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30 Jan 2014

UNSG - “War, Its Lessons, and the Search for a Permanent Peace: View from the Department of Political Affairs”

UN Security Council Thematic Debate

January 29, 2014

Jeffrey Feltman

Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs

Mr. President, 

Thank you for inviting me to represent the Secretary-General today in addressing the Council on “War, Its Lessons, and the Search for a Permanent Peace.”  The relevance and timeliness of this debate are all too clear when we look to Syria, South Sudan or the Central African Republic at the moment.

The founders of the United Nations, in seeking to end "the scourge of war," had in the forefront of their minds the searing experience of a global conflagration that pitted states against states.  In more recent years, the UN has often been called upon to contribute to ending conflicts inside states rather than between states.  Moreover, in a point relevant for today’s debate, even as conflicts between states lessen in number, conflicts inside states too often re-occur.

In both types of conflicts, distortions of history and identity can be contributing factors.  War-time rhetoric cultivates division.  Helping groups inside states move beyond such zero-sum thinking to accepting a shared national narrative is especially hard.  The UN has a long history of helping to establish the means to resolve territorial disputes.  But reconciling competing visions of history and identity is far less of a developed science. 

While we hope to contribute to “permanent peace” when we act – be it as Members of the Security Council or the UN Secretariat – past crises have shown that the immediate imperatives tend to be so overpowering that what appear to be longer-term aspects often receive less attention, even though peacebuilding is now an indispensable part of our conflict management and prevention work. 

In other words, while we have time-tested formulas for separating armies, tending to the needy, for enacting political roadmaps and rebuilding actual roads and ministries, we have reflected less on our ability to repair trust in societies and foster genuine reconciliation.  How can we mend shattered social fabrics so that people look in their adversary’s eyes once again and see the human being rather than the enemy?  

Mr. President, 

In the time I have to explore this topic today, I will address two main questions:  What are the essential elements of reconciliation?  And how should the UN’s approach to crisis management be combined with the imperative of enabling societies to heal? 

So, what are the essential elements of reconciliation?

When I refer to reconciliation, I have the following in mind:  By accounting for and sharing views about the past, including prior to conflict, to restore mutual respect and trust between groups and individuals.

To make this a reality, I see a double responsibility:  First, the responsibility of the international community to assist in creating conditions that, second, enable national actors to live up to their responsibility for rebuilding trust and respect, including reckoning with their own behavior and actions 

Re-building trust and respect requires engaging with one another at all levels of society, not just at the level of political and economic elites.  Leaders need to set the example, not just in ceasing war-time rhetoric and ending the intentional promotion of grievances, but also by deeds of genuine cooperation and honest examinations of their own roles in conflict. 

Leaders also need to demonstrate that power-sharing and other forms of post-conflict governance do not signify that “the winner takes it all” but that room is available for engagement for all parts of society.

It is often being said that youth is the hope for overcoming past hatred. However, reality shows that youth brought up just after war tends to be more extreme than their parents.  By often being deprived of the chance to meet “the other,” they are also deprived of the chance to experience what they have in common. 

So, we need to find ways in our work in the aftermath of conflict to break the vicious cycle of divided communities when the hatred and sense of victimhood is most pronounced and palpable.  Working with teachers and parents is as important as working with the young people themselves.

More broadly, education and curricula tend to be disseminators of contentious narratives.  As difficult as it is, it appears critical to start early with the development of history curricula that – at the very least – share the different interpretations of recent events.  This could form the beginning of developing a shared narrative and establishing points of convergence in people’s experiences and thinking.

Mr. President, 

Let me now turn to my second question:  How can the UN’s approach to crisis management be combined with the imperative of enabling societies to heal?

Over the past few months, this Council has, along with other business, expressed alarm about the catastrophic situation in the Central African Republic, the ongoing slaughter in Syria, and the outbreak of brutal hostilities in South Sudan.  While outside forces play roles in each of these conflicts, the root causes, initial sparks, and momentum of these conflicts are essentially internal. 

In all three cases, the physical end to war -- while urgently needed -- will not produce lasting peace and security.  In all three countries, an end to the fighting will not permanently end the conflict.  As we have seen repeatedly, fighting that ends without reconciliation -- especially fighting inside states -- is fighting that can, and often does, resume. 

In the CAR, religious communities that peacefully co-existed for generations now view each other not as neighbors but as enemies.  As difficult as ending the fighting is, rebuilding a shared sense of community and forging a common narrative about recent events will be even harder.  But it is essential, if the CAR’s citizens will ever enjoy lasting peace and stability.

In South Sudan, a beautiful story of a country gaining hard-won independence has now turned into an ethnically-charged conflict with deaths, displacement, and calls for revenge.  What united different groups during the fight for independence has evaporated.  With a ceasefire signed, there is a glimmer of hope.  But for it to take root and hold, we need to help the parties to trust one another again.

In Syria, the shared memory and pride in a secular, multi-confessional and multi-ethnic state have been shattered by nearly three years of unspeakable brutality and human rights atrocities.  We have reported to the Council repeatedly that we do not believe that there is a military solution to this conflict, and the costs of trying to impose a military solution are obscenely high.  Collectively, we must help the Syrians stop the killing.  But then what?  Clearing the physical rubble and physical reconstruction are not sufficient to erase the grievances and hatreds and instincts for vengeance that are undoubtedly multiplying in Syria with each passing day. 

