There are many place names which have a sinister echo: Vietnam, Afghanistan, Rwanda, Bosnia. Many only know the Persian Gulf, Somalia and Darfur as places of war. The latest extended conflict is taking place in Syria. We watch helplessly as tragedy follows tragedy. Why will war not end?
The UN, originally established to ensure world peace, seems as powerless as any one of us worrying over the news. The organisation is often prevented from taking military action by its own Security Council, particularly the right to veto held by its five member states.
Russia, the USA, China, France or the UK all have the power to prevent any UN operation. Russia heads the veto statistics, as it has blocked 183 decisions. The US comes in second, with 83, and China third, with 10 vetos.
Attempts to reform the Security Council have been foiled again and again over the past two decades. This famous five will not let go of their rights, and other countries have been unable to reach agreement on the ideal structure of a new Security Council. Meanwhile, the bloodshed continues.
BOMBING AND BACKLASH
Without the veto system, the UN could have already been disbanded. At least it wouldn’t be the extensive global organisation it is now, believes peace negotiator and Member of Parliament Pekka Haavisto.
“Thanks to the veto system, the UN has been prevented from making decisions that would have incurred significant losses for one of these five states, which could have then led to the losing state leaving the organisation altogether,” Haavisto muses.
Maintaining the connection has a price: inability to act in the face of acute crises. However, a show of force is no magic trick that can rapidly end any conflict. Sometimes it makes things worse.
“Killing the head of state or bombing the capital does not directly promote democracy or bring reconciliation to warring factions. We learned this after the regimes of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi were overthrown,” Haavisto points out.
“International military involvement destroyed the society in both Iraq and Libya, which only led to more violence.”
THE POWER OF AGREEMENTS
The UN does its most important work for peace behind the scenes, in endless diplomatic negotiations. According to some estimates, the UN had assisted in the peaceful resolution of approximately 170 armed conflicts by the year 2005, meaning a rate of approximately three per year.
In addition, UN diplomacy has probably prevented a host of international crises, even though they are more difficult to calculate. Most international agreements work well, points out Jarna Petman, docent of international law.
“The fact that we can listen to the radio and eat bananas are both thanks to international agreements. The countries of the world are attached to one another with hundreds of small ties, and it is impossible to be completely isolated,” Petman states.
“Even though the process of intervening in an acute conflict may seem painfully slow, we cannot accuse the whole international system of having failed.”
A PERVERTED IDEAL
Politics has become increasingly based on perceived enemies and hard-line populism. There is a real risk that the Cold War may return.
President Donald Trump is a provocative speaker, who has attacked the UN system as well as international agreements and laws. How will Trump’s attitude impact world peace?
“The rhetoric may be paving the way for action. At the very least, such hard talk is sure to increase international tension,” says Riikka Kuusisto, university lecturer in international politics who has studied the rhetoric of the heads of superpowers.
However, the United States has a robust, democratic structure of government. Kuusisto believes the system’s checks and balances will prevent the president from acting on his whims.
Nonetheless, the researcher worries about the idealisation of such a black-and-white, absolute leadership that emphasises brute force. This seems to be a current trend.
“Are we idealising leaders whose rhetoric is as obstinate and aggressive as possible?”
Peace needs diplomacy, and diplomacy needs patient long-term work: the ability to be flexible, consider different sides and negotiate.
“Contrasted with hate-mongering populist politicians, middle-of-the-road diplomacy can seem submissive or like bureaucracy that makes little progress,” Kuusisto says.
However, flexibility and the willingness to negotiate do not mean saying “yes” to everything. Diplomacy does not mean holding hands and singing campfire songs, Kuusisto points out.
“The main goal is to move forward in a peaceful manner. The ability to control one’s impulses has traditionally been considered a virtue – and I hope this will continue to be the case.”
Patient cooperation has maintained peace and brought the best results in global conflicts.
NO SEAT AT THE NEGOTIATING TABLE
Approximately one half of all peace deals fail, and the parties resume the conflict. Building lasting peace can be difficult, particularly when military leadership remains in power in peacetime.
Waging war requires very different competences than building a social and health-are infrastructure, for example. South Sudan is the latest tragic example of this. The country is trying to use military structures to govern in peacetime.
