Tag Archives: Syria

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

9 Apr

daffodils_glowing_199026

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.

The Wonder Years:  The UN Seeks Super Powers to Navigate the Current Crises, Dr. Robert Zuber

23 Oct

wonder-woman

This was yet another one of those weeks at the UN.   Apparently, we now have a cartoon character serving as our collective symbol of women’s empowerment: an athletic, thoroughly Anglo. scantily-dressed figure of some artist’s imagination who ostensibly will inspire and mentor young women and girls more effectively than the many women of high intelligence and character already roaming our hallways and conference rooms.

This week also featured an informal discussion led by PGA Thompson between Secretary-General-elect Guterres and the full membership of the General Assembly.  It was a good and reassuring session, even as some states lamented the lost opportunity to select a woman SG.  As many of you know, there is still to come the appointment of a Deputy SG, and some with us in the “blue seats” half-jokingly speculated about the possibility of Wonder Woman being tapped for that post as well, noting that while her wardrobe would not be particularly well-suited to Security Council meetings and grand state functions, it might actually be helpful to have a figure at the most senior levels of the UN who could single-handedly enforce Security Council resolutions without resort to punitive sanctions or aerial bombardments.

The PGA also led a more somber discussion later in the week, this time on the unresolved horror in Syria.  Special Envoy de Mistura joined the conversation by video, and after painting the grisly scene yet again (Aleppo might well be “gone” by December), welcomed efforts by the General Assembly to seek options for response beyond what the Security Council has been able to successfully muster. Non-Permanent Council members joined the chorus of those many UN states seeking traction on what Uruguay referred to as the “massacre” of Aleppo (and other areas of grave violence) as the Security Council itself appears in too many instances to impede more progress to peace than it promotes.

We’ve been in many such meetings where atrocity crimes and other horrors are laid bare only to then elude the imposition of practical, remedial measures.  And there is, of course, no direct pathway leading us from the perception of human misery to effective policy response. Knowing that your own child is in pain may well ratchet up the urgency, but that does not in and of itself suggest the best way forward. This is especially the case in instances as in Syria or Yemen where the causes of the current misery –its backgrounds, stakeholders and motivations – are complexities challenging to sort. Only in the world of comics are ethical situations given to the clarity that makes it possible for super-heroines to spring to effective action, time and time again.

In regards to Syria as elsewhere, the threat of terrorism looms large in virtually any policy discussion. In and out of the Security Council, state leadership often declares terrorists to be akin to “savages” an understandable ascription at some level but not terribly helpful from the standpoint of discerning policy relief.  For some states, counter-terror almost takes the form of a righteous crusade, a rhetorical clash of good and evil, a fight to the death between the forces of stability and chaos, the children of light taking on the children of darkness.

Moreover, terrorism is now widely utilized around the UN by member states as a justification for state behavior of all kinds.   Russia, for one, justifies its horrific bombing campaign in Aleppo by citing the need to eliminate terrorists, while France defines such bombing (as it did at the GA meeting with de Mistura) as more like a “gift” to terrorists. But France, like most states in and out of the Council, has its own horses in this race for national policy justification, even as it speaks – and rightly so – of the importance of keeping covenant with our values throughout an era of unprecedented non-state threats.

The justifications linked to terrorism can be seen in one of our core issues/values as an office, one which we share with our close associates FIACAT, regarding the abolition of the death penalty. At a side event during this week when so many Human Rights Rapporteurs are in town to meet with General Assembly committees, one of the UN’s newer Rapporteurs, Professor Callamard, took the floor with Norway, Palau and Australia to both advocate for death penalty abolition and to delink abolition from some of its foremost “retentionist excuses,” including and especially its alleged rationalization as “just punishment” for the high crimes of terror.

All speakers at this side event were clear on the inadmissibility of the death penalty regardless of the severity of alleged crimes.  Norway’s testimony here was especially compelling, as Ambassador Stener recounted the intense pressure for a time that her state was under to reinstate the death penalty following the horrific and (for Norway) unprecedented violence perpetrated by Anders Behring Breivik in 2011.   She noted that the people of Norway somehow found a way to stay connected to the most fundamental of their values regardless of the horrific circumstances calling them into serious question.  Even in those dark hours, she maintained, reinstitution of the death penalty was never considered as a serious option.

