Survey reveals striking levels of public support for peacebuilding

Two days after President Trump’s threat before the UN General Assembly to ‘totally destroy’ North Korea if the US were forced to defend itself, a public opinion poll revealed that the US public, Republicans and Democrats alike, strongly support greater investment in long-term peacebuilding efforts to address the root causes of violent conflict.

The findings of the poll, published on International Peace Day show that, contrary to populist political rhetoric, not only do people think peacebuilding is vital in ending violent conflicts (71 per cent in the UK, 82 per cent in Germany), but that they would also like to see their governments investing more in peacebuilding (60 per cent in the UK, 70 per cent in Germany). In the US, 74 per cent of respondents agreed with the vital role of peacebuilding and supported greater US investment in it.

The survey, which received support from the Social Change Initiative and the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, was conducted in June-July 2017 by UK peacebuilding NGO, Conciliation Resources, in collaboration with the US-based Alliance for Peacebuilding among 4,307 adults in UK, US and Germany. It tested public understanding and attitudes towards peacebuilding and engagement with armed groups to further peace.

Despite the fact that ‘peacebuilding’ is not a term widely used outside specialist circles, the public were confident in their understanding of the processes and activities it involves. 68 per cent of people in the UK, 67 per cent in the US and 62 per cent in Germany understood peacebuilding as “a long-term process of rebuilding relationships, changing attitudes and establishing fairer institutions”. In Northern Ireland, where people well understand the costs and consequences of armed conflict, the result was 79 per cent.

Furthermore, people justified involvement in peace efforts primarily on grounds of human rights. 84 per cent of people in all three countries chose as their primary justification: “because people have a right to live in peace: free from conflict”.

People think we should be talking to armed groups

When asked what they think about engaging with armed groups to further peace, the majority (64 per cent in the UK) felt that “peace processes that engage with armed groups can help end violent conflict”. In Northern Ireland 74 per cent of respondents agreed with this statement. Encouragingly, people would also feel positive knowing their government had negotiated peace with an armed group, with ‘hopeful’, ‘happy’ and ‘proud’ the top emotions chosen in the US and UK.

The results show that the general public also feel international organisations, like the UN, and governments should play a key role in talking with armed groups in pursuit of peace. Even when groups are officially identified as proscribed terrorists, as in the case of the IRA and FARC in Colombia, 83 per cent of people in the UK, 77 per cent in Germany and 76 per cent in the US thought that international organisations should be able to talk with proscribed terrorist groups to seek peace.

In times of division and political polarisation, such findings are reassuring. More than that, given the number of devastating conflicts and crises globally, the findings should prompt governments and international organisations to step up efforts and investment in comprehensive and long-term approaches to preventing and addressing violent conflict and building peace.