The Challenges of Peacebuilding: Reconstructing Shattered Societies

By Elizabeth Raymer | 2006-04-01 12:00:00

Organizers of a peacebuilding conference at the University of Toronto in February had their expectations exceeded by a strong turnout and a standing-room only first night presentation, at which newly elected member of parliament Michael Ignatieff spoke on the challenges of peacebuilding and human security, and Canada's role.

"Great countries are always having to renew the faith they have as citizens," Ignatieff told the audience of around 600, urging them to "never take [Canada] for granted."

"The Challenges of Peacebuilding: Reconstructing Shattered Societies" was the first such conference organized by students at the U of T's Trudeau Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies. Held February 3-5, the conference drew 22 speakers, including Ignatieff and Heidi Hulan, a former senior policy advisor to the federal government who now works with the UN Commission for Peacebuilding.

Peacebuilding must be comprehensive, and it has four major components, Ignatieff said during the opening night event. Those are the consolidation of constitutional democracy; the development of the capacity to collect revenues, conduct censuses, and so forth; the development of education, health, and social policy; and security.

Ignatieff emphasized the need for formal contracts between donor countries and the United Nations in this "post-imperial age"; this would be "a partnership between judicial equals," he said, acknowledging that "unless peacebuilding is tied to the interests of powerful countries, it doesn't get done." The United States is in Afghanistan because of its war on Al Qaeda, but trouble spots such as Haiti, Rwanda and Sudan receive much less attention.

Ignatieff, a former director of the Carr Centre for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University, said he supported a military presence in Afghanistan, describing it as a "test case in which peacebuilding co-exists with counter-terrorism."

Civil society has a role to play in promoting peacebuilding, he said, including universities. "Peacebuilding will be right in this room where it belongs."

States at the Frontline

The thinking behind establishing the United Nations Commission for Peacebuilding -- a creation of the September 2005 UN reform agreements -- "is vast and longstanding," said Heidi Hulan.

"States are on the frontline of crises," she noted, ranging from poverty to transnational problems like crime and pandemics. It has also been shown that a full half of states that have undergone civil violence lapse back into it after five years. There is no single issue on which there is greater consensus than on the United Nations helping states rebuild themselves, and the UN has been talking about peacebuilding for 10 years, she said.

The UN Security Council has limited expertise, and very little input on peacebuilding; the vision of the Peacebuilding commission is to bring together international financial institutions, regional donors and "major actors." There were some skirmishes over who would have primacy over the commission, and "a lot has to go right in the next six months for the Peacebuilding commission to go well," she said. The first case the commission looks at will be Burundi.

Hulan cited Sierra Leone as a success story in peacebuilding: there, the government is slowly re-establishing its authority after a civil war, from 1991 to 2002, resulted in tens of thousands of deaths and the displacement of more than two million people. The last UN peacekeepers withdrew in December 2005, leaving full responsibility for security with domestic forces, but a new civilian UN office remains to support the government.

"Anyone can go in, and watch justice being done, and that's a first," Hulan said. Sustainable peacebuilding has to show a dividend to ordinary people, but there's no "fundamental solution, just a series of imperfect successes."

The weekend conference included an NGO fair for job-seekers, the screening of Judy Jackson's The Ungrateful Dead: In Search of Justice, concurrent seminars, case-study discussion groups, debates and panel discussions which covered conflicts around the globe, including in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Columbia, Guatemala, Mozambique, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Sri Lanka and Sudan.

Saturday's four concurrent seminars on the components of peacebuilding included "Justice and Reconciliation as a Component of Peacebuilding." Lisa Schirch, a professor at Eastern Mennonite University and the author of Ritual and Symbol in Peacebuilding, addressed the role of symbolic communication in post-war peacebuilding.

Dinner Diplomacy

On the divided island of Cyprus, where Turks and Greeks are separated, Schirch and her fellow facilitators brought people from these two groups together, and though tense at first, they eventually started connecting over shared meals -- "the ritual of eating together," or "dinner diplomacy," which has also worked for Palestinians and Israelis, she said.

In Mozambique, a country where the youth have committed terrible crimes, new rituals for the post-war period have been created. A group of young men were placed in a house, and a fire was set in it; when the young men emerged, they are considered to be cleansed both externally and internally.

