Accompanying the Path to Peace


“If the UN is about anything, it’s about building peace,” Judy Cheng-Hopkins explained this Thursday to an audience of approximately thirty Yale students. If anyone can speak authoritatively on UN peacebuilding efforts, it’s surely Ms. Cheng-Hopkins, the Assistant Secretary-General for Peacebuilding Support at the United Nations, who has spent over thirty five years working in international affairs. Her office attempts to help post-conflict countries through the painful process of reconciliation and stabilization, and Ms. Cheng-Hopkins gave her audience a glimpse into that difficult but ultimately rewarding process.

Peacebuilding is distinct from peacekeeping and economic development as the intermediate step between the two. Peacekeeping is the primarily military work of creating a short term cessation of violence, while peacebuilding support steps in once the peace accords have been signed and “ideally when people seem weary of violence and willing to set down arms, at least for a few years,” according to the Assistant Secretary-General. Peacebuilders try to deal with the long-term potential conflict triggers to prevent a relapse into violence. Their work creates the government framework and societal stability necessary for economic development projects to succeed.

The chances of relapse into civil war is generally incredibly high. Though global violence has declined dramatically over the last forty years, a group of twenty-five to thirty nations are still trapped in repeating cycles of endless civil war. These post-conflict countries share many traits: they often have military-dominated governments riddled with corruption and competing factions, they are often rich in natural resources, additionally, government institutions are weak or non-existent in large parts of the country. However, one of the greatest threats to stability is what Ms. Cheng-Hopkins called the “vicious cycle of youth,” since war kills off the older population while denying the young a chance to get education and a job. These idle young people, denied a chance to lead a productive life and unfamiliar with a life without war, become easy recruits for extremists, and then further feed the cycle of violence. In these settings, conventional development work becomes almost impossible as project money is siphoned to fuel the conflict and fighting destroys the effects of projects that briefly succeed.

To take on these enormous problems, Ms. Cheng-Hopkins works through a methodical process with post-conflict countries. She starts with security sector reform, shrinking armies that have often become oversized as young people went to the military as a source of pay and protection. For example, in Guinea-Bissau, the UN worked to pension off many soldiers and then professionalize the group that was left. They strived to reduce arms across the board, creating buy-back programs and concentrating former soldiers in barracks where they can be kept from harassing civilian populations that are still healing from the war. The next step was to create employment programs, immediately getting former fighters and unemployed youth working on creating much-needed infrastructure. They also created training programs to help youth find professions that will offer them a permanent path to a peaceful and prosperous life.

The UN also tries to establish long-term reconciliation and good governance. They take a wide range of approaches towards this goal, from education to legal reform to infrastructure development. Ms. Cheng-Hopkins considers women to be an integral part of this process. “I’m sick of hearing women just portrayed as victims of conflict,” she explained, “when women also are leaders in solving conflicts.” On the local level, women are often some of the most important negotiators promoting peace. Ms. Cheng-Hopkins notes that women, as mothers, often have a stronger sense of the importance of peace to the future of a country. However, women often get pushed to the back once negotiations reach the national level, a fact that Ms. Cheng-Hopkins is trying to correct.  She firmly supports quotas for women in government, pointing out that this policy led to laws making rape illegal finally being passed in Burundi and women being given the right to own land in Rwanda.

Ms. Cheng-Hopkins work is incredibly difficult, and she faces a high rate of failure. She sees herself as a type of “venture capitalist,” investing in high-risk countries and hoping to reap a dividend of long-term peace. Though many don’t succeed, other countries shine as occasional “bright sparks” that her work helps to keep from falling back into the trap of violence and poverty. As hard as it might be, she deeply believes that the chance to help societies become peaceful and prosperous is entirely worth the effort.

Kelsey Larson is a sophomore in Silliman College. Contact her at