by Silke Groeneweg
Language can be a fickle thing. Words can be used flippantly, to make lighthearted jokes, or they can be used to evoke emotion and stir up passion around an issue. A word or concept can mean one thing to one person, and for their next-door neighbour, it can take on a completely different meaning.
As an immigrant to Canada, I was immersed in my second language at an early age. Having grown up in this context, I have a deep appreciation and awareness of the complexities of language such as double meanings and those pesky silent letters (ex. knife was a very confusing word for me).
As I grew older and became more interested in the world of politics and advocacy, I continued to develop a curiosity about language and how it can be used as an important tool in this realm. In short, what I have discovered is that language has incredible power and it matters. The subtle differences between words and concepts can have a tremendous impact on the way we move forward, the actions we take and how we communicate those actions.
In the realm of politics, language is especially important. For political messaging to be effective, it must be aware of the nuances of language.
Like the political realm, the world of peace and peace advocacy is no different. Peacebuilding, peacekeeping, and statebuilding are concepts used frequently when crafting strategies to build lasting peace. The Canadian public, and to some extent the Canadian government, do not clearly differentiate between peacebuilding, peacekeeping and statebuilding. The inconsistent use of these terms results in confusion of Canada’s role and how peacebuilding instead of peacekeeping or statebuilding can address the root causes of conflicts. A stronger understanding of these terms can strengthen Canada’s response to conflict and bolster efforts to build just and lasting peace.
Peacekeeping is perhaps the most familiar concept of the three for most Canadians. Canada’s involvement in various peacekeeping operations since the Suez Crisis has crafted the image of Canada as a “peacekeeping nation” but that image has faded over the years.
Peacekeeping easily conjures the image of blue-beret, or blue-helmet wearing military officers, working to keep the peace in far off places experiencing the aftermath of conflict. Very simply put, peacekeepers are meant to monitor and observe peace processes in post-conflict areas tying their work directly to military action, rather than civilian-led initiatives.
While peacekeeping may provide a sense of temporary peace, it is meant to be exactly that: temporary. Flying in from all corners of the world, peacekeepers, for example those participating in United Nations missions, often lack the necessary knowledge of local complexities and lack the direct connection to local actors, including those working for peace. The role of peacekeeping has been questioned more critically of late, especially as many advocates, scholars and politicians question its long-term effectiveness.
While the concept of peacekeeping has been a mainstay for decades, statebuilding is another concept that has developed into a strategy and approach to peace by the international community. Broadly, statebuilding includes the processes of the reconstruction of a state by growing its capacity to fulfill its basic duties and functions. Statebuilding can include ensuring democratic elections or shoring up authority for state structures, such as the justice system or other key state services and institutions. The easiest way to conceptualize statebuilding is that it seeks to transform states by stabilizing a nation’s institutions, but not directly or necessarily address relationships or tensions within the population.
While statebuilding can be a vital part of broader peace processes, it often represents actions of a foreign power and has the potential to be unable to fully capture and incorporate the role of local actors, resulting in the furthering of conflict and discord. Additionally, re-establishing key structural institutions of a state, does not automatically mean these institutions will lay the groundwork for long-term peace. For these reasons, statebuilding is more successful when accompanied by peacebuilding processes – either top down or from the ground up – such as fostering inclusive political dialogue and developing social capacities for reconciliation.
The final concept, peacebuilding, may perhaps be the hardest to pin down. It tends to cover all activities undertaken before, during, or after a violent conflict to prevent, end, and/or transform the situation and to create the necessary conditions for sustainable peace. At its core, peacebuilding is a collaborative process that can involve local, regional, national, and international actors. In contrast to statebuilding, which focuses on strengthening institutions, peacebuilding seeks to transform societal relationships. Increasingly, NGOs and scholars stress the importance of grassroots peacebuilding as a way to transform these relationships to encourage sustainable peace.
Underneath the large umbrella of peacebuilding, grassroots peacebuilding specifically highlights the importance of local and regional actors, who are best situated to understand local contexts and local needs. Grassroots peacebuilding can be effective in preventing conflict and propagating a more inclusive and sustainable approach to building peace than foreign or top-down interventions.
In the Canadian context specifically, there is a growing recognition of the importance of peacebuilding. This is exemplified in the appointment of the Women, Peace and Security Ambassador, Jacqueline O’Neill and through initiatives like the Peace and Stabilizations Operations Program, Canada’s platform for conflict prevention, stabilization, and peacebuilding in fragile and conflict-affected states. While these developments show glimpses of positive movement, there remains much work to be done.
Although the Canadian government supports many local organizations around the world, our ‘peacebuilding’ programs seem to prioritize statebuilding and peacekeeping. However, Canada’s expressed goal to build sustainable peace particularly among marginalized and vulnerable groups and to address violent conflict and insecurity would be much better served through significant increases in grassroots peacebuilding programs. Without the inclusion of local actors, statebuilding and peacekeeping programs can be highly ineffective or counter-productive when working to create sustainable peace.
While the differences between the terms of peacekeeping, statebuilding, and peacebuilding, seem subtle at first, a closer look shows that on the ground in different areas of the world where Canada works for peace, these concepts have very different impacts. When the Canadian government, and the Canadian public, have a stronger understanding of these differences, then we can redirect our efforts to programs that are most effective in building just and lasting peace.
Silke Groeneweg is the Advocacy Research Intern for the MCC Ottawa Office
Get involved: You can take action now by calling on the Canadian government to invest more of its International Assistance in local peacebuilding initiatives, as a means to address the root causes of forced migration, which is often tied to violent conflict. You can help raise the profile and educate your MP on the importance and power of local peacebuilding to support sustainable solutions to conflict that can often lead to forced migration.
Send a letter to your MP today here.