International Peace Day provides us with an opportune moment to reflect on the future of conflict and long-term prospects for peace in our world.
Its cruel irony is not lost for those living in over 90 countries where peace has deteriorated since last year. Shifting geopolitical dynamics; the effects of climate change; as well as deepening socio-economic inequality within and between countries are all at play. These factors intersect with (and are in part the consequence of) legacies of incomplete peacebuilding following earlier cycles of violence; and decades of poor governance and stagnating opportunities for citizens in many parts of the world.
Current conflict prevention and peacebuilding paradigms are further challenged by the fast pace of technological innovation. Technology has throughout history brought changes to the nature of warfare and by implication the wider geopolitical arena – think automated weapons, the atomic bomb and nuclear deterrence. Today, the diffusion and accessibility of destructive technologies and know-how increasingly allows both individuals and non-state actors to participate in violent acts. Fears as to the impact of autonomous weapons, and the ethics, morality and legality of development of these weapons, are also rising.
Cyber space has become another venue for hostile activity by states, individuals and criminal networks. Mass surveillance by governments; attacks by ‘hacktivists’ and criminal groups; online recruitment by violent extremist networks, as well as populist political forces who ratchet up identity-based divisions for political gain: these all represent new forms of hostile activity that fall through the cracks of traditional definitions of war, conflict, criminality, and activism, among many others, and undermine our collective capacity to respond.
Technology also offers new methods and opportunities to advance peaceful outcomes. Among these, are innovative efforts by Eliot Higgins, a citizen forensic expert, to monitor weapons transfers to Syria; and Dr Weisi Guo, who use satellite conflict data to inform early warning processes. Activists have seized the potential of online platforms to support early warning and violence reduction – with the Ushahidi platform which was set up after the electoral violence in Kenya in 2007 now reaching globally. The UN Pulse Lab – which brings together government experts, UN agencies, academia and the private sector to pioneer new methods and frameworks for using Big Data to support development goals, has experimented with providing new solutions to addressing conflict dynamics, in Somalia, Ghana and Uganda. Build Peace and Peace Nexus are at the forefront of convening new thinking in this area. These initiatives are testimony to the potential for new technologies to be put to work for peace, and should be recognized, learnt from and expanded.
On their own, however, they will not serve to turn back the tide on the wider set of conflict drivers and risk factors that will shape conflict and peace horizons in the years ahead. We need to do more.
There are other forms of ‘innovation’ that also need to be put forward in response to the multitude of challenges to peace being faced, that take us beyond the role of technology. The United Nations Secretary General’s Sustaining Peace agenda calls for a rebalancing of investment of funds and attention from peacekeeping to conflict prevention – and while this demand is not new, significant ‘innovation’ is still required across the international community to achieve intended outcomes. New methods are also required. We need to create space for local knowledge within international peacebuilding efforts and not rely solely on imported expertise. We need to listen more closely to those affected by violence, putting their involvement at the forefront.
How can the innovation space be meaningfully harnessed to positively contribute to reversing the recent upsurge in armed violence? How can new threats of our time be tackled? And how can long-standing and persistent sources of grievance and violence be creatively addressed?
These are some of the questions that will be discussed during the upcoming Istanbul Innovation Days (IID), an annual gathering of partners to explore innovative approaches to development and policy making. This year, IID is highlighting #NextGenGov, to take a closer look at emerging global trends impacting governance and peacebuilding. We invite you to join us!