The newly released 2016 Global Peace Index (GPI) Report, from the Institute for Economics and Peace, concludes that the world became less peaceful in the last year, reinforcing the underlying trend of declining peace over the last decade. The report also describes growing “global inequality in peace”, with the most peaceful countries continuing to improve while the least peaceful are falling into greater violence and conflict.
The Index explores how the decline in peace could be reversed, introducing the concept of “Positive Peace”, described as “the attitudes, institutions and structures which sustain peace.” To help explain why some countries are peaceful and others are not, the report proposes applying systems thinking as it has developed in biology and ecology to the study of peace. The report links “Positive Peace” and broader societal resilience. Countries with high ”Positive Peace” are more likely to maintain their stability and adapt and recover from both internal and external shocks.
State and societal resilience, and its absence when defined as fragility, have become increasingly important concepts in the study and practice of peace and conflict prevention. Just after the release of the GPI report, we spoke to Under-Secretary-General Jeffrey Feltman about the rise in conflict globally over the last decade and how the international community can work with States to make them more resilient and able to sustain peace.
The GPI records a “historically less peaceful and more unequal world.” Do you agree?
Jeffrey Feltman: Yes, I agree that, after what was a reduction in conflicts after the end of the Cold War that one hoped would be a permanent trend, we now are seeing increasing levels of violence and conflict globally. From the rise of ISIL/Daesh to the disastrous effects of climate change, I think the challenges the world is facing are tremendous and require that we all work together to face and defeat them. In saying “we”, I put much of the onus on States, which remain, after all the basic units of organization in the international system – and of the UN in particular.
How are the challenges States are facing today different than those of a generation or two ago?
Well, first of all, the nature, and manifestation, of violence is changing, as are the tools available to it. Most civil wars now involve a mix of criminality, conflict and extremism. What’s more, violence is increasingly transnational in cause and effect. You have cross-border criminal networks, arms flows, ideological narratives, and refugee outflows, for example. We are also witnessing a rise in confrontations between major powers. And then, non-State actors have easier, cheaper access to lethal technologies and to social media, effectively redefining how States wage war.
Secondly, we see growing State fragility, a lack of control over the levers of authority and governing. We have seen on many occasions the hollowing out of the State, leaving it unable to deliver services or security for citizens. In some instances, armed or criminal groups may be the most important providers of public services in many areas. At the extreme, State fragility culminates in State failure.
And thirdly, and importantly, challenges are increasingly interconnected. Demographic shifts and resource scarcity continue to create enormous development and political challenges, as do threats emanating from rapid urbanization and climate change. The world is expected to go from 7 billion people today to 9 billion 2050. This will add to already tremendous stresses on infrastructure and resources, as well as a vulnerable pool of disaffected youth.
Today we have more empowered and connected citizens around the world than ever before. They have greater expectations, and can be an enormous force for positive change. But these expectations have to be met and managed, or they could prove destabilizing.
What is the UN, the preeminent State organization, doing to help its members adapt to these challenges?
Quite a few tools have been developed to do just that. I’ll touch on a sample of new tools.
First, given the changing nature of violence, the UN has been adopting new approaches to support States to deal with cross-cutting thematic and regional challenges. We have a new Plan of Action on Preventing Violent Extremism. We had a General Assembly Special Session on the World Drug Problem.
At the operational level, we’re moving towards regional responses. For the Department of Political Affairs (DPA), that means the opening of regional offices to be closer to the issues and provide more immediate and tailored solutions. These presences help Member States to address issues ranging from transnational organized crime in the West African Coast Initiative, to the terrorism and extremism of Boko Haram in Central Africa, to the politics of regional water management in Central Asia.
Secondly, in response to State fragility, the UN places increasing emphasis on “joined up, whole of system solutions”, as exemplified by the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda. The Agenda’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), adopted last year, recognize the need to see development, peace and human rights as inextricably intertwined. Goal 16 aims at helping bring about “peaceful, just and inclusive societies.”
There are SDGs that directly address conflict drivers, ranging from inequality to natural resources. Indeed, the SDGs are intrinsically linked to conflict prevention and demand that the different pillars of the UN come together to support them.
Similarly, the General Assembly and the Security Council have recently adopted groundbreaking resolutions on “Sustaining Peace”,a term they defined as “preventing the outbreak, escalation, continuation and recurrence of conflict.” The resolutions do away with a distinction between “post-conflict” peacebuilding and other forms of prevention. Instead, they demand that prevention be mainstreamed across all that the UN does.
We are also striving to update our abilities to deploy UN peace operations, an invaluable tool despite some shortcomings, including occasionally unrealistic time horizons. We aim to establish peace operations that are flexibly configured and deployed to contend with new and irregular forms of violence and lay the groundwork for sustainable peace.
On new and interconnected challenges, the UN has found innovative ways to help Member States cope with unanticipated challenges. For example, the UN Integrated Strategy for the Sahel, drawn up in 2013 and led from the DPA’s United Nations Office for West Africa and the Sahel, unites political/good offices engagement with regional development coordination to help Member States of the region affected by a complex, transboundary interplay of challenges ranging from desertification to violent extremism.
What do you see as the way forward to ensure States are fit for the challenges of the 21st century? What is needed over the next decades to strengthen the State system for the benefit of people, not just institutions?
I think the UN needs to continue to provide global leadership to ensure norms and principles continue to evolve to reflect the fast pace of change. Our actions must take into account these new challenges to States, while continuing to keep attention on conventional and long-standing threats. For conflict resolution, the UN must protect the right to speak to everyone, while being mindful of normative obligations, including human rights and international humanitarian law, and international law more broadly.
The UN must also coordinate global risk management, helping Member States to recognise the prevailing trends and to adapt cooperatively rather than competitively.
We also have to recognize the magnitude and longevity of the challenge. Avoiding relapse into conflict is, still, fundamentally about strengthening institutions (national and regional).
Lastly, we inevitably return to one of the biggest of the challenges: the character of the State really matters. I believe the multilateral system will only be resilient if built up from citizen-oriented, accountable States. Alas, we do not see that recognition everywhere. States with strong rule of law and accountability, States that have effective delivery of safety and security, States with strong human rights records and so forth are best placed to withstand the challenges of the 21st century. But responsible statehood also must evolve to take into account an ever-more interconnected world, where opportunities and risks alike easily transcend national boundaries and affect citizens’ expectations and aspirations.
Title picture: Residents walk along the main road of Nikishino village in eastern Ukraine. Photo: UNHCR Andrew McConnell