The UN’s Coordination Dilemma, Kai Schaefer

25 Nov

Editor’s Note:  Kai is one of our fine group of fall 2016 interns and fellows.  Having orginally come here to pursue an interest in Responsibility to Protect, Kai has taken a keen interest in both disarmament affairs and the working methods of key UN agencies, including and especially the Security Council.  The following reflects his rapidly expanding policy interests. 

With heightening tensions at the international level– recently manifest during the Security Council meeting of October 27th which ended with a walkout by the U.S, UK, and Ukrainian delegations when the Syrian representative took the floor — the efficient functioning of the United Nations system and its subsidiary bodies is of increased importance. However, in addition to increasing tensions among the world’s great powers — especially Russia and the United States — which prevents the efficient functioning of the Security Council, the UN system itself and its lack of coordination creates various obstacles that need to be overcome.

The problem of coordination and cooperation shortcomings among the various GA committees, UN bodies and subsidiary organs is not a novel problem. As the 71st GA session continues to unfold, the international community would well benefit from increased dialogue especially between the disarmament and human rights committees, but also in linking to diverse areas of peace and security more generally.

A recent example of the lack of coordination is draft resolution L.41 that was introduced by Austria and adopted by the first committee on October 27th with almost three-quarters support from the General Assembly. L.41 calls on all states to start negotiations on a legally binding treaty to ban nuclear weapons in 2017.  Especially given the fact that the resolution was not supported by any of the nuclear weapons states, the lack of coordination and failure of states to link crucial issues of security, development, and human rights is equally hampering in creating treaty bodies and resolutions that will have lasting impact.

First Committee disarmament debates in New York seemingly occur in a vacuum, shielded from external influences and events, as well as security-related trends highlighted in other UNGA committees especially in 3rd. The inherent connections between disarmament and socio-economic development, human rights, and international law often remain unexamined. Likewise, the NGO’s involve in the promotion of L.41 would benefit from a widening of their vision for disarmament by taking note of other events and advancements occurring at UNHQ.

This problem, however, is systemic in nature and goes beyond narrowly focused NGO’s and member-states negotiating at the UN. The UN cannot necessarily be characterized as a learning community, which is in part desired by certain member-states. The shuffling around of diplomatic delegations and missions in New York make sustained efforts in developing robust and lasting political commitments difficult to achieve. Moreover, as the UN is often described as one of the world’s largest bureaucracies, a certain degree of overlap, duplication, waste, and lack of coordination is hard to avoid.

Much of the work carried out at the UN suffers from the oft-mentioned “silo approach.”Many delegations now realize that in order to create policies that will have a lasting and sustained impact on the ground, increased coordination among the numerous UN bodies is needed. The value of cooperation and coordination among NGO’s, IGO’s, civil society, academics, epistemic communities, MNC’s, and nation-states has long been recognized. However, the continuing lack of practical coordination within the UN itself often remains unaddressed. Certainly, the amount of specialized knowledge which is at the UN’s disposal is one of its core strengths. Nonetheless, the current compartmentalized approach taken by the UN often misses crucial links among security topics and across policy spheres. The UN membership continues to insist that peace cannot exist without development, and development cannot be achieved without lasting peace. However, public rhetoric and institutional structures are clearly not always aligned.

In regard to the previously mentioned resolution L.41 calling for negotiations to ban nuclear weapons, it is noteworthy to state that many of the arguably most compelling and probably more effective security-related discussions occur not in First Committee but instead in the
Third, a committee largely centered on the protection and promotion of human rights. In order to create effective and efficient treaties centered on disarmament that will end up having a genuine effect on the ground, it is crucial to consult with voices of locally engaged staff, special rapporteurs, and persons directly affected by weapon inflicted violence. Thus the ongoing stalemate in First Committee could be overcome by joint events between first and third committee, and more significantly between all relevant stakeholders, and not solely by the disarmament community alone.

In like manner, the UN and international community as a whole, would benefit from stronger emphasis on preventive measures instead of acting largely retroactively. This holds especially true for the Security Council which tends to only take action when crises become unsurmountable. Increased consultations between the SC and TCC’s / PCC’s as occurred on November 10th is also welcome in order to create sustainable peace and foster capacity building. Furthermore, coordination shortcomings within the security domain at the UN could be overcome in part by not scheduling Security Council and Peacebuilding Commission sessions at the same time. The link between coordination and prevention is crucial in this regard. Essentially, a fundamental flaw is not the lack of information available at the UN, but how such information is being processed, disseminated (and even scheduled) throughout the organization.

Nevertheless, despite coordination and cooperation shortcomings within the UN, it remains the epicenter of multilateral diplomacy. The Security Council continues to be the arguably single most important chamber in the world.  However, due to deadlocks over Syria, the rest of the UN membership is becoming increasingly anxious to find an end to six years of brutal conflict. A General Assembly informal dialogue organized by Canada on October 20th underlines efforts of various states no longer willing to sit on the sidelines until the Council finds the means to take urgent action on Syria, especially in Eastern Aleppo. The participation in this GA dialogue by Council members both permanent and non-permanent accentuates this general concern.

The UN is tasked with settling the world’s most protracted conflicts and finding solutions to some of mankind’s most pressing issues and problems. There is almost no issue area in today’s globalized world that has not been impacted by the UN or at least found its way on to the UN’s agenda. This becomes evident upon examination of a plethora of “side events” at UNHQ sponsored by states, NGO’s, civil society, and the UN itself. During these side events the real scope of UN activities becomes apparent, highlighting the ongoing relevance and importance of the UN, providing a forum where a multitude of relevant stakeholders can raise awareness, set agendas, and sustain momentum towards agreed upon policies and treaties. Nevertheless, it is vital that the UN remains more than a mere talk-shop. Enhancing internal coordination regarding issues, scheduling and more can help create broader, sounder security policy.

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