Can't bomb the world to peace

IssueDecember 2004 - February 2005
Feature by Howard Clark

“Post-intervention peace operations” is the theme for this section of Peace News; an apt topic for the final edition of the paper to be co-published with War Resisters' International.

Our focus is less on classical peace-keeping, where the UN deploys a lightly armed force with the consent of the conflicting parties. Rather, while providing information on the whole contemporary peace-keeping scene, we examine in more depth the latest generation of “peace operations”, where the UN intervenes, takes over government and rebuilds social institutions.

Among advocates of augmenting the capacity for international military intervention, there is a spectrum of opinion. Before the attack on Iraq, various commentators were speculating about where the hawks would look for their next “preventive war”. At the other pole, the”doves”--who urge that there is a “responsibility to protect” (see box on p33) beleaguered populations from criminal rulers--are more concerned about issues of legitimacy, consistency in applying human rights standards, and enhancing the role of the UN and regional institutions in the world order.

Across the spectrum, however, there seems to be an acceptance that military intervention cannot stop at ejecting one set of rulers--it has to take responsibility for building up systems of governance to take their place.

Challenging “the doves”

The peace movement generally addresses the alarming politics and criminal actions of the hawks. This issue of Peace News looks more at the doveish end of the spectrum, where we find people who are our allies in denouncing the war in Iraq and who, while generally preferring negotiation to military action and while insisting on the need for UN authorisation, also believe that there need to be more military interventions.

As an example, Spanish prime minister Zapatero kept his electoral promise to withdraw forces from Iraq, but has maintained the previous government's commitment in Afghanistan where Spain participates in both the UN-sanctioned ISAF and the US-led “Operation Enduring Freedom”. Other examples include people who might well have taken part in the broad peace movement in the days of the Cold War but who, especially since Bosnia and Kosovo, want to expand the brief for international interventions authorised by the UN and relevant regional bodies in order to bring criminal regimes to book and take over the reigns of administration. In legitimising the military--alliances,the distortion of governmental budgets and of scientific enquiry--the doves are in many ways more important than the hawks because of their reasonableness,sincere respect for human rights, and willingness to speak to genuine humanitarian concerns. And it is in response to them that the traditional preparations for war are now accompanied by preparations for greater military intervention, for instance by programmes to increase the capacity for post-war management and state-building. Sometimes this even stretches to contracting bodies whose expertise has been of great value to the peace movement, including in Britain the Bradford University Department of Peace Studies.

A new role

After 40 years in which it had (with the exception of Korea) been confined to”peace-keeping operations” carried out with the consent of the warring parties,the UN found itself in a new situation in the 1990s. The end of the Cold War and various wars that followed brought demands for the UN to play an expanded role, yet repeatedly it found itself out of its depth and improvising. Now it is looking to standardise procedures and to prepare for rapid deployment for complex multi-dimensional missions, including preparing a corps of administrators primed to rebuild a state after war. It is therefore timely to analyse peaceoperations, and in particular to warn against practices that might prejudice the long-term future of war-torn territories. Internal evaluations, such as that carried by the UN Panel on Peace Operations (that produced the Brahimi report) concentrate on logistical problems--rapid deployment, coordination, lack of standard models--while an academic evaluation such as the Review of Peace Operations carried out by the International Policy Institute at King's College, London, is mainly concerned with how effectively the mandate was implemented. Here, our standpoint is different. We have an understanding of peace that fundamentally questions the validity of peace operations as an “add-on” to a military campaign, while the principles on which we wish to construct peace are profoundly at odds with the practices of peace “enforcement” we have been witnessing.

No to “negative peace”

Peace News (and WRI) contend that peace cannot be imposed. A military intervention might impose a ceasefire and so create the conditions for some form of coexistence, but interrupting hostilities with curfews, military checkpoints and physical separation is a long way short of establishing peace. Even “negative peace”(absence of armed conflict) cannot be sustained for long by military means alone.

The time to build peace is now — whether that is before or after or even during war. At whichever moment we are in, at whichever point of a conflict cycle,there is potential for peace-building. In the UN schematic, “peace-building” is seen as coming after war. Further, rather than an accurate term such as “post-war”, generally the term used nowadays is “post-conflict” — a weasel phrase that not only ignores the continued existence of conflict after war, but also tends to gloss over the impact that war itself has.

No blank pages in history

Sometimes it sounds as if the advocates of military intervention expect war to wipe the slate clean. A key concept these days is that of the “failed state”--a term that, no matter what the intention of its authors, exonerates international factors in de-stabilising a society, downplays the importance and the complexity of what social fabric and structures exist, and discounts the society's own potential for regeneration.

Warning of the “spectre of state collapse” does not amount to an analysis of the interacting causes of conflict, whilst in addition a peace-building policy needs to strengthen the elements conducive to creating the conditions for peace, and identify what might be considered the “peace constituency” in the situation--that is the network of people, groups and even institutions determined to bring peace about.

Peace depends on the people

Military intervention implies a promise to the threatened population--that those who intervene are committed to support them rebuild their society. Not surprisingly this promise seems to have a sub-text--”put things in our hands”--as with the UN Mission in Kosovo's (UNMIK's) triumphal slogan “Bringing peace to Kosovo”. And sometimes when a spokesperson for a threatened population appeals for international intervention, it sounds as if they are looking for a “deus ex machina”--a sustainable peace, however, has to be grounded in the efforts of the population.

Kofi Annan and others stress the important role of “civil society” and NGOs, but the impact of highly-funded international operations is actually to marginalise voluntary activity. They talent-spot the leadership of voluntary actors and offer them highly-paid jobs (that very rarely use their talents), while the inflow of project funding spawns a host of local NGOs who are not pursuing their own agenda to reshape their society but are more like small businesses, seeking contracts to carry out work desired by the international funders.

Peace is a long-term project

Military interventions tend to go hand-in-hand with media mobilisations demanding”quick-fix” solutions to conflicts that are basically intractable. The media lose their interest, “compassion fatigue” sets in, and the reconstruction funding diminishes. Going to war communicates an urgency that post-war processes can never match and accords the situation a priority that cannot be maintained. Once military operations are over, the immediate necessities--of relief and shelter, of curbing collective reprisals or looting, of marking minefields or areas where cluster bombs are scattered--are intensely demanding and time-consuming. And they are just the beginning. The return of refugees, the construction of new social institutions(usually including police forces), the disarming and reintegration of former-combatants, the complex of issues around transitional justice and “dealing with the past”--all these require to be addressed, often while tackling the very issues that led to war in the first place!


Preparing to intervene in an emergency is no substitute for addressing the roots of war and conflict.

Wars do not happen spontaneously: if their outbreak cannot always be predicted, what can be done is to analyse the conflicts of interest and tensions that might lead to war and to act upon them.