"It was trauma healing in a very different way than we understand trauma healing," Schirch said.

A safe space must be created for those in conflict, away from the site of the adversarial relationship, she noted. Symbolic communication can also include the arts.

"Ritual provides a pathway to transformation."

Victimhood an obstacle

The myth of Orestes, who killed his mother, Clytemnestra, to avenge the murder of his father, Agamemnon, and was later defended by the goddess Athena, has a message for modern-day reconciliation, said McGill University professor Catherine Lu.

Retributive emotions and "victimhood" are obstacles to reconciliation, noted Lu, author of Just and Unjust Interventions in World Politics: Public and Private. Orestes' crime of matricide was a wrong that was undoable, and the Furies wanted blood for blood. "But when you act only on retributive emotions, you have only a cycle of bloodshed."

Athena established a court to try Orestes, and the Furies presented their case against him. Five men voted for and five against Orestes; he was finally acquitted by Athena's command.

Human judgement couldn't reach a verdict, and the myth points to the need for reconciliation, Lu noted. One can't be complacent about verdicts rendered, but must realize the fragility of these institutions, she said. And the verdict itself is not what leads to reconciliation; rather, in the Orestes story, in which the Furies were not reconciled by Athena's acquittal, the goddess gave the Furies something to appease them, which transformed them.

"Victims also need to change their identities," said Lu, noting that some people's natures are debased by corruption and suffering, which requires institutional supports to restore.

Security First

Reconciliation is not possible without security, noted Timothy Donais, a University of Windsor professor and expert on peacebuilding and the political economy of post-conflict reconstruction, in the seminar "Security as a Component of Peacebuilding."

Individuals must relinquish their arms and trust in the state to protect them, he said. "Security is an essential precondition for peacebuilding," he said, also noting that about half of all peacebuilding attempts fail in five years.

Security gaps occur for several reasons, Donais noted: first, peacebuilding missions often take place in conflict areas, where lawlessness often continues for a long time; second, "peace settlements often displace conflict from the military to the non-military realm"; and third, there is a persistence of crime in political conflicts, with an absence of rule of law.

Security "actors" (military peacekeepers, international civilian police, and local police forces) have a dual role, Donais said: promotion of immediate security (as in Iraq); and security sector reform, over the long term, including institution building. Ways to do this include increasing the use of gendarmes; strengthening the UN policing division; strengthening operational co-operation; confronting "the politics of policing"; and better training for soldiers and police.

Unrealistic Accords

Dirk Salomons, director of the program for Humanitarian Affairs at the School of International Public Affairs at Columbia University, and a former head of UN peacekeeping operations in Mozambique, noted that the peace accord in that country had been drawn up in "an unrealistic fashion" in 1992. The opposition forces had a great deal of weapons, and the army was highly corrupt, siphoning off large sums of money from the state government. Child soldiers and female combatants exaggerated the problem further.

Salomons also noted the "business of war," calling the drug trade in Afghanistan "huge business," as big as the oil business in the United States, and noting the trade in arms.

"War becomes not so much a matter of winning, but of keeping an economy going. ... What incentive can you give to people to switch to peaceful, legal activities?" he asked, suggesting a need for better funding mechanisms for countries emerging from civil war, to ensure the "bad guys" are rehabilitated.

Children must also be removed from war zones today, he said, noting that about one-third of combatants are under the age of 16.

About 120 delegates attended the conference, and for the student organizers, managing the logistics was a big task.

"The fact that that went off without a hitch [was great]," said Alex Szaslarska, a third-year student in the Peace and Conflict Studies program and co-president of the Peace and Conflict Society, the program's student union.

"Also, we feel that the level of discussion, and the delegates and the speakers we attracted have set quite a high bar for next year, so we're also very, very proud of that."

Meetings are already being held to plan next year's conference, Szaslarska said, allowing the students even more time to plan, and perhaps scale back the number of events in order to allow delegates to explore issues more deeply. As this year's outing was well received, "we're hoping for a snowball effect, and that the initiative doesn't dry up."

Elizabeth Raymer is a Toronto journalist and peace activist.

Peace Magazine Apr-Jun 2006

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