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Five of a Kind: The Security Council bids farewell to a thoughtful and determined class, Dr. Robert Zuber

16 Dec

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No permanence is ours; we are a wave that flows to fit whatever form it finds.  Hermann Hesse

The eye that saw only the strife, the war, the decay, the ruin, or only the glory and the tragedy, saw not all the truth.  Zane Grey

What, indeed, if you look from a mountain-top down the long wastes of the ages? The very stone one kicks with one’s boot will outlast Shakespeare.  Virginia Woolf

People tend to see only the stubble fields of transitoriness but overlook and forget the full granaries of the past into which they have brought the harvest of their lives: the deeds done, the loves loved, and last but not least, the sufferings they have gone through with courage and dignity.  Viktor Frankl

For many of us, this holiday season is a time for gifts, for restoring frayed connections, even for resolutions (most later to be broken).   For the Security Council it is also a time to turn over five of its elected members, replacing Bolivia, Ethiopia, Kazakhstan, the Netherlands and Sweden with Belgium, the Dominican Republic, Germany, Indonesia and South Africa.

Turnover is in some ways the bane of the UN’s existence. Just as diplomats get a handle on this complex and often-frustrating system, they are called back to capital or reassigned to another diplomatic post.  The high rates of turnover ensure that institutional memory is not embedded deeply enough into policy – the work of predecessors taking on more of the character of “placeholder” than inspiration engine.   The UN’s culture – given its many habits and protocols – rarely changes enough to suit the times in part because so few have been around long enough to assess its past and direct its needed improvements.

Within the UN family of offices and agencies, the Security Council has its own distinct “culture,” one characterized by power imbalances, a failure to keep national and Charter interests distinct, and endless statements in national capacity that generally do little to define the Council’s direction or inspire confidence in its processes.   Among the permanent members, some questionable patterns have manifested themselves yet again over this past year – from the US’s preoccupation with “exposing” Iranian evil intent while at the same time seemingly arming the cosmos, to China’s insistence that dialogue and development are the singular antidotes to protracted conflict, or Russia’s rightful calling out some of the games that resolution pen-holders play while failing to own up to the gamesmanship in which it also excels.

The Council is a culture where, much like the current world at large, “everyone else” is wrong.   There are few admissions of responsibility, even fewer apologies for recent behavior that – from the arming of Saudi jets over Yemen to the impertinent (at the very least) blocking of Ukrainian sea vessels – have reminded those who follow the Council regularly, and even those who do so episodically, that this Chamber remains dominated by states much too willing to violate the so-called “rules based international order” to which they seek to hold their UN colleagues.

Our view has also long been that the key to Security Council reform lies in reorienting the culture of the Council as a constituent part of the UN system and not an exception to it, utilizing diverse UN capacities to overcome our almost generic inability to identify and resolve conflict at early stages, a failure that inevitably puts enormous funding and humanitarian pressure on the entire UN system.  And key to this more systemic approach to conflict prevention and resolution are the elected members joining the Council for 2 year terms in groups of five, groups exhibiting varying degrees of success in putting pressure on Council colleagues – especially permanent members – to do the full job entrusted to it, to spend less time protecting their own privilege and more time protecting those made vulnerable by festering armed conflict and its many insidious consequences.

The group that is leaving the Council at month’s end has been remarkable in many respects, beginning with the decision by Italy and the Netherlands in late 2016 to split one two-year term. While both had their distinct priorities, these two missions navigated a seamless transition that allowed them to show leadership both within the open Chamber and within the subsidiary bodies.   (Ambassador van Oosterom even introduced a habit picked up by others within and outside the Netherlands Mission of confining his statements to “three points” which lent clarity and focus to what are often drawn out and redundant proceedings.)  Also hopeful and noteworthy this year were press events by the “elected 10” calling for the permanent members to get beyond their politicized lenses and veto threats on situations such as Syria and Yemen; joint statements by the “A3” (Ethiopia, Cote d’Ivoire and Equatorial Guinea) calling for more dependable funding for African Peacekeeping Operations; Kazakhstan’s relentless pursuit of disarmament across all weapons categories; and leadership from Sweden and Kuwait on resolutions strengthening humanitarian access in conflict zones.

But what set apart this now-departing group of five elected for me was their collective concern to preserve the general health of multilateralism; their willingness to stand up to permanent members when they disrespected their colleagues or spun events to suit their political purposes; their ability to hold firm on matters of importance to the vast majority of UN members including women’s participation in peace processes and the relevance of human rights to conflict prevention; and their enthusiasm for security-related policy emanating from other UN entities, especially from the General Assembly and Peacebuilding Commission.

And their collective thoughtfulness about their own role on the Council and their deep sense of responsibility to the greater community of nations and peoples were also so very welcome.  While all five missions contributed much to this confluence of heart energy and sound policy, I must single out the delegations of Bolivia and Sweden, and especially their PRs Sacha Llorenti and Olaf Skoog respectively.  Over the past two years, both have given memorable presentations that have simultaneously clarified responsibilities, aired frustrations with the slow pace and inadequate oversight of much Council action, reminded permanent members of their role (such as in Libya) in creating some of the violence they now seek to end, and called the Council back from its often narrow and politically-charged rhetoric to a more comprehensive and person-centered view of peace and security, a view that maintains the potential to both heal Council divisions and restore the luster of a Chamber that doesn’t seem to fully recognize the creeping diminution of its own legitimacy.

I will miss this group, specifically their collective, daily reminder that this policy space can and must do better for the world.  They have felt both the misery and the urgency, gazed upon a larger portion of the truth, and played the cards they were dealt as skillfully as any.  They embraced their “impermanence” to take strong and principled stands and pave a more effective and powerful way for those who will come after.

They will be a tough act to follow.