The 2030 Agenda Reducing All Forms of Violence

The first target of Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 16, which is included in the 2030 Agenda, calls for significant reductions in “...all forms of violence and related death rates everywhere". Yet the "war on war"—to borrow a phrase coined by Joshua Goldstein—is not going well. After decades of progress in reducing the global burden of violent conflict, the last four years have seen a global increase of armed conflict, violence against civilians, and other forms of violence. This has been accompanied by an unprecedented crisis of global displacement and significant deterioration of human well-being in conflict­affected areas. To address the challenge, the international community must find the energy, strategy, commitment and resources needed to reduce violence in all its forms by preventing conflict, protecting vulnerable populations and rebuilding States and societies in the wake of violence. By including the reduction of all forms of violence among the SDGs, United Nations Member States have laid the groundwork for doing just that. Like the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that preceded them, the SDGs do not provide all the answers, but they do signal the world's priorities and expectations, set benchmarks against which we can judge progress, and sound the starting gun for a concerted global effort. Reducing violence is now one of those goals. The question is how to achieve this?

The relationship between economic development and violent conflict has long been vexed. On the one hand, peace and development are intrinsically linked. Not only is armed conflict perhaps the single greatest inhibitor to economic development—so much so that it is sometimes referred to as "development in reverse"—but sustained economic growth is closely associated with significantly higher chances of peace. In that context, it is hardly surprising that East Asia has performed relatively strongly in implementing the MDGs given its "long peace" stretching back to 1979, in which time it has experienced no interstate conflict and sharp declines in both civil war and one-sided violence. Equally unsurprising is the fact that the lowest performing countries vis-à-vis the MDGs are either conflict-affected States (e.g. the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Côte d'Ivoire, the Central African Republic and Afghanistan) or those experiencing endemic societal violence (Papua New Guinea). Since the outbreak of war in Syria in 2011, that country has moved from being among the better performers to being among the worst. Empirically, then, there is no doubt that in order to win the war on poverty, the international community needs to win the war on war. The reverse, however, is equally true-war will only be defeated through progress on alleviating poverty and raising living standards. Reflecting backwards, where the MDGs were achieved, this helped exert significant downward pressure on armed conflict. At the same time, reducing armed conflict significantly increased the chances of positive movement on development. This relationship has been well understood by the United Nations Development Programme, the World Bank and other leading development agencies for at least two decades.

Yet, despite this, there was strong political resistance in some quarters to linking international development efforts to the pursuit of international peace and security. In the context of negotiating the SDGs, Brazil, India and Pakistan initially argued that including a "peace goal" would blur the lines between economic development and security, encouraging the United Nations Security Council to interfere in General Assembly business. Some development experts also questioned the wisdom of including the reduction of all forms of violence as an SDG. They worried that it could draw financing away from core economic and social goals to national security-related objectives, such as counter-terrorism. But bitter experience has shown us that investing in economic development without also investing in peace is simply throwing good money after bad. Even a brief period of violent conflict can literally undo years of patient development work. Reducing violence globally requires determined action by the whole of the United Nations system and its partners. By including violence reduction among its targets, the SDGs have sounded a powerful call to action. Preventing violent conflict should be at the core of this new agenda.

Since the Carnegie Commission's landmark report on the prevention of deadly conflict in 1997, it has been common to separate prevention into two components: operational prevention, aimed at preventing violence that is imminently apprehended, and structural prevention, aimed at reducing or mitigating the underlying risks of violent conflict. In practice, however, the lines between the two are quite blurred. For example, multidimensional United Nations peace operations typically comprise elements of both. This reflects the fact that effective prevention entails activities aimed at both the underlying sources of risk and the more imminent triggers of violence. Just as preventing household fires requires a mixture of structural (regarding the design and fundamental fabric of a building) and more operational measures (such as the installation of sprinklers), so too must atrocity prevention tackle both the deep structures and crises that give rise to violence. After all, even if fitted with a sprinkler system, a house with an open fireplace, built of highly flammable materials, is likely to burn down eventually. So it is in the field of conflict prevention: sometimes, even determined action undertaken at the point of a crisis proves insufficient to prevent violence. The international response to the post-election crisis in Kenya in 2007-2008, for example, has been widely hailed as a totemic example of effective prevention. Yet some 1,500 civilians were killed before a resolution was found.

Over the past decade, steady progress has been made on developing the operational prevention of armed conflict. The United Nations has strengthened its early warning and assessment capacity through the Department of Political Affairs and its focus on atrocities prevention through the joint Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect (R2P); it has prioritized the protection of civilians in its field operations, and established the Human Rights Up Front action plan designed to make the whole United Nations system better able to anticipate and respond to human rights emergencies, including those that might involve atrocity crimes.

Somewhat less progress has been made on the operationalization of structural prevention, largely because these activities are upstream and detached from the attention-grabbing emergencies and have not been incorporated into the daily work of development agencies. Moreover, structural prevention is typically driven not by dedicated international actors, but by national Governments and other local actors motivated by local concerns. That is why the commitment of all States to reduce violence is so important, and violence reduction has become everyone's business. If the United Nations is to take the lead in helping Governments and others to deliver on their shared commitment, it is imperative that "upstream" prevention becomes a part of its core business.

