Promise Keepers:  The Septuagenarian UN Sharpens its Policy Resolve, Dr. Robert Zuber

28 Jun

There are times at UN Headquarters when the winds (head and tail) of policy development and assessment are blowing so hard that you literally have to “hold on to your hat.”  This period in late June, as we have been trying desperately to capture on twitter (@globalactionpw), has been one such time.

Needless to say, not all of the events of relevance to UN policies this past week happened in New York. Terror attacks in Tunisia, Kuwait and France (not to mention the fallout from Charleston) along with the welcome news that marriage in the US is no longer subject to state prohibition provided the backdrop for a season of promises we have kept and have yet to keep. In these instances, the messaging seemed clear — that we still have much more to do to understand and address terror threats, and that social inclusion can be every bit as important to the quality of our lives as its political and economic counterparts.

And then there were the ceremonies held in New York and San Francisco to honor the 70th anniversary of the signing of the UN charter.  The San Francisco ceremony was much more dramatic, but comments in New York by Amb. Samantha Power and DSG Eliasson also set a “promising” tone. Power took note of the US Supreme Court’s ruling on gay marriage and affirmed the UN’s ongoing, challenging search for common ground based on what she cited as respect for international law and adherence to various versions of the “golden rule.”

The Deputy Secretary General was equally reflective. Echoing the current negotiations on sustainable development goals (and as someone who claims to carry a copy of the Charter in his pocket), DSG Eliasson affirmed the Charter as a “grand attempt to bring the world we have closer to the world we want.” It should be noted that Eliasson has highlighted in many UN conference rooms the need for diplomats to be more attentive to the many gaps separating our common aspirations and the “road” to implementation along which the UN sometimes wanders without clear direction; aspirations representing promises that we enthusiastically “table” but which are then too often allowed to sit more or less right where we left them.

In the days preceding and following the Charter signing anniversary, the UN has taken up peacebuilding funding and the last, difficult vestiges of colonization; peacekeeping mandate renewals and counter-terrorism strategies; a high-level assessment of climate health; and what promises to be a challenging discussion between the Security Council and ICC Chief Prosecutor Bensouda regarding the discouraging situation in Darfur. In ECOSOC, its High-level political forum is seeking to build broad, robust and reliable stakeholder engagement on sustainable development goals and priorities.  Last Friday in another conference room, the UN Security Council received a scolding of sorts from Syrian activists and rescue workers regarding the Council’s inability to achieve actionable consensus on policies to end barrel bombing, humanitarian blockades and displacement affecting millions.

In these and other contexts, the “table” at the UN is remarkably full now with many occasions and options for policy development representing a mixture of promises made, promises pending and promises deferred – thankfully with mostly high levels of sincere, energetic engagement.  Apparently, for the UN at least, “70” really is the new “50.”

As the UN considers its fidelity and flexibility with respect to all core Charter obligations in this anniversary year, three major programmatic assessments authorized by the Secretary General seek to revise and reaffirm some of the most important of UN promises. Two of these, on peacebuilding architecture and Women, Peace and Security, are forthcoming.  The third report from the peace operations review was recently submitted to the Secretary General by co-facilitators Mr. Jose Ramos-Horta and Ms. Ameerah Haq. We have seen the report as have a wide array of other interested persons, and we commend many of its insights and recommended actions.

We were fortunate to be able to contribute in some small way to the peace operations review via policy that we wrote for discussion and eventual submission by some African partners.   We also were pleased to help lead a project on the future of peace operations resulting in an edited volume from Springer publishers. The volume includes diverse cultural lenses on peacekeeping’s many challenges and offers recommendations that we hope will influence future agendas for both the policy and academic communities.

Attempting to sum up such recommendations in light of the SG’s report is (too) risky business.  GAPW would however seek to reinforce the following as integral to keeping the lofty and essential promises of peace operations:

  • First, we appreciate the report’s emphasis on prevention and mediation capabilities, recognizing that peace operations that arrive too late or are mis-utilized as a substitute for robust diplomatic engagement are more likely to endanger peacekeepers, risk mandate failures, and gravely disappoint civilians in need of protection. The best way to honor UN Charter promises to constituents in conflict zones is to prevent conflict from flaring/expanding in the first instance. This requires more than the Security Council, more than DPKO; it requires full-spectrum response from a wide variety of UN and regional stakeholders who understand that conflict prevention is a system-wide responsibility requiring high-end, system-wide expertise.
  • We also appreciate the report’s willingness to highlight the “widening gap” between what is expected of peacekeepers and their capacity and skill to deliver. We would however note the tendency in both SC mandates and in contributions such as those by the C-34 Special Committee, to overload peacekeepers with tasks that only seem to grow in number and complexity. Narrowing this gap “from the middle” will require both additional training and mandate restraint.  Peace operations cannot be expected to do difficult work often under the most challenging physical and logistical conditions while asked to undertake tasks – from training local law enforcement to restoring good governance – that would challenge the competency of the most accomplished professionals in those fields. This expanding menu of responsibilities also threatens energy and ability for civilian protection, a non-negotiable mandate for many of us.
  • We appreciate the report’s endorsement of a rapid response mechanism for peace operations based in part on the recognition that the “United Nations is often too slow to engage with emerging crises.” Such a mechanism, such as the UNEPS proposal with which we have worked for years, could be a cost effective means of getting needed capacity in the field at the earliest stages of a conflict to both help stabilize dangerous situations and buy time for diplomacy and other complementary measures– much like the outcomes expected of an emergency vehicle attached to a competent hospital.  The value of such a capacity, in our view, is less about “reinforcement and new mission start-up” and more about skillfully obviating the need for expensive, large-scale peace operations in the first instance.  The more attention and protection are available from the start of a potential conflict, the better any country’s longer-term prognosis is likely to be.
  • Finally, as we have written previously, the shocks to the reputation of the UN’s peace and security architecture from unaddressed violations of abuse by UN personnel must not be allowed to fester.  The failure to address abuses forthrightly invites further abuses, but also undermines faith in the UN system and places peacekeepers and other members of UN country teams in danger.  As was clear during an emotional honoring ceremony for fallen peacekeepers at UN Headquarters in May, threats to the physical safety of peacekeepers are numerous. The addition of scandal to vast operational challenges and (founded or unfounded) accusations of abandoned impartiality is simply more than peace operations should have to bear.

In peace operations as in other areas of UN practice, this 70th anniversary is indeed a time to bring the world we have closer to the world we want: a world that has achieved climate health and full social inclusion; a world that practices fairness and ensures equality of participation; a world with fewer countries to rebuild thanks to a more robust diplomatic, preventive and protective architecture; a world where rogue plastics no longer choke ocean species now threatened with extinction; a world in which the entitlements of elites give way to a more nuanced, compassion-based social responsibility; a world where children can be children without having to assume excessive burdens of responsibility that should still be ours for a world far too often in “shock” from one crisis or another.

Peace operations are an essential part of that larger promise, key to the UN’s core mission that people still want to believe in and that we still need to improve as part of honoring that confidence. We recall important recommendations from the Year 2000 “Brahimi Report” that have yet to be implemented fifteen years later.  We urge that the best of this new crop of recommendations can find operational pathways much sooner.

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