But on the same panel, newly-minted Human Rights ASG David Marshall highlighted the disappointing (though not entirely surprising) reality that setbacks on moving towards full abolition of the death penalty (or even a full moratorium) are now mostly attributable to the politics of terrorism response.  In too many places, it seems, we are giving way to political expediency and the self-defeating call to vengeance. In too many places, we have convinced ourselves by our own bellicose rhetoric that our “will to punishment” is just.  In too many places, we have forgotten that, across the psychological and policy spectrum, violence does indeed beget violence.  Too often, we willfully misplace our responsibilities under international law to uphold the basic rights of even the most egregious criminals.

The world that we currently slog through – a world that yearns for more capable, more equitable leadership — is complex in its threats, root causes and potential for meaningful change.  We’ll navigate through these tumultuous years, I’m sure, but we’ll need to tap an array of resources within ourselves far beyond the carefully scripted narratives of cartoon heroines if we are to make it safely to the other shore.

Lens Crafters:  The Vision Deficits that Cloud our Global Policy Choices, Dr. Robert Zuber

14 Feb

I am sitting in my New York office having earlier braved a record cold morning, wearing more clothing than I ever knew was in my closet.  Time now to reflect on a line from a speech given in Munich yesterday by Russian Prime Minister Medvedev, who reportedly wondered:  “Can we unite in order to stand up against the challenges we face? Yes, I am absolutely sure that we can.”

The “challenges” in this case refer mostly to those related to Syria – ending the war, “degrading” ISIL, addressing almost unprecedented violations of international human rights law, providing access for humanitarian relief to those trapped in zones of despair or sitting in camps in Lebanon and Jordan.

Any alleged “certainty” about Syria’s future is heartwarming I suppose, but also mostly problematic.  The bombs of several countries (including far too many of Russia’s) continue to fall.  The Saudis are set to send in ground troops.   Turkey continues to keep an eye open for opportunities to vanquish the Kurds.  A full spectrum of abuses committed against civilians continues to unfold.  NATO ships are set to interdict and return refugees to places characterized by empty markets and violent unrest.  Arms continue to flow in all directions.  Pledges of assistance are more numerous than pledges honored.

Prime Minister Medvedev is right at one level.  We can address these and other global challenges.   They are not beyond our collective skills set; not even beyond our politics.  They might, however, remain out of reach given the self-inflicted “degrading” of our collective vision, seeing what we need to see, what we need for others to see, rather than all that lies in front of us.

 Self-distraction and self-delusion stealing the stage from clarity and honesty

The default for sub-standard policy these days seems to be some form of “we didn’t see this coming.”  At the same time, we gush over all of the technology – both earth-bound and in space — that allows us to probe and peek, to prod and predict.  The weather system rattling my leaky apartment windows last evening was forecast well over a week before it arrived.   Indeed, our forecasting in so many areas relevant to policy has reached breathtaking proportions.   We might not have been able to predict with full confidence the extent of the current Zika outbreak, but we certainly know enough to stay vigilant regarding potential pandemics, the “when” exhibiting a stronger probability than the “if.”

Unfortunately, our policy vision these days is too often saturated with a blend of enthusiasm and desire.  And there is no impediment to clear and honest assessment quite like that of desire.  When we want it to be so; when we need it to be so; we find ways to convince ourselves that it is so.

More and more, our claims “not to have known” are undermined by the very technology on which already we over-rely.   When we fail to see all that is in front of us, when our enthusiasm blocks our willingness to assess all obstacles that threaten our cherished policy assumptions and conclusions, we run the risk of doing damage to the very constituents we otherwise seek to assist.  But this is less about our technological “eyes” than it is about the personal lenses we have allowed to become foggy and dusty.

In the case of Prime Minister Medvedev, it would appear that his enthusiasm for a resolution to Syria consistent with Russia’s national interest has created its own thick blinders.  Russia’s conduct in Syria is hardly the only conduct beyond reprehension, but it is staggeringly reprehensible in its own right.  Indeed, it is hard to see how peace can be sustained given such levels of myopic leadership.

