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Story Publication logo March 5, 2010

The United Nations Peacebuilding Commission: Mixed Results Amid Tense Issues


Mark C. Hackett, Special to the Pulitzer Center

Mark is the founder and president of Operation Broken Silence.

Genocide, mass human rights violations, and civil war are all things that seem to briefly grab global news headlines when they begin. If any of the above takes place in Africa, there is only an increasingly slim possibility that they will be mentioned in the international media at all.

Regardless of location, what almost never makes the news is what comes after the violence. Nations recovering from civil war such as Burundi and Sierra Leone quickly faded from the limelight upon the ending of the atrocities, while other nations such as the Central African Republic are still embroiled in violence that is so low-intensity it appears that a tense, but workable peace process could be beginning. Even in international hotspots such as Afghanistan and Iraq, international media rarely takes a look at what is going on behind the scenes to nurture a climate of decreasing violence into one of permanent peace.

For decades now the global political mindset of intervening on diplomatic, social, and economic levels to bring an end to the multiple forms of mass violence that exist has been to step in when the political cost of not intervening becomes apparent. When the intervention, on whatever level, does occur it ends with the signing of a peace deal and a brief period of severe international oversight to walk the warring parties towards lasting peace. After this, the region of concern is pushed down the often times treacherous path of peace by itself. In the best of situations, an ill-equipped United Nations peacekeeping force is deployed for an extended period to support the ongoing peace process.

However, even in this "best case scenario," the threat of renewed violence oftentimes runs rampant. Intense U.S.-led diplomatic and economic intervention in Sudan at the ending of the north-south civil war led to the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) in 2005. The CPA paved the way for a more stable and peaceful Sudan; but, as is often the case, the international community stepped down during key points in which the CPA needed implementation by both the government and former rebels. Because of the failure on the part of the key negotiators to ensure that every single detail of the CPA was implemented, sporadic ethnic violence continues to plague the southern provinces, forcing the international community, led by the United States, into what is now a race against time to restrain the violence ahead of fast-approaching national elections.

The United Nations Peacebuilding Commission

It is in situations similar to these that the little known United Nations Peacebuilding Commission (PBC), an intergovernmental advisory that supports peace efforts in countries emerging from conflict, steps in to help ensure an often times false sense of peace does not lead to a return to mass violence.

According to the PBC's website, the Commission was signed into existence on December 20, 2005 to fill "an important gap in the UN system in the relief-to-development continuum. It brings together the government of a specific country together with all the relevant international and national actors to discuss and decide on a long-term peacebuilding strategy with the aim of preventing a relapse into conflict."

From an outsider's viewpoint, the mandate of the Peacebuilding Commission seems simple enough:

• Propose integrated strategies for post-conflict peacebuilding and recovery;
• Help to ensure predictable financing for early recovery activities and sustained financial investment over the medium- to longer-term;
• Extend the period of attention the international community gives to post-conflict recovery;
• Develop best practices on issues that require extensive collaboration among political, security, humanitarian and development actors.

However, the above focuses of the PBC do not describe the fine details of peacebuilding. Much like the actual conflict itself, the post-conflict period is always unique when compared to other post-conflict areas. All conflict-recovering areas must go through the obvious processes of disarmament, rebel integration into the national army, and governmental reformatting. Yet even these processes are broad when compared to implementing the specifics of peace agreements, and in so doing turn a paper full of signatures, all with various amounts of commitment attached to them, into a reality that radically transforms the lives of the hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions, who have been deeply affected by the conflict.

For example, at what rate should the armed parties be demobilized? Should rebels be retrained before they are allowed to integrate into the national army? How quickly should key government reforms take place?

These are of course just a few of the more specific, yet general questions that need solid answers when the UN Peacebuilding Commission is asked to help build the peace and prevent further conflict.

Current Work

At this moment, the PBC is actively working in Burundi, Central African Republic, Guinea-Bissau and Sierra Leone. Recommendations put forth by the PBC have been met with mixed results, and this year the Commission is being reviewed by UN member states concerning its effectiveness in building peace.

