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It is right that the Commonwealth’s theme for 2017 “A Peace-building Commonwealth,” follows from last year’s “An Inclusive Commonwealth.” The explicit and logical connection between inclusion and peace is important.

It takes on the notion that peace might be threatened by diversity and compels us to understand the relationship between pluralism and peace. It also encourages us to acknowledge the importance of governance in creating an environment for peace. Institutions that are not able to engage with the people they purport to serve are increasingly likely to get a loud wake up call.

The events of 2016 put peace back on the agenda. The Global Peace Index published its tenth anniversary report last year analysing the main trends. It charted the continuing deterioration in the overall global levels of peace. Among the 163 countries mapped, it found a widening gap between the most and the least peaceful. Of the index’s chosen indicators “the impact of terrorism” and “political instability” showed the sharpest decline. The report attributes the global deterioration to conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa and the associated international repercussions. The number of refugees and displaced persons doubled between 2007 and 2015 to nearly 60 million, accounting for more than 10% of the population in nine countries.

What these global figures do not document is the heightened exposure to the fallout from conflict and instability, experienced by specific sections of society including women, young people, minority ethnic peoples and sexual minorities. Between 2008 and 2014, the homicide rate in developing countries was twice that in the developed world, and further increased in the least developed countries.

Multilateral institutions, including the Commonwealth, have their part to play in addressing this prevailing climate but they should proceed with humility and caution. Multilateral institutions come with moral baggage that also needs to be handled. The Commonwealth has a colonial history, which is relevant to its role as an agency for peace-building. This is acknowledged in the seminal publication “Civil Paths to Peace – the report of the Commonwealth Commission on Respect and Understanding,” which reminds us that “The history of the world matters to contemporary problems, since the effects of past maltreatment and humiliation can last for a very long time.” The colonial legacy should not prevent the Commonwealth from being an active agent for peace, but it must be one of the elements that informs our work in this field.

The Commonwealth consistently flags the importance of civil society in peace-building. This gives the Commonwealth Foundation – the Commonwealth’s agency for civil society – a place to stand. The Foundation’s Vision is for a world where every person is able to fully participate in and contribute to the sustainable development of a peaceful and equitable society. We recognise the opportunity provided by the globally agreed Sustainable Development Goals to place peace in the context of development. When they met in Malta in 2015, Heads of Government noted the consonance between the Commonwealth Foundation’s mission and Sustainable Development Goal 16 with its emphasis on peaceful and inclusive societies and building effective, accountable institutions at all levels. How does the Commonwealth Foundation turn this mandate into practical action?

There are around 11.5 million children worldwide still thought to be working illegally. In South Asia there is an increasing willingness to address their plight. With Commonwealth Foundation support, Global March has been working with partner organisations to build on the experiences of Bangladesh’s Shishu Adhikar Forum, India’s Bachpan Bachao Andolan, and Pakistan’s Grassroots Organisation for Human Development to raise awareness, advocate for policy change and build the capacity of civil society, government and law enforcement agencies to work together against child domestic labour. The project has supported the development of national intervention plans with guidance for those working to address the causes of violence against children as well as secure fair and sensitive judicial processes. There have been compilations of legislative literature, expansive regional and national consultations, and extensive analysis of existing structures – all aimed at enhancing advocacy for stronger policies that will contribute to a peaceful childhood for millions. We were delighted when the Chair of Global March, Kailash Satyarthi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize (jointly with Malala Yousef Sai) in 2014 for his work in this field.

Port Harcourt has grown rapidly over the past forty years and is now one of five Nigerian cities with a population of over a million. It is estimated that between 20 and 40 per cent of the people in Port Harcourt live in self-built waterfront settlements. With Commonwealth Foundation support the Stakeholder Democracy Network and its partner Human City Media Advocacy is encouraging communities to exchange experiences and engage with the State authorities as plans for the redevelopment of their city are made. This new project will develop the ability of young people to use art forms such as music to express their vision for their city. Radio programmes will be produced, shows and performances will be staged and public discussions convened all with the aim of bringing people and institutions together on the future of Port Harcourt.

These two examples articulate the Commonwealth Foundation’s approach to peace-building, which emphasises the importance of civic voice and agency. They illustrate the centrality of young people to peace-building and show how creative expression can provide the means to express a desire for peace and inclusion. Other Commonwealth Foundation programmes show how those previously side-lined can come to play a leading role in making the case for peace – most notably women.

Abuse, threat and grievance fuel and sustain instability, conflict and violence. It’s easy to see how these can compromise social and economic progress and this underscores the importance of a Sustainable Development Goal that focuses on peace. The Global Peace Index estimated that in 2015, violence cost 13.3% of global GDP and pointed out that the economic loss from conflict far outweighs investment in peace-building and peace keeping.

The Commonwealth Foundation seeks to help create and support an environment where people who are not heard can engage effectively in the processes that shape their lives. We believe engagement of this kind has the power to shape a peaceful existence for all. The Foundation’s programmes highlight the importance of human dignity for all, as both a requirement for and characteristic of a peaceful society. It’s a timeless theme that resonates particularly loudly in 2017.

A full length version of this article features in the Commonwealth Ministers’ Reference Book 2017. Find out more about this year’s Commonwealth theme at the Commonwealth Secretariat’s website. Photo credit: Flickr CC ResoluteSupportMedia

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