The foundations of lasting peace

Thirty years ago, a group of eighty people convened in Cartigny, Switzerland, driven by the aspiration to transcend short-term solutions to violent conflicts and foster sustainable peace. Most of the participants came from countries recently emerging from conflict and confrontation, as well as representatives of cooperation agencies and academia.

“In 1994, there were 65 armed conflicts across the globe,” recalls Matthias Stiefel, founder of Interpeace. “It became clear that what the international community had been trying to do — imposing solutions — would not work. We had to find a way to get all these people who had been fighting each other, at times for generations, to sit together around the table and find some consensus. Peace had to be built from inside these war-torn societies”.

Participants in the Cartigny meeting quickly identified the need to generate better mechanisms for interaction within societies that are beginning to leave behind confrontation and violence. It was therefore essential to think of principles and methodologies that would strengthen the bonds of trust between the different actors, provide legitimacy to dialogue processes and establish open and honest communication channels. This is how the War-torn Societies Project, which later became Interpeace, was born. The project’s results established that it was essential to think about peacebuilding beyond the immediate post-conflict contexts and transcend the logic of the short-term project in favour of long-term processes. Peace, as we well know, is not a point of arrival but is itself a process.

Ten years after that meeting in Cartigny, the WSP changed its name to Interpeace to better encompass its mandate: to strengthen the capacities of societies to manage conflict in a non-violent and non-coercive manner, assisting national actors in their efforts to develop social and political cohesion; and to help the international community (and, in particular, the United Nations) in peace-building efforts around the world by better understanding and responding to the challenges of building local capacities to improve social and political cohesion.

Based on the lessons learned during those early years, a core set of principles emerged. These principles, when adhered to, are the bedrock of sustainable peace. Interpeace was, in many ways, founded to put these principles into practice in an institutionalised form. Thirty years later, those principles identified as fundamental for building and providing sustainability to peace continue to guide the organisation’s work, providing legitimacy and demonstrating, time and again, in various contexts, their effectiveness and continued relevance.

Our experience tells us that when applied conscientiously, these principles represent the most effective way to help any society define a shared purpose and a common, inclusive, and legitimate way forward:

  • Ensuring broad à l'appropiation locale of the peacebuilding process fosters ownership of solutions.
  • Recognising peace as a process, not a destination.
  • Building peace is fundamentally about building trust. Trust between individuals and between people and their authorities.
  • Tendre la main à tous les groupes is crucial. All voices need to be heard and included in decision-making processes to ensure the legitimacy and sustainability of solutions.
  • Peace takes time, so a long-term commitment to building it is essential. There are no quick fixes.

Each with its own inherent value, these five principles are also mutually reinforcing. Trust and local ownership cannot exist without inclusion, nor can trust be rebuilt if the implementation of a peace effort does not pay as much attention to the form as to the goal, simultaneously recognising that peace is a time-consuming endeavour.

Appropriation locale

The notion that, to be impactful and sustainable, peacebuilding should be locally owned and locally driven has become a widely accepted truth. However, while the concept of local ownership has been embraced and accepted, it also has been simultaneously challenged due to its diverse interpretations and difficulty in translating its theoretical and rhetorical dimensions into practice. In other words, while universally acknowledged as fundamental for sustainable peacebuilding, local ownership faces challenges in its practical application within ongoing peace efforts.

As a principle, local ownership is grounded in the overwhelming evidence, sometimes tied with tragic consequences, that peace cannot be imposed or imported; it must be built from within societies and by those affected by conflict and violence. This approach not only guides peacebuilding efforts but also plays a pivotal role in preventing future violence.

Our experience underscores the effectiveness of peacebuilding efforts when they are envisioned and led by those directly affected by conflict. Their profound commitment fosters smoother cooperation and generates solutions tailored to their unique circumstances. In that sense, international actors must understand their role as supporters rather than drivers of change, recognising that true peace emerges from local agency. This doesn’t happen overnight: ownership requires trust, trust requires rebuilding bonds, and fractured bonds need time to rebuild. Participatory and inclusive dialogue is essential in this process. However, evidence has shown that dialogue is most effective when it leads to collaborative action and brings solutions to real problems faced by communities. Throughout this process, local ownership is fundamental to catalysing positive change.

