Food for Thought:  Diversifying the UN’s Peace and Security Shareholders, Dr. Robert Zuber

24 Jul

Japan as Security Council president for July held an open debate this past week on Council working methods, perhaps my favorite of all the Council meetings.

During the hours of discussion, Council members and other states aired their suggestions for reform, but also their frustrations with the pace of change, the political dynamics affecting the maintenance of international peace and security, the stubbornly uneven power dynamics within the Council, even the degree to which the Council remains reluctant to engage meaningfully on its core mandate with other relevant parts of the UN system.

We have our own suggestions for how the Council should recalibrate itself and have written about these previously.  One more recent suggestion involves restraint regarding what we see as the overuse of “condemnation” as a response to violent incidents or offenses against the international order.  Too much condemning with too little follow up is as likely to breed contempt as compliance, as most any teacher or parent can tell you.  Our preference, to the extent feasible, is for the Peacebuilding Commission’s evolving protocols on conflict and abuse – early and vigorous diplomatic response, steady and disciplined stakeholder engagement, and broad-based capacity support wherever needed.

But one working methods issue that strikes us as particularly noteworthy was raised on Tuesday by several states, including the United Kingdom, Switzerland and the Russian Federation. All made clear that, in this imperfect world, the Council’s agenda is now utterly overburdened with too many crises and competing agendas; too many lengthy ‘canned’ statements and overly complex press notes; too many negotiations producing resolutions of limited impact; too many ‘routine’ engagements leaving insufficient time for the Council to assess urgent conditions on the ground.

Through its thematic obligations, the Council has been (rightly) seized of the peace and security implications of women’s and children’s participation, climate change and drought, poverty and hunger, trafficking in drugs and arms, and much more.  However, states have reason to fear (and have expressed as much during Council debates) that Council involvement in these thematic areas often blurs the line between leveraging response capacity and exercising response control.  In that light, Russia and others have consistently called for the Council to concentrate on state-specific threats and leave thematic matters to the General Assembly, ECOSOC, and UN specialized agencies.

While we agree that the Council is overly burdened, should better respect the aptitude of other parts of the UN, and cease “stepping on the toes” of relevant stakeholders, it is also true that other UN agencies are not always willing to make the reverse linkage in the form of recognizing and articulating the full security implications of their own work.  If the Council is to be convinced to recognize security interests and expertise elsewhere in the UN, it would be helpful to see more evidence by other UN agencies of that recognition in return.

To some degree, this “recognition deficit” was on display in an otherwise fine side event this week hosted by the World Food Program (WFP).  The event  “El Niño-induced Drought in Southern Africa” was a lightly attended follow up to a larger event the day before on “Responding to the Impacts of El Niño and Mitigating Recurring Climate Risks,” featuring HE Mary Robinson, now the UN Special Envoy on El Niño and Climate.  Robinson as many of you know is quite a “legend” around UN Headquarters and she deftly cited the many places in the world –including southern Africa – where drought and flooding in some nefarious, climate-driven combination is creating havoc with communities and livelihoods.

The “southern Africa” event the following day covered a range of issues pertinent to what was described as a “level three emergency” after 2 years of what is now universally recognized as devastating drought in the region.  Conflict implications per se were not a major dimension of the conversation, and speakers seemed relatively uncomfortable examining the larger implicated “complexities” of the southern African crisis, though SADC’s Mhlongo did underscore the links between drought-related economic impacts and levels of gender violence and HIV infection.

Our office attended this event in (for us) large numbers, in part because of our solidarity with affected people in that region, in part because of our respect for the work of WFP, but also in part because of our belief that climate-related drought and hunger are (and will continue to be) major drivers of human conflict worldwide.

People eating their own seeds rather than planting them, people leaving emaciated cows to die in the fields rather than milking them, people staring helplessly into the traumatized faces of their nutrition and health compromised children rather than taking them to school, these are prime candidates for displacement and all of its attendant vulnerabilities, including conflict-related vulnerabilities.

And while it is reasonable for the WFP and others to focus on the areas closest to their mandate and ignore the larger concerns lurking both “on the ground” and elsewhere in the UN system, we explicitly urged them not to take this path.  Indeed, we softly reminded them of some of the relevant realities of the UN system – a system struggling to extract funds pledged to already existing crises, a system struggling as well to grasp and address the many potential ‘sparks’ of conflict — often blithely referred to as “root causes” – sparks to which all of us in this system need to be more fully attentive.

And a system that seems to be perpetually in competition within itself to keep focus and attention on matters of greatest urgency.  If Special Representative Kubiš is anywhere near correct in what he reported this past week to the Security Council, the upcoming military liberation from ISIL control of Mosul in Iraq will set off a humanitarian catastrophe of massive proportions, rapidly drying up available assistance and commanding (at least in the short term) most of the media headlines.

We mentioned the Kubiš prediction at the WFP/southern African event, and it was clearly not comfortable for the presenters to grasp how other global events could steal away attention from the regional, climate-induced crisis on their own agenda. It must be discouraging indeed to have to consider prospects of pledges of support un-made or un-honored, of compounding La Niña storms quickly turning parched fields into seas of mud that will only magnify misery and fuel conflict, and especially of other UN and state officials looking the other way towards more ‘compelling’ violence-inspired crises elsewhere.

Special Envoy Robinson has surely experienced such discouragement from many angles in her long and impact-filled career and she urged her audiences this week to constantly keep our numerous and complex threats in mind, especially as they impact future generations.  The “full-spectrum” response rightly sought by WFP for southern Africa requires commensurate, full spectrum mindfulness – not only of the effects of drought and hunger, but of their peace and security implications and of the sometimes competing capacities and interests of the UN system.   If we want a more focused, less political, more system-sensitive and less burdened Security Council – and we do – all parts of the UN must contribute more to a comprehensive assessment of peace and security risks and responsibilities, especially in times of crisis.  While we might want (or need) to believe otherwise, there simply is no part of our common work – on climate and poverty, on discrimination and justice — that does not also possess relevant peace and security dimensions.

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