Press Releases

    23 February 2004

    Deputy-Secretary-General, in Fletcher School Address, Describes Lessons Learned, Sometimes Painfully, in more than Decade of Complex, Peace-Building Missions

    NEW YORK, 20 February (UN Headquarters) -- Following is Deputy Secretary-General Louise Fréchette’s address to the Fletcher Conference on Innovative Approaches: “Rethinking Interdisciplinary Action in Conflict”, at Medford, Massachusetts, 19 February:

    It is a great pleasure to be here at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.  Fletcher has a long record of contributing to the United Nations -- both through its high-quality research and analysis, and through the alumni who have served with distinction in the Secretariat.  That is history to build on, and I am glad we have this opportunity today to sustain and deepen the relationship.

    This conference is especially timely.  While global attention has been focused on Iraq, the number of United Nations peacekeeping troops in the field has quietly reached levels higher than at any time since 1995.  Moreover, if some current peace processes in Africa fulfil their promise, the United Nations may be called on to establish several more operations in the year ahead.  All of these would be multidisciplinary missions of the type you are focusing on at this conference.

    It is easy to forget that these ambitious enterprises in peace-building are a relatively recent invention.  While the process of decolonisation did entail some international support for new nations, the complex missions, the first of which was in Cambodia in 1992, have had a different starting point:  societies deeply divided by years of often cruel conflict.  The international community had very little to go by when it started down this path.  The United Nations, finding itself at the centre of most of these experiments, was forced to improvise, with little time to conceptualise or develop the right tools.  Someone compared this to trying to build a car while in motion.  Lessons have been learned -- sometimes very painfully -- and I wish to share some of them with you in the next few minutes.

    Let me start with the first and most obvious:  you can never know too much about the country you are trying to help.  Conflicts usually have deep roots in the country’s history, economy, culture, ethnic and religious make-up.  And lasting peace cannot be built in ignorance of these factors.  Solid knowledge of local circumstances is essential to navigate even what might appear, at first sight, to be the simplest transactions.

    Consider, for example, what happened in the early days of our Kosovo operation.

    There, as administrator of the province, one of our first tasks was to determine the applicable law.  Our decision seemed straightforward enough:  existing law would apply except where it contravened international human rights norms.  This had the virtue of ensuring stability and continuity, and seemed to promise the least disruption in the daily functioning of society.  But to the local Albanian population, the “existing” law was a symbol of Serbian domination, and was therefore unacceptable, even if cleansed of its offensive elements.  We had no choice but to revert to laws that had been put in place much earlier, during the time when Kosovo enjoyed broad autonomy within Tito’s Yugoslavia.

    The United Nations, with its multinational Secretariat, is better equipped with the requisite knowledge-base than most other organisations.  But complex missions usually require hundreds of staff, on very short notice.  And too often, it is simply impossible to recruit candidates that have both the relevant expertise in a given area and adequate knowledge of the local culture and language.  For this reason, the local staff in our peace missions play an irreplaceable role.  They are interpreters of local realities, and our best source of advice on local mores.

    The wise mediator will also quickly conclude that time spent listening to the widest possible cross-section of a society is time well invested.  Our best envoys always display genuine empathy and concern for the people they have been sent to support.  Often, true knowledge is a matter of the heart as well as the head.

    A second lesson can be summarized in one word:  security.  Nothing is possible without security -- not reconstruction, not repatriation of refugees, not elections, not reconciliation.  More often than not, the only way to establish a secure environment is to send a large enough number of troops to discourage armed groups -- whether politically or criminally motivated -- from intimidating the population.  Difficult as this proposition may be to contemplate for troop-contributing countries and those footing the bills, experience bear it out.

    Tens of thousands of NATO troops in Bosnia and Kosovo, the robust Australian-led INTERFET force in East Timor -- these interventions stand in stark contrast, in terms of soldiers-per-square-mile, to what we have seen since in deployments to Afghanistan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  That both these latter countries, despite important steps forward, still face uncertain prospects and fundamental questions about the irreversibility of peace, should not surprise anyone.  I do not mean to suggest a simple equation between the number of soldiers and prospects for lasting peace, but the perils of an inadequate military presence are becoming all too obvious.

