July 7, 2022

Australia: missing in action on conflict prevention?

Australia has a strong national identity of showing up and working together during a crisis – natural disasters in the region are a case in point. But what about preventing conflicts before they happen? This week we asked the experts to weigh in on how Australia stacks up on a critical issue that touches not only on development, but a whole host of statecraft outfits.

Michael Wilson
Group CEO, eWater Limited

Violent conflict in our region is a grim scenario for Australia. Violence is expensive, destructive and sets human development back decades - so of course it's preferable that disagreement doesn’t escalate to violence in the first place. This is why the United Nations exists, and why the U.K., Canada, Norway, New Zealand and others have invested in conflict prevention and peacebuilding efforts.

So did we. But after playing a pivotal role in the peacebuilding efforts that followed the long and brutal conflict in Cambodia, Australia has seldom sought a leadership role in peacebuilding at a global scale again. Australia’s role in helping Timor-Leste to stabilise following the 1999 independence vote was no more than what should be expected of a large and close neighbour. And, before accepting the need to assemble RAMSI in 2003, Australia actually withdrew from peacekeeping efforts aimed at quelling ethnic tensions in Solomon Islands.

Unlike its middle-power contemporaries, Australia has no peacebuilding, conflict prevention or fragility strategy. Conflict analysis is not standard practice. The result? Less emphasis on detecting and preventing conflict and fragility in the region and beyond, and more on (reactive) crisis response.

This is a missed opportunity. When conflict erupts, the hunt is often on for an honest broker – a trusted and neutral intermediary who doesn’t have a dog in the fight and who can mobilise targeted development assistance for peacebuilding (the ‘peace dividend’). As a middle power, Australia is ideally placed, yet largely absent. Apparently, conflict prevention outside our immediate region is either too hard, too expensive, not in our national interest or none of our business. This ignores the massive economic, human and environmental benefits of peace. Why not once again act – and invest – to prioritise this Australian strength?

Michael is a mainstay of the development sector here in Australia (and the region). He has expertise across gender, water, governance and more – and this week we’re leaning on his conflict and fragility savvy, having been the Assistant Secretary of the (now decommissioned) Governance and Fragility Branch at DFAT. At the Lab, we love Michael for his quick wit and generosity (not to mention, podcast skills!).

Martina Zapf
Humanitarian, Development, Peace and Conflict Lead, Institute for State Effectiveness

In addition to the hard security priorities of defence, border protection, and economic security, a holistic conflict prevention strategy requires addressing economic, political, and social inequalities and grievances. Australia’s 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper mentions conflict prevention only twice – both times as an objective and task of the United Nations and multilateral system. As the new government updates the White Paper and shapes its development strategy, there is an opportunity to re-balance the approach to peace and security and embed conflict prevention across its development program.

Australia’s development assistance in the region can give more deliberate attention in both policy and program design to how humanitarian and development interventions affect potential conflict drivers, such as state-society relations, inter-group relations, dynamics of inclusion and exclusion, among others. Doing so would mainstream peacebuilding approaches and give effect to the humanitarian-development-peace nexus to ensure more sustainable peace and development outcomes. To achieve such a change, a consensus needs to be built on what conflict prevention means and requires.

Re-balancing Australia’s approach to these issues across the defence, diplomacy and development realms also requires reconstituting peacebuilding, stabilisation and governance capabilities within DFAT and related Government agencies. In addition, it would be important to reach out beyond Australia’s own relatively small peacebuilding community to engage international expertise and learning, including through greater participation in international fora on stabilisation and peacebuilding. 

Lastly, but most importantly, for conflict prevention to be effective, it must be rooted in societies’ own priorities. Minister Wong has sent strong signals that she intends to build effective development partnerships in the region, which should include centering countries’ own priorities for development, peace and security. These early positive signs will need to be backed up by genuine collaboration on program design and implementation.

Martina is a leading expert on peace, conflict, and fragility. Having spent the last decade or so in places as far and wide as Afghanistan and Chad, she’s recently landed in Australia tackling fragility and conflict in our region. At the Lab, we love Martina for the global perspectives she brings to the debate and her willingness to share her knowledge each time she pops by for a coffee with the team. 

Miranda Forsyth
Professor, ANU School of Regulation and Governance

Pretty much. And that’s because in Melanesia this work is performed overwhelmingly by local institutions that function far from the gaze of the state - and usually without donor assistance. 

Often working in makeshift ‘courts’ under trees, or tucked into the corner of a local marketplace, they are a long way removed from an Australian vision of a justice institution. I refer to institutions such as the blok komitis in Port Moresby; the wanbel courts in Bougainville; the Operation Mekim Save courts in Enga. In these and many like them, you’ll find dedicated individuals working patiently to achieve restorative forms of justice for the parties, and to prevent future conflict. 

If Australia was to get serious about conflict prevention, building on what is already working to provide peace and stability in communities is a pretty good place to start. A good role model is the work of the Peace Foundation Melanesia in the aftermath of the civil war in Bougainville. It taught teams of local participants conflict prevention skills, drawing on positive cultural norms and peace-building skills. Today though, organisations engaged in such work are thin on the ground. 

One way to celebrate and expand the use of the rich peacebuilding practices in PNG would be through building them into school or university curricula, or into conflict prevention and restorative justice training programs for civil society leaders. This would help to ensure that talented young peacemakers can continue the critical work of proactively building the foundations for a peaceful society. In supporting such a program, Australians may also learn some important Melanesian peace-making skills ourselves, such as the importance of dialogue and recognising all the relationships impacted by conflicts.

Miranda is a leading expert on violence and justice in Melanesia.  Miranda is renowned for her deep understanding of people and communities and her scholarship has laid the foundations for many in the region to understand things like sorcery accusation-related violence and how relationships drive governance.  At the Lab, we particularly like the way Miranda uses stories to bring Melanesian perspectives to Canberra-based discussions. 

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