community, especially the Peacebuilding Commission, has an important role to play.

When the Department of Peace building asked me to give the keynote speech here today, I realized that they were sending a signal, For the most part of the last fifty years the United Nations, its agencies and their departments have had their policies and programmed framed by the wars in Africa- with Liberia and Sierra Leone being the ultimate prototype. Today, there is a greater realization that the devastating wars are now being fought in West Asia and in South Asia and until recently in my own country Sri Lanka. The experience of these wars of recent years, especially after 2001, must fundamentally challenge how we look at war and therefore, how we look at peace building.

The most dramatic changes to take place since the great African wars of the 1990s have been the technologies of war.  Unmanned and manned killing machines that can create extensive damage, acts of “terror” by increasingly brutal non state actors, extensive surveillance through the collection of meta data and personal attacks of human rights defenders using the media and cyber attacks has increasingly characterizes modern warfare in the new theatres of conflict.  In addition new and porous judicial doctrines like the theory of “human shields” to justify attacks on civilian populations remain deeply problematic. Massive refugee flows and the inevitable humanitarian consequences also remain an important part of this scenario. Many of these conflicts are now in Asia. However the United Nations from the Security Council to United Nations departments remain wedded to the old ideas of war and therefore to out of date ideas of peace building. It is important that the United Nations, as an institution come to terms with the unfolding reality around us and that we collectively respond to the crisis that many countries face.


Firstly, it must be understood that the current situation is not only about implementing existing norms but is also about creating new paradigms. In certain areas we need to create the norms, the standards and the laws for acts of war that have no guidance. What are the norms and standards for operating drones and other unmanned machines of war and what is the measure of accountability? What are the norms and standards for data collection and extensive surveillance of local and international actors? What is counter terrorism? Do we have conceptual clarity or is it now a term that embraces everything so that we lose focus on the fact that what we are trying to do is to combat acts of terror and not rebuild societies in our own image. Finally we now see unprecedented levels of personal attacks on human rights defenders in every form. The desperation of not knowing what to do and what standards to quote are part of the powerlessness that human rights defenders face in this situation. Often they do not even know what is happening to them including on the Internet where their reputations are mercilessly destroyed. There must be concerted international effort to stop these kinds of attacks and international monitoring of what I would term personal acts of war, while of course fully maintaining the rights of freedom of expression.


Secondly, as most of the new wars are in Asia it must be understood that unlike in the African wars, there are very strong state structures and strong militaries.  In these countries the argument of state sovereignty is the most coveted international principle.  United Nations Departments and non- governmental organizations cannot move with the same flexibility and range of activities as they do in countries with weak state structures. This should not mean that the United Nations should completely abdicate its work on human rights and social justice as required by the UN charter and international conventions. The move towards a community which is based on social compact and consultation is intrinsic even in the UN’s own deliberations. The answer is in carefully calibrating and negotiating this very difficult terrain so that the United Nations enables a strengthening of human rights and democratic institutions in a meaningful way that is not only decorative or a mere piece of paper. I have argued when I was at the United Nations that all resident coordinators and SRSGs should be given extensive training in this regard on how to negotiate this terrain through the use of case studies where the United Nations has succeeded and failed. This is absolutely crucial if the United Nations is to be relevant in prevention, peacekeeping or peace building efforts.


If we turn our thoughts to peacebuilding, over the years accountability, truth and social justice have slowly emerged as the centerpiece. Evidence increasingly shows that accountability assists healing and healing allows for a sustainable peace. But the initial stages of this process are very difficult. My country is an example. Speaking about such maters was once unthinkable. The government however appointed a Task Force to go around the country to ask people what they feel a truth and justice mechanism should look like. As the Task Force slowly and steadily makes its way, headed and manned by people known for their independence and diversity of viewpoints, the rhetoric has lowered. I recently watched a two-hour television programme where members of the Task Force discussed substantive issues in detail. Miracles can happen and in this case it has been a new democratic leadership and a committed civil society, drawn from different viewpoints that has pushed the process forward.  One can only wish them success as they move ahead in the understanding that it is better to be slow and inclusive rather than rush to meet impossible deadlines.

In pursuing truth and accountability there is now increasing understanding that such processes have to be linked to the comprehensive healing of communities. Hence the Sri Lankan process is consulting at the local level and allowing individuals all over the country feel like they have ownership of the process even before we get to the substance. The argument is that justice should not only be punitive but also transformative This is also an argument we made forcefully in our 15 year review of Security Council Resolution 1325.  The transformative nature of justice is that we require that reparations be an essential part of the process and that we plan for such an outcome from the inception.  Punitive justice by itself does not help victims come forward. They have to be supported by their political leaders, their communities and by a system of reparations that helps them look to the future. The 15-year review on women peace and security has a comprehensive chapter on these issues and I hope you will have the time to read through the recommendations.


