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As conflicts spiral, five ideas to bolster the UN’s peace commission

‘It’s a nice little boutique: it works well, its contribution is undoubtful, but it’s currently rather small-scale.’


Low-profile and sparsely funded, the UN’s peacebuilding architecture has come to represent something of a backwater compared to the larger peacekeeping missions and emergency response agencies like OCHA, UNICEF, and the World Food Programme.

But conflicts are proliferating, as well as becoming deadlier, more complex, and harder to end. And with the UN Security Council paralysed by geopolitics, could the Peacebuilding Commission be just the kind of multilateral – and more nimble – arena worth investing in?

Outgoing Croatian chair Ivan Šimonović certainly thinks so. It’s a “nice little boutique: it works well, its contribution is undoubtful, but it’s currently rather small-scale,” he told The New Humanitarian in a late January interview.

The commission, or PBC, is the outward-facing arm of the UN’s peacebuilding architecture, working alongside the Peacebuilding Fund and the Peacebuilding Support Office to take a root cause approach to solving conflicts and violence, connecting the policy realms of peace, security, and development.

A voluntary, consensus-based body made up of 31 states, the commission works with conflict-affected countries to map out solutions to sustainable peace. It operates separately from peacekeeping missions, which are deployed on the basis of mandates from the Security Council and paid for by all member states.

As policymakers prepare for a 2025 review, anticipation is growing at the prospect of strengthening the UN peacebuilding architecture, particularly the commission.

Šimonović told The New Humanitarian he was excited by diplomatic “heavyweights” Brazil and then Germany taking over his position, amid a “growing awareness of the importance and potential of PBC”, which “almost everyone agrees… should be increased”.

Šimonović chaired the commission for 13 months until 2 February, when he passed the baton to Brazil’s Sérgio França Danese. Šimonović is now a vice-chair. 

Supporters of boosting the commission will be encouraged by the initial draft of UN Secretary-General António Guterres’ Pact for the Future. Published on 26 January, it dedicates a whole section to strengthening the body.

Guterres hopes the pact will be signed off at his Summit of the Future – an attempt to “forge a new international consensus” by reforming multilateralism – at the UN General Assembly in September, although the addition of 242 pages of edits have cast some doubt on the document’s long-term viability. 

The commission is a relatively uncontroversial body, but support for its expansion isn’t as universal as Šimonović suggested: Richard Gowan, UN director at the International Crisis Group, told The New Humanitarian that some countries – notably China and India – are sceptical of moves to strengthen it, preferring to do business through the Security Council.

Despite the challenges, Šimonović said reforms to the PBC could be “transformative” and shared the following five ideas for boosting it. 

Šimonović stressed that he was speaking in a personal capacity and not on behalf of the commission.

1. Deal with more countries

Having more countries on its agenda would help destigmatise working with the commission, according to Šimonović. 

In 2023, the commission examined 10 countries and regions: Honduras, Colombia, the Central African Republic, Liberia, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau, South Sudan, and the Sahel, Gulf of Guinea, and Great Lakes regions of Africa. 

Šimonović said “major steps” towards increasing this number had been made, citing a joint discussion of Indigenous peoples’ reconciliation by peaceful Norway and Canada alongside conflict-affected Colombia. “Speaking openly about our challenges is a great opportunity” because it encourages other states to do the same, highlighting the “universality” of peacebuilding, he said.

Working with the commission can materially benefit conflict-affected states too, Šimonović stressed, adding that it serves as a “shop window for major donors… [who see] countries having some successes in overcoming their fragility but lack resources”.

2. Look at more issues in a new light

Šimonović wants the commission to go beyond examining typical UN topics like women and youth and to start tackling more “controversial” subjects such as Artificial Intelligence. 

In his outgoing remarks to the PBC, Šimonović highlighted how the body had, in 2023, increasingly discussed thorny and pressing issues like transitional justice, reconciliation, the rule of law, and the impacts of climate change.

He told The New Humanitarian the PBC was a unique body, particularly because of its consensus-based approach, which gives it “a cooperative atmosphere”.

“But this approach, and the solutions it spawns,” he cautioned, “can also make it more difficult to deal with violence where the state is a party to the conflict and the elites have an interest in continuing fighting.”

3. Get more money 

UN peacebuilding already had a massive boost last year when the General Assembly passed a resolution to introduce mandatory assessed contributions to the Peacebuilding Fund, to the tune of $50 million a year. “It's not an impressive amount, but it's a step in the right direction,” said Šimonović. The fund was previously just voluntarily financed. 

Šimonović said funding currently “produces useful results but on a small scale”, adding that more money – but also more “creative” financing – are needed to bolster peacebuilding, particularly efforts to deal with the root causes of violence.

“I think, in future, we should rely more on the World Bank as well as regional development banks. If PBC would have a major role... it requires much more financing than it has today,” he said.

Along with other international financial institutions, the World Bank has its own conflict and fragility strategy, but Šimonović said “we need to bring all that together”, proposing the PBC as the place to do it.

Having the funding available to help governments to improve their violence prevention capacity “could really be transformative in [the] sense of prevention of conflicts and atrocity crimes on the large scale,” he added. 

4. Develop national prevention strategies 

Šimonović also suggested some tools the commission could employ to help reduce violence.

“I like very much the idea of [country-owned] national prevention strategies,” he said, adding that these should identify the root causes of potential conflicts and help to mitigate the risks.

Šimonović said the commission could be a forum for countries to present their plans to prevent conflict, and for “peer-to-peer learning on how to improve prevention”.

Having reviews take place “systematically”, like voluntary national reviews for the Sustainable Development Goals, could be “a transformative and really serious solution to improve prevention”, he said.

Šimonović didn’t name any working examples but hoped Norway, Kenya, and East Timor would soon present conflict, violence, and atrocity prevention strategies to the PBC. An ongoing effort in Mauritania was visited by Peacebuilding Fund officials last October, but this was not mentioned in the interview.

5. Deploy light-footprint civilian missions

Šimonović also strongly advocated for the use of light-footprint civilian missions – only deploying with the consent of the country to which they are sent – under the auspices of the commission.

He said these missions would comprise “political officers, human rights officers, as well as experts on elections or rule of law”, addressing the root causes of conflict, reconciliation, and political transitions.

With greater financing, these missions “could be extremely helpful”, including as a transition from large peacekeeping operations to regular UN post-conflict development work, Šimonović said.

“The likelihood of developing such light-footprint missions within the context of the [2025] review of peacebuilding architecture seems to be likely,” he added. 

Despite the higher costs involved, Šimonović said such missions had the potential to save money in the longer run by ending large and expensive peacekeeping missions sooner. 

His sole example of such a mission dated back to 2009, in the aftermath of Guinea’s 28 September stadium massacre, which saw at least 157 peaceful protesters against former president Moussa Dadis Camara killed by security forces.

"To defuse tensions, authorities agreed to host a small UN civilian mission consisting of human rights and political officers. They objectively established what happened, which helped to defuse tensions and avoid escalation,” said Šimonović. He said the mission helped preserve evidence and “bring perpetrators to justice many years after”.

The trial of 11 alleged key perpetrators, including Camara, began in September 2022 and is still ongoing, although it has struggled to overcome security challenges.

Edited by Andrew Gully.

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