Secretary-General outlines key lessons for building peace
in war-torn societies, in lecture at University of Ulster
Following is the text of Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s Tip O’Neill Lecture, “Learning the lessons of peace-building”, delivered at Magee Campus, University of Ulster, United Kingdom, on 18 October:
My talk today is about learning -- not teaching. The question I want to examine with you is, how can outsiders best contribute to the process of building peace in war-torn societies?
Such a process must, by its very nature, be deeply rooted in local communities and local identities. Outsiders, however well-intentioned, do not know best. The people of the country or region concerned must feel that it is their process, if it is to have any hope of success. Yet I believe that outsiders can help, particularly if they learn the right lessons from their own experience, and apply them with sensitivity.
Let me start by saying how deeply moved and gratified I am to be giving the Tip O’Neill Lecture at this distinguished university. But, please do not take my general observations about peace-building as oblique comments on your own problems. You have been managing those without the help of the United Nations. You have well established mechanisms to do so. And we have an equally well established policy of not seeking to duplicate such mechanisms.
I don’t mean to imply that you have solved all your problems. There are many, I know, that you are still wrestling with. But it does seem to me that you are managing them better and more hopefully than in the past. For some years now you have been spared the large-scale violence and terror that used to disfigure your beautiful part of the country and seemed to blight its future. Your efforts to create a better world for your children have been a source of inspiration and hope to people in many other countries. If the world is to learn lessons about how to manage a transition from troubles and violence to peace, surely it can learn some of them from you -- from your commitment, courage and imagination in seeking solutions and fostering trust between communities which had been at loggerheads for decades.
Which brings me back to my theme. Since the end of the cold war, our Member States have set the United Nations to work in many fractured and war-torn societies. We are no longer asked, as we used to be, just to “keep the peace” by helping maintain a ceasefire. Now, increasingly, we are tasked with going beyond that, to engage in conflict resolution. This means tackling root causes. It means trying to help the people in those fractured societies to work together to build a lasting peace. And I believe we have learnt some valuable lessons, if only by the painful method of trial and error.
For one thing, we have learnt to approach this whole topic with considerable caution. A great Northern Irish poet [Louis MacNeice] once wrote:
“World is crazier and, more of it than we think,
And that is certainly true of war-torn societies. Each has its own particularity, born of its own -- often very local -- history, culture, and, quite often, religion and ethnicity. There is no “one size fits all”.
So there are no easy answers, and very few uncontested ones. There is now a huge literature about post-conflict peace-building. It deals, for instance, with secession and partition; with spoilers; with transitional justice, truth commissions, and reconciliation; with elections and power-sharing; with the rule of law; with economic liberalization, reconstruction and development; even with international administration or trusteeship. All these issues have spawned intense debate. Some would put the emphasis on eliminating root causes and dealing with spoilers. Others would give primacy to the need for swift economic growth and reconstruction, arguing that lapses back into conflict are much more common in very poor societies. The debate remains unresolved, because we are all still learning, and it may take some time before the various approaches can be reconciled.
In the last 15 years or so, the United Nations has developed a considerable body of experience of managing and resolving conflict, as well as of peace-building. But we should acknowledge that our record has been mixed. Among the successes I would mention particularly Namibia, South Africa, Mozambique, El Salvador, Eastern Slavonia, Guatemala and East Timor. The failures, alas, often receive more publicity -- especially those of the early and mid-1990s, Somalia, Bosnia, Rwanda and Angola. I do not think it coincidental that, in the case of the failures, either there was no peace to keep or peace agreements proved fragile because the underlying causes of conflict had not been resolved. We have learned useful lessons from both our successes and failures, and are doing our best to put those lessons into practice.
What are these lessons? Let me suggest nine that are well worth considering.
-- First, we should say no when we need to.
We must know the limits of what is achievable by the United Nations. We should be especially careful not to allow ourselves to be used as a fig leaf for lack of political will by the international community to deal effectively with an issue. If the Security Council seeks to give the Secretary-General a mandate which he believes to be unachievable, especially if coupled with means which he knows to be inadequate, he should say so, clearly and in advance. I believe that we have learnt that lesson, uncomfortable though it may be.
-- Second, know where you are going.
Our most successful experiences have started from a clear and achievable mandate. In post-conflict work, this means the clearest vision of the end-state -- or at least, a clear understanding, accepted by all parties, of how and when the end-state will eventually be decided.
In your own case, I know, you have agreed that that decision must be based on the fundamental democratic principle of the consent of the governed.
In East Timor, the task of the United Nations was made much easier by the fact that the goal of independence, the interim UN stewardship, and the authority vested in us during that time, were all established from the outset. The same was true, before that, in Namibia.
Contrast that with the situation in Kosovo, where there is profound disagreement about the end-state, and the method for deciding it, not only between the former belligerents but also among international actors.
-- Third lesson, know the context.
Here I return to Louis MacNeice and his “drunkenness of things being various”. The specificity of a conflict will determine what can be done when. In Nicaragua and South Africa, we were able to help with elections, in countries that were ripe for elections. But in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where three-and-a-half million have died in six years of war, careful and thorough preparations are needed before elections can go ahead. In post-conflict situations, elections work best when they are the result of a political consensus as to their objectives. In the absence of such consensus, the parties often feel under no obligation to honour commitments they have entered into. They don’t respect the rules of the game because they haven’t really acquired the rules of the game.
