Tag Archives: peacebuilding

Compound Interest: Amplifying Attention to the UN’s Security Architecture, Dr. Robert Zuber

2 Apr

People who have lived through a terrible conflict may be hungry and desperate, but they are not stupid. They often have very good ideas about how peace can evolve, and they need to be asked.  Leymah Gbowee

History is littered with the wars everybody knew could never happen.  Enoch Powell

Peace is not an easy prospect–it requires greater bravery than does conflict.  Ozzie Zehner

This week at the UN was, at least from a peace and security standpoint, more interesting than most.  In addition to consensus resolutions in the Security Council on the Democratic Republic of the Congo, on the Lake Chad Basin region, and on protecting cultural heritage from terror threats, the energy of the building was dominated by negotiations toward a Treaty to “Ban” nuclear weapons.

The quotation marks in the last sentence have mostly to do with the absence of over 40 states from these initial negotiations, an absence that included the states now in possession of these weapons.  A press conference initiated by US Ambassador Haley to underscore the decision to “boycott” the negotiations got a fair amount of press coverage, but largely fell flat.  If the assumption of the Ambassador and those joining her at the podium is that boycotting states have been and are now negotiating nuclear disarmament in “good faith,” they have clearly been sitting in different meetings and reading different press reports over these past years than I have.

Indeed, the effect of the boycott was to leave the largely “like-minded” states and NGOs in charge of what was at times a powerful, table-setting event.  Indeed, to the extent there is an upside in trying to “ban” weapons without the weapons possessors in the room, it is that conversations can push forward in the absence of friction in ways that would be difficult otherwise.   Anyone who has tried to run distance into the teeth of an Oklahoma wind can appreciate the blessing of having wind at your back.

The problem is that, when the wind is blowing in a favorable direction, people tend to conclude that they are faster and in better shape than is actually the case.  The “Ban” treaty deliberations, typical of such discussions, ranged full-spectrum from the highly insightful to the borderline cultish, at times minimizing certain challenges in attempting to “ban” weapons over which they have little operational jurisdiction. And there was perhaps insufficient attention to the many promises which have arisen previously from the disarmament community, promises which have been kept incompletely at best.  Overcoming the “fool me once, fool me twice” legacy of so much UN disarmament activity will require more comprehensive security conversations beyond the remit of disarmament affairs, beyond the slogans of disarmament campaigners, beyond the needs and political aspirations of the like-minded states.  As OPANAL (Tlatelolco) and other voices noted during the week, prohibiting things and eliminating them altogether remain – oftentimes and certainly in this instance – quite some distance apart.

In other UN rooms this week, headwinds were definitely the order of the day in two security-related events where progress is equally uncertain but critical to achieve.  Wednesday, the Peacebuilding Commission held an organizational meeting ably and kindly chaired by the Republic of Korea’s Amb. Cho Tae-yul.  In addition to reports from the chairs of the PBC’s country configurations (minus Swiss Ambassador Lauber who was in Burundi), the discussion focused on the “place” of the PBC within the UN’s broader security architecture, with more specific reference to the steadily evolving but seemingly ever-suspicious relationship between the PBC and the Security Council.

The Chair’s emphasis on consolidating “one peacebuilding commission” resonated with PBC members as it fits as a snug reinforcement for the Secretary-General’s “sustaining peace” concept; but also because it promises the possibility for the PBC to move beyond country-specific, post-conflict configurations and towards a mission that is preventive in its orientation and available to any in the full UN membership interested in tapping the PBC’s considerable and growing expertise in all conflict phases.

Post-conflict reconstruction is certainly an important and specialized expertise, but the general sense of the diplomatic talent here at the UN, certainly including talent which is organized through the PBC, is that we are spending too much energy and money responding to aftermath of conflicts that could (and should) have been anticipated and addressed at earlier stages.  This is, after all, not a “peace rebuilding commission” though that is the role to which the PBC has primarily been assigned and, in the minds of more than a few PBC delegates, one which the Security Council permanent members – including those also serving on the PBC — seem overly committed to preserving.

