You are here: Kieran Richardson on peacebuilding in the aftermath of conflict

For many nations and regions emerging from conflict, the restoration of peace is rarely the final destination on the journey to lasting stability. Yet, as UN capacity is increasingly stretched and emergencies requiring its attention seem to emerge ceaselessly, can and should the UN continue to pour resources into peacebuilding operations in the aftermath of inter-state conflict?

The continuing, multifaceted efforts to sustain peace over the long-term and reduce the likelihood of relapsing into conflict are what the UN defines as the process of peacebuilding. These processes involve a number of UN agencies, none of which explicitly prohibit the allocation of resources for operations following conflicts between states.

In the strictest sense then, the UN can of course support peacebuilding after such conflicts or interventions. But the real issue is whether it is actually capable of doing so – and whether it ought to in the first place. Take, for example, the situations in Iraq and Ukraine. These two scenarios differ significantly, as do the levels of UN involvement, but both offer an insight into UN peacebuilding operations following (or during, in the case of Ukraine) conflicts involving an intervening state.

Neither country appears on the UN Peacebuilding Commission (PBC)'s agenda or on the Peacebuilding Fund's target list. They do, however, receive notable assistance from the UN Development Programme (UNDP) and the World Food Programme (WFP). In Ukraine, UNDP has provided critical supplies to over 30,000 people; and in Iraq, WFP has succeeded in distributing food to more than 438,000.

This humanitarian aid is likely to be the primary role that many envisage for the UN in these post-conflict situations, but it certainly does not end there. UNDP assists with programmes which aim to establish good governance and democracy, and often devotes significant resources towards these objectives. For example, in Ukraine, UNDP has committed 76 per cent of its budget to 'Democratic Governance' themed projects, which amounts to a significant US$15.9m.

Democratic governance programmes do serve a valuable purpose in efforts to create enduring peace, stability and self-sufficiency; but with so many people around the world in need of UN assistance, it is worth considering how best to utilise the UN’s crucial, but finite, resources. 

WFP in Iraq estimates that it will require an additional US$200m in order to prevent a “partial pipeline break for [food] vouchers in March, and a complete pipeline break for all types of food assistance in April.” When such a shortfall is anticipated for vital humanitarian assistance in just one country of operation, the diversion of resources to repair the damage caused by inter-state conflict, which is discouraged in almost all forms by international law, seems indefensible.

Consequently, the burden of reconstruction on intervening states in the wake of conflict is alleviated, not just at the expense of the UN, but at the expense of those the UN assists. These are states which have, regardless of legality, actively engaged in conflict beyond their borders. This is not to say that peacebuilding and the establishment of stable governance are not worth the investment, but rather that the cost is in need of appropriate distribution.

UN peacebuilding following conflict between states may produce some long-term benefits, but in the process it diverts indispensable resources away from those in immediate need – such as victims of natural disasters – and removes deterrents to undesirable inter-state behaviour. A recalibration of its approach could free up resources for elsewhere, and simultaneously reinforce the credibility of international laws which seek to uphold sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Others may believe that the opposite is true, that the UN should utilise its impressive political capabilities to prioritise peacebuilding instead and leave NGOs to take up the mantle of humanitarian assistance. Regardless, the UN’s regular budget is set to be reduced by 2.9 per cent this year while crises and conflicts show few signs of abating. Something has to give.

Kieran Richardson is a Policy & Advocacy Intern at UNA-UK