Tuesday , August 20th , 2019  

Growing Authoritarianism, Social Inequalities Often a Prelude to Conflict

Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallström with UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres

By Margot Wallström
STOCKHOLM, May 17 2019 – I want to talk about peacebuilding and inclusive peace. My main point is that peace begins in the minds of people, and people, communities, societies must be allowed to participate in peace for it to be sustainable. Peace means a lot more than just the absence of war.

I want to highlight the need for this perspective in three aspects of peacebuilding – conflict prevention, crisis response and peace processes. But before going into those aspects, let me begin with the example of Colombia.

As you know, the war between FARC and the government had been going on since the 1960’s, with hundreds of thousands of victims.

The peace process that was initiated around 2012 was in a way unique. It included in different ways victims and local communities, the private sector, civil society, LGBT organisations. And of course, there was a strong presence of women.

The peace deal that was signed in 2016 (one of few good news that year) included agreements on much more than just the laying down of arms – it mentions land reform, political participation, guarantees for social movements, a strategy to tackle drug trafficking and much more.

We keep on being reminded that the implementation is often the most complicated part of a deal. But even that is part of the point I want to make. That – just as with democracy – peace is something you have to work on and conquer every day.

And even if there have been and are challenges related to the peace in Colombia, I maintain that this process was remarkable, because it put the Colombian people at center, and today both parties, the former guerilla FARC and the Colombian government are jointly working on sustainable peace in their country.

1) Going back to the three aspects of peacebuilding, let me start with conflict prevention. We seldom get the credit we deserve for the conflicts that didn’t happen.

And unfortunately, it is often easier to get support for interventions once there actually is a fire. But how many tears would not have been saved, if we had been able to prevent Rwanda? Bosnia? South Sudan?

My conviction is that societies that are democratic and inclusive, with gender and social equality, with a strong civil society have are strongly vaccinated against conflict.

This is one of the reasons why the global backslide of democracy that we experience right now is worrying me. Growing authoritarianism together with growing social inequalities has often been a prelude to conflict.

And this year, for the first time in decades, more people live in countries with growing authoritarian tendencies, than in countries that are making democratic progress.

There is still hope. I recently visited the Tunis Forum on Gender Equality, where I met with a lot of young civil society activists. And coming back to inclusive peacebuilding, I heard one interesting example of how women’s grassroots organisations took part in conflict early warning mechanisms.

They did so by reporting local peace and security risks and threats to the community, the government and international bodies.

2) Let me continue with a second aspect of peacebuilding, which is crisis response, including peacekeeping and stabilization.

Here, a security approach is often needed to save lives. But also, in interventions to stabilise we can help steer the course to a more inclusive process. Women in peacekeeping operations is an example.

When we plan for these interventions, we must think of inclusion and gender from the start. There is no conflict between the need for a quick end of violence, and the long-term aim of creating peaceful, just and inclusive societies. All interventions can be designed to contribute to this.

3) Thirdly, peace processes. Here, an inclusive approach means focusing more on women; less on men with weapons.

It is understandable that, at crunch time, a hasty deal between leaders of conflicting parties might seem attractive. But sometimes; easy come, easy go.

A peace where the voices of communities, of victims, of women have been heard – in preparations, in negotiations and implementation – will be more deeply rooted and has a greater chance of lasting longer.

Coming back to the example of Colombia – it was women that brought issues of land restitution and victims to the agenda; that ensured that confidence-building measures were implemented, that child soldiers were released.

There are other processes where women are less visible, but still make critical contributions. In Libya and Afghanistan, women, young people and local peacebuilders have done important work, with their local knowledge and commitment.

Conflicts are not linear. You can never draw a straight line from a beginning to an end. Their dynamics often look more like a child’s drawing, with strokes forward, backward, to the sides, in all possible directions.

As I said in the beginning, sustaining peace is an ongoing process, of constantly strengthening factors that underpin peace – such as confidence, reconciliation, institutions, equality, democracy.

And in a way, conflict, in a broader sense, is an inevitable part of life in a society. For a democracy, I would say, conflict is vital.

The challenge is to find ways to handle conflicts in a peaceful and constructive way. Strong, well-functioning institutions – be they national, or in the shape of multilateral cooperation, are the way of managing this.

And this is another reason why today’s backsliding of democracy and questioning of international cooperation is such a worrying threat, To conclude, let me get back to the main point about peace beginning in the minds of people.

You might recognize the source of this: the first words of the constitution of UNESCO, which I want to return to, since they so well summarize what peacebuilding is about:

“Since wars begin in in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed”.

In other words – putting people at the center of our thinking.

I’m glad that we are doing that today and tomorrow, and I hope that we can keep on doing it in our daily work for peace and development.

*Excerpted from an address to the SIPRI Forum on Peace and Development

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