A speech given by Dr. Achim Wennmann, Executive Coordinator of the Geneva Peacebuilding Platform, on the contribution of peacebuilding practice to sustainable urban development at the World Urban Forum in Kuala Lumpur, February 2018.

Managing the Space of the Unforgivable: Contributions of Peacebuilding Practice to Sustainable Urban Development

Dr. Achim Wennmann, Executive Coordinator of the Geneva Peacebuilding Platform during the High-level Panel on Sustainable Urban Development for Peace and Security, at the World Urban Forum, Kuala Lumpur, 11 February 2018. This script is a clean version of the speech delivered at the WUF. In case you wish to cite the speech, please use this written script.

Good Afternoon Ladies and Gentlemen,

Heading a network of actors involved in peacebuilding and peace mediation, I am frequently asked, “What is all this about?” And I respond, “I don’t have a definition for you, I just have stories.” And today I would like to use one of those stories to illustrate what peacebuilding is. The story is from a person who works in a health facility in one of the biggest cities in Latin America, and she facilitates encounters between mothers of killed teenagers, and their killers. This work is important because the mother and the killer live in the same neighbourhood, and see each other several times per day. What she does is to ensure that the mother can live with less grief, and the killer can live with less guilt. I think this story goes to the heart of peacebuilding which is: Peacebuidling is about managing the space of the unforgiveable.

Many individuals from all walks of life are in the business of building peace after times of violence and war. They are very courageous people because this work is difficult. Dealing with the unforgiveable goes straight to the emotions and involves hard topics and ethical fault lines. But this complexity is the core business of actors involved in peacebuilding and peace mediation. It is about finding solutions to conflict and violence through dialogue and negotiation; it is about engaging the parties in conflict on their partisan interests; it is about bringing divided peoples and individuals closer together again; and it is about nurturing a joint vision for the future and building the avenues to achieve it.

From the perspective of peacebuilding understood in these terms, what can peacebuilding practice contribute to a discussion on peace and security in the city? Together with colleagues from UN Habitat, I have had the privilege to co-chair a technical working group on urban safety and peacebuilding and the observations I will share draw on these three years of work.

The first is that building peace and security ‘for all’ must mean ‘for all’. This means it must include the perpetrators of violence and those shaping a violent environment; it means bringing in the very difficult and unconventional actors. Dialogue and mediation is not just about speaking to the ‘nice’ or cooperative actors, it is also about having channels of communications to the perpetrators of violence – be they state or non-state – the actors that can be difficult, complicated and nasty. From this standpoint, peacebuilders and mediators have much to offer for mayors and actors working on peace and security in cities.

Peacebuilding and mediation approaches show results. A few years back, in El Salvador, the truce facilitation that took place was partially initiated by the gangs because of a tactical interest to speak. It was also a tactical interest by the government to try to get rid of the biggest drivers of violence in their country. We are very aware why the truth did not advance as it could have. But this dialogue and negotiation process over two years resulted in saving over 5,000 lives. So for those who question whether the ‘soft’ approach of dialogue and negotiation can have outcomes, this is a potent reminder that they can save lives.

The peace mediation and peacebuilding community can also contribute tested alternatives to law-and-order and heavy-handed approaches. The truce facilitation in El Salvador is one of over 30 truces that happened over the last decade. There are many other tested strategies and among peace practitioners their ways of working and theories of change are well understood. There are many other examples and tested approaches that are articulated in the many publications on ‘best’ practice in the broader peacebuilding field. For instance, when we speak about ‘architectures for peace’ it is possible to make a comparison to the infrastructures needed to develop an economy. You need ports, roads, property rights, and so forth. The same is true for peace. You need peace councils, neighbourhood committees, trust and other ingredients for peace to happen.

But let me recall why alternative approaches are so important. We know that every minute one person dies due to violent conflict. That is 560,000 people per year dying due to lethal violence. This is an incredible burden of violence much of which occurs in cities, and which we simply need to address.

Alternative approaches are also important because the actors involved in violence and war are changing. Long gone are the days that they could be easily labelled as ‘political’, ‘criminal’ and ‘terrorist’ actors. In many cases, those actors can no longer be separated into different categories as easily. Actors involved in ‘organized crime’ can also be ‘politicians’; ‘business people’ can be ‘politicians’, ‘organized criminals’ and ‘spies’ at the same time. Therefore, peace mediators cannot be guided by labels as they find negotiated exits from violence and crime.

The contribution from the peace mediation and peacebuilding community to urban security is therefore to assure an awareness of labels. This is especially important when identifying why certain groups fight, and when they are willing engage to get away from violence.

Alternative approaches are also important because of a profound crisis of trust in leadership. Young (and older) people no longer trust their leaders; neither their traditional leaders, nor their state leaders. There is a huge demand for alternative visions for society, especially for the youth, and peacebuilders are good at developing such visions through participatory and inclusive process designs. There is a lot in it for city leaders as they design the future of their cities.

Let me conclude by pointing out that there is a valuable connection between the practical experience of peacebuilding professionals and those who are working on building peace and peaceful societies in cities. Through Geneva’s ecosystems of institutions working on humanitarian and peace issues, we wish to advance the exchange between peacebuilding, peace mediation and urban safety professionals. We are currently studying the potential of a Geneva Cities Initiative which aims to be a docking station for city leaders. So, those leaders wanting to find alternative approaches to address crime, violence and war in the cities will have a place to turn to.

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