When you hear the words violent and conflict, images of wars in Africa and the Middle East might be the first that come to your mind. They are the images often rotated on the news but given the interconnectedness of the world today and the recognition that conflict does not respect borders, conflict prevention and peacebuilding should not be seen as issues relevant only for certain regions.
It was against this backdrop that the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation co-hosted, together with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Korea and the United Nations Peacebuilding Support Office, the recent Asian Conference on Peacebuilding and Conflict Prevention. “Events like this are important…They can help us find new approaches to ensure peace,” said António Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations, via video message at the opening ceremony of the event in Seoul.
A desire to share Asian perspectives and experiences in peacebuilding with a wider audience was a key driver for the Republic of Korea to host the event in Seoul, which brought together officials, academia, and civil society from more than 60 countries. “By sharing useful experience from Asia, I’m sure we have more useful tools for peacebuilding, particularly as many of the experiences shared here are also applicable to other regions,” stated Lee Jang-Geun, Director-General for International Organisations, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Republic of Korea.
Lessons from Asia
A key theme that emerged from the discussions is that successful examples of peacebuilding in Asia have involved countries taking national ownership, opting for locally-based approaches, often despite international pressure to do differently. The leadership of Timor-Leste, for example, established a truth and friendship commission in 2005 against the advice of the international community, but the commission turned out to be an important part of the national reconciliation process. This underscores that peacebuilding interventions and advice by international organisations like the UN need to be tailored to a specific country’s needs, making sure they add value, listen to local voices, and strengthen rather than undermine national leadership.
The discussion also highlighted that civil society plays important roles within the Asian context, by mobilising support for peace agreements and promoting dialogue during political transitions, as well as advancing research and advocacy. In the Philippines, for example, civil society has made an important contribution in calling interfaith dialogue, which was critical in garnering support for local peace processes. It was also noted that women play an especially important role when it comes to de-radicalisation, while youths are often at the forefront to unlock situations of political paralysis.
It was also emphasised that Asia is remarkable for largely having seen end of conflict at a national level, but subnational and local conflict persists, especially in border regions and peripheries. This is often the result of identity conflicts and a growing politicising of ethnic identification. It is important therefore to consider the roles of history and education in shaping identity, and, when working to sustain peace, to find approaches that include different narratives and the stories of victims, helping identity politics to move in a unifying direction. The importance of teaching positive ways to resolve conflicts through education was also emphasised.
UN Peacebuilding Architecture
The conference also looked at what is required to strengthen the UN’s efforts to prevent conflict and sustain peace. Specifically, how can the Peacebuilding Commission and Peacebuilding Fund, working together, support conflict affected countries to promote sustainable peace and development?
“We already have all the tools we need. We need to change how we use these tools,” said Miroslav Lajčák, President of the UN General Assembly. This was echoed by the panelists who stressed that for the UN to be relevant to countries, it needs to be more responsive, demand-driven and tailor its approaches. Solutions and approaches need to be bottom-up and to ensure this more honest dialogue is needed with the countries before any programme of support is devised.
It was also noted that peacebuilding done right can enhance sovereignty, and that leadership in country is critical. But as Oscar Fernandez-Taranco, Assistant Secretary-General for Peacebuilding Support explained, “Political commitment alone is not enough. Conflict and post-conflict countries need financial support.”
The financial support given by UN Peacebuilding Fund to the Gambia and the involvement of the Peacebuilding Commission in an upcoming donor conference was cited as a recent and positive example of how the UN peacebuilding architecture should support countries to build and sustain peace. The discussion on the Gambia also highlighted the value of mediation and prevention efforts by regional organisations such as ECOWAS, and it was noted that the Asian region may benefit from building up this sort of strong regional engagement which it currently lacks.
From devastation to prosperity
No discussion on peacebuilding in Asia would be complete without acknowledging how far many parts of the region has come. When Dag Hammarskjöld was elected as the second Secretary General of the UN in 1953 – the East-Asia region, and Korea in particular, was the scene of the most deadly conflicts in the world – and it continued to be the region with the deadliest wars until the end of the 1970s.
“But in less than two generations – the region has shifted from devastation to prosperity, becoming the leading economic region in the world. Today we see an unmatched standard of living for the region – this could not have happened without peace,” said Henrik Hammargren, Executive Director, Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation. “In fact, since 1989, only 3.6% of people killed in armed conflict, were killed in East Asia.”
There may be no one answer to how this peace has been achieved, but as this conference highlighted there are lot of lessons one can take from Asia about how to pursue sustainable peace. Perhaps the most important being that countries can achieve peace, but only people can sustain it.