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Curtain Call:  The Security Council Earns a Tentative Bow, Dr. Robert Zuber

14 Apr


There are curtains in the windows of our eyes! Either we open these curtains and see the world or keep the curtains closed and see only the curtains!  Mehmet Murat ildan

Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedies.  Groucho Marx

The greatest patriotism is to tell your country when it is behaving dishonorably, foolishly, viciously. Julian Barnes

As societies grow decadent, the language grows decadent, too. Words are used to disguise, not to illuminate action: you liberate a city by destroying it. Gore Vidal

These things will destroy the human race: politics without principle, progress without compassion, wealth without work, learning without silence, religion without fearlessness, and worship without awareness. Anthony de Mello

This is the second month of the joint France-Germany presidency of the UN Security Council, and we have been impressed at the subtle and not-so-subtle ways in which the “optics” of the Council have undergone necessary shifts.  From the unprecedented opening of the Council curtains to the views of the East River to the “hourglass” that attempts to keep speakers on time and the (largely unheeded) requests to dispense with protocol and issue “joint statements” in the name of improved efficiency, the Council has had a decidedly different “feel” than in the past, in some ways a bit reminiscent of the Netherlands presidency of last year.

We have been accused of having our own love-hate relationship with the Council, a body which possesses abundant authority and attracts an enthusiastic audience inside and outside the policy community; but which often fails to produce results in keeping with its lofty mandate, failures which in turn impact outcomes by the entire UN system. This argument was advanced forcefully on Tuesday by High Commissioner for Refugees Grandi who spoke in the Council of the “toxic” environment for refugees now evident in much of the world, insisting that the motivation for so many who flee their communities lies in the conflict that we collectively – but certainly the Security Council specifically – fail to prevent.

Love and hate aside, our interest is in the proper functioning of this Council, functioning that keeps its distance from national political concerns and is ever mindful of the sometimes disastrous consequences that ensue when such concerns overwhelm its primary mandate.  The UN’s humanitarian and refugee responses are highly regarded but cannot compensate –as they now are forced to attempt over and over –for our failures on peace and security, failures that create massive capacity gaps that have forced the UN into numerous pledging conferences and, as highlighted by the Global Policy Forum, serve to “open the door” to excessive corporate influence over UN policy.

As always at the UN there were events this week which raised levels of hope, including a Belgium-sponsored Arria Formula discussion on addressing the threats from landmines and Improvised Explosive Devices; a scientist-led discussion (sponsored by Switzerland and Indonesia) on the “synergies” that open up possibilities for successful Sustainable Development Goal implementation; an all-day Security Council discussion to promote much-delayed increases in levels of participation by women in peacekeeping operations, mediation resources and special political missions;  an extraordinary two-day discussion hosted by the President of the General Assembly and Director-General of the International Labor Organization on “The Future of Work;” and progress reports and briefings on what have been largely laudable Security Council engagements in Colombia, Haiti and Abyei (the latter a challenge for both Sudan and South Sudan).

These all were moments when we wanted the UN in general and the Council in particular to be able to step in front of the curtains (even the open ones) and take at least a partial “bow” for work well done.  Indeed in these aforementoned (and other) areas, the UN has added real if at times compromised value; compromised in the sense that politics and “national capacities” (not value or urgency) still dominate too many aspects of the UN policy landscape.  There is, for instance, little reason why the Council took a full day to investigate integrating women more fully into peace operations.  This has been on the Council agenda since at least the year 2000 and should be a relatively straightforward task involving both shifts in peacekeeping “culture,” many of which have thankfully occurred, and a deeper commitment by states to attract more women into the national contingents from which peacekeepers are ultimately nominated and selected.

This compromise of significance happens often in the Council as well as in the wider UN.  We know that this institution is on the right track in many ways, is talking about the right things, is often urging the right actions.  But too often the policy community is left wishing for more in the way of tangible responses to the urgency that the UN has become so skilled in highlighting.  Once the chatter is over, where do we go from here?  What have we learned that can shift our policy commitments in more productive directions? Why must we so often double down on conversations that have previously generated so few tangible outcomes? What is in the way of progress and how can we remove the impediments?

And then there are those overtly discouraging exchanges such as on Wednesday when the Vice President of the United States came to the Council to deliver an undiplomatic, “righteous” (in his view), and barely cogent statement on the tense situation in Venezuela, asserting that where the US is concerned “all options are on the table” and telling the Venezuelan Ambassador serving the Maduro government that “you shouldn’t be here.”  The Vice President then proceeded to launch a verbal attack on Russia, China, Cuba and Iran before abruptly leaving the Council Chamber.

The curtains remained closed until he had cleared the room.

Readers of this space know that we go out of our way not to single out individual states for criticism, given that all of them have, to one degree or another, fallen short of their pledges to the UN Charter and other international agreements; all of them to paraphrase the Russians on the departure of the US Vice President have in some way grabbed other states and stakeholders “by the throat.” Statements by Council members too-often reflect national priorities and too-seldom express commitments to make the Council a more complementary player in the UN as well as a player displaying more fidelity to the “rules based order” so often articulated and even affirmed  in Council space.

But using a chamber ostensibly dedicated to the “peaceful resolution of disputes” to issue direct threats against another member state continues a particularly troubling pattern of institution-menacing actions in the form of visa denial to the ICC prosecutor and Disarmament Commission experts; walking away from obligations from binding Security Council resolutions including the Iran nuclear agreement; issuing sanctions against other member states that have not been authorized by the Council as a whole; and using discretion as “pen holder” on many important Council resolutions to ignore the policy wishes of other Council members.

This pattern of behavior, one mirrored in part or in whole by other Council members, must stop; both for the sake of preserving the Council’s legitimacy but also to keep the rest of the UN system, specifically the parts that must clean up messes and miseries when we “diagnose incorrectly and apply the wrong remedies” from having to engage in what are at times life-endangering responses in zones of conflict that could have – should have — been resolved at earlier stages.

We are now at the point when unresolved conflict negatively impacts every other of our current global threats as well as the availability of the resources needed to address them. The open Security Council curtains reminded us this week of all the hard decisions and even harder actions remaining before Council members can justifiably stand before those curtains and take a deep bow.