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The business of preventing conflict

Fauve Kurnadi, from Australian Red Cross' international humanitarian law program, examines how businesses can contribute to the prevention and alleviation of conflict.

Monday June 20, 2016

Community members take part in a brick making program as part of the disarmament and reintegration program in South Sudan. Photo: UN/Martine Perret
Community members take part in a brick making program as part of the disarmament and reintegration program in South Sudan. Photo: UN/Martine Perret

A highly globalised economy and very real political and economic influence - whether at the local, regional or international level - have given corporations the reach and power to impact communities around the world in varying ways.  In some instances, as history demonstrates, this impact may be negative - experienced through the extraction of natural resources or the manufacturing and provision of weapons used in the commission of war crimes.    

The knock-on effect of international business operations can, and often does, manifest in a capacity to cause and/or contribute to armed conflict and other situations of violence.  However, given their reach and influence, do corporations not also have capacity to make positive contributions towards the prevention and alleviation of conflict?  

Just as there are cases which illustrate the negative impact of business enterprises in these circumstances, there is also evidence to suggest that businesses can contribute to both the prevention and the alleviation of armed conflict.  This article highlights some of these examples and seeks to energise the corporate world - from grass roots businesses to multinational corporations - to consider ways in which they might be able to contribute to a more peaceful environment in their respective regions.     

 Prevention of armed conflict  

The Colombian Agency for Reintegration is a government initiative developed to handle the reintegration of the tens of thousands of men and women who have left the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (best known as the FARC) and other paramilitary groups in order to integrate back into the community. The agency engages local businesses to assist in disarmament and demobilisation.   

Through this process, individuals are given access to healthcare, training and upskilling and financial support to help them prepare for social and economic reintegration.  This is done in an effort to prevent demobilised combatants from returning to conflict or engaging in criminal activity, and evidence shows that it is working.   

This initiative, which focuses on empowering populations seen as vulnerable to conflict, is just one example of an approach to conflict prevention.  Another broader approach seeks to improve the socio-economic conditions of a particular region in an attempt to create a stable and secure environment - a less likely breeding ground for conflict.   

For instance, Netherlands-based telecommunications company Celtel International operated in 14 countries across sub-Saharan Africa including DRC, Sierra Leone and Sudan during the period between its establishment in 1998 and its sale in 2005.  Its founder Dr Mohammed Ibrahim, reflecting on the potential influence of his company, said 'where you have good telecommunications you usually have democracy. If you have a phone in your hand, then you have a voice'.   

Beyond this, the company also invested millions of dollars into each country.  Investments included wheelchairs for war victims, dustbins, building materials and deep water wells. The business model also included building up small businesses and providing telecommunications capabilities to rural communities.  

 Alleviation of armed conflict  

The post-conflict transitional justice process is key to healing residual wounds created by violence and war.  Peacekeeping, development projects, criminal prosecution or truth commissions and innovative business practices can all assist in facilitating reconciliation and promoting peace.  

The island of Mindanao in the Philippines has been affected by decades of inter-clan feuds and ethnoreligious conflict between Muslim separatists and the Christian majority government.  Before the turn of the century, La Frutera Inc. and Paglas Corporation established a banana plantation in Datu Paglas, Maguindanao in an effort to facilitate conflict resolution at the local community level.   

The companies hired both Christians and Muslims - including ex-combatants - and incorporated both Christian and Muslim traditions and practices into the business model to promote religious tolerance and cultural sensitivity within the community.  Today, the plantation is not only one of the most profitable in the country, but its effects on the town of Datu Paglas has also been positive, with violence and crime in the area having diminished and former combatant employees choosing not to reengage in hostilities, such as when fighting again broke out in 2000.  

Case studies from Sri Lanka also highlight the potential of businesses to play positive roles in conflict alleviation.  After decades of conflict and the bombing of Colombo International Airport in 2001 the Colombo private sector was motivated to unite as agents of peace.   

Sri Lanka First (SLF), comprising trade associations in the garment, tea, tourism and freight sectors, was the first high-profile corporate group to publically advocate for conflict resolution.  The group implemented a movement of public and political awareness campaigns, demonstrations and lobbying to encourage voters to support a pro-peace government, which came into power at the end of 2001 and led to the signing of a ceasefire agreement in early 2002.  

The transformations enabled by companies such as Celtel and La Frutera/Paglas and business initiatives like the Colombian Agency for Reintegration and SLF are just several examples of the private sector's ability to play a positive and strategic role in the alleviation of conflict and the creation of peace.   

Not only can business enterprises contribute to prevention and alleviation practices, as the above examples demonstrate, but they should contribute - not just on account of corporate social responsibility and the impact this has on conflict prone environments but because industries and economic growth thrive in peaceful conditions, so it makes good business sense to do so.    

Australian Red Cross engages with groups for whom international humanitarian law is directly relevant, including the Australian Defence Force, parliamentarians, and businesses working in conflict affected areas.  

 For more story on IHL and the corporate sector, see the latest issue of International Humanitarian Law magazine (pdf)