Some practical reform-minded suggestions were made, including Council member Sweden urging that the PBC have a larger role in consultation with Council “pen holders” while resolutions are in their formative stages and another Council member – Egypt – urging closer coordination linking country visits by PBC configuration chairs and relevant country discussions taking place within the Council.  For its part, Belgium urged more “repetition” of PBC-Security Council meetings as a contribution to eliminating what Morocco alleged as the P-5’s “annoyance” towards the PBC and its presumed evolution.

But as Ambassador Cho Tae-yul made clear, the PBC should worry less about fixing the Council and more about fixing itself.  “Fixing” in the sense of refining its own working methods, including a commitment (as noted by Indonesia) to more “cross cutting” concerns; taking the lead (as urged again by Morocco) in inviting the Heads of affected states to discussions in New York; and (as Bangladesh noted) sustaining a more “hands-on” approach to peace. But this also implies “fixing” (as highlighted by Colombia) in the sense of seeking out the most relevant opportunities for the PBC to share its expertise with the full UN community — with the welcome cooperation of the Council, but not necessarily with its permission.

Ironically, perhaps, one such opportunity occurred this week as Ukraine convened a Security Council “Arria Formula” discussion on the growing threat of “Hybrid War.”  While the concept admittedly has some miles to travel on definition and focus, and in this instance was largely focused on Russian behavior in and around Crimea, the notion underscores the use of allegedly “non-lethal” tools, including from the media and cyber realms – to “wage war” in more subtle ways than the mere imposition of military means, to use diverse forms of media to distract and distort in ways that are at times “more destructive than bombs.”  As the conversation ensued, both Ukraine and Sweden referred explicitly to an evolving and dangerous “grey zone” blurring common (if now outmoded) distinctions between “war and peace,” such that warfare can reasonably be presumed to exist well before the first gun shots are actually fired.

The implications of this new (if still somewhat vague) genre of subtle coercion were not lost on the audience.  Latvia noted that Hybrid War further undermines the notion that states and their military operations alone can protect us from attack.  Egypt asserted that the distortions and manipulations of Hybrid War are pervasive, including within some of the states now complaining loudly about their use.  For its part, Japan was most explicit in urgently rejecting expansion of the “you use it therefore I use it” mentality.

In addition, current Council member Italy rightly urged that we engage in more comprehensive analysis of Hybrid warfare to guide a more comprehensive policy response.   In our view the Peacebuilding Commission is the ideal and most relevant setting in which to conduct and disseminate such an analysis.  The PBC’s conceptual flexibility, its close connections to the Peacebuilding Support Office and Trust Fund, its ability to access diverse NGOs and other stakeholders beyond the usual suspects, this and more makes it well suited to continue analysis of a trend that, as Ukraine put it, represents both an “ambiguous” and “escalating” threat for which we are simply not sufficiently prepared.

To stay in top of evolving security threats, from the most destructive weapons to the most cunning coercive strategies, the active policy interest of all sectors of the UN community is paramount.   The times now require a bit of institutional bravery from each of us, a commitment to fulfill our stated mandates but in ways that encourage new policy ideas and the “compounding” interest of diverse stakeholders.  In our view, the PBC increasingly represents a distinctive culture within the UN from which to cultivate such policy attention.


Peacebuilding Week:  The UN Seeks a Sustainable Culture Shift, Dr. Robert Zuber

26 Jun

At a time in its history when so much is on the UN’s plate, so much globally and institutionally is perceived to be on the wrong track, the demand for reform is considerable.  More and more, people cannot fathom – and with justification – how structures designed for one era’s crises can be expected to overcome the new and daunting hurdles that lie before us.  A briefing on Syria last Tuesday under the auspices of PGA Lykketoft gave Special Envoy de Mistura and USG O’Brien an opportunity to tell the full UN membership about tentative humanitarian and peace progress, but also just how much further we need to go before we stop adding to the bloodshed and trauma that already stretch our common capacities to their breaking point.

