Fire and Rain:  The Council Divides its Urgent Attentions

31 Aug

The world is, to reference the Washington Post and virutally every other media outlet, beset with crises.   From Mali to Ukraine, hardly a day goes by without at least one new eruption of hostility, one new warning that the armed violence we struggle to manage may well be entering a new and more potent phase.

At such times, eyes are cast towards the UN Security Council hoping that its ‘maintenance of peace and security’ mandate will translate into policies and actions that can put out some of the fires ranging across half the world, or at the very least lower their searing heat.

The Council is trying hard to do just that, but there are simply too many fires raging, too many escalating conflict zones, any one of which could take up Council members’ full attention.  We find the Council careening from one issue to another, focusing on Syria one week but not the next; obsessing on the ISIS threat while diverting attention from Gaza; assuming that a soon-to-be-deployed peacekeeping operation in Central African Republic will stop that bleeding while Libya disintegrates before our eyes.   Only Ukraine, and that in large measure because of the involvement of permanent Council members and their large militaries, tends to keep its Council focus.

Under the presidency of the United Kingdom, the Council had a busy and varied August, which including a ‘field trip’ to the Hague, Somalia and other locations; some forceful efforts to limit the length of statements, even by governments that have limited access to the Council and are party to grave conflict; and at least two important discussions – one on protection of humanitarian workers and the other on UN capacities for preventive response to violence prior to its full eruption.

Both of these discussions brought out a range of deep UN member state anxieties.   The loss of life from the community of humanitarian workers is shocking and worthy of both great honor and urgent response.  Most of us can barely imagine the challenges of bringing relief to people isolated by violence and abandoned by governments and insurgencies alike.  In the case of the prevention discussion, it is somehow reassuring to those who carefully follow Council deliberations that there be an acknowledgement of how untenable the current situation is, a situation that lends itself to short-term crisis management rather than the longer term crisis prevention which  is closer to our common hope.

In life as in policy, it is often the things left unsaid that are of more significance than those which are named.  This also pertains to webcast Council meetings where statements too often traverse well-worn paths that seem to be designed to ‘inform’ constituents more than sharing thoughtful policy assessment.  In these discussions, there is much text devoted to what Council members care about and occasionally even what they are prepared to do about it.   But much of that is in the form of general recommendations that offer neither kernels of lessons learned nor honest assessments of the failures of past policy.   When the Council speaks of the disintegration of Libya, for instance, while defending (or ignoring altogether) the Council’s resolution authorizing ‘all necessary means’ to stop Gaddafi and the ethnic chaos and the grotesque and highly fluid arms market that were left in its aftermath, it is natural to wonder if Council members are paying enough attention to the longer-term implications of their own decisions.   The rest of us, after all, can ignore the potential consequences of our life choices only at our peril.

So what about those unmentioned items with significant policy reference?   Briefly, two stood out.   In the case of humanitarian workers, we were hoping that someone on the Council would raise clearly the uncomfortable relationship for these workers being protected by peacekeepers who are increasingly seen as partisan, in part because of the expansion of peacekeeping mandates, especially regarding use of coercive force beyond the mantra of “self-defense and the defense of the mandate. “  Such forward projection of force, which in the DRC seem to have won the confidence of diverse UN officials, need to be more carefully vetted from the standpoint of their implication for the safety of already beleaguered humanitarian operations.  As we have seen in South Sudan and just this weekend with capture of Fiji and Filipino peacekeepers, there are legitimate concerns about playing with peacekeeper neutrality in a manner that can jeopardize the safety of more than peacekeepers.  The more that others – states as well as ‘spoilers’ — see PKOs as partisan forces, the more likely that affiliated UN humanitarian workers and other ‘country team’ members could be dragged into threatening situations caused by such ‘partisan’ conflict.

On prevention, the ‘debate’ style format elicited many comments from non-Council members, most of which were laced with anxiety about the state of the world and the Council’s often tepid responses.  From our standpoint, there needed to be more commentary from Council members about the dangers of continually ignoring the smoke that signifies potential danger.   We would also have liked to see more representation in the debate from the people who manage the understaffed and too often ignored preventive architecture of the UN system.

We are extremely grateful to outgoing High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, and felt that her presence at the debate added considerable value.   But there are others who also should have been in that chamber, including the Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide. The Council is unlikely to successfully shift its distracted gaze towards prevention responsibilities without routinely acknowledging and consulting with those already tasked with preventive functions.

As our understanding of conflict-related threats continues to grow, opportunities for Council over-stretch will grow likewise.   The discussions this month pointed again to the grave need for Council members to engage the full measure of the UN’s preventive capacity as well as to demonstrate to an anxious global public why they believe that the  current crop of Council resolutions and related responses to the many violent outbreaks now on its agenda are both sufficiently mindful of the needs of humanitarian workers and also more likely to suppress violence in the end than to inflame it further.

Dr. Robert Zuber

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