However, just because the official review by the United Nations has yet to be completed, the achievements and/or lack thereof can in large part already be spoken to. A quick overview of the PBC's work shows a brief history of mixed results amid tense issues, situations, and constantly evolving crises despite peace agreements. The ongoing mission of the PBC in Burundi is the perfect example of the mixed results that have been completed by the Commission since it was asked to help build the peace in this tiny African nation.

On June 23, 2006, Burundi was placed on the PBC's agenda after the Security Council referred the case to the Commission. At the time, the UN was beginning to shut down the international peacekeeping mission that helped to bring peace into a more tangible light for a nation that had suffered a deadly civil war and a declared genocide, little known due to being eclipsed by the holocaust carried out in Rwanda in 1994.

From the outset, the PBC's mission in Burundi started out with a bang as reconstruction projects begin popping up in multiple areas. Despite occasional violent clashes between the government and one of the last remaining rebel groups, the Forces for National Liberation (FLN), and even clashes between factions within the rebels, the PBC has continued its work of keeping as many parties as possible held to the peace accords, while simultaneously focusing on returning hundreds of thousands of refugees home.

However, this is where the often times mixed results of the PBC's work come into play. Widespread impunity for crimes committed during the civil war and genocide remain rampant, and small armed groups continue to attack returning refugees as disputes over land rights begin. Despite reconstruction efforts, the national economy remains shattered and in need of major overhauls. Journalists are frequently arrested and threatened by the government and former rebels for merely carrying out their professional duties. There are also reports that armed remnants of the FLN continue to recruit child soldiers, sometimes in a violent fashion similar to those used by rebel groups in neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo. In short, it is clear that Burundi, as well as most of the central African region, will continue to face these challenges in the years to come, regardless of the level the international community is involved.

Still, there is no doubt that the PBC has had an overall positive impact in Burundi. While the scope of the Commission's work needs to be widened so that justice can be enforced and the fragile peace made stronger, it is important to realize that if the PBC was never involved, Burundi would most likely still be in a state of civil war. Also taking into account the pattern of the mass killings over the previous decades, which is disturbingly similar to the events leading up to the genocide in nearby Rwanda in 1994, credit can be given to the Commission for helping to restrain the violence. Had the international community never intervened in Burundi, a renewed genocide that would have eclipsed the 1994 Rwandan killings could have been unleashed, wreaking further havoc in one of the world's already deadliest regions. Burundi may be one of the first examples of where a future genocide was prevented, and the lessons already learned need to be applied elsewhere in the world.

However, this does not mean that Burundi has already seen the worse. The past several years of violence across Africa's multiple conflict zones has shown that the slide back into violence is easier and can seemingly happen when least expected. The United Nations must continue to push the PBC and Burundian government to promote a climate of justice as the nation begins to transition to democracy. UN reports over the past five years have stated that arms caches have been discovered and many former rebels, as well as civilians, remain armed. The international community should use the lessons learned in Rwanda (i.e., raid the arms caches instead of leaving them be) to ensure that another civil war, and potentially worse, another genocide, remain out of reach.

The International Review of the Commission's Work

The Peacebuilding Commission is being reviewed this year to assess its progress and determine the future of how it should operate. The PBC is far from perfect, and UN member states must consider how to make its impact more tangible at not only the country level, but also on a more local, micro level. The PBC's good deeds must be felt at the civilian level, not just at the highest political levels of a nation.

Only after what can be expected to be an extensive review of the Commission will we know the true caliber of the current PBC and what needs to change for it to better succeed. It is safe to say, however, that the PBC will be renewed over the coming years as more nations begin to retreat from conflict and as new nations are drawn into mass violence. Fighting for peace after the peace has been signed into agreement was one of the key missing components of putting a permanent end to mass violence over the past several decades, and the concept behind the PBC offers a clearer approach on how to make this happen more frequently. The PBC is part of the expanding future of peacekeeping and peacemaking exercises on the international level, and the current review on the Commission's work will help make it more relevant in our world of mass conflict millions live in everyday.


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