Fostering local ownership means, therefore, acknowledging societies' existing capacities to build peace. This resilience for peace paradigm, which is at the centre of Interpeace’s strategic vision, underscores the belief that every society possesses the inherent ability to overcome violence and transform conflicts into opportunities for positive change. Resilience for peace provides a lens through which we can spotlight and support existing positive dynamics within society that are already contributing to peace while acknowledging and addressing the dynamics fueling conflict.

Despite the difficulties and challenges of fostering real local ownership, Interpeace commits to this endeavour by designing, developing, and implementing peacebuilding strategies with local communities and supporting their actions. By starting from a standpoint that recognises the value of local context and leadership, Interpeace builds upon existing resilience and capacity.

Most importantly, Interpeace works by establishing collaborative networks of local stakeholders. These networks include local partner organisations, government institutions at both local and national levels, and existing local peace structures, such as traditional mechanisms for conflict resolution, peace committees, and dialogue spaces led by local leaders. Interpeace seeks to support these effective peacebuilding initiatives while continuously expanding the network to support locally designed and driven solutions for peace.

Today, Interpeace collaborates with 30 local partner organisations. Initially supported by Interpeace, many of these partners have led peacebuilding efforts alongside other international and local stakeholders. An outstanding example of this working model can be found in Timor-Leste. Interpeace and the Centre of Studies for Peace and Development (CEPAD) have collaborated since 2007 to support peacebuilding processes in Timor-Leste. This partnership began in response to Timor-Leste’s violent political crisis of 2006, which revealed the challenges of a young nation adopting new state structures. Over the years, Interpeace employed Participatory Action Research (PAR) and piloted innovative approaches to assessing local resilience to help break cycles of violence and create a safe environment for the Timorese. This work enabled bottom-up, locally-owned solutions to identify and address local grievances in a non-violent and sustainable manner.

From the outset, Interpeace trusted CEPAD’s local teams to lead the strategic management and implementation of project activities while providing technical, financial, and capacity-building support. In 2015, Interpeace began phasing out its support, choosing to remain engaged solely in an advisory capacity. This transition was a testament to CEPAD’s leadership. Today, CEPAD is regarded as a "go-to" organisation for peace and development challenges, recognised for promoting inclusive democracy and providing safe spaces for community dialogue.

Reaching Out to All Groups

Our experience has shown that behind every manifestation of violence lies some form of exclusion or marginalisation. Rights that certain groups fail to exercise, social or political norms that do not apply uniformly to everyone, and restrictions on meeting essential or social needs due to factors such as age, gender, religious beliefs, or political affiliations, all constitute forms of exclusion that cultivate the seeds of violence.

Including all groups in the peacebuilding process, especially women, youth, minorities, and others historically excluded from decision-making, ensures the legitimacy and ownership of the outcomes across multiple segments of society. Peace can’t only be owned by some; it must be owned by all to be sustained. Interpeace’s peacebuilding programs are crafted to incorporate participants from diverse segments of society, even those typically overlooked or considered challenging to engage with. This inclusive approach guarantees that a broad spectrum of social groups shares a sense of ownership and responsibility for reconciliation and the reconstruction of their society.

In this regard, Interpeace’s programmes make substantive efforts to ensure the meaningful participation of women in peacebuilding, acknowledging that sustainable peace requires advancing gender equality. This is achieved by designing and implementing gender-inclusive interventions, creating safe spaces and opportunities for women to develop confidence and capacities for effective engagement in peacebuilding and decision-making, embedding gender inclusivity in institutional frameworks, and engaging local and national government institutions to promote the inclusion of women in decision-making. Additionally, Interpeace works with donors to align priorities for gender equality in peacebuilding. Interpeace’s lessons learned and recommendations for developing, implementing, and evaluating gender-inclusive peacebuilding programmes can be found in its Peacebuilding in Practice Paper, "Ten Foundations for Inclusive Peacebuilding Practice."

