Travelocity: The Council’s Ticket to Closer Connections to Difficult Security Challenges, Dr. Robert Zuber

6 Mar

As of this writing, Security Council members are in the final stages of a visit to West Africa to confer with regional leaders and assess security arrangements and ongoing threats in countries such as Mali and Guinea-Bissau.

We support such trips as, in the best of circumstances, Council members can both share concerns with political and military leaders (even opposition forces as in Mali), and also get a feel for how tenuous the peace can be in these places despite the Council’s often well-meaning meetings, resolutions and mandates.  It is good that they go, good that they listen, good that capitals experience their concern first-hand.

We look forward to the report on this trip later this month, under Angola’s presidency.   As part of that report, we would appreciate some rationale for the invitation list, specifically why the chair of the Peacebuilding Commission’s Guinea-Bissau configuration, Brazil’s Amb. Patriota, was apparently left off.   Indeed, a meeting of that configuration focused on the political stalemate in that country was held this week prior to the Council’s departure, a meeting which attracted an “A” list group of permanent representatives, virtually all of whom were properly encouraging of Amb. Patriota’s personal involvement with (at least) the Guinea-Bissau portion of the Council’s travels.

Indeed, from our vantage point, and having been present for virtually all recent meetings of this configuration, this would seem to be an opportunity missed.   Closer linkages between the PBC and SC have been called for repeatedly by Ambassadors and featured in SG reports.   These connections are considered essential both to ensuring broader participation by member states in relevant peace and security issues, and in helping to push our conflict-related energies further upstream, balancing our commitments to remedial measures in post-conflict settings with assurances that we will do all that we can — and more than we are currently doing — to fend off conflicts in their earliest stages.

Such assurances, as we have noted many times in the past, require more of us as we seek to become fair, thoughtful and collaboratively-minded brokers of our respective mandates.

This “more” was ably expressed during “Human Rights at work in Peace Operations,” convened by Sweden to look at the human rights implications of peacekeeping operations (including of course the obligation not to abuse the people PKOs are mandated to protect).  During that event Francesco Motta, Head of the Human Rights Component of the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq, made clear that UN reports must be used to enhance human rights practices and not for UN publicity purposes.  Such reports must have direct application to circumstances on the ground, not only with regard to the values and strategies by which we respond to threats, but as a means for deepening our understanding of the nature and origins of threats.  Extremism did not appear out of nowhere, he advised, and the more we allow ourselves to know about its complex origins (including at times our own facilitating roles), the better we will be able to prevent their recurrence.  This self- and organizational reflectiveness from a human rights officer (and from several of his panel colleagues) was warmly received and rightfully so.

Some of the value of that reflectiveness could have been extended to the pre-trip Council chamber during discussion of resolution 2270 (2016) that tightens sanctions on the DPRK, including restrictions on new categories of exports and providing for the intercepting of DPRK vessels.  The US and China, as the two nations most closely associated with the resolution, had predictably different response to its unanimous passage, though both acknowledged the limited value of previous sanctions regimes to changing DPRK behavior.  The US took the lead in highlighting yet again the many levels of security threats and human rights abuses attributable to DPRK’s leadership.  China, again typically for them, highlighted the need for dialogue and negotiated settlement while noting the grave challenges on their own doorstep represented by some of the belligerent policies emanating from Pyongyang.

Two things particularly struck me from this discussion.  First, despite the many evidences of horrific DPRK behavior noted by the US, other Council members such as Japan, and even from ECOSOC president Oh Joon, there was an underlying if unspoken presumption of “rationality” of the DPRK leadership, some sense that this leadership is capable of internalizing the disapproval of other states and making sound judgments designed to resolve (or at least appease) such disapproval.

This assumption has merit with bratty children desperate for their mothers’ attention or “high maintenance” partners looking for reassurance.  But for bullies harboring what appear to be severe reality deficits, provocation seems always to be lurking in the metaphorical shadows, provocation which can be both a cause of and an excuse for obsessive, abusive, reactive behavior.

Still, regardless of any state sanity misconceptions, it would have been useful to have the DPRK in the Council chamber to gauge their reactions to the resolution, indeed their capacity to respond reasonably (if not positively) to its demands. It is standard Council practice to invite states under consideration – Yemen, Libya, Syria, Sudan, etc. – and then provide them the courtesy of response.  In this instance, as with many other UN deliberations on DPRK, government representatives were nowhere to be found. We have written previously urging the Council to abandon the process of letting erstwhile “offending” states have the “last word” in these formal sessions in part because of the high levels of “spin” characteristic of most of their presentations.  Nevertheless, these appearances are useful both in helping to take the “temperature” of states and to ensure that government officials actually “hear” the concerns of Council members.  Given this, every possible effort should be made to have the DPRK in the room when they find themselves (as they assuredly will) back on the Council’s agenda.

The lessons from this week’s travels and briefings largely confirm lessons of prior weeks:  If we politicize findings of potential mass violence or other security threats; if we protect officials who fail to address human rights abuse allegations forthrightly;  if we turn our backs on complementary capacities (including mediation experts) that can help us fulfill our own mandates (not to mention save lives); if we allow our political lenses to cloud our policy judgments;  if we craft statements or reports that tell the truths that we want others to hear, not the truths they need to hear; if we appear to encourage some abusive state voices while stifling others; then we risk undermining broad confidence in the multilateral structures we still very much need to implement the promises we have already made.

Whether we like it or not, that confidence is now a bit shaky.  We need quickly to demonstrate more resolve to preserve – even enhance — what is left of it.  If we were ever to lose this confidence altogether, we can rest assured that no Council session or overseas mission visit could likely restore it.

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