    Some of the tasks awaiting the peacekeepers normally belong to police forces, but local police forces are often weak or non-existent, or are hated by the local population -- as they were in pre-crisis East Timor or Kosovo.  There is no choice but for soldiers to do some law enforcement in the initial period.  More and more military institutions now accept that this is an inevitable responsibility and prepare their soldiers accordingly.

    The ideal solution is the quick restoration of local policing capability, but recruitment and training take time.  Funding has also been difficult to secure.  Donors readily pay for schools and hospitals, but they shy away from police salaries, uniforms and equipment, including side-arms.  Yet these may well be more crucial to ensuring long term peace.

    In some extreme situations, there has been no alternative but to create an international police force.  While international police can do a very god job of training a new police force and acting as mentors to the new recruits on the beat, they are severely handicapped when asked to assume executive authority. To begin with, raising a sufficient number of qualified police officers is an enormous endeavour. While soldiers are usually recruited in formed units, police usually have to be recruited from most countries one by one.

    It is also much more difficult to build cohesion among a disparate group of police officers than it is among military units coming from different parts of the world.  The latter share common military concepts and traditions that tend not to exist among the world’s police forces.  But perhaps the biggest handicap lies in the basic nature of police work:  effective policing is grounded in a thorough knowledge of the communities to be policed, and in the trust of the local population.  Foreign police officers who do not even speak the local language can never hope to take root in the community as local officers can.

    Closely linked to the maintenance of law and order is the restoration of justice systems.  How much can police achieve if there are no legal codes, no courts, no judges, and no corrections system?  There again, importing foreign judges and other officers of the court may be a necessity, in order to train local members of the legal community and build up capacity in general.  But it remains essential to work with whatever is left of the local justice system, to the extent possible.

    Much thornier is the question of how to deal with the past, how to bring solace and healing to the victims of war crimes and grave violations of human rights, and how to hold accountable those who committed such acts.  The only lesson I would draw from the experience of the last several decades is that there is no model, only a wide variety of situations, each of which needs its own custom-built solution.  Some countries, such as South Africa, have chosen the catharsis of public hearings, expiation and amnesty, while Rwanda has chosen criminal prosecutions for the ring-leaders combined with the traditional gacaca system -- a blend of justice and reconciliation -- for the rank and file.

    The two international criminal tribunals have done very important work -- both of them overcoming early scepticism.  The tribunal for Rwanda has handed down precedent-setting verdicts, including the first from an international tribunal convicting someone of rape as a crime of war and members of the media as agents of genocide. The tribunal for the former Yugoslavia is likewise breaking new ground with its prosecution of a former head of State.  However, these tribunals are extremely expensive -- as of the end of last year, $1.3 billion had been spent since their creation. The UN-assisted mixed tribunals, whether international or national in character, such as the Special Court for Sierra Leone, can be especially helpful in giving the local population a sense of ownership that international tribunals do not provide.  Of course, we have not had much experience with these, so one might say the jury is still out.

    The international community may often appear to place accountability for war crimes ahead of other priorities in post-conflict situations.  Prudence may dictate patience, however.  Legal proceedings initiated too quickly can undermine fragile peace processes.  But as we can see in Latin America, where the long arm of the law is still actively pursuing perpetrators, justice can prevail even decades after the event.  With time, the International Criminal Court, as a court of last resort, should greatly strengthen our efforts against impunity and for protection, and will raise the standard by which national justice systems are judged.

    Another lesson learned in Afghanistan, in East Timor, in Kosovo, in Sierra Leone and in just about every post-conflict situation is how important it is to restore quickly a modicum of normal life.  The population of war-torn countries is remarkably resilient.  The moment it is safe enough to go back to the streets, modest economic activity restarts.  And so strong is the desire to go home, that refugees will seize the first opportunity to leave their camps.  In most cases, however, the courage and energy of the population is simply insufficient to put the country back on a path of growth and stability.

    The international community -- the United Nations, non-governmental organizations, bilateral donors -– is very good at reopening schools, feeding huge numbers of people and providing essential medical services.  For example, over the past two years in Afghanistan, the United Nations has provided food aid to 9.2 million people, rehabilitated 101 schools, distributed textbooks and stationery to 4.5 million school children, and helped immunize more than 10 million children. However, the Organization is much less proficient at creating employment opportunities, without which freshly demobilised soldiers and other unemployed youth may turn to violence and crime.