Another group that remains largely marginalised and excluded is young people, despite constituting a significant majority of the global population and an even larger proportion in conflict-affected societies. Since its inception, Interpeace has engaged youth in peacebuilding efforts, fully acknowledging the distinction between "working with young people" and developing self-aware, youth-centred approaches to peacebuilding. Interpeace's youth-centred initiatives have historically spanned most of its country programmes, including those in Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and more recently, Guinea Bissau, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Somalia, and Yemen. Interpeace aims to harness the resourcefulness, resilience, and agency for change among young women and men, amplify their voices, and integrate their leadership into global policy platforms and inter-generational dialogues at local, national, and international levels.

Confiance dans les relations

Societies subjected to prolonged exposure to violent conflict undergo profound transformations with enduring repercussions for individuals, communities, and the state. It is widely acknowledged that post-conflict settings witness diminishing levels of trust. Interpeace’s work provides compelling evidence that the breakdown of trust—whether it manifests between governments and citizens, security forces and local communities, among communities themselves, and even within families and between individuals— is consistently one of the most enduring drivers of conflict. Given the intimate connection between mistrust and exclusion, Interpeace emphasises inclusion and dialogue as primary tools for constructing sustainable, locally driven peace rooted in trust.

Interpeace’s work in Ethiopia offers a valuable example of the importance of trust-building. In 2020, Ethiopia's Ministry of Peace presented a progressive new policing doctrine, pledging the federal and regional police to stronger public oversight, improved respect for diversity, and adherence to international human rights standards. In partnership with the Ethiopia Police University, Interpeace is implementing a trust-building programme between citizens and the police to translate the progressive philosophy of the Ethiopia Police Doctrine into on-the-ground reality. This means creating a solid relationship based on trust between the police and society, essential for providing security and ensuring effective policing services. This approach is helping to shift from a reactive style of policing to a more trusting, proactive, and preventive model.

The project focuses on four woredas in Addis Ababa. Building on the findings of a 2021 baseline study on trust between the police and communities in these woredas, the project engages at a national level with Independent Advisory Groups and develops data-based problem-solving approaches to foster trust. This lays the initial foundation for a successful policing model that can be replicated across the country.

A primary goal of this joint approach between police and citizens is to reduce insecurity and improve safety in the community. Police and community members collaboratively identify and prioritise the highest safety concerns and work together to address them. This police-community trust-building effort has achieved remarkable results, leading to improved community safety across the country and the establishment of solid foundations of trust between Ethiopian citizens and police services.

From Mali, where Interpeace has facilitated the establishment of dialogue and mediation mechanisms between the population and defence and security forces, to Colombia, where it helped to strengthen capacities within the National Police for the transition from conflict to peace, Interpeace’s programmes have consistently placed trust at the core of peacebuilding. Recognising that trust is vital for both peace actors investing in their societies and their willingness to collaborate towards shared objectives.

Process Matters

In societies afflicted by conflict, there's a tendency to lean towards technical and “quick fix” solutions rather than addressing complex problems holistically. However, the success of any initiative hinges largely on how the process is managed and how all stakeholders are engaged.

In recognition of this, Interpeace adopts a process-oriented approach to peacebuilding. This entails not only focusing on achieving peace but also ensuring that the journey towards it is characterised by inclusion, constructive dialogue, and consensus-building.

Furthermore, a process-oriented peacebuilding approach goes beyond peace initiatives; it can also serve as a lens through which the journey is viewed as equally important as the destination in every facet of social life. This approach involves, for example, improving governance in a manner perceived as legitimate, strengthening justice in a way that is regarded as fair, and fostering equitable development. By doing so, the results can contribute to fostering inclusion and strengthening trust.

An example of this principle can be found in the Somali region, where Interpeace has supported statebuilding processes for nearly three decades. Since the collapse of the central state in 1991, Interpeace has supported Somalia's state reconstruction, democratisation, and governance processes from a peacebuilding perspective through close collaboration with federal and state-level authorities and longstanding national partner organisations. These efforts have fostered trust between local communities and their leaders.

