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January 27, 2005

Challenges To International Peace And Security: An Alternative View

International peace and security have seldom felt so far away. Decision makers, like the persons in the street, feel equally at risk from random acts of violence. Multinational organizations seem to plunge inwards to explore the sanctum sanctorum of their beliefs, strengths, responsibility and mission, surfacing, every now and then, to take a deep breath and check the horizon for clues on what to do next. Political leaders are nervous; and nervous riders make for nervous horses. If we are not all living on the edge, the perception, at least, is that we are.

by Virginia Gamba


International peace and security have seldom felt so far away. Decision makers, like the persons in the street, feel equally at risk from random acts of violence. Multinational organizations seem to plunge inwards to explore the sanctum sanctorum of their beliefs, strengths, responsibility and mission, surfacing, every now and then, to take a deep breath and check the horizon for clues on what to do next. Political leaders are nervous; and nervous riders make for nervous horses. If we are not all living on the edge, the perception, at least, is that we are.

It is at times like these, that it pays to stop, take distance and try to “unpack” the situation in manageable portions or components. The unpacking of fears, prejudices and facts can help us separate facts from fiction and identify the possible from the impossible. Like all presentations, this is a subjective and personal view of where we are at and what could be a way out for the situation we find ourselves in.

I will divide my presentation into two equal parts: the challenges to peace and security; and the potential we have to address these challenges with some hope of success.

Challenges to Peace and Security

The list of what is perceived as a problem to peace and security is lengthy – with all international actors striving to make their mark, identify a priority or prove a point. I will attempt to cut across all these lines and discuss fundamental issues that affect all discourses. Perhaps if fundamentals are addressed first, the pillars of future security can stand their ground, unshaken. For me, these fundamentals are attached to the dynamics of the changing world order, the globalization of violence and the lack of definition of human security.

The dynamics of the changing world order

Since the end of the Cold War experts and decision-makers have dealt with changes that they can not understand nor have the skill to interpret. The debate can be followed through key words and actions that only make sense when seen as a continuum of a same debate. From 1989 to 1994, three items surface in this debate: the belief that a new collective potential for the resolution of conflict was present; that old systems such as the United Nations could be used to new effects; and that security and development were linked. True to form, the period saw a huge expansion in multinational peace support operations and an extension in their mandates, roles, responsibilities and participation; a concentration in the unpacking of post-conflict reconstruction processes including traditional Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration of Ex-Combatants; and a brief flurry of engagements in the field of global disarmament and conversion of the military industry for civilian purposes. Perhaps the single unit under which all these activities could be clustered was in conflict resolution activities. At political level, the most interesting debates followed the fortunes of a multipolar world into what was perceived as an increasingly unipolar one.

By 1995, this brave new world started to wake up to the fact that conflict had not been particularly reduced by the wish to generate more effectiveness out of old systems. The failures of multinational responses to violent conflict and the inability to protect the lowest common denominator in such a conflict – the individual; became a mark of the next five years. The period of 1995 to 2000 was marked by an undeclared realization that the system was impotent to resolve violent conflict. Therefore, it makes sense to note that many decision makers placed their energy on conflict prevention rather than conflict resolution processes. It is interesting to note that the emphasis of the previous period of DDR and UN-led peace support operations made way to initiatives that prioritized the containment of violence through a reduction in the tools of violence – hence the push for micro-disarmament that characterizes this period. Meanwhile, as countries debated the potential or not to reduce anti-personnel landmines and to contain the proliferation of small arms and light weapons, all further discussion of advancing on global disarmament issues were stopped. Seldom has a period of time shown less advance in the field of control and reduction over weapons of mass destruction, nor less interest in deepening initial efforts for military conversion programs.

This particular period of time becomes confused with the aggravation of an old worry: non-military threats to security. This dormant field, which had been championed by scholars of developing countries during the Cold War era, entailed complex linkages between security, conflict, economics, terrorism and international crime. The UN discussion leading to the Convention to Combat Trans-National Crime (and its protocol on firearms) is a typical example of the period. The United Nations Programme of Action to prevent, combat and eradicate the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons in all its aspects, and the OTTAWA convention to prohibit anti-personnel landmines further exemplify the feeling of impotence that permeated the international community. The global begins to yield to the regional but not from a bottom up approach, rather than a top down realization that to cut off one's losses, regional security issues had to be engaged. This is the period where UN operations are abandoned in favor of Chapter 8 operations at regional level, conducted by one or two actors within a region. From Kosovo to Liberia and East Timor, these are the operations that are prioritized. As far as these measures go, it is evident by 1998 that the world can neither resolve nor prevent conflict and the debate shifts once more this time to early warning and the protection of vulnerable groups. Nowhere is this more evident than in the shifting discourse on the issue of the definition of human security and in the attempt to understand the dynamics of the economy of conflict.

