Storm Surge:  The UN Avoids Turning Obstacles into Impediments, Dr. Robert Zuber

9 Apr

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Skillful pilots gain their reputation from storms and tempests.  Epictetus

Storms make the oak grow deeper roots.  George Herbert

Last month, an early spring storm and unusually cold stretch created a major challenge for March flowers.  The UN’s own daffodil patch suffered significant damage, made clear only as the snows finally receded.  But as some flowers lay dormant, victims of an unpredictable climate, other daffodils sprang to life.  For them, the snow and sub-freezing temperatures seemed more an obstacle to navigate and less an impediment to blooming.

Indoors, the UN faced storms of another sort, rocked by recent terrorist violence in Sweden, Somalia, Russia and (now) Egypt, and even more egregious violence in the form of sarin attacks orchestrated by the government of Syria’s Assad that left dozens dead and filled our media with images of children taking what might well have been a final breath.

Among its other sordid consequences, the attack laid bare (as France duly noted) the failure of that government to honor its commitments to eliminate its chemical weapons stockpiles;  indeed its apparent ability to deceive UN inspectors whose job it was to certify weapons removal has many sobering implications for other weapons inspections and removal efforts.

The Assad chemical attack was followed, as we all know, by another unilateral military response – cruise missiles fired from a US ship at the air base from which the sarin attack was believed to be originally launched.  That attack seems now to have been as much about “sending a message” as it was destroying a base, especially given that the air strip was reported “open for business” the following day.

Nevertheless, the US attack was the backdrop for an emergency Security Council meeting on Friday that brought more than a bit of simmering hostility into the open.  Such hostility threatened to undermine what was otherwise a period of relative Council consensus on matter related to Mali, South Sudan and the Central African Republic. It also threatened to obscure the impact of events elsewhere in the UN – including the honoring of 20 years of service by the UN Mine Action Service and preparations for major international conferences to promote Ocean health and the rights of migrants – which should have provided fresh evidence to the international community of the UN’s enduring value.

The attack on the Syria base — while relatively benign in comparison to the consequences of Assad’s chemical attack (a point made strongly by the UK and others) not to mention the massive air raids conducted by Assad and Russia on civilian infrastructure for much of the past six years — represented for some members another significant blow to the UN’s Charter and its seemingly ever-perilous reputation.  Bolivia perhaps was the most articulate in denouncing this latest unilateral measure by the US, citing concerns regarding the degree to which human rights are sacrificed at the altar of national interest; also that chemical weapons use might become the pretext for another, Iraq-style armed intervention. From our own standpoint, this attack is one with the potential to widen the already significant divide between permanent and elected Council members, one which the US has publicly threatened to repeat with or without UN support, and one which comes on the heels of other statements by the US implying that any future support for the UN – provided by this administration at least – is contingent on allowing the US to “fix” some things.

Certainly there are things that need fixing around the UN including as the US rightly suggested and which SG Guterres affirmed in the Council on Thursday as part of his “9 Point” areas of reform, the need to ensure that the UN’s peacekeeping operations are relevant and flexible such that mandates remain “faithful” to shifting security contexts.   Guterres also called for a new “surge in diplomacy for peace,” while ensuring gender balance in peace operations undertaken with the full participation of relevant regional and sub-regional stakeholders.

At this same session other Council members made their own reform suggestions on force generation (Kazakhstan), access to helicopters and other military equipment (Senegal), the slippery slope of peacekeepers taking on one or more aspects of counter-terror operations (SG and others), and the need for clear political objectives to which peace operations are then expected to contribute (Uruguay).

The concept note provided by the US for this particular meeting was helpful at several levels, though it does seem as though there is too much emphasis on the cost of peacekeeping and not enough on preserving and affirming what the UK’s Ambassador Rycroft called the “human face” of the UN.

And peacekeeping is not the only area where the US now appears to be “pulling up” some of the UN’s carpet.  From initiating a cutoff of aid to the UN Population Fund to insisting on its own (under-qualified) candidate to run the UN’s World Food Programme, this US administration has significantly upped the ante on costs, seeking new concessions from the UN to “fix” itself largely in accord with US wishes.  The US is certainly not the only country that throws its weight around the UN, nor is it by any stretch the only country that flaunts the values it has otherwise pledged to uphold; but it also tends to do more than its share of arm twisting albeit rarely in the form of such a “public dare.”

And so the UN now faces obstacles analogous to a major, early spring storm – Charter values under siege, disenchantment with our security-related performance, threats of funding withdrawal, stubborn power imbalances, inflexible and often unfeasible peacekeeping mandates, endless requests for humanitarian funding in response to conflicts we should have been better able to prevent (or at least contain) in the first place.

Beyond these, people continue to face discrimination, deprivation and despair in many global regions.  And the policy community has not yet demonstrated that we have listened long enough – certainly deeply enough – to grasp just how unequal our global systems of security, economy, education and health truly can be.

But even in the midst of unfulfilled global expectations and highly contentious discussions about chemical attacks and armed reprisals, there remain signs of recognition that we might just have the temperament to manage these stormy times. The UK’s Rycroft affirmed that, despite appearances, the UN remains “the place to negotiate when peace seems out of reach.”  Uruguay’s Ambassador Rosselli urged Council members to “keep calm, carry on, and continue to do our work.” And Italy’s Ambassador Cardi asked colleagues to “look ahead” and find more effective ways to hold offending states accountable to their obligations under the UN Charter and existing Security Council resolutions.

These suggestions by respected Council members are helpful.  When storms threaten the UN it isn’t necessary for us to choose between urgency and thoughtfulness, nor need we permit obstacles to become impediments to the changes our constituencies expect and need.   Instead, storm-related obstacles can become occasions for us to “test our mettle,” to build our stable of skills —- including in mediation and conflict prevention — and to nurture deeper, more reliable and more enduring institutional roots.

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