We at the UN often run behind responsibilities and crises rather than head them off.  We negotiate resolutions on weapons systems that have already evolved more dangerous iterations.   We create agreements on climate and development destined to require more energy and resources to clean up previous messes than prevent new ones.  We seek to address the mass trauma from so many victims in so many conflict zones, at times overlooking the obvious fact that the only viable means to effectively address such trauma is to do more to ahead of time to minimize its occurrence.

Like much of the national legislation with which its own policies interact, the culture of the UN system is reactive more than proactive.   Diplomats now speak regularly about the need for better early warning mechanisms and prevention strategies, but this is still largely at the level of aspiration, not representative of a sustainable shift in culture.  As a system, the UN’s “directional” continues to stick on the “post” side of conflict rather than on marshalling wisdom and resources to address conflict threats that we increasingly have neither the skills nor the resources to heal once “threat becomes reality.”

The week’s numerous events on and references to UN Peacebuilding and the Peacebuilding Commission (PBC) represented more than branding for a still-fledgling, underfunded and even under-appreciated capacity.   On Monday, the PBC’s Burundi configuration (Switzerland) met to discuss that country’s many current fragilities.  On Wednesday, the Security Council held a briefing on potential directions for the PBC as noted in its 9th annual report. Thursday the PBC was in session all day with excellent opening and closing events and more intimate sessions in workshop format.  At that closing, current PBC Chair Ambassador Macharia Kamau of Kenya made important pledges to take the “longer view” on peace and security, to find political alternatives to military interventions that “rarely promise peace,” and to do what is necessary to “raise levels of ambition” at the UN for ensuring more peaceful and inclusive societies.

The following day, the Economic and Social Council held an historic, joint session with the PBC on the “2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and Sustaining Peace.”  Such linkages hold no surprises for the many civil society organizations (and their constituents) living daily with the conflict implications of failed development policies and their implications for trafficking in weapons, narcotics and human beings.   Still there was an urgent energy on display here that would have been encouraging if not reassuring to global constituencies.

It was truly, as noted on Friday by Ambassador Kamau, a “Peacebuilding week” at the UN.  But this was more than a routine assessment, more than a commemoration of “configurations” well-tended.  It was an affirmation that UN Peacebuilding is staking genuinely hopeful ground, hope that the UN can do more – sooner and tangibly – to reduce levels of global tensions and deprivations before they spill over into active conflict.

We have long advocated for a higher profile for the Peacebuilding Commission.  We laud its ability to attract some of the very best diplomatic talent in the UN system; its longstanding affirmation of the primacy of diplomacy and political engagement; its flexibility in assembling the most contextually relevant and competent stakeholders; its commitment to a full-spectrum engagement with peace, including its economic, development, environmental and cultural dimensions.

Our wish for the PBC, one which is intimated in the Secretary-General’s Peacebuilding review, is for the PBC to reach that point where it transcends its current structural and “cultural” limitations: able to assess and address peacebuilding needs beyond the “configuration” states; able to provide guidance on peacebuilding to states that are anxious but not yet in turmoil; able to provide perspective on the conflict implications of all three UN pillars within an evolving culture that seeks to broaden the policy tent more than control its location and functions.

As part of that transition, the PBC and its evolving UN partnerships must help the development-security linkage to find a deeper discernment, what Korea’s Ambassador Oh Joon on Friday outlined as that “blending of a universal agreement and a fundamental responsibility.”   Part of that discernment was offered by Mexico’s Deputy Ambassador who outlined the “healthy social fabric” needed to sustain peace, but also (along with the Swedish Minister) chided governments for investing more in weapons of war than in tools for building and sustaining peace.

The Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson, someone on whose leadership we often reflect fondly, predicted on Friday that the culture change we are seeking, and that was represented by Friday’s joint meeting, is well on its way.  If the problems we face are linked, Eliasson noted, our solutions must be also.   We can and must all do more to claim more “horizontal” and collaborative space if we are to build and then sustain an institutional culture that encourages – as noted by Australia’s Ambassador Bird — full-spectrum response to our diverse peace and development challenges.  “Delivering as one,” she noted, is still frustratingly rhetorical within UN settings and must urgently become the go-to strategy of a reformed, cooperative, preventive UN culture.

