A Delicate Balance:  The Sixth Committee Considers the UN’s Rules and Reputation, Dr. Robert Zuber

18 Oct

As most of our readers are aware, this blog is an extension of our Twitter feed (@globalactionpw) – our attempt to provide a sense of how much activity takes place within UN headquarters, and to explore changes in structure and methods of work that can improve overall performance of the UN system.  And, indeed, this was yet another week where those seeking to cover a range of UN processes were running from one end of the campus to the other.   The Security Council under Spain’s leadership held a debate on Women, Peace and Security that lingered on through a second afternoon and also hastily called a meeting on Middle East violence, while the General Assembly (GA) voted 5 new, non-permanent members to join their 10 Council colleagues at the start of 2016.

Meanwhile, the GA’s Third Committee took up the rights of women and children and the Fourth committee wrestled with issues as diverse as non-self-governing territories (i.e. Western Sahara) and efforts to rid conflict countries of landmines.   The Second Committee took up the need for South-South cooperation as a component of Sustainable Development priorities to end poverty and address inequalities both within and between states.  UN “side events” ranged from ensuring access to legal services for girls to commemorations of World Food Day and the International Days of Rural Women and of Older Persons.

All of this (and much more) required every ounce of available diplomatic and NGO energy, with plenty of content to incorporate in the pursuit of international peace and security, and the fulfillment of core obligations to the poor and vulnerable. If some of these many forums and presentations can lead to hopeful and relevant activities in the world, we have a decent chance of dodging climate, resource and weapons scenarios that are unsettling at best and frightening at virtually every other level.

And then there was the Sixth Committee of the GA, dealing with grave matters that are indispensable to the functioning and credibility of the UN, including Rule of Law, responses to international terrorism, and International Justice.   These are matters both heady and consequential if the UN is to maintain the confidence of member states and the publics they serve.  Sixth Committee efforts to establish a more level playing field for states, to eliminate impunity for grave crimes against civilians committed by some of those same states, to ensure that our responses to terrorist threats are proportionate and human rights-based, and to insist that the behavior of UN staff and consultants in the field – including and especially peacekeepers – conforms to the values that lie at the core of the UN’s charter mandate,  these and related topics  are truly fundamental  to the lifeblood of the UN system.

And yet, in the vastness of the Trusteeship Council, you had to strain to hear even the echoes of policy relevance.   There were many empty seats in the rows of delegations.   There was virtually no one seated in the section reserved for UN agencies, apparently designations based on protocol more than on interest.   As for the NGOs, most of the rows (let alone seats) in the back were completely empty.  Indeed, the most movement in the room much of the time was the line of tourists filing through the back aisle, much to the (understandable) chagrin of conference services.

The point of this is not to be snarky, but to wonder what it is about this committee, and indeed this community, that fails to produce an attentive audience for such core considerations.   Friday was a case in point as the Sixth Committee took up issues related to the conduct of peacekeepers in the field;  how to promote “zero tolerance” — not a particularly high bar according to our peacekeeping fellow – and ensure that states are vigilant in their investigation and prosecution of abuses committed by their nationals (which may be a higher one).   Given the many layered implications of this discussion, including for Women, Peace and Security, it was odd that so few appeared to support committee efforts to rescue this dimension of the UN’s sometimes shaky reputation.

And there certainly was much of system-wide value to digest, including Malaysia’s call for more preventive measures emanating from the UN, not only directed at sexual violence but also the trafficking in persons and armaments that increase civilian threats and complicate response options.  Kenya underscored the degree to which abuse allegations within a few peacekeeping operations (PKOs) undermine confidence that future deployments will, as urged by Liberia, duly exercise their fundamental duty to care for persons in crisis.  And Ecuador, speaking on behalf of CELAC, cited “excessive use of force” by PKOs as a potential abuse also worthy of the UN’s full policy attention.

There was more to this discussion that invited a wider interest.  Both Algeria and the European Union urged much more rapid investigations and prosecutions after abuse allegations are made.  India suggested more state oversight of contributed troops and swift justice to those who abuse their positions.  The US called for more community based capacities that could help expose abuses of all kinds at earlier stages.  Guatemala urged special consideration for abuse allegations that involved minors, and South Africa noted that as the size of UN field staff and the complexity of their responsibilities grow, the need for more regular conduct reviews grows as well.

Two other suggestions with system-wide implications stood out from this conversation, both involving Norway speaking on behalf of the Nordic states.    First, with the European Union, Norway urged that sanctions and other measures be considered for use against states that fail to provide credible reports to the UN regarding state investigations and prosecutions of allegations of abuse by their citizens.  In the second instance, Norway joined with El Salvador and others to urge protection for “whistleblowers” seeking to highlight instances of abuse that some in the UN system would much prefer to ignore or dismiss.

As El Salvador made clear, the culture of “defending the UN at all costs” must come to an end.  We cannot improve, let alone heal, what we are unable or unwilling to face.   And there is no indication of this unwillingness as harmful to the integrity of any institution as the urge to “kill the messenger.”

As global challenges and their stakes both rise, tendencies to “kill” rather than consider will generally follow suit.  In such an environment, it will be harder to achieve what the Swiss suggested in 6th Committee – to take every possible action necessary to eliminate cycles of abuse in all UN operations.

In this, all of us have a role. The pleasure of our company is requested, in the Trusteeship Council chamber and elsewhere, in part because we know how elusive lasting change will be if we aren’t all bearing (and sharing) witness.  The doors to our policy participation and scrutiny are open.   We need to walk through more of them on a more regular basis and do whatever we can to help get abuse response and other key “rule of law” issues right.  It will be that much more difficult to achieve our security and development goals if we as a community fail fundamental tests of law and justice.

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