Another aspect of this principle relates to Interpeace's belief that everyone has a role in peacebuilding and that every effort to drive positive changes into societies should have a peacebuilding “bottom line.” Consequently, Interpeace collaborates with technical agencies to ensure that building peace is a shared responsibility. This is what we call Peace Responsiveness, which involves transforming the capacity of actors operating in conflict-affected or fragile contexts—such as humanitarians and development actors—to be conflict-sensitive and to contribute to peace outcomes through their technical programming. Peace responsiveness is Interpeace’s contribution to infusing the peacebuilding process into all sectors; it is a pathway for these actors to design and implement processes in a way that contributes to peace, ensuring they recognise that the “how” is as important as the “what”, and that focusing on a careful process result in sustainable outcomes.

Engagement sur le long terme

The journey towards peace is filled with obstacles, marked by twists, turns, and unexpected detours. Building peace takes time; it demands patience and consistency in supporting local efforts, alongside ensuring predictable external engagement and enduring financial support. Without these, peacebuilding processes become unsustainable.

Supporting locally-owned and driven peacebuilding also requires following local communities' pace, ensuring that they are not rushed into solutions that won’t last just to meet short-term project expectations. Interpeace’s work evolves with communities and societies to address the problems they are ready to tackle. This approach explains the diversity of issues Interpeace addresses: from community-led conflict transformation in Kenya to collaborative security management in Burkina Faso; from psychosocial and economic resilience in Rwanda to democratic governance in Somalia; from preventing electoral violence in Côte d’Ivoire to fostering young people’s leadership for peace in Burundi and enhancing women’s decision-making capacities and leadership in Mali.

As one of Interpeace's oldest programs, the example of Rwanda stands out to illustrate the non-negotiable importance of long-term commitment. Interpeace’s commitment to Rwanda traces back to the organisation's inception. Interpeace’s 30th anniversary coincides with the 30th commemoration of the genocide against the Tutsi. In a way, Interpeace was born out of the imperative to find better ways to respond and assist societies emerging from the worst forms of violence. Since 2001, Interpeace has implemented peacebuilding programmes in Rwanda, spanning inclusive dialogue for participatory governance solutions, inclusive economic growth, social cohesion mechanisms, youth empowerment in decision-making, peace education, and, more recently, trauma healing and reconciliation.

A long-term commitment also enables the adjustment of priorities and the use of accumulated experience to adapt to evolving circumstances swiftly. In Guatemala, Interpeace embarked on its journey in 1997, following the conclusion of a three-decade-long armed conflict. The WSP project in Guatemala aimed to bring together all segments of society to identify ways to make peace sustainable. This initiative produced tangible policy proposals for the government and fostered trust among historically divided factions. Building on this success, a similar methodology was later employed to address security challenges and civic-military relations in the post-conflict setting. As the post-conflict scenario evolved, new obstacles emerged, notably youth-related violence and the proliferation of gangs, reflecting more profound social inequalities and exclusions not only in Guatemala but also across Central America. Leveraging its past experiences, Interpeace adapted its approach to tackle these challenges. The organisation facilitated participatory processes across all seven Central American countries, developing public policy proposals to prevent youth-related violence. Subsequently, most governments in the region integrated these proposals into their public policies. In 2015, almost 20 years after its first engagement in the country, Interpeace was ready to design and implement an inclusive and participatory initiative to identify Guatemalans' resilience capacities to transform structural sources of conflict—such as insecurity, socio-environmental threats, and the institutional fragility of the state—in nonviolent and collaborative ways.

Strong foundations to face the future

In recent years, the world has experienced levels of conflict unseen since the Cold War. Two-thirds of all humanitarian crises are conflict-related. Political polarisation and growing mistrust in economic systems and governance institutions are rising. Systemic polarisation, discrimination, exclusion, and inequality are increasing social tensions.

Consequently, peacebuilding may need to evolve. However, these five core principles remain critically relevant today. The substantial evidence collected by Interpeace and peacebuilders worldwide demonstrates that peace is possible when these principles are consciously adopted and implemented. They offer a strong foundation from which to develop innovative solutions to contemporary challenges. While those solutions may still need to be visible, the path forward is clear.