Peacebuilding Week:  The UN Seeks a Sustainable Culture Shift, Dr. Robert Zuber

26 Jun

At a time in its history when so much is on the UN’s plate, so much globally and institutionally is perceived to be on the wrong track, the demand for reform is considerable.  More and more, people cannot fathom – and with justification – how structures designed for one era’s crises can be expected to overcome the new and daunting hurdles that lie before us.  A briefing on Syria last Tuesday under the auspices of PGA Lykketoft gave Special Envoy de Mistura and USG O’Brien an opportunity to tell the full UN membership about tentative humanitarian and peace progress, but also just how much further we need to go before we stop adding to the bloodshed and trauma that already stretch our common capacities to their breaking point.

We at the UN often run behind responsibilities and crises rather than head them off.  We negotiate resolutions on weapons systems that have already evolved more dangerous iterations.   We create agreements on climate and development destined to require more energy and resources to clean up previous messes than prevent new ones.  We seek to address the mass trauma from so many victims in so many conflict zones, at times overlooking the obvious fact that the only viable means to effectively address such trauma is to do more to ahead of time to minimize its occurrence.

Like much of the national legislation with which its own policies interact, the culture of the UN system is reactive more than proactive.   Diplomats now speak regularly about the need for better early warning mechanisms and prevention strategies, but this is still largely at the level of aspiration, not representative of a sustainable shift in culture.  As a system, the UN’s “directional” continues to stick on the “post” side of conflict rather than on marshalling wisdom and resources to address conflict threats that we increasingly have neither the skills nor the resources to heal once “threat becomes reality.”

The week’s numerous events on and references to UN Peacebuilding and the Peacebuilding Commission (PBC) represented more than branding for a still-fledgling, underfunded and even under-appreciated capacity.   On Monday, the PBC’s Burundi configuration (Switzerland) met to discuss that country’s many current fragilities.  On Wednesday, the Security Council held a briefing on potential directions for the PBC as noted in its 9th annual report. Thursday the PBC was in session all day with excellent opening and closing events and more intimate sessions in workshop format.  At that closing, current PBC Chair Ambassador Macharia Kamau of Kenya made important pledges to take the “longer view” on peace and security, to find political alternatives to military interventions that “rarely promise peace,” and to do what is necessary to “raise levels of ambition” at the UN for ensuring more peaceful and inclusive societies.

The following day, the Economic and Social Council held an historic, joint session with the PBC on the “2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and Sustaining Peace.”  Such linkages hold no surprises for the many civil society organizations (and their constituents) living daily with the conflict implications of failed development policies and their implications for trafficking in weapons, narcotics and human beings.   Still there was an urgent energy on display here that would have been encouraging if not reassuring to global constituencies.

It was truly, as noted on Friday by Ambassador Kamau, a “Peacebuilding week” at the UN.  But this was more than a routine assessment, more than a commemoration of “configurations” well-tended.  It was an affirmation that UN Peacebuilding is staking genuinely hopeful ground, hope that the UN can do more – sooner and tangibly – to reduce levels of global tensions and deprivations before they spill over into active conflict.

We have long advocated for a higher profile for the Peacebuilding Commission.  We laud its ability to attract some of the very best diplomatic talent in the UN system; its longstanding affirmation of the primacy of diplomacy and political engagement; its flexibility in assembling the most contextually relevant and competent stakeholders; its commitment to a full-spectrum engagement with peace, including its economic, development, environmental and cultural dimensions.

Our wish for the PBC, one which is intimated in the Secretary-General’s Peacebuilding review, is for the PBC to reach that point where it transcends its current structural and “cultural” limitations: able to assess and address peacebuilding needs beyond the “configuration” states; able to provide guidance on peacebuilding to states that are anxious but not yet in turmoil; able to provide perspective on the conflict implications of all three UN pillars within an evolving culture that seeks to broaden the policy tent more than control its location and functions.

As part of that transition, the PBC and its evolving UN partnerships must help the development-security linkage to find a deeper discernment, what Korea’s Ambassador Oh Joon on Friday outlined as that “blending of a universal agreement and a fundamental responsibility.”   Part of that discernment was offered by Mexico’s Deputy Ambassador who outlined the “healthy social fabric” needed to sustain peace, but also (along with the Swedish Minister) chided governments for investing more in weapons of war than in tools for building and sustaining peace.

The Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson, someone on whose leadership we often reflect fondly, predicted on Friday that the culture change we are seeking, and that was represented by Friday’s joint meeting, is well on its way.  If the problems we face are linked, Eliasson noted, our solutions must be also.   We can and must all do more to claim more “horizontal” and collaborative space if we are to build and then sustain an institutional culture that encourages – as noted by Australia’s Ambassador Bird — full-spectrum response to our diverse peace and development challenges.  “Delivering as one,” she noted, is still frustratingly rhetorical within UN settings and must urgently become the go-to strategy of a reformed, cooperative, preventive UN culture.

We have planted many seeds here at the UN on peace, development, climate and justice, but too many of those seeds have fallen on thin soil.  As the words of Kamau, Bird, Eliasson and others grow deeper roots at the UN, the flexibility and wisdom gathering within the PBC can help ensure a more hopeful, predictable harvest for more of the world’s people.

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