I wish I could tell you that the United Nations, and in particular the Security Council, was always attuned to the context -- to the hard questions of what drove the killing, and what drove the end to the killing. Too often it has not been so attuned, and people in the countries concerned have paid the price. The bottom line, I am convinced, is that we need to be closer to those whose peace it is, to make or to break.
-- Fourth, never neglect security.
This is the point closest to achieving consensus among experienced peace-builders: most of the tasks that we call peace-building can only be carried out where there is already a reasonable level of physical security.
Of course that begs the question of what level any given society will consider “reasonable” -- and also of how you get there. In some cases security can be achieved purely by negotiation or dialogue between the warring parties; in others you need a stabilization force, with robust rules of engagement.
But it is none the less true: without security almost everything else is impossible: no effective government; no reconstruction; no return of refugees; no return to school; no elections.
-- The fifth lesson, manage expectations.
There is a moment, when the killing stops, when everything seems possible. Expectations run high.
That can be dangerous, because the road to peace often proves long and hard. The various elements of peace-building -- transforming suspicion into trust, re-crafting State institutions, reconstructing war-torn economies -- can take years or decades to accomplish. During that time people’s hope, and their faith in the process, need to be sustained.
So expectations need to be managed from the beginning, and throughout the process -- which requires a major effort of public information and education by the peace-builders.
In particular, it is vital to explain what the United Nations is there to do, and what it cannot do. Otherwise expectations are unrealistic, and they are inevitably disappointed. When disillusion sets in, the people can easily turn against the very peace agreement they had at first welcomed.
-- Sixth, stay the course -- peace-building is a long-term commitment.
This lesson follows from the previous one. Nearly half of all peace agreements collapse within five years. Others fall into a sort of limbo of no war, no peace. In the life of almost every peace process, there comes a time -- usually three to seven years out -- when disillusionment is high, when the wheels seem to be turning without any real forward movement. Fatally, this often coincides with the waning of outside interest. Political engagement and financial support are drawn down, just when the process needs a second wind.
Hard-won agreements on human rights and the reform of justice are often eroded once domestic and international attention diminishes. In Guatemala, securing such reforms, which were crucial to moving the country beyond the mere absence of warfare toward consolidated peace, was the hardest part.
In Haiti, we had a peacekeeping mission in the mid-1990s, and trained a new police force. And then we left -- along with other international institutions -- before a viable peace had taken root. Now we are back, with much of what we did before swept away -- almost literally, as the recent floods have laid bare the legacy of years of misrule.
The lesson -- a very important one -- is that everyone needs to stay engaged: the Security Council; MemberStates; international NGOs; and of course the former parties to the conflict, and the people themselves, who are the most essential actors in any peace-building process.
At least there are signs that the international community is now learning that lesson. We are staying the course better today in places like Sierra Leone and East Timor. And we are structuring our new mission in Haiti for the long term.
-- Now I turn to the seventh lesson, get the sequencing right.
One of the things we have learnt, from painful experience, is the peril of trying to do things in the wrong order. For instance:
Before there can be meaningful elections, there must be respect for the law, and some shared understanding of what the result will mean and how power will be distributed. We learned that lesson the hard way in Angola.
Before there can be full economic liberalization, there must be some social stability. We have learned how disastrous it can be to introduce policies, however sound in the long-term, which cause high short-term unemployment while large numbers of people still have weapons, and little or no stake in the peace-time economy. In such circumstances, surely what we need is not stringent structural adjustment but poor-friendly and peace-friendly policies on the part of the International Financial Institutions.
And before the international community disengages, there must be a growing economy. It should be no surprise that in the poorest countries, with little or no economic growth, like Haiti and Liberia, peace processes failed and conflicts lapsed back into violence.
-- Eighth, keep everyone on the same page.
We have had massive interventions in the past which failed, or came close to it, because they were too fragmented. The system is now working in a more coherent way. We are reaching out to our colleagues in the United Nations family, to NGOs, to the broader international community and also to the local population in the countries where we work, to make sure that we are all on the same page, both in setting our priorities and in the way we carry them out.
-- Finally, local populations should take responsibility -- it is they who must live with the peace.
There are many situations in which it seems easier, for everyone, to let outsiders take the lead -- to draft the laws; to run the elections, or the courts; to make the hard economic choices. But unless those who will live with the effects of decisions have a real part in taking them, the decisions will sooner or later be put aside.
No conflict can be overcome by the goodwill of outsiders alone. Those who live with it understand the dynamics better than any international player. Those who live with it must be involved in the effort to end it, and must see benefits that justify the compromises and sacrifices involved.
This is a list that could go on. There are lessons, for example, about greed as well as grievance. Whatever the origins of a conflict, it often cannot be ended without cutting off the resources that sustain it -- and providing the fighters with an alternative, peaceful means of earning their living. Nowadays we no longer contemplate demobilization and disarmament -- the two “Ds” -- without adding an “R”, which stands for reintegration into the civilian economy. Without this, it is a virtual certainty that new weapons will be acquired and violence will resume. And there is also, of course, the need for reconciliation, which cannot work unless the victims of atrocities feel that they have obtained justice, or at least a full acknowledgement of past wrongs. Absent such a reckoning, there is a lingering sense of unfinished business, and in the long run this can be destabilizing.
Let me end by saying that the most important lesson of all -- for me personally, and for the United Nations as an organization -- is that we must always be listening and looking out for new knowledge. Ladies and gentlemen, let us learn those lessons. And let us employ them in our future peace operations, as we work together to try to make the world a better and a safer place, for our own sakes and for our children.
Thank you very much.
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