Resilience, Peace and Security

Does UN peacebuilding need an overhaul?

Gustavo de Carvalho
Senior researcher, Institte for Security Studies
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Fragility, Violence and Conflict

Peacebuilding in the United Nations (UN) is in desperate need of a major makeover. A report requested by the UN and released last week shows that if the organisation wants to become a relevant supporter of sustainable peace processes, it needs to go beyond cosmetic changes and superficial actions.

This is a wake-up call for UN member states to be part of the solution and to truly seize the opportunity to make UN peacebuilding engagements more effective.

The preamble of the UN Charter states that the central goal of the organisation is to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war. Therefore, as argued in the report, sustaining peace should be seen as its fundamental raison d’être.

However, UN responses are still overly focused on addressing symptoms of conflicts, rather than tackling root causes. As a result, peacebuilding responses are largely underfunded, overlooked and underachieving. This can be ascribed to the lack of systemic and coordinated planning and the fragmentation of actions.

In an attempt to address these challenges, the UN peacebuilding architecture (PBA) is undergoing a review 10 years after its creation. This is the second review conducted on the PBA. The first, in 2010, had limited impact, and the PBA is still highly criticised for its perceived lack of effectiveness. In December 2014, the UN General Assembly (UNGA) and Security Council (UNSC) called for a PBA review that would examine how member states could take concrete measures to enhance peacebuilding. A group of seven global peacebuilding experts were appointed and the report, which was released on 29 June this year, was officially launched yesterday, 13 July.

The report provides an important message to member states and the UN secretariat: a mind shift is needed, one where member states recognise peacebuilding as a key shared responsibility across all aspects of the UN’s work. To achieve that, peacebuilding must be seen in a more holistic manner and its efforts should extend beyond the work of the Peacebuilding Commission (PBC), Peacebuilding Fund (PBF) and the Peacebuilding Support Office (PBSO).

Following the release of the report, the most important part of the process is now taking place. As requested by the UNGA and UNSC, member states must examine the report and take proactive steps. The significance of this task cannot be overstated. To date, peacebuilding has received little attention in the UN system or by member states, despite the creation of the PBA. The report makes clear that UN fragmentation is part of the problem, particularly because it has been allowed by member states themselves. Different inter-governmental bodies and agencies often implement peacebuilding responses, yet UN-dedicated peacebuilding organs remain underutilised as coordinating mechanisms.

For example, the report is clear on the common tension between the UNGA and the UNSC members regarding the delimitation of their peacebuilding roles, responsibilities and engagements. As a result, both organs have inconsistently and incoherently engaged with peacebuilding efforts.

This creates major problems for peacebuilding prioritisation at a national level and leads to unpredictable funding, with a multitude of unrelated and uncoordinated responses, policies and plans. This has a significant impact as responses often lack realistic timelines for engagement and disengagement.

The report confirms that peacebuilding should be aimed at preventing the outbreak, the recurrence or the continuation of armed conflict, as opposed to only forming part of post-conflict environments. As such, peacebuilding is not seen merely as an activity, but as a process that encompasses a wide range of political(including focus on good governance), development and humanitarian and human rights programmes and mechanisms.

Furthermore, peacebuilding is not simply technical, and the previous review failed to comprehensively address its inherently political nature. The new review calls for better interaction between and among intergovernmental bodies, and a stronger emphasis on building leadership and broadening inclusion at a national level. It implies – as presented in the report – that the UN needs to be better in uniting responses to peace and security, human rights and development.

What does this mean for UN member states? The advisory group report provides a significant number of recommendations, and member states will have to consider how they can be carried out. This means that they now need to move from talk to action, which starts by considering several questions.

First, what role and which mechanisms could enhance intra-UN partnership, including through coordination between the UNSC, UNGA and PBC? Second, how can goals be better jointly identified and progress monitored and reported? Third, how can the PBC structure be made more flexible and diverse, and increase its emphasis on conflict prevention? Fourth, what do member states need to do to increase predictability of peacebuilding funding? And finally, how can member states contribute to improving leadership and broadening inclusion at national and local levels?

If member states want to make peacebuilding a success, they have to be less reactive and more proactive. And for this to be effective, they must understand that this makeover can only happen through deep, structural changes in policies, budgets and administration, as mentioned in the report. Trying to remedy UN peacebuilding with purely cosmetic procedures would be like treating a bullet wound with a band-aid.


This article is published in collaboration with ISS. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Gustavo de Carvalho is a Senior Researcher in Conflict Management and Peacebuilding at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS).

 Image: Hands are seen holding a globe. REUTERS.

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