Translating prevention from consensus to practice involves more than simply getting the right institutional configuration, however. It demands the political commitment of leaders in Government, international organizations and the non­governmental sector. Five challenges in particular stand out.

  • Agreement on the nature of the problem

It will be necessary to build a shared understanding of how to measure violence, to recognize the factors associated with its heightened risk and explore ways to address these risks. States will also need to agree on an authoritative tool in order to measure to what extent they are succeeding in reducing all forms of violence. This includes forms of violence that often escape attention, such as sexual and gender-based violence and so­called "domestic" violence. The SDGs are emphatic in demanding a reduction of "all forms" of violence. Only on the basis of a consensus on how to measure violence and understand the risk factors can we expect State-led action and global partnerships aimed at addressing them. The United Nations Framework of Analysis for Atrocity Crimes: a Tool for Prevention (2014) provides a useful starting point on identifying the risks associated with genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity, but it will be important that States and civil society actors are engaged in open dialogue regarding the sources of risk, and that efforts are made to build a consensus on these points.

  • National ownership

Arguably, the key practical challenge lies in encouraging States and societies to recognize the violence that they experience and the risk factors contained within their own national settings. Only when States and societies recognize the problem will they request international assistance and "own" structural prevention. A strong sense of mutual commitment from host States, societies and their international partners is crucial for effective prevention. This is a decidedly political activity and States tend to be very reluctant to acknowledge even ongoing violence and the most imminent threats, let alone upstream risk factors. Even structural prevention can therefore generate acute controversies and disputes. Practical approaches to prevention have to take this reality into account and develop means of encouraging States to engage proactively. One obvious solution, borrowed from human rights protection practices, may be to universalize the basic analysis by having all States report on patterns of violence and risk as part of their compliance with the SDGs. Another alternative would be to have the United Nations Secretariat provide the entire membership with detailed tracking of violence and risk factors.

  • Resource commitment

It has proven difficult thus far to generate sufficient political commitment to build atrocity prevention into the daily practices of the United Nations, regional organizations and development agencies. With that comes the failure to commit resources sufficient for the task. Part of the problem of political commitment stems from the allocation of responsibility—who is responsible for doing what? The inclusion of violence reduction in the SDGs should help to seal this commitment, since the whole community of States has a stake in reducing conflict worldwide.

  • Partnerships for violence reduction

Although the United Nations will inevitably shoulder a large part of the burden of reducing violence, responsibility for achieving this goal extends well beyond the Organization. Most obviously, it is important to reaffirm that the principle responsibility lies with individual States themselves. It is also important, however, that in-country civil society and private sector actors be brought into the equation and empowered as agents of prevention, and that international efforts be calibrated carefully to support local sources of resilience. Finally, we should recognize that, ultimately, it is individuals that will determine whether societies enjoy peace or are plunged into violence.

  • Due diligence

Anticipating and reducing unintended negative consequences through due diligence will be a crucial challenge. This requires a form of "due diligence" of the type already employed by some organizations operating in conflict situations, and called for by other contributors to this volume. Known as "conflict sensitivity", some government programmes that deliver aid in conflict settings employ frameworks to assess the impact of their aid on the social environment. It is important that such work is done on a systematic basis and that it includes sensitivity to the risks of different types of violence.

To help move this forward, the next United Nations Secretary-General should consider developing a comprehensive United Nations strategy for reducing all forms of violence. The strategy should (1) provide the basis for a more systematic and comprehensive approach to early warning and assessment; (2) provide guidance on how the United Nations system can mainstream violence prevention into its daily work; (3) provide guidance on how to determine when violence prevention ought to be prioritized above other considerations; (4) provide guidance on how the Organization can better direct its diplomatic engagement, public messaging, monitoring and assessment, and partnerships to support violence prevention; (5) provide advice on the most appropriate configurations for the United Nations field presence in countries experiencing risk of mass violence; (6) strengthen partnerships for preventing and ending violence, especially between the United Nations and regional arrangements; and (7) provide guidance and support to States and civil society groups to enable them to play their part to the fullest.

The SDGs have already been criticized in some quarters for being too expansive and ambitious. But that is precisely their objective-to set aspirations and challenge the world to accomplish what many think cannot be done. If the MDGs capacity to galvanize international partnerships can be carried over into the SDGs, the agreement to reduce violence in all its forms could be a significant step forward. Not only should it help orient the entire United Nations system towards the goal of reducing violence, but it also promises to marshal the energy, expertise and resources of States on behalf of its attainment as never before. The task now is to plan how we will achieve these goals and monitor progress. Then will come the difficult task of securing the necessary resources and political commitment. Whether the world's resolve to reduce violence is up to the challenge remains to be seen. Agreeing upon the goals is just one small, but significant, step. We all now have a responsibility to work together to identify important roles we can play in reducing violence around the world.