Disarmament Insight


Monday, 1 October 2007

Discovering Geneva’s Peacebuilding Potential

In 1995, when 50th anniversaries were everywhere, I was asked to give a speech on “50 years of peace.” My first reaction was to think that I’d misunderstood the title.

How could anyone look at the world in 1995 and describe the previous 50 years as having been peaceful? But then I began to think about the institutions, norms and treaties that existed in 1995 that could only have been imagined by the visionaries and pragmatists who sought to put in place the peace system that was intended by the founding of the United Nations. As I did so, I began to see the increasingly complex web that has been woven among peoples and nations to build security and overcome war.

This web may be thin, or even absent, in many places, but it nevertheless represents a constant striving that, despite serious setbacks and dire threats, provides us with the means with which societies can function and sometimes thrive, rather than decline and perish.

In 2005, the nations of the world took another tentative step in this direction by creating the United Nations Peacebuilding Commission. In practice, this new body—aimed at preventing countries emerging from conflict from again descending into violence—is barely one year old. It seeks to provide one of the missing links in the array of peacekeeping, conflict prevention, and peacemaking components of the UN system and to take its place alongside its many economic and social components aimed at creating sustainable conditions in which peace can prevail.

A cynic might look at the compromises made in establishing the Peacebuilding Commission and conclude that this body does not stand a chance. Forecasts based on one-year’s experience may not inspire much optimism. But here, a longer-term perspective is helpful. No system created by human beings emerges fully formed or mature. Some remain stunted and underdeveloped. But others, like the layering of international law that has been laid down over centuries, provide elements of robustness. This experience demands that we give this fledgling body a chance to put on weight, to develop its muscles, and to learn to walk before we expect it to run.

Since the creation of the Peacebuilding Commission, some of us in Geneva have been reflecting on what this city might contribute to its work. Geneva has come to be known as a disarmament hub, a humanitarian capital, a human rights centre and, more recently, the heartbeat of global action against the proliferation and misuse of small arms. Why? Because of the expertise, experience, vision and practice that has progressively come to be concentrated in Geneva. Could the same be true for peacebuilding? We are some way from knowing the answer, but we are beginning to find out.

On September 12th, the Geneva Centre for Security Policy, along with its partners (among them the Quaker UN Office, the Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces, and the Programme for Strategic and International Security Studies of the Graduate Institute of International Studies) launched the International Geneva Peacebuilding Guide. This on-line, searchable database currently contains information on some 70 Geneva-based inter-governmental and non-governmental bodies. Many of these organzations, when first asked to complete a survey, replied that they did not see themselves as peacebuilding bodies. This changed, however, when they were presented with the four categories that underpin the work of the Peacebuilding Commission—security and public order, justice and reconciliation, governance participation, and social and economic well-being.

So far, this database is just a set of information providing a fascinating snapshot of the rich array of research and practitioner bodies that make up our Geneva community. But this is only the first step. If Geneva is to build on this peacebuidling foundation and make its proper contribution, not only will we need further analysis of what this information tells us, but the players themselves will need to take action, individually and collectively, to realize this potential. This is a work in progress which hopefully will help to enhance the peacebuilding capacity of the UN system, thus adding strength to the existing peace system web.

This is a guest posting from David Atwood, Director of the Quaker United Nations Office in Geneva


International Geneva Peacebuilding Guide

Photo credit: Tony Burbage on flickr