The State Department’s Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations (CSO) was created in 2011 to improve the effectiveness and coherence of the U.S. government in conflict situations.
Conflict prevention and crisis response is a vital diplomatic specialty--complementing traditional practices. Focusing on strategically significant countries, CSO believes in taking advantage of the astonishing advances in communications and data gathering and fully realizing the potential of women, young people, and other emerging local leaders. The vast energy generated by expressions of citizen power can move the world toward a brighter tomorrow, if fresh ideas and new alliances steer history toward that promise.
CSO breaks cycles of violence through locally grounded analysis that focuses on a top-priority opportunity to address conflict. When we began, we set three goals:
By employing tools and expertise to fortify the Department in three areas related to conflict (analysis, strategy, and operations), CSO aims to connect policy and practice. Working with colleagues throughout the State Department and the interagency, CSO strives to forge a common U.S. government understanding of each conflict. The Bureau is now positioned to play a catalytic role as America’s civilian power furthers global peace and prosperity.
Kenya is a vital East African ally, and Kenyans and international partners were committed to a peaceful 2013 election. In the previous election season, five years earlier, more than 1,300 people died and 350,000 were displaced. This time Kenyans lost 20 citizens and officials. By mobilizing dozens of apolitical institutions and connecting civil society to the police in new ways, the U.S., its partners, and especially Kenyans, “helped prevent a repeat of the violence we saw five years ago,” Secretary Kerry said.
Bringing the moderate Syrian opposition together and helping them serve the public is a central U.S. objective. Operating from Turkey, CSO has provided opposition activists and local councils with equipment (almost 1,100 recipients), training (more than 1,300 participants), and funding. This assistance has helped Syrians establish 11 independent radio and two TV stations (available to 80 percent of the population), build their resilience under regime and extremist threat, improve their effectiveness and coordination, provide local security, and prepare to serve as democratic leaders and civil administrators. Though the war continues and the regime remains entrenched, many of the opposition councils that we are working with are addressing essential needs.
Honduras has the world’s highest homicide rate, and citizens have lost confidence in their government. CSO has promoted grassroots advocacy and a strategic communications plan to empower civil society groups and encourage government security officials to become more responsive and transparent. Such efforts have helped reduce public fear and shine a light on successful citizen-led efforts to tackle crime. An unprecedented coalition was instrumental in the dismissal of a problematic attorney general and corrupt police, a decline in crime and murder in targeted neighborhoods, and a peaceful election day in November 2013.
In Burma, the challenge is decades of conflict between the government and ethnic minority groups. Creating trust among all Burmese is a priority for U.S. Ambassador Derek Mitchell, and we have helped broaden the constituency for peace, particularly in Kayah State, and strengthen moderate voices in Rakhine State, where animosities between Buddhists and Muslims remain notably high.
In four Central African nations, the United States is determined to end the reign of terror created by Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army. Working closely with the host governments and their armed forces, as well as with civil society, the African Union, the UN, the U.S. military, and NGOs, CSO has helped generate significant defections and weaken the LRA. Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, faces growing violence. As the February 2015 elections approach, the volatile and oil-rich Niger Delta, with its youthful population of 25 million, is a center of concern. With State Department assistance, creative and influential Nigerians have teamed up to mobilize public opinion. Through the dynamic use of an exploding mass media market, they are challenging the narrative that “violence pays” and are promoting non-violent problem-solving between communities and government.
In Bangladesh, home to 180 million people, violence and instability are major problems. The country is struggling to manage a youth bulge, religious-based exclusion, and violent expression with tired political leaders. With the embassy’s guidance, CSO is addressing threats to minority groups.
A new president’s commitment to end the three-decade Casamance conflict in Senegal prompted CSO to deploy a retired ambassador dedicated to helping the government develop and implement a comprehensive peace platform. This has increased public pressure on key actors, spurred negotiations with rebels, enlisted support from the international community, and allowed for safe progress on development projects. A de facto ceasefire has held since late 2012 as negotiations move ahead.
CSO starts its engagements with joint, rapid, locally-grounded conflict analysis. Data-driven products draw on diverse sources, including diplomatic intelligence and media reports, “big data” platforms, polling, local interviews, and international expertise. Prioritized strategies then target the causes of instability and address high-risk periods such as political transitions and peace negotiations.
Rapid implementation requires host-country partners. CSO seeks to amplify local initiatives by managing nearly $100 million in programs (in FY2013). Working with an embassy, regional bureaus, and others, we use these funds to ground theory in practice.
Real-time monitoring and evaluation enable us to adjust our plans. In Honduras, we saw an important new fiscal initiative get bogged down. In Kenya we should have mobilized already-active religious leaders, youth, civic activists, and police officers earlier. Better anticipation, greater speed, and improved partnership mechanisms are among recurring challenges. So is the need to provide “the right person, in the right place, at the right time,” which is the goal of our new Civilian Response Network.
Finally, communications is central to diplomacy, and CSO is using both traditional media outlets and social media to break cycles of violence in Syria, Honduras, Nigeria, and elsewhere.
In every place CSO works, we count on partners, starting with our colleagues within the State Department and USAID and at the Department of Defense. In Syria, for example, our U.S. partners include the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, the Office of Transition Initiatives, the U.S.-Middle East Partnership Initiative, and the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. We rely on allies such as the UK, Denmark, and Canada to support training and other efforts. CSO reaches out to civil society organizations like Sant’Egidio, the Rome-based Catholic lay organization that is at the heart of the campaign to bring a negotiated peace to the Casamance. Host-country partners, such as la Alianza por la Paz y Justicia (Alliance for Peace and Justice) in Honduras, are vital if the initiatives that CSO helps build are to endure. Often, new groups converge to increase their impact, as Champions of Peace did in Kenya.
The support our teams have received from more than 20 U.S. ambassadors and their embassies is the best evidence that crisis response and conflict reduction are centerpieces of U.S. diplomacy. Increasingly, colleagues are turning to CSO for assistance in breaking cycles of violence. To build an enduring contributor to U.S. foreign policy, CSO understands that constant learning, close partnerships, and innovation are essential.