We have planted many seeds here at the UN on peace, development, climate and justice, but too many of those seeds have fallen on thin soil.  As the words of Kamau, Bird, Eliasson and others grow deeper roots at the UN, the flexibility and wisdom gathering within the PBC can help ensure a more hopeful, predictable harvest for more of the world’s people.

Doing and Enabling: Broadening the Peacebuilding Tent, Dr. Robert Zuber

1 May

First off, blessings to all our Orthodox friends and colleagues who celebrate Easter today.

This past Wednesday (April 27) a rather remarkable if under reported event occurred: the Security Council and the General Assembly (in that order) approved a joint resolution designed to strengthen the structure and activities of UN Peacebuilding.  Based on a special report authorized by the UN Secretary-General, this joint resolution was perhaps the clearest, recent example of key UN agencies authorizing and encouraging each other’s work rather than defending institutional turf.  To see operational language like this in a UN resolution was a sight for these sore eyes:

To serve as a platform to convene all relevant actors within and outside the United Nations, including from Member States, national authorities, United Nations missions and country teams, international, regional and sub-regional organizations, international financial institutions, civil society, women’s groups, youth organizations and, where relevant, the private sector and national human rights institutions, in order to provide recommendations and information to improve their coordination, to develop and share good practices in peacebuilding, including on institution building, and to ensure predictable financing to peacebuilding.

The Security Council vote was unanimous, short and sweet.  The GA process, however, provide ample opportunity for key peacebuilding actors and other member states to share their hopes and aspirations for more effective UN conflict prevention and resolution efforts.  Many statements indicated that delegations understood just how momentous the moment was.  For instance, Mexico noted the need to change the “epicenter” of peacebuilding from post-conflict response to conflict prevention. Sierra Leone cited the diverse contexts in which peacebuilding occurs, contexts that can be enhanced and even effectively coordinated by UN efforts.   Australia urged that core UN “bridge building” efforts towards a sustainable peace reach out more resolutely to women stakeholders. And Kenya’s Amb. Kamau urged a flexible role for UN peacebuilding that spanned the terrain from prevention to conflict relapse, that distanced peacebuilding from military response, and (along with Sweden) that provided support to states beyond the few that were formally “configured” within the Peacebuilding Commission.

There was much more, of course, virtually all of it designed to broaden the space for peacebuilding in ways that respect diverse national and community contexts, space that intentionally includes the skills, passions and aspirations of its many stakeholders.

Indeed, it is this “authorizing” element that seemed so critical to us.   We have written previously about the negative implications of UN turf wars, urging agencies to concentrate less on what they do and brand, and more on what they share and leverage.  The attitude we urge turns out to be one that is quite conducive to the revised philosophy and architecture of UN peacebuilding.  Indeed, our office is in touch regularly with a myriad of activities that qualify as peacebuilding in every aspect:  efforts to protect courageous but besieged journalists; uphold human rights standards in the justice systems of the Caribbean; help women farmers in Central Africa to grow crops for healthy, local consumption; promote democracy in communities under strain in North Africa;  explore models of UN peacekeeping that can more effectively protect civilians and eliminate prospects for abuse; find ways to end the trafficking and human displacement in Central America that threatens the community fabric and compromises development.

There is so much more taking place beyond our knowledge and capacity to leverage, people dedicated to causes that have not yet sufficiently acknowledged their value.  This must change and change quickly.

A woman well known to the UN and its social justice advocates came to me recently to ask some advice on how to get more involved in peacebuilding.   The irony of course is that she has been doing peacebuilding all along — so many of you have also.  You may not have access to Commission meetings or be able to tap into peacebuilding funds, but your activities inspire reflection and hope towards more peaceful futures.

The resolutions this week seemed much more important than the usual normative text.  They were, in their own way, an invitation to millions of people who put their lives on the line each day for justice and access to essential services, for climate health and sustainable development, for food security and legal accountability.  Under the new rubric articulated in the SGs report and articulated in this week’s resolution, peacebuilding is becoming a very large tent indeed.    Large enough, we trust, for all the work we do and, perhaps more importantly, all the work we come to know about.