In all three cases, any cessations of hostilities remain fragile and at risk of collapse, without strenuous efforts exerted on behalf of reconciliation and without honest examination of each community of its own role in the conflict.  There are many examples we could cite, but please allow me to use Iraq as a case in point.  In recent years, Iraq has registered many successes, including holding a series of national elections under extremely difficult circumstances and re-establishing positive relations with Kuwait.  We all applaud the Security Council's recognition of Iraq's progress, as noted by the Council’s resolutions.  Yet at the same time, we have seen that Iraq's communities have sharply differing historical and political narratives that inhibit the country's ability to achieve common goals, including the urgent fight against terrorism.  Getting more Iraqis to move past zero-sum thinking to forge a common Iraqi narrative is hard.  But it is essential for Iraq's long-term peace and stability. 

The open wound of the Syria conflict makes Iraqi reconciliation even more complicated, given the deepening regional crisis between Sunnis and Shia.  Healing the Sunni-Shia rift will become easier when fighting in Syria ends, as the horrors in Syria exacerbate that divide.  But we should not neglect lending support to genuine reconciliation efforts, lest fighting resume from unaddressed grievances, overlapping claims of victimhood, and zero-sum narratives that are undoubtedly already taking root and in some cases being intentionally promoted. 

Mr. President, 

The UN role on monitoring cease-fires or separating warring parties is well known, represented today by almost 120,000 peacekeepers in fifteen places around the world.  These peacekeeping operations, typically with robust protection of civilian mandates given by this Council, serve in some places to prevent state-to-state conflicts -- UNIFIL in southern Lebanon is one example -- and in other places serve inside a state, such as MONUSCO in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  The UN has also played a significant role in reconstruction efforts in previously war-torn countries such as Sierra Leone or Mozambique. 

These are important, physical manifestations of the UN's work to help end conflict.  But beyond the physical manifestations -- peacekeepers, monitors, reconstruction and development -- the UN has also become increasingly involved in the non-physical aspects of peacebuilding.  The goal is to promote long term peace and security and not stop with helping achieve cessations of violence that all too often prove fleeting. 

What we currently witness in Yemen is particularly noteworthy:  The agreement for the political transition specifies that the provisions for transitional justice and national reconciliation would be addressed through a broadly inclusive national dialogue process.  As you know, that dialogue concluded a few days ago with positive results that need to be nurtured and supported, to complete the transition and promote peace in Yemen.

Let me be clear:  we are fully aware that reconciliation cannot substitute for justice, as essential element of ending conflict.  However, the reverse also holds true.  For example, the international tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda cannot substitute for national reconciliation.  Put another way, seeking truth and accountability for the past are essential.  But they are not by themselves a plan to heal a broken state.  That work has to keep happening in the present and in the future.

The UN does not have the monopoly on reconciliation efforts.  One often, for very good reason, cites South Africa as an example of an extremely effective national reconciliation that can serve as a model for others.  There are a number of organizations including the UN that are increasingly taking a more systematic approach to reconciliation issues, in recognition that the physical end of fighting, welcome as that is, does not end the conflict. 

While the UN's approach to enabling permanent peace is under constant review, I will share with you four areas that I believe deserve special attention: 

First, peace agreements themselves should, where possible and appropriate, provide agreed overall principles and mechanisms through which reconciliation can be pursued, tailored to the specific situation of each conflict.  

Second, the timing of elections and constitutional review processes need to be considered carefully.  If they come too early, they can legitimize war-profiteers and thus entrench war-tine narratives and fiefdoms.   With premature elections, opportunistic populist leaders can cultivate grievances to win office, with risks to long-term peace and stability.

Third, reconciliation has to come from inside and cannot be externally imposed.  However, outsiders -- Member States, the UN and regional organizations – can encourage and enable such national processes taking place sooner rather than later.  At the same time, the international community and societies concerned need to give reconciliation the necessary time.  The trust that has been shattered overnight tends to take years to rebuild.

Fourth, bearing in mind that national processes differ significantly, there nevertheless appears benefit in considering common strands and establishing a repository of comparative knowledge and experience on reconciliation that can be put at the disposal of Member States, UN Special Envoys, and others. 

Mr. President,

I would like to conclude by raising some questions:

- Can the international community, and more specifically, the members of the Security Council and the UN, provide incentives for reconciliation that is nationally-owned and led?

- When is the right moment for the process to start and how do we get the timing right of elections and transitional processes more broadly? 

- When prevention has failed and ethnic cleansing has taken place, how do we reconcile our aspiration of rebuilding shared societies with realities of division in the country or region concerned?

Some may ask whether the United Nations in general or the Security Council more specifically should help promote national reconciliation.  I would hope that the example of the Syrian catastrophe demonstrates how unresolved internal conflicts can pose grave risks to international peace and security.  Moreover, as a member state-based organization, the UN itself is stronger when member states are at peace internally and with each other.  

I thank Jordan for having made us consider some of the most critical aspects that tend to undermine permanent peace and hope that today’s debate will trigger more in-depth rethinking of how to ensure more traction to our approaches to peace and security especially when addressing internal conflicts.

Thank you.

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