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The tragedy of Ukraine and the urgency of peacebuilding

The full-scale invasion of Ukraine is less than a week old and most of us have watched in horror as Russian tanks rolled into a sovereign country only to face the resilience and bravery of the Ukrainian people determined to defy the odds and push back the invading army.

Many of us will be feeling a sense of dread that things will get worse before they get better, and that we are witnessing the most dramatic geopolitical tectonic shift in a generation. Almost all of us are feeling completely powerless.

For all of us working in this precious, battered, exhausted sector, the war in Ukraine is a reminder that our work can sometimes be, at best, a sticking plaster on a wound that goes much deeper. The humanitarian appeals will spring to action and will do their best to get funds to the organisations best placed to help those fleeing the conflict. And when the war is over, we’ll help pick up the pieces. And for some of us, like me, who work in the peacebuilding sector, that tiny enclave within a continent of development and humanitarian actors, we’ll be feeling an acute sense of loss, grief, and mission failure.

After all, we’re here to build sustainable peace, to stop violent conflict, and to work quietly behind the scenes to promote dialogue, mediation and negotiated agreements at a community, national and international level. Few people in my line of work are foolish enough to believe that civilian-led or even international peacebuilding efforts, however heroic, could have prevented a war that appears to have been planned well in advance. But what we do know is that all wars represent a failure of reason, diplomacy and at some level, peacebuilding.

And yet, while peacebuilding may feel like a distant and rather naive idea when war is fully raging, the purpose of peacebuilding remains as vital during violence as it is before and after. People often still assume that peacebuilding only takes place after the guns have fallen silent, when in fact peacebuilding can and does take place before, during and after violent conflict, as our work over the past 20 years has demonstrated. The peacebuilding work Peace Direct has supported has prevented violent retribution among communities across South Kordofan in Sudan, helped prevent young people from joining armed groups in Eastern DR Congo and has supported reconciliation processes in countries such as Sri Lanka. Even during appalling violence, we have learned that there are always people working to save lives, prevent the next attack, and open pathways to rebuild relationships and heal broken societies. And, if peacebuilders do their work well, there is often nothing to see, no violence, no community tensions, no displaced people. That’s why peacebuilding remains so poorly funded and so poorly understood.

So, what could have been done before now and what can be done going forward? History has shown us that in addition to and complementing long-term peacebuilding efforts, nonviolent movements have removed the most odious of leaders before, from Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines in 1986 and Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia in 2000, to the recent toppling of Omar Bashir in Sudan in 2019. These homegrown people-powered movements were supported and sometimes trained in non-violent actions by groups around the world and their stories read like the most remarkable movies never made. While present-day Russia is notoriously repressive, so too have been other dictatorships, and civil resistance has prevailed there. So let us not give up hope that ordinary people can overthrow the mightiest empires in their quest for greater freedom. And should you need further proof, consider this: one well-known study on civil resistance concluded that it only takes 3.5% of the population to topple a dictator.

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Gene Sharp in his book, The Politics of Non-Violent Action, listed 198 ways to resist tyranny, some of which have already been implemented by governments, multilateral bodies and companies around the world, including cultural and sporting boycotts, sanctions, ending business contracts and the withdrawal of membership of international bodies. And let’s not forget the countless examples of non-violent resistance performed by Ukrainian citizens, such as the footage released last week of “tank man“. Together, these efforts will have an impact.

In Ukraine, there is a vibrant and flourishing civil society, including many local peacebuilding organisations. They can and should be supported, because they are doing the painstaking work of building bridges between communities, including in the Donbas region. Many of these organisations may no longer be functioning soon, but they will return and should be helped in whatever way they need, as evidenced by the Kyiv Declaration published today by 40 Ukrainian NGOs.

Above all else, peacebuilding is an approach that needs to be integrated more consciously into all other aspects of social development. It has, for too long, been relegated to the back of the room, only to find a role when communities have already been torn apart. The international sector still operates in stultifying silos and the lack of integrated thinking is hampering efforts to build sustainable peace, which is the essential precondition for all the other social development efforts. So, this is not only a plea to integrate peacebuilding thinking into your work but to rethink your understanding of what peace means. Let’s move away from the concept of “negative peace” which is defined by the absence of war and violence, and embrace the concept of positive peace which is a more holistic vision of peace, that is built on sustainable investments in economic development and institutions as well as societal attitudes that foster peace. Positive peace is everyone’s business, not just the business of the handful of peacebuilders in the room.

These are dark times for Ukraine and the world. But as Martin Luther King once said, “darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.” So let us shine a light in the darkness and work together in solidarity with Ukraine and all people facing violent conflict, in whatever way we can.