Travelocity: The Council’s Ticket to Closer Connections to Difficult Security Challenges, Dr. Robert Zuber

6 Mar

As of this writing, Security Council members are in the final stages of a visit to West Africa to confer with regional leaders and assess security arrangements and ongoing threats in countries such as Mali and Guinea-Bissau.

We support such trips as, in the best of circumstances, Council members can both share concerns with political and military leaders (even opposition forces as in Mali), and also get a feel for how tenuous the peace can be in these places despite the Council’s often well-meaning meetings, resolutions and mandates.  It is good that they go, good that they listen, good that capitals experience their concern first-hand.

We look forward to the report on this trip later this month, under Angola’s presidency.   As part of that report, we would appreciate some rationale for the invitation list, specifically why the chair of the Peacebuilding Commission’s Guinea-Bissau configuration, Brazil’s Amb. Patriota, was apparently left off.   Indeed, a meeting of that configuration focused on the political stalemate in that country was held this week prior to the Council’s departure, a meeting which attracted an “A” list group of permanent representatives, virtually all of whom were properly encouraging of Amb. Patriota’s personal involvement with (at least) the Guinea-Bissau portion of the Council’s travels.

Indeed, from our vantage point, and having been present for virtually all recent meetings of this configuration, this would seem to be an opportunity missed.   Closer linkages between the PBC and SC have been called for repeatedly by Ambassadors and featured in SG reports.   These connections are considered essential both to ensuring broader participation by member states in relevant peace and security issues, and in helping to push our conflict-related energies further upstream, balancing our commitments to remedial measures in post-conflict settings with assurances that we will do all that we can — and more than we are currently doing — to fend off conflicts in their earliest stages.

Such assurances, as we have noted many times in the past, require more of us as we seek to become fair, thoughtful and collaboratively-minded brokers of our respective mandates.

This “more” was ably expressed during “Human Rights at work in Peace Operations,” convened by Sweden to look at the human rights implications of peacekeeping operations (including of course the obligation not to abuse the people PKOs are mandated to protect).  During that event Francesco Motta, Head of the Human Rights Component of the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq, made clear that UN reports must be used to enhance human rights practices and not for UN publicity purposes.  Such reports must have direct application to circumstances on the ground, not only with regard to the values and strategies by which we respond to threats, but as a means for deepening our understanding of the nature and origins of threats.  Extremism did not appear out of nowhere, he advised, and the more we allow ourselves to know about its complex origins (including at times our own facilitating roles), the better we will be able to prevent their recurrence.  This self- and organizational reflectiveness from a human rights officer (and from several of his panel colleagues) was warmly received and rightfully so.

Some of the value of that reflectiveness could have been extended to the pre-trip Council chamber during discussion of resolution 2270 (2016) that tightens sanctions on the DPRK, including restrictions on new categories of exports and providing for the intercepting of DPRK vessels.  The US and China, as the two nations most closely associated with the resolution, had predictably different response to its unanimous passage, though both acknowledged the limited value of previous sanctions regimes to changing DPRK behavior.  The US took the lead in highlighting yet again the many levels of security threats and human rights abuses attributable to DPRK’s leadership.  China, again typically for them, highlighted the need for dialogue and negotiated settlement while noting the grave challenges on their own doorstep represented by some of the belligerent policies emanating from Pyongyang.

Two things particularly struck me from this discussion.  First, despite the many evidences of horrific DPRK behavior noted by the US, other Council members such as Japan, and even from ECOSOC president Oh Joon, there was an underlying if unspoken presumption of “rationality” of the DPRK leadership, some sense that this leadership is capable of internalizing the disapproval of other states and making sound judgments designed to resolve (or at least appease) such disapproval.

This assumption has merit with bratty children desperate for their mothers’ attention or “high maintenance” partners looking for reassurance.  But for bullies harboring what appear to be severe reality deficits, provocation seems always to be lurking in the metaphorical shadows, provocation which can be both a cause of and an excuse for obsessive, abusive, reactive behavior.

