By Karol Balfe
More countries today experience violence than at any time in the last 30 years. This trend is set to continue with estimates that by 2030 more than half of the world’s poor will be living in countries affected by high levels of violence.
One of the countries where this is felt most acutely is in Syria, where bloodshed and violence continue apace, seven years into the conflict. Close to half a million people have died, children have little or no access to school, medical facilities are targeted, and 80 per cent of the population live below the poverty line.
Other conflicts such as in Myanmar, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territory or South Sudan also shine a light on the failure of multilateral institutions and the international community to bring an end to protracted conflicts.
Today world leaders will gather in New York at the General Assembly for a UN High Level Summit on sustaining peace. President Michael D Higgins has been invited by the UN Secretary General to address this General Assembly session. Minister Katherine Zappone will represent the government also. This comes at a time when Ireland is seeking election at the UN Security Council and will have to compete with countries with a strong track record on peace building, namely Norway and Canada.
Ireland has its own strong track record in this area. Our foreign policy has a welcome focus on human rights and commits Ireland to engaging internationally in the pursuit of peace and security. We have widely recognised credentials in the field of peace keeping missions in countries such as Lebanon and Kosovo.
It is this track record that will enable President Higgins to reaffirm Ireland’s commitment to peace building and highlight Ireland’s contribution to the United Nations. His speech presents a golden opportunity for Ireland to really put itself at the forefront of thinking on peace building at a time when new interventions are crucial, and put peace at the heart of Ireland’s bid for the Security Council.
It’s clear given the scale and complexity of violence in the world today that business as usual will not suffice. Governments are consistently failing to deliver on their legal obligations for international human rights and international humanitarian law. In many cases they are undermining these very instruments and restricting the space for civil society, including local peace activists, to push for change.
The initial aspirations that led to the creation of the United Nations as a global body promoting peace and security, can feel as though they are slipping away. Now, more than ever, a focus on peace is needed.
The United Nations has recognised this with two new important resolutions on peace building from 2016 that are intended to signify a fundamental reprioritisation of peace.
These resolutions call for a comprehensive approach to sustaining peace, recognising that peace needs to be given explicit attention, not only once conflict has broken out, but also long beforehand through the prevention of conflict and addressing its root causes.
They also recognise the central responsibility of governments, the importance of women’s leadership in conflict prevention, resolution and peace building, and the importance of including all in society.
Peace building can and does work. In 2016, after over 50 years of internal armed conflict in Colombia, Peace Accords were agreed between the government and the rebel group FARC, with talks now underway with the ELN. While this peace in Colombia is fragile and under pressure, its measures, if implemented fully, offer the most transformative potential for Colombia’s victims of violence in a generation.
As a country with strong experience in peace building, Ireland’s key questions at this week’s summit must be: will the renewed United Nations focus on peace deliver change for those most at risk of violence? And how can Ireland be at the forefront of driving this?
Given the failure of global leaders to secure peace in too many critical contexts, many will understandably be sceptical of new measures to reinvigorate a global push for peace. Too often the United Nations Security Council has failed to act at horrific cost to human life, as member state politics have driven it away from negotiating peaceful solutions to conflict. Meanwhile, member’s development policies continue to blur with national security and defence agendas.
As Ireland looks towards a vote on membership of the Security Council in 2020, we have an unprecedented opportunity to be at the forefront of a new global movement that explicitly focuses on peace.
We can do this by promoting development policies that support peace in our efforts to secure a seat on the Security Council. And we can do this by being vocal, resolute and courageous advocates for peace.
If membership is won, Ireland must ensure that we do not fall into the trap of prioritising national interests over the Security Council’s mandate to broker international peace. This path has suffocated the chance for peace, crisis after crisis.
Karol Balfe is Global Head of From Violence to Peace at Christian Aid
This article was first published in the Irish Times on 24th April 2018