    It is not realistic to count on a sudden surge in investments. These will come in significant amounts only when the situation has stabilised sufficiently to offer some prospect of reasonable returns.  In the immediate aftermath of a conflict, economic stimulus in the form of infrastructure repair, construction programmes and cheap credit for small-scale enterprises must be given priority by the donor community.  We are still too slow in taking effective collective action on this front.

    We have also, in the past, underestimated the importance of shoring up basic state services, of which the judiciary is only one part.  In countries emerging from conflict, it is rarely the case that “the less government, the better”.  No country can do without the essential services -- from security to legal and regulatory frameworks -- that can be performed only by governments.  Here, too, donors have been reluctant to provide funds to pay salaries for civil servants or to buy basic office equipment.  With time, such costs must be borne by each country’s own citizens.  But at the moment of emergence from conflict, outside help may be crucial in getting the State up and running.

    I have saved for last the restoration or, more often, the installation of a democratic system.  One lesson that comes quickly to mind is that an election, an essential step in any democratic process, is also a difficult exercise in a context of fragile reconciliation.  As a veteran of the Mozambique peace process once told me, successful peace negotiations depend on developing trust between adversaries, while elections pit them back against one another and inevitably raise tensions.

    Care must be taken to ensure that elections take place in appropriate conditions.  It is imprudent to rush elections without such pre-requisites as a reliable voters’ register, a transparent electoral law and appropriate safeguards for human rights and other freedoms.

    Often, an entirely new constitution will have to be developed.  Ways have to be found to ensure that these building blocks of democracy are put in place with the broadest possible participation -- not only of the political forces in place but also of civil society at large.

    The challenges currently being encountered in Iraq are not in that respect very different from those observed in other post-conflict situations.  Needless to say, there is no single, correct way of building democracy.  What matters is that it be built on the basis of a genuine consensus among the largest possible numbers of actors.  Patience -- infinite patience -- is required, and the international community can be of tremendous help, provided all the relevant actors pull in the same direction.

    The most important lesson of all is that no matter how well-meaning the international community may be, and no matter how abundant the resources it is prepared to offer, it cannot and should not attempt to impose its own ideals and visions onto societies emerging from conflict.  Simply put, people want to control their own destiny.

    At most, conflict may induce a momentary slackening of this basic human desire, and a willingness to see order imposed, even by outsiders.  But the moment that is done, the yearning for self-government rises quickly to the surface again.

    In Timor-Leste, the United Nations was given full authority to administer the territory while preparing it for independence. But even there, where we were viewed very positively by the population, it did not take long for Timorese to feel impatient with the level of their participation and the pace at which they were allowed to take control. The Timorese, like people everywhere, were eager to take decisions affecting their lives into their own hands.  Our colleague Sergio Vieira de Mello, who was the Administrator of the territory at the time (and later, as you know, lost his life in the attack on the United Nations in Baghdad last August), wisely decided to devolve maximum power to a Timorese Council, ahead of the full transfer of sovereignty.

    The best service the international community can offer is to be attentive to the specific circumstances of the societies it seeks to help, to be respectful of their aspirations, and to be ready to support national efforts with advice, expertise and resources.

    That does not make international cooperation in support of peace-building efforts any less important.  Indeed, the final lesson I wish to leave with you is that international engagement must be sustained over a long period of time. Peace-building processes are complex and multidimensional, and their many facets are all interconnected. They need to be nurtured comprehensively, intelligently and, above all, patiently.  International institutions, particularly the United Nations, have a crucial role to play in pulling the international community together.  If well-coordinated and aligned with the actual priority needs of the country -- rather than the preferences of individual donors and institutions -- international assistance can have, and usually does have, a strongly positive and mutually reinforcing impact.

    I wish I could conclude by saying that, soon, our accumulated knowledge of how to support peace-building will be of strictly historical interest.  Alas, I doubt this will be the case.  We are likely to see many more situations where we will be called upon to help.  We will need well prepared people like you to get involved and make a contribution.  Thank you for showing such a strong interest in the issue of peace-building.  It is literally a matter of life or death for millions of people.

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