The UN's New Peacebuilding Commission

In the last days of December 2005, the United Nations established a Peacebuilding Commission. The idea of a peacebuilding commission was born a decade earlier by UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, who saw a need for cooperation in international peacebuilding efforts. The idea was initially ignored - not because it was irrelevant but because the initiator was not in the good books of certain member states of the UN. The term "peacebuilding" is a relatively new part of the UN vocabulary, but it has rapidly become a significant element of the peace process.

By Lene Mosegaard Søbjerg

What is peacebuilding?

Secretary-General Boutros-Ghali introduced the term "peacebuilding" in his 1992 report, An Agenda For Peace. The report identified various UN peace activities such as preventive diplomacy, peacemaking, and peacekeeping. It introduced the new concept of post-conflict peacebuilding.

Preventive diplomacy prevents violence from breaking out, while peacemaking and peacekeeping are both means of stopping an armed conflict. The former involves non-aggressive action such as diplomacy and negotiation while the latter require the deployment of UN troops in the field. The Secretary-General's report acknowledged that the success of these activities requires further measures after the end of initial peacekeeping operations to keep the parties to the conflict from reverting to armed warfare. Boutros-Ghali's characterization of post-conflict peacebuilding was "the construction of a new environment," including "comprehensive efforts to identify and support structures which will tend to consolidate peace and advance a sense of confidence and well being among people."

The UN introduced the concept of peacebuilding in reaction to the need for further involvement in war-torn societies. It demonstrates a changing view of the relationship between war and peace. From a simple linear perspective of viewing peace as the absence of armed conflict, the UN has come to view the transition from war to peace as an integrated process of preventing renewed fighting through a combination of military, humanitarian, political, and socio-economic tools. To obtain lasting peace, it is necessary to provide security, stability, and development so that the population can live in freedom from want, fear, and disease. Through peacebuilding, the UN aims to provide the foundation for free and peaceful coexistence of all people.

In post-conflict peacebuilding situations, the extent of a UN operation varies. The UN traditionally monitors ceasefires and provides a buffer zone between warring parties after a conflict. But peacebuilding can also include assistance with elections, distribution of humanitarian aid, or rebuilding infrastructure and administrative government.

The more inclusive and comprehensive a post-conflict peace operation is, and the more administrative power the UN operation receives, the closer it is to being a trusteeship, which is the ultimate form of international peacebuilding operation.

The main difference between a trusteeship and other kinds of peacebuilding operations is the degree of power held by the international operation. In a traditional peacekeeping or peacebuilding operation, a local government is in charge and the UN or other agents lend a helping hand in the peacebuilding efforts. In a trusteeship, all sovereign powers are transferred to an external actor until the territory is capable of managing unaided. Peacebuilding operations with trusteeship components have been established in Cambodia, Eastern Slavonia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina, but the clearest instances of peacebuilding through a modern trusteeship are the UN administrations of Kosovo and East Timor. These peacebuilding operations included the trusteeship aspect as a practical foundation to ensure that peacebuilding was actually taking place.

The need for coordination

Initially, peacebuilding practices developed incrementally in a learning-by-doing manner with no central administrative coordination. However, Boutros- Ghali recognized the need for coordination in his 1995 Supplement to An Agenda For Peace. He argued in favor of coordination because the UN does not have a monopoly on peacebuilding, nor is it in a position to provide the means of successful peacebuilding alone. For peacebuilding efforts to succeed, state governments, regional and non-governmental organizations, various programs and funds, and the various agencies in the UN must collaborate and work as a team.

Despite of the appropriateness of the suggestion, it was initially ignored. In an attempt to reform and improve the UN, Boutros-Ghali had fallen out with several member states - most importantly the United States - and the US was more interested in replacing him than approving a new potentially powerful commission which could improve his position.

Nevertheless, the High Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change proposed the idea of a Peacebuilding Commission in its December 2004 report. Linking international security to poverty, hunger, environmental issues, and development, the Panel suggested the establishment of a Peacebuilding Commission to address these issues.

The Panel believed the Commission would improve the UN's planning and management of missions in post-conflict territories. It would identify states at risk of collapsing into civil conflict and offer proactive peacebuilding assistance. It would facilitate the transitions from war to peace by coordinating the international engagement in the territory indefinitely. Most importantly, it would include members of the most important bodies of the UN as well as the Bretton Woods institutions. The inclusion of external agents was an innovation that admits that the UN is one among several agents working in peacebuilding and that collaboration improves peacebuilding efforts.

Adopting the Peacebuilding Commission

At the UN World Summit in September 2005, the UN member states collectively agreed to establish a Peacebuilding Commission. The Security Council and the General Assembly adopted it on December 30, 2005.

The established Peacebuilding Commission is an intergovernmental advisory body that can meet in various configurations. The core of the Commission is a Standing Organizational Committee which is responsible for the development of rules and working methods. The Committee consists of 24 member states. In country-specific meetings, the UN invites the country under consideration, countries in the region, representatives of the Bretton Woods institutions, major contributors to the peacebuilding operations, and regional and local organizations to participate. The Commission is only an advisory body and cannot adopt cases on its own initiative. It deals with post-conflict peacebuilding only, focusing on what a country needs to help it move from war to peace. It can act only on consensus and reports annually to the General Assembly.

As finally established, the Peacebuilding Commission is less powerful than had been originally suggested by the High Level Panel. First, it does not have a preventive aspect that would have allowed the Commission to take up cases on its own initiative concerning existing conflicts and latent conflicts. Second, the Commission is an advisory body and cannot establish or close a peacebuilding operation, but can only recommend such action. The Commission is thus not an independently powerful institution. As stated on the UN website, its power will come from the quality of its advice and the weight carried by its membership.

The challenges of tomorrow's peacebuilding

Peacebuilding is the most commonly authorized mission in the 21st century, although the term "peacebuilding" is not always used. Most peacebuilding operations during the 1990s have had mixed results. The lack of coordination and cooperation between various actors in a particular operation represents a major problem. Various organizations working with different agendas in a post-conflict territory can sometimes do more harm than good.

Establishing the Peacebuilding Commission was an attempt to make up for this deficiency. A military peacekeeping operation can be a central part of a peacebuilding effort. An especially important feature involves the integration of the World Bank, the IMF, donor countries, suppliers of military personnel, and regional organizations along with the UN's three main organs.

Boutros-Ghali was not the UN's most popular-Secretary General of the UN, but in the end his initiative to improve the peacebuilding efforts of the UN has become a reality. It will become clear whether the UN has truly learned from past experience when the Peacebuilding Commission has its first country under consideration.

The author is a Ph.D. scholar at the University of Aarhus, Denmark.

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2006

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2006, page 14. Some rights reserved.

Search for other articles by Lene Mosegaard Sobjerg here

Peace Magazine homepage