A time of uncertainty and transition: The need to focus more on civil society and peacebuilding

by Paul Lansu
Senior Policy Advisor

We are coming to the end of this calendar year which is seen by many as a time of uncertainty and transition in the field of international relations. We live in a world in crisis which can be illustrated by the recent unexpected outcomes of the elections in the USA, the referendum to leave the European Union (EU) in the UK, and African countries declaring to quit the International Criminal Court (ICC). The world is in shock and most probably the trend will continue with upcoming elections in different European countries and populism on the rise.

People search for protection and safety

This has been another year with enormous numbers of people fleeing in the direction of Europe, where chaos prevailed in most countries. Over one million refugees and migrants undertook the dangerous journey across the Mediterrean Sea in search of safety. In 2016, 4.715 died in these crossings. People from Africa (Nigeria, South Sudan, Somalia, and Eritrea) and the Middle Eastern region (Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan), but also from many other countries, are searching for protection and safety. The majority of people in flight remain in their own country as displaced persons or they stay in close-by neighbouring countries in refugee camps. The challenges posed by migration are therefore felt in many countries around the world, while root causes are insufficiently tackled.

People fear for their security

The economic crisis since 2008 keeps on going and there are no signs yet of a major reversal. In many countries, unemployment, poverty and inequality remain very high. Specific groups, such as young people, elderly people and people with a different ethnic-cultural background, are especially vulnerable. People fear for their security, due, for instance, to the terror attacks that have happened in many places. These violent and brutal acts are in most cases not religiously inspired but politically motivated.

All of this is combined with a growing global complexity. We see mounting aversion against classical politics in general. Feelings of dissatisfaction and insecurity are the underlying tendencies in our societies. For many people, fear directs their lives!

Populism has the field now!

People believe that the answer lies with the extreme political parties – left and right - not least with the far right parties. Euroscepticism, anti-immigration and populism are the winning tendencies. Populism has the people pushing back against elites and giving voice to dissatisfaction about the way politics works for them. Populism has at its core an anti-establishment sentiment. Populism has the field now.

In the coming months and years, important elections and referenda will take place in several European countries: Austria, Italy, the Netherlands, France, Germany and elsewhere. These elections are seen as a possible turning point of further disintegration for the EU. Populist parties are in the ascendancy: "Our own people first again!" The result is a growing reaction against the other, against the stranger, against other cultures and other religions. "My own freedom comes first! My freedom of expression has no limits!" We draw a dividing line between us and them. The racist discourse will normalise further! Lies have become acceptable, particularly if they enforce what people want to believe!

Far right parties have no solutions to the deep economic, political and social problems facing their countries, except to oppose the status quo and everything it represents. It becomes increasingly hard to advocate in favour of an open society in which every citizen feels included, instead of excluded. We should be the guardians of our brothers and sisters.

Increase budget for peacebuilding

Several politicians believe that the best response to insecurity and anxiety is to increase military defence through further collaboration, military expenditure and a further modernisation of armaments, including nuclear weapons. Russia is overwhelmingly strong on the flanks (Ukraine, the Baltics), and (religious) terrorists are willing to absorb more pain than Europeans can credibly threaten to inflict.

In this light, there is a growing debate about European defence structures, especially since the election of Donald Trump as president of the USA. Isolationism in the USA is the winning flag. A power vacuum is imaginable. The pillar of transatlantic security is no longer granted. The time for relying politically and militarily on the USA might be over.

It has been pointed out that the EU should develop a stronger identity and play a bigger role in the field of international relations, including on matters of security and defence. I believe that a united EU should become a main political player in international relations and peacebuilding missions. Europe has to take its responsibility! But how to do that?

Disarmament for Development

It is stated that European countries should increase their defence budget, both within NATO as well as in the context of the EU. The target set by NATO at its 2014 summit in Wales, and re-confirmed at its summit in Warsaw in 2016, is that all allies should devote at least 2 percent of their GDP on security and defence. Only 4 NATO member states spend more than 2%. Some of these, Greece for instance, spend almost 70% of that budget to its personnel. Other members are seen as “free riders”. The pressure to increase the militarist option is very high, which is worrying as it can lead to increased violence. The creation of a European army is thus not desirable and feasible. There should be no duplication with NATO - especially as collaboration of national armies in the context of the EU is a possibility and already a reality in some cases.

The peace movement is not in favour of higher military expenditures, and believes that, in the long term, NATO should be dismantled. Instead more energy should be devoted to peacebuilding and peacekeeping, to development and for reaching the sustainable development goals, and in active nonviolent conflict transformation which deserves a higher budget. The international community has a responsibility in protecting civilians by prioritising conflict prevention. 

Modernise the political process with stronger civil society

There is an urgent need to make the political process really participatory and inclusive on the international as well on the regional and national levels - which includes a stronger critical civil society. In some countries, civil society does not even exist at all, and in several countries they are silenced - such as in authoritarian states like Russia and Turkey. Anger and indignation should be transformed into possibilities for active citizenship with respect for human rights.

Representative democracy must be made transparent, participatory and responsive. Politicians need to become more accessible and accountable, and come from diverse groups of society to be representative, and civil society must be systematically involved in decision-making and their proposals need to be taken into account – not only at election time! Only when people feel that their voices are heard and taken seriously will they regain confidence in the political process.


Paul Lansu, civil society, peacebuilding