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What are the consequences of the pandemic for peace, justice and strong institutions? How can peacebuilding, human rights and development partners keep peacebuilding on the agenda in times of the pandemic to “build better forward”? These guiding questions shaped the discussion at a joint side-event at the High-Level Political Forum (HLPF).
The event was co-organised by the Working Group on Peace and Development (FriEnt), the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES), Advocacy Forum Nepal, the Civil Society Platform for Peacebuilding and Statebuilding (CSPPS), the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), and CIVICUS. Based on country experiences from Nepal and Cameroon and research findings, the panel discussion gave a first assessment of international cooperation in times of COVID-19. Moreover, policy recommendations on how to keep peacebuilding on the recovery agenda were developed.
The High-Level Political Forum (HLPF) on Sustainable Development has a central role in the follow-up and review of the 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The guiding topic for the HLPF 2021, from July 6-15, was sustainable and resilient recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic in line with the 2030 Agenda – including a review of SDG16 for peace, justice and strong institutions.
In his welcome speech, Dr. Michael Bröning, Executive Director of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung in New York, summarized the key findings of a 2020 FriEnt study on the effects of the pandemic on SDG 16 and peacebuilding. Those included the negative effects on (pre-existing) conflict dynamics, the deterioration of ongoing peace processes and the political instrumentalization of COVID-19 response measures. The implications for SDG 16 entailed the further deterioration of civic space as well as restrictions and persecutions of human rights activists, journalists and peacebuilders. At the same time, the pandemic added new layers of conflict, while the promotion of peace was largely neglected as a political priority.
Mandira Sharma, Co-Founder of the Advocacy Forum Nepal and partner of the civil peace service, underlined those key points based on her experience in the context of Nepal. As a post-conflict country, peace and the rule of law are essential for sustaining local democracy. However, transitional justice mechanisms were put on hold due to the pandemic while the human rights situation continuously deteriorated. The crisis continues to be aggravated by the excessive use of force by security forces and disregarding the rights of activists, journalists and the opposition. As a result, public space and trust in the government have been severely undermined throughout the pandemic. Equal access to vaccination is also far from being accomplished, and the international community must step in to ensure a just distribution, according to Sharma. The long-term negative effects remain difficult to analyse due to the lack of data, evidence and documentation. She emphasized, that more action on monitoring and evidence-gathering is thus urgently needed in Nepal.
A second local perspective on the impact of COVID-19 was provided by Fidèle Djebba, President of “Association Rayons de Soleil” and CSPPS focal point in Cameroon. Similar to the situation in Nepal, the pandemic served as a pretext for the use of violence against the Cameroonian population. Especially women suffer from a dramatic increase of domestic violence. This rise in gender-based violence, emanating from the ongoing conflict in Cameroon and further exacerbated by the pandemic, represents an urgent need for action. The challenges for civil society activists in Cameroon are further aggravated by the rising influence of militant groups, such as Boko Haram. Another aggravating factor is a surge of corruption, which entailed the embezzlement of funds for COVID-19 measures. Djebba called upon the international community to develop a strategy and to invest in a better monitoring of funds, to ensure transparency, and to improve the collection of accurate data and evidence. Due to a loss of trust in the government, large parts of the population are also hesitant towards vaccination against the virus. To rebuild this trust, inclusive governance should be an integral element of all COVID-19 measures. Djebba highlighted the importance to support grassroot leaders and amplify their voices to “building better forward”.
Further panel contributions included bilateral and multilateral perspectives from international development partners. Dr. Martin Schuldes, Head of Division for Peace and Security and Disaster Risk Management at the BMZ, provided an overview of the German COVID-19 response program, including short- and long-term effects of the pandemic. Schuldes furthermore pointed out the BMZ 2030 reform which provides a new cooperation approach for dedicated “nexus- and peace partners”. The BMZ reform further aims to address underlying aspects of state fragility and promotes the consolidation of peace. He emphasised that an effective response to the negative implications of the ongoing crisis requires a transformative, multi-sectoral approach and must include all levels of government – in particular the local level. The local dimension is key for building trust in the government and using that leverage in future steps of cooperation. In response to Martin Schuldes, Udo Bullmann, MEP, Member and Coordinator for the EU Committee on Development, supported the conclusion that political will and commitment are essential for a successful multilateral approach and coordination. Bullmann reiterated the necessity to improve current assessment instruments for political response programs and to incorporate peacebuilding as a holistic concept. He further underlined the close correlation between SDG 16 and SDG 10 and placed the fight against inequalities at the centre of any forward-looking strategy.
Mandeep Tiwana, Chief Programme Officer at CIVICUS, concluded that the 2030 Agenda is arguably the greatest human endeavor ever undertaken to create just, equal and sustainable societies. The SDG commitments are critical for transparency, accountability and participation. Alarmingly, CIVICUS’ research shows that 87% of the world’s population live in countries with serious restrictions on civic space, which is a major obstacle for achieving the commitments of the 2030 Agenda. Moreover, of the 44 countries participating in the 2021 HLPF only 11 have enabling civic space conditions. The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted progress on the 2030 Agenda with regard to civic space in several ways. Three key issues remain critical: (i) a surge of censorship, (ii) an expansion of surveillance, (iii) an increase in coercive capacities of law enforcement agencies in light of COVID-19 emergency measures. On the positive side, the recent UN Secretary General’s policy brief on COVID-19 and Human Rights emphasizes the importance of civic space in achieving 2030 Agenda and was followed by UN guidelines on civic space which emphasize the protection of civil society. With the aim of enabling better civil society participation across the board, several civil society groups call for a “high level UN civil society Envoy” to help ensure better and more consistent civil society participation across UN forums, offices, agencies and departments. Such an envoy would also help drive the UN’s outreach to global publics and civil society at large.
It is important to support the capacity of civil society for a constructive response to future crises. Social cohesion and resilience must be increased – restrictions of civil liberties are prone to cause further inequalities and conflicts.
The focus must be on universal human rights and fundamental freedoms, solidarity and equality. When states and non-state actors alike promote a rights-based approach, they foster resilient, just, peaceful, and inclusive communities, which in turn minimises the risk of violent conflict.
Inclusive governance is a key requirement for “building better forward” from the pandemic, where all groups of society participate in the design and implementation of response and recovery efforts.
There is a need for a long-term perspective and reliable commitment in funding and project activities. The international community needs to develop a strategy for a better monitoring of funds and increased transparency.
The long-term negative effects of COVID-19 remain difficult to analyse due to the lack of data, evidence and documentation. Consequently, monitoring and evidence-gathering is an important requirement in conflict contexts and needs closer attention.
International exchange and information sharing with local stakeholders in partner countries needs to happen on a regular basis. This would promote inclusive participation and social resilience for future crisis management and as a basis for good governance.
The UN system should explore the establishment of an “high level civil society Envoy”, which could improve the outreach to and participation of civil society.