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A Pound of Cure: The new UNSG Seeks Upstream Alternatives to Downstream Crises, Dr. Robert Zuber

15 Jan

Let us try to offer help before we have to offer therapy. That is to say, let’s see if we can’t prevent being ill by trying to offer a love of prevention before illness.  Maya Angelou

The Security Council was a bit more festive than usual this week as Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and five new members of the Council – Sweden (as president), Italy, Ethiopia, Bolivia and Kazakhstan — made their first presentation in chambers under their current status.

All five states have so far handled their duties with aplomb, especially Sweden which was thrust into the presidency on its very first day back in the Council. Bolivia, taking over from an often-combative Venezuela, was equally feisty, criticizing the large Council powers – in this instance especially the US – for playing unfairly, largely through their manipulation of both Council working methods and policy outcomes.   We always appreciate a concern for fairness and hope that Bolivia can help find the clarity and tact needed to bring the non-permanent members together to address working methods and power imbalances long in need of correction.

But on this day the stage belonged to newly minted SG Guterres who has not only hit the ground running, but as outgoing US Ambassador Power noted, he is also running hard.   And he appears to be heading in a direction different from most of his predecessors – not only keen to address crises, as he is now attempting to do in Cyprus, but even more to keep crises from happening in the first place.

Guterres’ “upstream” approach is fully in keeping with directions advocated by Global Action and many other NGOs.  As he himself noted, while preventing conflict is not always straightforward, it is clearly more cost effective than rebuilding failed states after conflict – costs related to the repair of damaged infrastructure as well as healing for traumatized families who have already watched their intimate spaces and the communities beyond crumble around them.

The UN has, as many speakers in the Security Council on this day acknowledged, a full toolkit to address conflict and crisis at earlier stages.  What we do not have, as Guterres himself advised, is a reliable, robust early warning mechanism that would allow us to engage potential adversaries through re-energized tools including diplomacy, mediation and good offices. What we also need, in our own view, is a Secretariat more committed to over-ride political obstacles and bring fresh and actionable information to the Security Council at a point when preventive measures are most likely to bear fruit.

Even with that, conflict prevention remains a high and daunting bar. Two days after the Guterres statement, the Council met again for an update on conflict in the Lake Chad basin, a long-festering crisis defined by Boko Haram atrocities, one that is constantly evolving as climate change, drought and other social and environmental factors destroy agricultural and other livelihoods, inflame local tensions, and create massive flows of displaced persons for reasons that go beyond terror-related threats.

It is not an overstatement, as noted in the Council by the Nigerian Ambassador, that a “shrinking” Lake Chad has become a “tinderbox” for regional conflict, an area (as shared by Senegal) characterized by significant “resource depletion” that lies at the core of regional instability.   Add in the presence of trafficking networks in arms, narcotics and persons (cited by Italy’s Ambassador Cardi) as well as high child mortality rates in regional camps for the internally displaced (as described by UN “Relief Chief” Stephen O’Brien), and you have the makings of a protracted crisis that only becomes more difficult to resolve whether Council calls for “action” by Ukraine’s Ambassador and others are heeded or not.

Given the deep severity of longstanding crises such as Lake Chad, you would think that the notion of preventive maintenance would have wide resonance for diplomats, in part because their own lives are veritably punctuated with preventive obligations.   We feed and inoculate children we love so they can grow strong and better resist disease.  We educate children so that they can achieve decent employment and self-sufficiency. We service our vehicles so that they won’t leave our families stranded at the sides of highways. We conduct boiler maintenance in our homes so that we are not without heat on the coldest winter days. We put coats on our children because we don’t want them to get sick and because we don’t want to have to take care of sick children.

Waiting until things go horribly wrong before we act is widely considered to be grossly irresponsible – to ourselves and to those for whom we are actually responsible.   This principle applies in virtually every area of life – except at times inside our large multi-lateral institutions.   In these places we authorize massive funding to rebuild societies that did not need to face destruction in the first place.  We seek to rehabilitate so many thousands of victims who did not need to suffer in the first place. We develop a formidable infrastructure needed to provide humanitarian relief to persons subject to unspeakable cruelty the causes for which were anything but inevitable.

Unfortunately, in the realm of international diplomacy, prevention is not as simple as getting children vaccinated, keeping insurance policies updated or changing the oil in our car’s crankcase.  We can be more “preventive” in our personal lives in part because of the extra degrees of control that we exercise in that realm such as when determining how our children eat and learn.  In the realm of diplomacy, however prevention runs up against a Charter conundrum (not to mention UN culture) – that states maintain rights to territorial integrity and sovereign equality until states choose otherwise or until circumstances on the ground are sufficiently dire and compelling enough to warrant more focused international attention.  In other words, the presumption of authority lies with states to resolve problems before other states (or the UN itself) can claim a vested interest in so doing.

This, as indicated by Guterres, is a culture requiring both acknowledgment and refreshment.  If states remain free to refuse guidance and assistance (from the UN and other states as well as from the wisdom of their own citizens) right up to the moment when they are forced to confront national versions of the “gates of hell,” then our “love of prevention before illness” will remain as an aspiration for poets but essentially beyond the reach of diplomats. We can’t make states accept that “love” no matter how sincere it might actually be.

And as a number states will readily attest, it is not always so “sincere.”  Among other examples within this institution, we have rarely displayed the honesty and care to do a “full cost accounting” of armed conflict and other crises.   If we had to sit with and dwell upon our massive and often ineffective expenditures related to our current “conflict management” preoccupations–including the proliferating armaments that we tolerate in too many security environments, weapons that generate much trauma and distrust but little in the way of sustainable employment or sustainable peace — we would surely hesitate more than we do now before authorizing coercive responses that are rarely timely let alone particularly “loving.”

Perhaps this is indicative of what prevention dictates in multilateral settings; perhaps this is the culture change that can make “up-stream” engagements more productive and hopefully more likely. We can embrace future opportunities (which the new SG will hopefully provide) for sober, honest and respectful sit-downs with ourselves and our communities of policy regarding our expensive and unsustainable habits of response — the weapons we churn out but also the peacebuilding actions we postpone and the diplomatic tools we leave dormant in our toolbox, all of which make recourse to armaments (and other coercive measures) more inevitable than helpful.

If SG Guterres is to succeed in his efforts at policy redirection, if the UN is to remain politically relevant and fiscally viable in the face of evolving conflict threats, then we can no longer accept the crushing expense associated with sluggish action; neither can we ignore our patterns of irresponsibility towards those we presumably care about, patterns arising from our failure to engage threats at their most propitious moments as well as the failure to keep our most effective tools of diplomatic engagement close at hand.