In 2001 with the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States, the exposure of peace and security, the impotence to understand the dynamics of conflict, and the inability to express this impotence without showing weakness, deliver a pre-emptive policy where the final shift emerges from conflict prevention, management and resolution to the pre-emption and deterrence of conflict before it evolves. These years are marked by the transformation of concepts that rapidly move down the options of nation-building to post-conflict reconstruction to state-building. Global disarmament and conversion of the military industry have never been so far away.

At the heart of it all sits a fundamental issue: the United Nations and its organizational spin-offs. From attempting to utilize the United Nations as a vehicle of collective action in the early 1990s, decision makers –through their actions- stress the system further by piling lack of credibility to the organization's already weak capacities and capabilities. By the end of 2004, it is impossible for the United Nations to affect deterrence. None of the regional organizations, part of the same system since the Cold War, have adapted their operations to service the peace and security needs of their own regions. Dissuaded from doing so in the past and unable to shake off the Cold War construct, they aimlessly observe the international debate. Only in Africa, the most conflict region of all, new language begins to emerge and becomes concrete with the New African Partnership for Development, the transformation of the Organization for African Unity into the Africa Union, and the generation of a peace and security agenda that is constructed from within and not from without.

The Globalization of Violence

While the world discourse affecting peace and security is changing and not resolving itself into any one direction, another constant emerges to aggravate matters: the transformation of violence into a global phenomenon almost de-linked to politics. If much has been done to understand the economics of conflict, very little has been attempted at understanding the changing nature of violence: real and perceptual. What can be said is that violence has achieved a phenomenal deterrent value both horizontally and vertically. Here, the impotence of the state to control its borders and to commit itself to the protection and well-being of its citizens comes to the fore. The United Nations, for example, through the convention against trans-national organized crime and the present doctrine for counter-terrorism that prevails in international discourse, are doing nothing but accepting the fact that violence and the acts of unregulated non-state actors cannot be stopped nor controlled through global measures. It is curious to note that in the last 8 years, many of the recommendations to define a global problem cannot produce credible global responses. In the reading of international agreements and initiatives, legally binding or not, one tends to see the emergence of recommendations for implementation that are addressed to actors outside the norm such as international agencies (Interpol and WTO among others) and organized civil society (which yet needs to be defined globally).

Thus, horizontally, global violence can be found in the multiplication of criminal organizations and trans-national mafias -operating fundamentally for economic motives and backed by a very competitive and accessible black market dynamic- and by terrorist cells who do not have clear political direction nor goals save that of expanding the deterrent value of violence. As the world of states has been particularly incompetent at addressing these threats, so have these organizations been evidently successful in generating the environment of insecurity in which we all move today.

Vertically, violence not only transcends nationality and borders but also affects the individuals inside the state. The way in which vertical violence can be measured is simple: all countries are facing increases not in the level of crime in general but in the use of violence in the commission of a crime. Today, the individual fears much more that violence be committed against him or her than the loss of property arising from crime. A second measurement can be had in the increase in anti-social behavior. Again, here, it is the fear linked to that anti-social behavior with the violence that it might inflict that acts as the sure deterrent for counter measures.

What is so interesting in looking at our situation from the point of view of the scale of violence outside and inside societies is that it affects all countries equally – whether they are developed or developing. It is in fact a common global challenge that needs to be understood as such.

The Changing Concept on Human Security

The last item I want to touch as a challenge to security and peace is the concept of human security itself. The last decade has seen all types of debates. These are best described as questions, for example,

  • Should the international system be based on states or on nations?
  • Should security come first or should development come first?
  • Are the poor a problem to security?
  • Should individuals or states be the centre for international action?
  • Should territorial integrity and sovereignty prime over the security of individuals?
  • What is the legitimacy of international action in favor of individuals?

The debate can almost be reduced to one simple proposition – looking at people from the orbit of Human Rights or looking at people from the orbit of peace, security and stability? This is a debate that has not been concluded nor, in many cases, adequately defined. Yet the reach of this challenge is such that it can affect the most basic of agreed international principles, such as the Charter of the United Nations itself. No state has the power nor the willingness to force the debate to its natural conclusions, and yet until this is defined and agreed upon, almost all issues affecting international peace and security are subject to being high-jacked by it or be held hostage to it. Similarly, no long term sustainable action that will transform our societies to improve the lot of the common man and his/her ability to prosper in peace can be found.


Even if you accept that the three items I have raised here go a long way to explain the controversial environment of peace and security today, ultimately they are not as important as how they are linked and how they are reacted to by the international community. We are far more obsessed with hearing what decision-makers say than with analyzing their natural actions and reactions to these phenomena. It is in what countries and individuals are doing that the dynamics and trends are set –not in what they say or what they aspire to do.

