The world has seen a surge of street protests this year in places from Chile to Hong Kong. The grievances range from inequality to repression to corruption. Yet in Iraq and Colombia, one particular motive stands out: Demonstrators expected a “peace dividend” after the recent cessation of brutal conflicts in each country.
Just a few years ago, Iraq and Colombia were among the countries with the highest economic impact from violent conflict. Iraq was losing half of its gross domestic product to violence while Colombia was losing a third, according to the Institute for Economics & Peace in Australia. In 2016, however, Colombia concluded a peace deal with Marxist rebels after a half-century of civil war. In Iraq two years ago, the Islamic State’s caliphate was defeated by Iraqi forces along with foreign help.
By the size and duration of their protests, Iraqis seem the more aggrieved. Their victory over Islamic State in 2017 has yet to result in rebuilt public services and an equitable distribution of the nation’s vast oil wealth. They have peacefully rallied against a corrupt elite and a system of governance – set up after 2003 during the American occupation – that divides power among ethnic and religion groups.
In Colombia, the protests are smaller and more diverse in grievances, but the underlying frustration is that the promised gains of peace are not coming fast – along with worries about the impact of more than a million Venezuelans. To be sure, the country’s growth is the fastest among large Latin American economies, about 3.4%. But Colombia still needs land reform and more foreign investment to absorb some 11,000 guerrillas who have laid down their arms. Students and other groups are also demanding more government benefits.
What these protests show is that people coming out of war know very well that peace is not merely the absence of conflict. Peace is a positive force, built on pillars of clean governance, respect for civic rights, freedom for private business, and friendly and open relations with neighboring countries.
In the last 60 years, finds the Institute for Economics & Peace, “per capita growth has been three times higher in highly peaceful countries when compared to countries with low levels of peace.” Violence in general cost the global economy an estimated $14.76 trillion in 2017, or $1,988 per person.
Other countries may soon emerge from conflict, such as Yemen, Syria, and Afghanistan. Mozambique and the Central African Republic are rebuilding after recent peace deals ending civil wars. The lesson from the protests in Iraq and Colombia is that the peacemaking must last long after a war. In fact, it relies on the people’s expectations of good made tangible as the ultimate antidote to war.