“Some of the ministers are practically illiterate people who were granted the position as a reward for fighting in the bush for thirty years,” Pekka Haavisto says.
Sometimes the peace agreement is so poor at the outset that it cannot last. In such cases, some party has typically been excluded from the negotiations. The excluded factions are fairly certain to continue the armed conflict.
Everyone involved must be included in the negotiations, says Haavisto.
“Even the UN considers some parties so unreasonable that they cannot be negotiated with. But there are people and organisations close to extreme movements like ISIS and Boko Haram with whom we could connect.”
A CRAZY VILLAGE
Haavisto has brokered peace in the world’s worst crisis sites, and among the most difficult groups. He has sat among the Taleban, the Ugandan Lord’s Resistance Army and the most radical Somali Islamist extremists.
“We have to hear what everyone has to say, or we can’t get anywhere. However, we do not and cannot agree with everyone.”
Last year, the development cooperation fund Finnfund ran into severe human rights problems with the Aqua Zarca hydropower project it was funding in Honduras. Tensions both for and against the hydropower plant escalated so badly that activists were being murdered. Finnfund asked Haavisto to step in.
“The Honduran ministers said they had conducted negotiations comprehensively – except for that one ‘crazy Indian village they couldn’t go to’.”
Coincidentally, that village was the only group opposing the power plant which was backed by the government.
LONG LINE OF DISAPPOINTMENTS
Haavisto headed to the village without a police escort, as the police were too afraid of violence to accompany him. The villagers said they had been waiting for a long time for someone to come talk to them.
“After that I got to sit there for four hours with my face burning, listening as they talked about all the things the international community and the Honduran government had done wrong and how they felt betrayed.”
Passing the Indians over in the hydropower project had been the last straw after a long line of disappointments. Now the situation is so tense that Finnfund is looking for a way to back away from the project. Violence could flare at any minute.
Haavisto saw the situation in Honduras as an opportunity to make amends and reduce tension through negotiation. Development cooperation could also help, as it could support the local people in solving their problems.
However, development cooperation budgets have been cut significantly, and Finn Church Aid, which has previously been active in Honduras, no longer has the resources to address the situation.
THE RICH AND THE POOR
Jarna Petman calls the decision to cut development cooperation budgets a short-sighted one. Western countries are shutting their borders and funding channels, and the rhetoric surrounding development aid is becoming increasingly negative. This trend cannot continue.
“International politics is made on a five- or ten-year timespan, even though it should consider the potential developments of the coming century.”
Most of the refugees in the world are not fleeing from armed conflict, but from everyday conditions that have become unbearable. Every day, 16,000 children die of preventable diseases. More than 800 million people are starving.
“People speak of economic refugees as less worthy, even though hunger and poverty are the real crises that require global attention,” Petman emphasises.
If we let the chasm between the rich and the poor or the north and the south get any wider, our future will be disastrous, says Petman.
“No walls can hold a billion desperate people, if they flee their homes because of climate change, for example. We simply must stop the increasing inequality in the world.”
GUERRILLAS FOR KARELIA
During peace negotiations, Haavisto has met people who have been fighting for decades. Over time, the soldiers’ identities have been reduced to practically just hatred for the enemy.
“The radical SomaliIslamists I met with define the entire existence of Somalia through its neighbouring Ethiopia. According to them, their horrible neighbour has always ruined everything and even stolen an entire province.”
Haavisto told the radicals about Finland and Russia, their neighbour relations, of how Russia took Karelia from Finland and how Finns accepted the new border for the sake of peace.
“The guerrillas were shocked. They promised to come to Finland to fight for the return of Karelia.”
FOR THE FUTURE
Building peace is extremely demanding. People must compromise on their wishes, at least in part.
“It is impossible to have all of your personal demands satisfied in a peace agreement. You must be able to make difficult compromises.”
In almost all of the peace negotiations he has attended, Haavisto has talked about why peace is worth it. The benefit of peace is not immediate glory, but a better future.
“Peace ensures that coming generations can grow and develop without being caught in a cycle of war and revenge.”
This article was published in Finnish in the Y/03/17 issue of Yliopisto magazine.