Rocky Road Ahead for Peacebuilding Commission

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By Brandon L. Hunt – As seen in Haiti and Timor Leste, countries can fall back into destabilizing unrest despite substantial international involvement and negotiated peace agreements. Concerned about the relapse rate, the UN’s General Assembly and Security Council jointly established the Peacebuilding Commission in 2005, intended to coordinate international involvement in post-conflict countries, identify priorities for peacebuilding, create “integrated strategies” for meeting them, and sustain international support for peacebuilding. The Commission was created to fill an important gap in the UN system, but several roadblocks will make it difficult to achieve the goals set before it.

The international community devotes significant resources to helping war-torn societies create a self-sustaining peace. According to the UN’s “Peacebuilding Capacity Inventory,” the UN system alone has 31 different entities involved in the peacebuilding process across 25 different sectors, from security sector governance to constitution-making, and from financial transparency and accountability to employment generation. There are also many multilateral and bilateral programs attempting to build stable states out of post-conflict rubble, like the International Military Assistance Training Team in Sierra Leone and the Cambodian Journalists’ Training Program funded by Canada. The Commission was created to develop integrated strategies or frameworks to help coordinate all such activities on a country-by-country basis. Its 31 members include representatives from the Security Council, the Economic and Social Council, top troop contributing countries, top financial contributing countries, and the General Assembly.

A Peacebuilding Support Office was created simultaneously with the Commission to assist its activities, but also to advise the Secretary-General and conduct peacebuilding best practices analysis. The office remains under-staffed–though the current staff does have significant post-conflict experience to draw from–and the Secretariat has been forced to scramble for the funds to set it up since the General Assembly failed to provide new funds to pay for the new personnel. Governments have so far pledged US$221 million to an associated Peacebuilding Fund and actually deposited US$137 million; the Support Office accepts requests for and disburses these funds to eligible post-conflict states.

The Commission is currently developing frameworks for Sierra Leone and Burundi–two countries with histories of relapses that are at risk of falling off the international community’s radar because the UN peacekeeping missions in both states have drawn down and things have been fairly quiet. Currently, the Commission faces two major challenges–a lack of authority and muddied oversight–but it has the advantage of active, direct participation by member states.

Lacking any real authority to ensure its recommendations are acted upon, disburse funds from the Peacebuilding Fund, or to authorize UN agencies to carry out the work, the Commission can at best serve as a coordinating forum. Moreover, the Commission reports to several masters. The Security Council can request reports at any time–an option that it exercised even before the Commission first met. The General Assembly requires an annual report and also holds the purse-strings for the Support Office. Finally, the Economic and Social Council is supposed to work closely with the Commission, particularly on development issues. Consequently, the Commission will likely be pulled in divergent directions.

Burundi and Sierra Leone are exactly the sorts of states that the Commission should be helping, but three steps are needed to increase the probability of success. First, the Commission should seek out more formal agreements with the international community (individual states, regional organizations, non-governmental organizations)–written agreements or pledges of sustained support–to engage the actors in the activities outlined by the Commission. Second, the Commission should continue to rely on and work in tandem with the UN’s new “integrated” missions and offices, which are more likely to effectively coordinate the UN agencies on the ground as the organization’s new approach places them all under the authority of a single Special Representative of the Secretary General, co-locates their offices, and encourages cross-agency collaboration. Third, the Commission needs to better define its relationship with its three masters, which do not coordinate or communicate well, to ward off competing directives.

The greatest strength of the Peacebuilding Commission stems from its membership. One of the key functions of the Commission is to ensure continued international attention, the lack of which has often been faulted as contributing to failures of post-conflict reconstruction to post-conflict states. This is the most important role of the Commission, and one it is best poised to accomplish. Representatives of the Commission journeyed to Sierra Leone to gather evidence first-hand of the peacebuilding process. As the member states learn about the peacebuilding needs of particular countries, like Sierra Leone, they may be persuaded to support the various projects directly and they will also be positioned to be advocates for projects that reflect the Commission’s frameworks. It will be more effective to have the Commission members persuading fellow member states to support projects than having the host-state or organizations requesting aid directly. Garnering sustained international support will be the critical role of the Commission in achieving its goal of helping prevent countries from relapsing into conflict.

Effectively supporting war-weary states during the fragile transition to peace and stability is a daunting task. While the Peacebuilding Commission cannot guarantee success, the price of a failed peace can be catastrophically high. The Commission offers an innovative approach that incorporates more states in the long-term process and is in a position to sustain international attention where peace has failed in the past.

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