Women review documents at discussion of the Mindanao peace process

“We are going to win the war and we are going to win the peace that follows” US President Franklin D Roosevelt famously declared in his fireside chat the day after Japanese planes bombed Pearl Harbour in 1941.

As the world marks the 75th anniversaries of VE and VJ Days this year, we have a unique opportunity to reimagine what victory means, and to ask whether winning the peace today means trying to rebuild shattered societies after war has been won, or a more fundamental shift that puts societies first from the outset.

There hasn’t been a single year since WWII that there hasn’t been a conflict somewhere in the world. Today around 1.5 billion people live in places affected by large-scale violence and conflict. According to some estimates the cost of violence on the global economy is around £11 trillion annually, and yet the annual expenditure on peacebuilding is less than 1% of this. This mindboggling disparity speaks volumes to the absence of peace on our planet.

Winning the peace

From the post-WWI experience of Germany to the more recent metastasizing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, defeated societies and destroyed states can and do threaten the future security, stability and wellbeing of entire regions. Failing to address this often means that grievances fester and sow the seeds for future wars. But tackling such threats effectively depends on much more than military subjugation on the battlefield – an outmoded concept when the vast majority of victims are civilians. It means making winning peace a primary objective, and investing resources to help build a generous peace. A manifest failure more recently in Libya.

Traditional approaches to military victory can block possibilities for peace. In Colombia, 50 years of fighting between the government and FARC insurgents meant that even when both sides recognised the impossibility of winning the war, their investment in a traditional understanding of victory consigned them to continued violence. Talks in 2012 eventually produced a peace deal four years later on, but even today prolonged wartime demonisation of the enemy means that peacemaking remains painfully slow and precarious.

Wars are devastating and leave generational consequences. Evidence demonstrates that more wars end through negotiated peace agreements than through one side ‘winning’. Military victory in Sri Lanka in 2009 and perhaps soon in Syria show the massive cost to human lives and livelihoods involved and the challenges of achieving meaningful stability afterwards.

Sustaining the peace

No-one is suggesting that peace is easy. The “handshake” moment of a peace agreement is not a point on a straight line from war to peace. Multiple deals are needed to establish ceasefires, to get sides talking about the key issues, to implement agreements and to achieve justice. In Northern Ireland we think of the 1998 Good Friday/Belfast Agreement as being critical, but it required 11 agreements before it was signed and 22 more afterwards, to build trust, maintain momentum and embed change – a struggle that continues today 20 years on. It is a huge challenge to ensure that peace is sustained and not a chimera.

Experience demonstrates that deals between political leaders and armed groups are essential but insufficient to sustain peace. Involving more people in a peace process gives more people a stake in its outcomes, enhancing its legitimacy.

Increasingly, evidence shows that peace processes are more durable when they involve more women, who have historically been excluded from diplomacy. Women still struggle to get to the negotiations table but in mediating community level conflicts, which shape what national solutions can look like, they are increasingly changing the discourse in formal peace processes too.

More inclusive processes unleash extraordinary creativity along the gruelling path to reconciliation and peace. There are cohorts of peacebuilders supporting dialogue and mediating in fractured communities to transform relationships broken by violent conflict. People who make peace an everyday reality.

Whether it is young people in northeast Nigeria mediating disputes within and between communities or a network of indigenous women in Colombia striving to ensure the peace agreement there lives up to commitments, courageous individuals know that peace cannot be sustained by good will or fine words alone.

This does not mean endless Marshall Plans; it does mean making ‘winning the peace’ a strategic priority from the start, investing consistently in peace processes, in the implementation of peace agreements and in the social, economic and psychological infrastructures that need to be built anew after war. All too often societies emerging from war are left to flounder when international attention shifts to the next big crisis.

The Imperial War Museum and Conciliation Resources are working together to create a space where victory is reimagined beyond binary notions of victors and vanquished in the aftermath of war. If we want to see societies win the peace we need a concept of victory that is about justice and reconciliation, inclusion and equality.

This is a victory that is not about the glorification of the war that has been, but envisages new societies for all. As the current global pandemic demonstrates, the security, health and prosperity of states are deeply intertwined. We can’t ‘socially isolate’ from conflicts around the world – they impact us directly. To be meaningful, victory is not for a privileged few, it must inspire new relationships that benefit those on all sides in a conflict. It’s time we redefined victory as a peoples’ peace.

Explore 'Reimagining Victory' the new digital series from Conciliation Resources and the Imperial War Museum. 


This article was originally published in Open Democracy.