The success to all kinds of peacemaking, peacekeeping and peacebuilding is active participation of all groups in society so that communities as a whole have ownership in the peace process.  Our study, the 15-year review on Women Peace and Security refers to in depth research that conclusively proves that women’s participation is clearly linked to the sustainability of the peace process and operational effectiveness. Though women as of right should be at the table, these arguments also buttress the claim that inclusivity is the clue to long lasting peace. Peace processes that have been concluded all over the world point to this factor. For this reason, international mediators, parties to conflict and women peace builders should be made aware of these issues and every attempt should be made to include them at the table and also in the committees and consultations that usually surround a peace process. What is true for women is also true for other marginalized groups and similar strategies should also be developed for them.


Peace building during and after conflict must involve social and economic programmes for the economic and social development of an area. In the past the international community followed the one size fits all policy. I have seen the same tailoring, mechanics and crafts programmes in every theatre of conflict. But as I said earlier, state structures are different, skill levels are different and markets are different. So the key to any successful peace building effort is a joint and comprehensive mapping by the local partners and the international community. Once we know what is needed the project designs can begin. The Global study on Women Peace and Security also has an extensive section on financing which may help generate financing ideas in all areas of peace building.

When we look at conflict we have to think of emergency, short term and long term. Women survivors of conflict and young men go into what I will call survival mode during conflict and immediately after conflict and are often victims of violence, abuse and human smuggling. They have no choices. They have to run. A movie made about my country called “Deepan” which won the Palme D’Or at Cannes last year captures this reality so graphically. This is the group that must be immediately targeted for protection and assistance. We have yet to develop the capacity to assist them in a meaningful way.

The short term and the long term are also important- the study asks that 15% of all peace building and project financing be earmarked for women. Having been to theatres of conflict and having seen the fundamental role women play there as peace builders this is not an unreasonable amount. In the end, the older women of the community are usually the ones trusted by all parties to keep the peace and deliver the goods.


The three reviews that took place last year on peacebuilding, peacekeeping and 1325 were very clear- the most important part of any of these processes is prevention. Very little is invested in terms of analysis, resources and personnel to this aspect. We are today  basically an emergency response machine. The need to do prevention properly, while respecting the human rights of individuals, is the key to our future as a civilization.

There is now an attempt to do prevention under the porous doctrine of ”countering violent extremism”. The need to counter some of the hateful violence is important but we must be cautious.. Elements of those strategies are crucial but some elements are best done by the communities themselves with the support of open-minded international actors.

There has always been extremism and acts of individual hate in all societies but global concern should only be triggered if violent extremism destroys communities, violates the rights of others in a way that the state is unable to cope and violates the rights of others as set out in international laws and standards. My fear is that in this area we lack conceptual clarity- -What do we actually mean by prevention? What do we actually mean by violent extremism? What do we mean by counter terrorism? Let us be clear and more important, precise, because the consequences of the lack of clarity and precision is to so disrupt communities that we feed into perpetual cycles of violence that may spin out of control. I feel that security experts, peace builders and human rights specialists should work closely together to make clear norms and standards in this regard to avoid these from becoming international catchphrases with unwanted consequences.

In the area of prevention in non so-called “non terrorist” theatres of war, our Global study along with the Peacekeeping Review make comprehensive recommendations. These should also be part of any peace building exercise to prevent renewal of conflict. The Study outlines the use of technology such as satellite phones, even in remote areas, presence both armed and non armed personnel in areas of potential conflict, and the constant maintenance of dialogue at the national, local and international level. It also suggests a setting up of a special unit in the SG’s office capable of analyzing the information from UN bodies coming in from conflict areas and the indicators of conflict such as violence against women, child soldiers, fields that have been very familiar to me, as well as human rights,  violence against civilians and property  generally. This will enable the Secretary General to brief member states and for UN agencies to engage better with the government. It is my understanding that all these proposals are under consideration.


In the early days of the United Nations, peacebuilding was  only project based social and economic programmes aimed at helping societies heal and build up livelihoods. Today in certain parts of the world peacebuilding departments of the United Nations are called upon to be equal partners in nation building and preventing future conflict. We must candidly admit that we are often not up to the task. Our paradigms are limited, we need conceptual clarity and most important we need to quickly understand the ground situation that is often rapidly changing. We also are poorly resourced and sometimes apply one-size fits all policies that may not only have no direct effect on communities but also be actually counter productive.

For these reasons the international community must study in detail the recommendations contained in the three reviews conducted last year, especially those calling for paradigm articulation and rapid implementation of existing norms. In my work with the United Nations I have been to practically every theatre of conflict. We have very hard working people out there in the field but often they lack guidance or direction because the conflict is beyond their understanding or control. For these reasons it is important for the leaders of this organization to truly take stock on how we do peacemaking, peacekeeping and peacebuilding. Drastic structural changes are needed, new norms have to be created and old paradigms have to be discarded. We must have the courage to advise the present Secretary General and any Secretary General who comes after him of the need to move rapidly.