Looking at the last eight years, it is possible to say that

  • states have finally understood that the status of peace and security is a fiction since the word itself “security” does not mean what it says – the debate must run through a discussion of “insecurity” rather than the opposite;
  • the international community cannot provide global answers to an
  • increasingly global problem since global violence can never be prevented, managed or resolved through global action;
  • not only can states not provide global answers to global problems but they cannot implement action without the creation of a partnership with civil society and other regulated non-stated actors.
  • The United Nations and its agencies are not implementing agencies – they respond to too big a parameter.

Analysts are missing the point in the debate on the future of peace and security. They are focusing on the wrong indicators. It is not so important, for example, to note the US policy vis-a-vis other regions today as it is to understand that the US's most important change was in the generation of a vast self-defense mechanism that builds barriers between itself and everybody else. Similarly, it is not so important to focus on the politics of the traditional European leadership but to look at how the enlarged Europe is capable of achieving a common definition of identity and action after 2004. By the same token, it would be good to begin to perceive the options available from many different points of view rather than traditional solutions. Here, it might be useful to consider the AU/NEPAD model as more adequate to the prevention, management and resolution of conflict in countries belonging to the League of Arab States than attempt to model the region behind traditional regional security concepts.

If we started looking at the realities and perceptions around us in the environment of peace and stability that is a pre-requisite for development and the generation of prosperity we could well come up with the following results:

  1. Macro violence can only be addressed through micro-control.
  2. Peace and security is too narrow a concept, it must be enlarged to Peace, Security and Safety for it to be of any use.
  3. Policies to generate long term, sustainable peace, security and safety in micro-regions must be guided by actual needs assessment
  4. Policies are not the equivalent of implementation – in fact both require different capacities, will, resources and capabilities.
  5. To implement policies, coordinated and phased plans of action must be generated and monitored.
  6. Nothing will be effective unless there is ownership, inclusiveness and sustainability in common action within and across sub-regions.

Once we dare to bring this list up for discussion, it will be possible to identify needs and directions for future action to prevent and combat insecurity and violence. Looking at the above list alone, whether we agree or disagree with it, one can commence to identify needs and to realize that we are woefully short on most of the requirements for the provision of enhanced safety and security. Key questions emerge that have not even been considered in the past and that require our urgent attention. Questions such as:

  • How can we transform the international policing services and systems?
  • Does Interpol need revamping?
  • What is the role of the military instrument in relation to the role of the security services in general and the police in particular?
  • What type of information can and should be exchanged between countries and agencies to prevent, combat and eradicate insecurity and violence?
  • How can we strengthen sub-regional organizations so that they can prevent, combat and eradicate insecurity and violence in their own environment?
  • How can we create information exchange and coordination of action across sub-regions?
  • What are the pre-requisites for peace and prosperity in each sub-region?
  • How can we assist effective governance, the creation of minimum standard procedures of use at sub-regional level, and the management of effective long term implementation plans to improve security and safety at national level?
  • Who and what is civil society? How can it engage and participate in solutions to peace, security and safety in its own environment and in partnership with authorities?
  • How can we develop and use indigenous indicators for conflict and violence prevention?
  • How can we assist each other through the sharing of information and lessons learnt at North-South and South-South level?
  • How can we resurrect global disarmament priorities?
  • How can we resurrect military conversion into civilian uses?
  • How can we strengthen the operative and tactical level of governance for sustainable action?


The discussion of peace and security today is stale. It is also dangerous. We have had no evolutionary success in the creation of peace and security environments since the end of the Cold War – in fact, quite the opposite. The manner of actions and concepts we have developed since 1989 prove the nature of our impotence rather than the extent of our understanding and our commitment to peace and security.

Natural forces are stopping us from acting together because the mechanisms we have for joint action are old and weak and because fear has caused individual, societal and international retrenchment and suspicion -a gut reaction in an attempt to control the uncontrollable. By using wrong mechanisms and by reacting to fear, we are playing into the hands of those whose only skill is the management of fear. We must see fear for what it is, a common enemy but not a common solution.

Fear thrives on ignorance and random acts of violence. Let us find common ground and understand each others' fears – by acting separately but in a coordinated manner in both policy generation and the pursuit of sustainable implementation, we will be able to reduce violence and insecurity for each country and each region. The sum of all these individual secure and peaceful environments will provide the global answer we have been searching for.

Virginia Gamba is the Director of SaferAfrica, an international NGO based in South Africa and operating in all regions equally affected by Conflict.

With the collaboration ofSafe Democracy Foundation
Members of the Club de Madrid

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