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Photo: Alice Donovan Rouse, Unsplash

Restoring relationships and building trust for positive peace

21 September 2017

The theme of this year’s International Day of Peace is Together for Peace. And yet this is a time when peace feels fragile for many of us, and for some it probably feels impossibly remote.

We are about to enter a period that will give us many moments to reflect upon peace. 2018 marks the centenary of the end of the First World War, a conflict that saw the deaths of an estimated 18 million people. It marks the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement, which brought to an end conflict in Northern Ireland by committing participants to exclusively democratic and peaceful means of resolving differences on political issues. It’s also the centenary of the birth of Nelson Mandela, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 for his work for the peaceful termination of the apartheid regime and for laying the foundations of a new democratic South Africa.

No one would say that these three peace settlements were perfect. Just a few decades after “the war to end all wars” the world saw another global conflict, with an estimated death toll of 60 million. The political institutions in Northern Ireland remain in deadlock and many communities feel deeply divided still. And in South Africa we see a generation who do not feel they have benefited from what they hoped would be the dividend of a peaceful and inclusive society.

But each one does offer a glimpse of hope, and ways from which the international community can learn what to do, and what not to do, in order to bring about positive peace. That, as defined by “the father of peace studies” Johan Galtung, is more than just the absence of violence. A positive peace calls for the restoration of social trust and relationships and systems. It allows for conflict – a natural part of the human condition, and a necessary element of the creative process – but manages it constructively.

In order to move forward with positive peacebuilding, we need to prioritise the hard task of building trust. That includes developing strategies that recognise human strengths, frailties and how trusting relationships are developed. Lord Alderdice – one of the negotiators in the Northern Irish peace process – noted that: “Where either side feels disrespected and humiliated, unfairly treated, and where there is no peaceful democratic way to resolve difficult relationships, there is the seedbed for trouble.” 

History suggests a sense of being treated unfairly continues to be a major stumbling block to building trust and positive peace. The humiliation felt by the German people after 1918 had a direct link to the rise of National Socialism in the 1930s. The threat of dissident violence has not completely gone from Northern Ireland and there remain unresolved issues, such as how to deal fairly and justly with victims of violence. And many commentators believe that student protests around fees in South African universities were driven by the state’s failure to redress the devastating inequities wrought by apartheid and a continued sense of cultural and structural violence being visited upon black citizens. 

This year, the UN asks us to work together for peace. I am hopeful that this is happening. When Federica Mogherini, high representative of the European Union for foreign affairs and security policy, won the 2016 Hessian Prize, she said: “Peace is a collective responsibility.” Nobel Laureate President Santos has talked of being inspired by the Northern Ireland Peace Process in his negotiations to end the violence in Colombia. And that spirit of co-operation is captured in the SDGs, with Goal 16 clearly making a clear link between peace, justice and inclusion, and including targets on participation and international co-operation. 

SDG 17, with its emphasis on international co-operation, echoes the UN’s call for us to work together for peace.  It is only through forging those global partnerships, grounded in trust and with a shared vision, that the international community can achieve the truly peaceful, just and inclusive societies needed to deliver the SDGs. Perhaps then, in the words of Nobel Peace Laureate Elie Wiesel, shall peace be “our gift to each other”.

In April 2018 the British Council will mark the 20th anniversary of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement with the Peace and Beyond conference. With partners Queen’s University Belfast and Ulster University, and in association with the Centre for Democracy and Peace Building, the conference will deliver plenaries, workshops, site visits and networking events at which policy makers, practitioners and academics will explore the question of what lies beyond the political settlement of peace. Visit the website for more information and to register your interest.

About the author

Christine Wilson
British Council

Christine Wilson is head of society research and engagement at the British Council. She oversees a global research portfolio around civil society, gender equality, youth, conflict and resilience. She also directs the Next Generation series.