Transforming Peace in the 21st Century: The Case for the UN’s New Sustaining Peace Agenda

In March, TORCH Visiting Fellow, Nur Laiq, hosted a panel discussion on the reality and rhetoric of peace and its reinvention through history - in the aftermath of the Peloponnesian War, along the Silk Roads, and at the United Nations. It explored the question of how different societies in different eras have engaged with peace. And what lessons that might offer us in the current moment when autocrats, populists, democrats across the world are renegotiating the past. Wars continue to rage in the Middle East and Africa. Other kinds of conflict loom under the surface in democratic societies. We often talk of the changing character of war, its origins and its aftermath. But what are the origins of peace and, what is its aftermath? How can we sustain peace?

Michael Scott, Professor of Classics and Ancient History at the Unviersity of Warwick and author of Ancient Worlds: An Epic History of East and West, who has written and presented several TV series about the ancient world for History Channel, National Geographic, BBC and ITV examined what peace meant in 5th-4th century BC Athens. Please click here to read Professor Scott's article on 'The Case for Universal Amnesia and the Growing Power of the Law Courts In 4th-5th century BC Athens.'

Nur Laiq, Visiting Fellow at TORCH and co-author of The Search for Peace in the Arab Israeli Conflict, who was appointed by the UN Secretary General to the UN Advisory Group on Youth, Peace and Security, engaged with ideas of negative and positive peace in the 21st century. Please see below for an extract of her talk:

Transforming Peace in the 21st Century: The Case for the UN’s New Sustaining Peace Agenda


Tolstoy observed that “All happy families are alike. Each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” I am going to invert this proposition, when it comes to war and peace and suggest that war is ultimately the same everywhere. Whereas, peace has many different forms. Talking about an agenda for peace, in itself, constitutes a dramatic shift in thinking. Peace, has long been conceived of as a linear process from mediation, through, to the resolution of conflict. But, conflict is not linear. It escalates. It recedes. And, it recurs. There is, no rhythm, or pattern to, its ebb and flow. In this context, thinking of peace, in a linear manner, as a destination does not correspond to the reality of war.


The UN’s new manifesto for Sustaining Peace aims, to prioritize conflict prevention, by changing the way, the UN has managed conflicts, since the end of the Cold War. It aims, to make peace – not war – the primary mover of action! In the Sustaining Peace agenda, the UN asserts that maintaining peace – requires building an inclusive politics, and an inclusive society. It requires both political and socio-economic inclusion. It requires, a whole of society approach. This approach presents a radical departure from the past. The idea, of an agenda for peace, has been in the making, since the 1990s. Its conceptual foundations, can be traced back, to the Norwegian academic, Johan Galtung who coined the terms – negative peace and positive peace. Negative peace, refers to the absence of direct violence, for example, once a peace agreement is signed, and a ceasefire is called, violence ends. And Galtung, would say, a negative peace, ensues. Positive peace, on the other hand, requires an engagement, with how to sustain peace. This requires dealing with the root causes of conflict, and with deeper, structural issues, related to exclusion and inequality.


The Sustaining Peace agenda, draws on these ideas, in order to set forth a concrete framework for action. It shifts the agency, for Sustaining Peace, from the international, to the local level. In doing so, it shifts the gaze, from peace between countries to within countries. It expands the idea of peace from the old Westphalian model of peace across borders, which has stayed with us from the 17th century right through to today, and claims that peace is also about what happens within a country’s own borders.


In the past, only states and governments, could make or break peace. But, the new peace agenda, suggests that peace is not the monopoly, of governments alone. It expands the stakeholders of peace to include civil society, and individuals – independent citizens, such as you and I. An example of individuals making a difference include a group of young Syrian women who have established a civil society network that focuses on education. In many towns in Syria, schools no longer function, and children are being educated, in small, home run, schools. People across partisan lines, supporters of both opposition groups and the government, want their children educated, and the one space, they are willing to share, and engage in, across political boundaries is a home school group.


The women who run these groups are educators but they are also community mediators and the peace makers of the future. For when the conflict eventually ends, these same people will have to start engaging, across partisan lines on issues beyond their children’s educations. They will have to start living together as a community again. While a peace treaty, is signed by political leaders, peace on the ground, often has be made, and kept, by civil society, by individuals. The Syrian women’s group offers an example of how inclusion in one small area creates both a bubble of peace, in the midst of war and builds the foundations, for a wider, deeper peace, in the future.


Click here to read The Case for Universal Amnesia and the Growing Power of the Law Courts In 4th-5th century BC Athens.

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