The United Nations (UN) secretary-general’s report “Our Common Agenda” was launched on September 10, 2021 in response to member states’ request for recommendations to strengthen global governance, 75 years after the creation of the United Nations. Amongst the recommendations made by the secretary-general, is the call for a New Agenda for Peace. At his request, a number of governmental and non-governmental contributions were forwarded to the UN Secretariat to help inform the drafting of the New Agenda.
This article, after a cursory review of the geopolitical shifts and the pressures they are exercising on the UN, proposes two critical gaps that need to be addressed if this new Agenda is to deliver peace as a global public good. The first is to make room for a pluriversal understanding of how peace should be conceived and built. The second is to create a safe and structured space for coming to terms with and redressing enduring multigenerational legacies of historical traumas.
The center cannot hold and the periphery is restive
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has reshaped global political alliances and accelerated the fragmentation of established systems. It represents one of the most violent and stark rejections of the much-vaunted rules-based international order whose demise has been a long time coming. As the liberal paradigms it has spawned wane, disgruntled voices across continents are getting louder. Some are chafing at being dictated to or acted upon by its very proponents who repeatedly flout it with impunity when it suits their interests.
Restive scholars and practitioners from the “Global South” are pushing for an epistemic freedom from the single narrative about peace in order to diversify knowledge creation, and make space for alternative ways of knowing, being, and doing that have been violently othered by colonization and its hegemonic knowledge system self-perceived as more accurate and superior.
As of the third quarter of 2022, India has overtaken the United Kingdom as the fifth-largest economy in the world, meaning that three of the world’s largest economies are Asian (China and Japan being the other two). And yet, only one Asian country occupies a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, the organ entrusted with making key decisions about world peace and security.
Similarly, by 2030 approximately one in five persons in the world (18 percent) will live in one of the 54 countries of the African continent and yet, not a single African nation is permanently represented on the Council.
These arguments are repeatedly put forth in the complex discussions on Council reform. While it is not the intention of this article to belabor this much larger debate, it is symptomatic of the increasing dissonance between evolving geopolitical realities and international organizations whose legitimacy and continued relevance are increasingly under stress.
While waiting for the UN member states to instill new life in the discussion on the reform of the Security Council as part of their commitment to upgrade the United Nations, the drafters of the New Agenda for Peace (NAfP), need to bear witness to the internal contradictions the aforementioned geopolitical imbalances are having on the United Nations and its peace and security work.
In this connection, the NAfP as set out in “Our Common Agenda” seems to have fallen victim to these contradictions. On the one hand, it recognizes that the traditional forms of prevention, management, and resolution are ill-suited to deliver on the promise of peace and that the risks we face are no longer managed effectively through existing systems.
On the other hand, it states that strengthening the governance of global public goods does not require new institutions, only simply new resolve and new ways of working together. The document further emphasizes that the responsibility to shepherd new resolve and ways of working lies in the hands of member states, with the support of other relevant stakeholders.
The attempt to deliver a global public good such as peace whilst holding on to institutions that may no longer resonate globally is a contradiction in terms, and possibly a source of continued inertia to progress toward a new agenda for peace.
Conjugating peace in the plural
International organizations can be both tangible as the United Nations, and intangible, manifest in the norms and practices that influence their work. Peacebuilding is one such intangible enterprise, whose most visible aspect tends to be conceived as exogenously driven, time-bound interventions aimed at “building” or “sustaining” peace in countries deemed to suffer from a deficit in peace. The criteria and political considerations that shape decisions around where there is a peace deficit, how it should be fixed, and who is responsible for leading this endeavor remain rooted in assumptions informed by state-centric, top-down, liberal paradigms steeped in a linear narrative about peace that ties the fortunes of peace to the presence or absence of violent conflict.
Recent attempts to diversify the narrative by turning to the “local” ended up being an exercise in othering and retrofitting. Othering because the Indigenous tends to be described with reference to the liberal peacebuilding model as a baseline; and retrofitting because “local” and “Indigenous” practices are viewed and defined using theoretical frameworks that emanate from existing peacebuilding scholarship steeped in a Eurocentric experience. It primarily involves collecting local inputs through observation and providing support from (usually external) peacebuilding experts who come to spend time in a foreign country to detect and document Indigenous customs and rituals that could serve the purpose of “building” peace as conceived elsewhere, all under the banner of a romanticized local approach to peacebuilding.
In response to these deficits, researchers, policymakers, and practitioners have been calling to make room for alternative understandings of peace that may have been displaced by hegemonic paradigms judged to be universal.
