The need for peacebuilding in post-conflict societies grew out of the realization that signing agreements to bring fighting to an end is a necessary but insufficient step toward true and enduring peace.
Peacebuilding is now conceived of as a multistage process to strengthen the peace accord and begin unifying communities through approaches ranging from governmental capacity-building and economic development to reforms of the legal and security sectors.
Each initiative is intended to be a step toward improving human security, and the process often includes a transitional justice mechanism to foster societal healing and reconciliation. Peacebuilding is often a laborious and expensive process—and one that can easily be undone.
Witness Brexit’s triggering of the long-dormant fault lines between unionists and nationalists in Northern Ireland. Moreover, as peacebuilding has evolved, there is still no consensus on who should lead these efforts.
In the wake of Sept. 11, the United Nations introduced a Peacebuilding Commission, intended to push for the adoption of post-conflict interventions and then aid and track their implementation. But it lacks enforcement capacity, and key member states can block its activities.
Regional bodies, including the European Union and especially the African Union, have shown an interest in prioritizing post-conflict peacebuilding, but their track records are mixed.
Transitional justice initiatives have a similarly rocky history. Designed to help a society document and reckon with a legacy of human rights abuses, they can take several forms, including criminal trials, a truth commission or a reparations program.
Where early initiatives, like the post-World War II trials of German and Japanese war criminals, emphasized criminal justice, more recent efforts have expanded to focus on reconciliation, healing and societal transformation.
But including discussions of transitional justice mechanisms in peace negotiations can also present stumbling blocks, particularly when people who might be held accountable by such processes must take part in establishing them.
There is also the broader problem of sustaining these efforts in the face of the temptation to leave painful experiences in the past.
For both peacebuilding and transitional justice initiatives, funding remains a key challenge—and a frequent excuse to stall efforts.
Though the peace agreement that ended South Sudan’s civil war provides for the creation of a Commission for Truth, Healing and Reconciliation, the transitional government has taken no steps to establish it, regularly citing a lack of financing.
The question of who should fund reconstruction is another regular obstacle to peacebuilding.
In some cases, consensus over the need for stability drives international funding mechanisms for pledging aid—though the COVID-19 pandemic could lead to a shortfall in future pledges. In other cases, such as Syria, reconstruction funding becomes a new arena for contests over influence and power.
WPR has covered peacebuilding and transitional justice around the world in detail and continues to examine key questions about future developments.
Can Colombia get peace talks with its last major rebel group back on track?
What lessons can countries draw from success stories, like Liberia, that appear to have successfully pivoted from conflict to peacebuilding?
Will a global consensus emerge on who should lead post-conflict peacebuilding efforts and how to manage them?
Below are some of the highlights of WPR’s coverage.
In October 2010, the U.N. released a report documenting 617 instances of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and perhaps even genocide in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
A decade after the report’s publication, few of those abuses have been tried, and activists are stepping up their calls for justice.
Ending the Fighting
The first step toward building peace is ending war. But while self-evident, it is easier said than done. The mistrust and grievances that led to conflict are often exacerbated during the course of the fighting, making one or both sides unwilling to put down their weapons.
Often, too, outside powers seeking to advance their own interests block or undermine efforts to bring the warring parties to the table.
And even when peacekeeping forces are deployed to a conflict zone, they are often ineffective. But despite these obstacles, efforts to end conflict are preferable to doing nothing.
Making Peacebuilding Sustainable
Peacebuilding involves a suite of initiatives that a range of actors, from the government to civil society organizations, pursue. The idea, ultimately, is to transform the beliefs or systems that sparked violence in the first place.
It is generally seen as a three-step process that begins first with basic efforts, like removing weapons, before transitioning to a period of rebuilding.
Promoting Truth, Reconciliation and Transitional Justice
Transitional justice mechanisms can be an essential element of the third dimension of peacebuilding. Just because two warring parties have agreed to silence their guns does not mean they will meaningfully pursue efforts to reckon with atrocities they have committed and consider how—or whether—to hold perpetrators to account.
But some communities are trying. Africa has been home to multiple conflicts, but also a variety of attempts to achieve transitional justice.
Recently, Gambia stood up a Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission, though there are concerns about whether it will have the mandate to effectively deliver justice to victims.
Latin America, meanwhile, is still grappling with the atrocities committed by the authoritarian regimes that dominated the continent from the 1960s until the 1980s, with mixed results from the efforts to deliver justice to those victims.
The ICC and Its Discontents
Understanding that not every country is going to be in a position to reckon with human rights abuses—particularly when the people committing those abuses cling to power—the global community created the International Criminal Court.
The ICC is designed to provide an alternative outlet for victims seeking justice, but also for securing reparations for the crimes committed against them.
But the ICC is currently under fire from skeptics in Africa, who object to the court’s so-far exclusive focus on African defendants, as well as officials in the Trump administration who see it as a threat to U.S. sovereignty.