No Sustainability Without Peace

1600px Sustainable Development Goals

Written by: Henry Suckow Ziemer, Silliman College ’21

This piece was published as part of our YMUN Pegasus series.

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” 

This was the sentiment that struck me as I listened to the opening remarks during a special event at the Friday session of the UN High Level Political Forum (HLPF). The focus of the workshop-syle meeting was Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 16, Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions. Relative to many of the other goals, the presenters said, SDG 16 had received significantly less attention and funding. Yet despite this apparent lack of interest, achieving peace and justice and crafting strong institutions is essential to the achievement of practically every other development goal. State fragility in particular is a major impediment to obtaining any form of meaningful progress with respect to the SDGs. A combination of factors, from exploitative regimes, inequalities, and armed conflict, contribute to state fragility. According to the Fragile States Index, the majority of the worlds’ countries exhibit symptoms of state fragility to a worrying extent. 

When it comes to peace and stability, the security community may represent an unlikely ally. Too often it seems that a mutually reinforcing wall exists between the theorists and practitioners of international security, and those looking to advance the cause of sustainable development. The former see international institutions as cumbersome and largely ineffective, lacking concrete mechanisms for following through with their grand pronouncements. The latter can often see national militaries as part of the problem, not the solution. Both criticisms are not unfounded, and strike at the heart of very real issues with both the international development and security architectures. However, the isolation between professionals in both disciplines has led to what speakers at the HLPF termed “siloed” discourse, each expert remaining confined to their specific area of focus and not venturing beyond. Siloes are detrimental to progress on the SDGs, which are by their nature cross-cutting and interdisciplinary. Yet there is a burgeoning consensus that the two disciplines enjoy a symbiotic, rather than adversarial relationship. The 2011 World Development Report centered around issues of conflict and security. This report noted that, “no low-income fragile or conflict-affected country has yet to achieve a single United Nations Millennium Development Goal”. Furthermore, Kathrine Sikkink in her book Evidence for Hope: Making Human Rights Work in the 21st Century notes that one of the most significant methods for improving human rights compliance is reducing the incidence of armed conflict.

While Sikkink emphasizes the need to restrain foreign interventionist instincts as one method for decreasing violence, it will take a more comprehensive strategy to meaningfully resolve current wars, and prevent the outbreak of new ones. Measures such as reevaluating UN Peacekeeping Operations, increasing funding for transitional justice initiatives in post-conflict states, and supporting professional, accountable security forces in fragile states all represent useful tools to this end. A fundamental first step however, is elevating SDG 16 to begin with. This is an area which the United Nations is uniquely suited. As a high-profile international institution, it can help bridge the gap between security, human rights, and development silos and encourage sharing of best practices and crafting new strategies to safeguard peace. 

This task is daunting, the realm of armed conflict remains one of the most pernicious issues in international politics today. While some promise has come from recent studies which suggest that interstate wars are on the decline, this has been counterbalanced with an uptick in civil wars and insurgencies. While the solution to the ongoing challenge of fragile, failed and fragmented states is not apparent, what is clear is that finding one will require a new way of thinking which can incorporate perspectives from a number of theoretical and practical disciplines. The United Nations has the ability to jumpstart such a conversation and raise SDG 16 to the position it deserves, it has a responsibility to do so.