One such alternative is Jarstad et al’s tri-dimensional framework which conceives of peace as a “complex process of becoming” rather than as an end goal. As such, peace is conceived simultaneously as a situation, a set of relationships, and an ideational stance that informs policy and shapes power relations. Another alternative conceptualization treats peace as the norm of human life, not the exception, as an ongoing quest the doors to which open only from the inside.
A quest that is motivated by the humility to learn from what still works well in societies under stress and to respect that these societies, however broken they may appear, are not blank pages and their peoples are not projects. On the contrary, they have knowledge and agency, not just needs waiting to be fulfilled by outsiders.
Interrogating the dominant assumptions informing peacebuilding and making room for plural peace would go a long way in responding to the secretary-general’s tangential call in his Common Agenda “to reassess core assumptions, including how peace and security are defined, negotiated and sustained.”
Addressing the multigenerational legacies of past wrongs
Making peace with the painful legacies of past political violence, including egregious acts perpetrated by colonialism, should be an integral part of the NAfP. It could usefully be considered under what the secretary-general in “Our Common Agenda” terms as “reshaping our response to all forms of violence.”
This could be achieved through unleashing the potential of the sustaining peace agenda ushered in by the landmark 2016 Security Council-General Assembly twin resolutions. This resolution, however, is nowhere mentioned under the NAfP. It has fallen victim to the liberal peacebuilding agenda which continues to be informed, as intimated above, by assumptions emanating from a very narrow interpretation of recent history.
By this interpretation, peace is modeled on the so-called Western democracies that have committed to eschewing the use of force, primarily among themselves, as a means of pursuing their interests since the end of the Second World War.
This historical trajectory is not the experience lived by most peoples, including Indigenous peoples. It is certainly not the history of Holocaust survivors nor the history of the survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki nuclear bombings. Not to speak of the Vietnamese, Afghans, or Nicaraguans whose daily lives became enmeshed in violent proxy wars between two superpowers’ disputing ideologies, or the countless African nations that contested, often violently, the control of their peoples and resources by European colonizers.
Building peace as a global public good and crafting the means to its delivery, with reference to the historical experience of a small portion of the world over a relatively short period of time would be an affront to the aspirations of the NafP. Much of the peacebuilding enterprise, particularly those activities funded by bilateral and multinational development agencies, is focused on intra-state level peace, with a strong emphasis on the role of the state as the primary custodian of this peace.
There is, however, much to be said, and more to be done to foster (re)conciliation and facilitate redress for injustices that existed and continue to exist between nations, largely as a result of wars of aggression. Failing to address these injustices and the traumas that have been passed down across generations has negative consequences on efforts to sustain peace.
If peacebuilding scholarship and practice have been forthcoming in recognizing the importance of justice, (re)conciliation, and healing as part of the post-conflict “reconstruction” process in countries that have experienced civil wars and other forms of protracted violence, it has not afforded the same attention to violence—both direct and indirect—that has been exacted by some countries upon others. Whether it is decades (or centuries) of oppression or the use of foreign lands for military exercises and nuclear tests, the traumas incurred because of these actions remain for the most part unaddressed.
Left unaddressed, these painful legacies of the past will continue to infiltrate the institutions, processes, and assumptions that inform definitions of peace and approaches to sustaining peace.
Indeed, the NAfP needs to engage with processes of healing and (re)conciliation at this macro-meta level to ensure that the international organizations, not least the UN, are able to deliver on this most important global public good—peace—by holding a space for expressing and addressing the enduring, multigenerational legacies of past wounds.
Initiatives by the United States and Vietnam to heal the wounds of their long war, or by citizens of both sides of the atomic bombs coming together to repair the world are steps in the right direction. So is the Vatican’s recent renunciation of the Doctrine of Discovery that legitimized colonial conquest with its cortege of egregious human rights abuses. These initiatives along with others can be built upon to heal other gaping wounds of past wars of aggression.
If the New Agenda is to help the United Nations deliver peace as a global public good, it needs to revisit the dominant assumptions that have colonized our understanding of peace and dictated the ways to work for it when it eludes us.
The Agenda cannot be global or legitimate if it continues to perpetuate the worldview of a group of powerful nations that do not represent the peace-and-conflict lived experiences of the majority of the world, erroneously termed as the Global South. The New Agenda’s lofty aspirations will be equally frustrated if the UN does not create a shared space for helping countries and their citizens come to terms with their historical multigenerational traumas.
Such a space could be a forum where erstwhile enemies, victims, and perpetrators striving to heal the painful legacies of their common pasts can come together to repair the broken world they have inherited, and in so doing, help the next and future generations lay the foundations of an enduring global peace.
(Youssef Mahmoud is a senior adviser at the International Peace Institute.)
Contributed by Youssef Mahmoud