Secretary-General Presents New 5-Year Agenda: Focusing on Prevention

31 Jan

Just last week, the Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon presented his Five-Year Action Agenda: ‘The Future We Want’ for his next term at the helm of the UN. He expanded further on the list of five imperatives laid forth last September: sustainable development; preventing conflicts and disasters, human rights abuses, and development setbacks; building a safer and more secure world, including standing strong on fundamental principles of democracy and human rights; supporting nations in transitions; and working with and for women and young people.

The Secretary-General made several important points regarding the changing dynamics of the world’s community that will require new and more dynamic responses by various stakeholders. The world’s population has officially exceeded 7 billion, new economic strongholds are emerging, social inequality is proliferating, climate change and environmental degradation are becoming harsher realities, and limited resources are continuing to shrink. These are no small challenges. It seems that any agenda,  not matter how far reaching and detailed, would be insufficient to tackle such gargantuan issues (the Millennium Development Goals [MDGs] are not on track to be achieved by 2015 as was envisioned when they were adopted in 2000. Nonetheless, as Ban Ki-moon said, the myth that development does not work is false– there has been more effective disease control, more children in primary school, and significant reductions in poverty throughout the world.) Nonetheless, it is important to temper opinions regarding the reality of setting forth such sweeping and lofty goals. A critical element of making these goals a reality is transparency, information sharing, and inter-agency coordination that not only engages the UN and its agencies, but also civil society, the private sector, academics, and other engaged global citizens that have the resources, enthusiasm, and skills to make progress, no matter how small, on these ambitious goals. As such, a welcome development was the SG’s announcement that he would appoint a senior adviser tasked with coordinating system-wide partnerships.

It’s worth a discussion on prevention– a key component of the SG’s agenda that is a ‘cure’ that is both better and cheaper than emergency response. In a system that is often focused on dealing with spiraling-out-of-control crises, this is a welcome initiative. The SG noted that his agenda emphasizes early warning and action through conflict mapping and linking, collecting and integrating information from across the system. This is precisely where the focus needs to be in addressing conflict, including mass atrocities and genocide, and human rights. As emphasized in our own organizational mission and priorities, it is essential to promote more transparency for findings generated by the UN, by member states and by civil society groups that indicate a credible threat of mass atrocities such that these findings can be made actionable at earlier stages before full-scale violence flares up. Findings are ultimately limited in their usefulness unless there is an attentive and robust infrastructure to turn information into preventative policy.

The SG’s reference to ‘a new dimension for the emerging doctrine of the responsibility to protect’ is somewhat vague, but it is a welcome reference to a framework that, although the majority of news-grabbing political considerations have focused on the last resort (military) intervention piece of it, fully embraces prevention as a means to limit the worst of human rights abuses. ‘Pillars’ one and two of the R2P framework focus on capacity-building and assistance for governments to protect their own people as a means of prevention. It is only the third and final pillar that focuses on potential outside intervention as a means to ‘protect.’  Likewise, more effective mapping and integration of information across the international system is welcome initiative that would promote greater transparency in findings of potential human rights abuses so that it is not left exclusively to the Security Council to deal with a full-blown crisis, but rather the wider international community can engage in early action and preventative activities.

It is important that the international community looks at the most pressing issues of the immediate future on a macro level, in addition to the micro dealings of day-to-day UN work. It is in these broader assessments that the different challenges can be better understood in concert with one another so that better and more efficient coordination can be planned for and ultimately implemented. The linkages are clear– higher levels of participation from women and youth are linked to more sustainable development; preventing conflicts and development setbacks surely depend on building a safer and more secure world. The UN is an imperfect system, but it is a system that is universal in representation and replete with human creativity and skills to tackle, even if imperfectly, these difficult challenges of our time.


–Katherine Prizeman

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