Still, regardless of any state sanity misconceptions, it would have been useful to have the DPRK in the Council chamber to gauge their reactions to the resolution, indeed their capacity to respond reasonably (if not positively) to its demands. It is standard Council practice to invite states under consideration – Yemen, Libya, Syria, Sudan, etc. – and then provide them the courtesy of response.  In this instance, as with many other UN deliberations on DPRK, government representatives were nowhere to be found. We have written previously urging the Council to abandon the process of letting erstwhile “offending” states have the “last word” in these formal sessions in part because of the high levels of “spin” characteristic of most of their presentations.  Nevertheless, these appearances are useful both in helping to take the “temperature” of states and to ensure that government officials actually “hear” the concerns of Council members.  Given this, every possible effort should be made to have the DPRK in the room when they find themselves (as they assuredly will) back on the Council’s agenda.

The lessons from this week’s travels and briefings largely confirm lessons of prior weeks:  If we politicize findings of potential mass violence or other security threats; if we protect officials who fail to address human rights abuse allegations forthrightly;  if we turn our backs on complementary capacities (including mediation experts) that can help us fulfill our own mandates (not to mention save lives); if we allow our political lenses to cloud our policy judgments;  if we craft statements or reports that tell the truths that we want others to hear, not the truths they need to hear; if we appear to encourage some abusive state voices while stifling others; then we risk undermining broad confidence in the multilateral structures we still very much need to implement the promises we have already made.

Whether we like it or not, that confidence is now a bit shaky.  We need quickly to demonstrate more resolve to preserve – even enhance — what is left of it.  If we were ever to lose this confidence altogether, we can rest assured that no Council session or overseas mission visit could likely restore it.

The Plague Year: The UN’s Ebola Response

23 Aug

Last week at UN Headquarters, a meeting was convened under the auspices of the Peacebuilding Commission (PBC) that represented some of the best (if not most time sensitive) of UN capacities in action.

This gathering was actually a joint session focused on three of the countries on the PBC agenda – Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea.   The agenda was not security sector reform or gender violence, but rather the implications of the recent outbreak of Ebola that has immobilized national services and caused hand wringing and finger pointing both within the affected societies and in the West.

Readers of this blog have surely followed the unfolding drama in the media.   The security lapses along and across common borders;   the quarantine of thousands of persons in makeshift camps; the courageous response of medical workers operating at great personal risk and without adequate diagnostic equipment and treatment options; and perhaps most shockingly the lack of vaccines to prevent further infection.

The discussion was led by Ambassador Lucas of Luxembourg, chair of the Guinea configuration, and featured briefings from the three country teams, all of whom competently outlined the threats and responses that offered some glimmer of hope for recovery amidst daunting social and medical challenges.

The responses of PBC members to the country teams’ testimony blended gratitude, sadness and pragmatism. Some states expressed concern that some Peacebuilding Funds might be diverted away from mandated tasks towards Ebola response, while others questioned how a plague of this magnitude could remain unaddressed by medical science for so long.   Others wondered about the often slow pace of response.  Ambassador Lucas herself noted that there was likely a time when concerted action could have stemmed the Ebola menace, but she also wondered aloud about current prospects for effective threat response.

Almost all understood the implications for pandemics and other plagues on the very fabric of community life.   In all three countries, each one a relatively recent survivor of other forms of horrific violence, the shock and fear caused by Ebola are proving to be debilitating yet again. But this time there is an added twist – the worry that those with whom you have lived and grown up may be the very persons to infect you with a grave disease for which there is no apparent cure.  These are the worries that can strip away social cohesion – motivating a deeper form of quarantine than even the one imposed by officials.

This for us is more than a sad and cautionary tale.  It is a dry run for what might become a more common occurrence – bacterial and viral infections that have become immune to our potent medicines or are transmitted beyond the reach – or attentiveness — of our otherwise sophisticated medical technologies and research facilities.

Ebola is the latest sign of an evolving constellation of threats to stable and peaceful societies emanating from the viruses in our bodies more than the hatred in our minds.   We applaud efforts by the PBC to understand and address the security implications of Ebola; but we also urge the PBC to do what it can to help prepare more rapid responses to what is almost certain to be a next, deadly, medical emergency.

Dr. Robert Zuber