Can New Sustainable Development Goals Add Firepower to the War on War?
10 August 2015
“Over the last few years, the war on war (to borrow a phrase coined by scholar Joshua Goldstein) has moved in the wrong direction. After decades of progress, the last three years have seen an upswing of both armed conflict and violence against civilians around the world. This has been accompanied by an unprecedented crisis of global displacement and significant deterioration of human wellbeing in conflict-affected areas. To address the challenge, the international community needs to find the energy, strategy, commitment, and resources to prevent armed conflict, and protect populations and rebuild states and societies when it does occur.
By including the reduction of all forms of violence among the recently agreed Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the United Nations’ member states might well be laying the groundwork for doing just that. Like the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that preceded them, the SDGs don’t 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.
Since 2011, Syria has moved from being among the better performers to being among the worst, thanks entirely to the civil war there. Empirically speaking, then, there is no doubt whatsoever that winning the war on war is an essential component of winning the war on poverty—and vice versa. Simply put, achieving the MDGs has exerted significant downwards pressure on armed conflict, while reducing armed conflict significantly increases the chances of positive movement on development. This relationship has been well understood by the UN Development Programme, the World Bank, and other leading development agencies for at least two decades.
Yet, despite this, there has traditionally been strong political resistance, especially in the UN context, to linking international development efforts to the pursuit of international peace and security.
In its May 2013 report, the UN Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel of Eminent Persons established to lay a pathway to the SDGs and chaired by the heads of government of Indonesia, Liberia, and the United Kingdom, concluded that armed conflict “must be tackled head-on.” It suggested that a commitment to building peace was among the five transformative shifts needed to advance efforts to eradicate poverty.
The substantial support for the inclusion of peace in the SDGs prevented its opponents from painting the issue as a “North-South” issue and ultimately ensured that peace would be included among the goals. Thus, SDG 16, agreed by state delegates earlier this month, is to “promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective and inclusive institutions at all levels.”
The SDGs have already been criticized 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 action can be carried over into the SDGs, the agreement to include the attainment of peaceful societies could be a significant step forward for the war on war. Not only should it help orient the whole UN system towards the goal of reducing violence, but it also promises to marshal the energy, expertise, and resources of member states to the goal as never before.”