This problem of vision affects more hopeful policies as well.  The 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, a remarkable achievement in their own right, have been subject to a series of urgent discussions in the early days of 2016. Much to its credit, the UN has not waited for the dust to settle but is making strong connections to important stakeholders (youth, women, indigenous, persons with disabilities) and urging member states to quickly identify areas of priority activity and relevant needs for capacity assistance.

In addition, good work is being done in two key areas – the indicators that will drive assessments and the financing that will sustain progress.   But there also seems to be a largely unspoken assumption of predictability in the “enabling environment,” one which is likely related more to our enthusiasm for the goals than to a sober assessment of current security, fiscal and climate prospects.

As noted in a recent UNCTAD briefing in New York to launch the report, “Rethinking Development Strategies after the Financial Crisis,” any assumptions about an “enabling environment” are fraught with peril.   UNCTAD officials noted two major impediments which have to date received insufficient attention and which have the power to short-circuit the most enthusiastic applications of the 2030 development agenda.  The first of these is the prospect of another major financial downturn, most likely initiated by some of the very same institutions that we failed to hold accountable for the last one.  In such a scenario, equity markets will shrink and states will feel forced to preserve stasis rather than reaching out to help lift the fortunes of those hitherto marginal.  Another financial collapse will likely ensure that our best development efforts will still “leave plenty behind.”

Second, there is a noteworthy shrinking of policy space in many countries, a shrinking that damages prospects for full participation, but also for policy innovation and assessment of “official” priorities.  We must explore the participation and assessment implications of all the SDGs, perhaps especially Goal 16, but we must do so based on clear analysis of the current threats posed to journalists, human rights advocates, indeed most anyone who dares to expose an emperor’s nakedness.  In many parts of the world, there is currently no “enabling environment” to count on here either.  Not yet anyway.

For many young people rightly frustrated by their elders and our global legacies, there are occasional bursts of concern for our collective future.  Are we going to make it?  Do we have what it takes as a species to get over ourselves and address the full implications of all the challenges that face us, not just the ones we are willing to see?

It would be foolish to sell us short.  We can still make good on our promises and bring some healing to the planet in the process.  We can end violent conflict, bring international finance under control and wedge new policy space in otherwise recalcitrant states. But it would also be foolish to believe that we can make any sustainable change merely by tinkering with policy resolutions and other international instruments.   Those instruments, while not perfect, are mostly already sufficient to their purposes.   The “wild card” here is us, what we see and what we refuse to see.

In the Christian bible, there is a line in which Jesus of Nazareth warns those looking for specks in the eyes of their neighbors to first take the “logs” out of their own.  Such excavations are encouraged as they can do much to restore the clarity of vision and firmness of purpose we will need to get over both our “enthusiasms” and our current, bulging “humps” of security, development and climate challenges.

The Inclusion of Inclusion:  The UN’s Dramatic 70th Convening Seeks Ways to Level Policy and Diplomacy, Dr. Robert Zuber

4 Oct

In the early afternoon of October 3, while police outside dismantled the last barricades and lookouts, the president of the 70th UN General Assembly, H.E. Mogens Lykketoft summarized a frenetic 9 days of activity at the UN before finally banging the session (and indeed this high-level diplomatic season) to a close.

In some significant ways, “frenetic” fails to capture the scene.  It started with an historic papal visit and the adoption of historic Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and ended with a myriad of high level discussions on South Sudan, Yemen, Libya, Syria and other trouble spots which often mirrored the same political divisions that characterize the UN in quieter times.

There were three themes that seemed to encapsulate this cacophony of activities and presentations, and that in many ways generated complementary commitments to more inclusive policy and practice:

The first of these was the eradication of poverty, a major consensus priority for the SDGs.  Indeed, PGA Lykketoft “read the room” correctly when he expressed the hope “that the international community can do more to alleviate human misery.”  Much of the focus of this “misery” was on the plight of refugees and internally displaced in and around Syria.  The PGA announced that his office would focus more on refugee issues as a corollary to existing commitments on poverty reduction.  And just prior to final adjournment, Iceland joined with Spain and many other governments speaking earlier in urging the full inclusion of women as necessary if we are going to end hunger and fulfill other sustainable development commitments to the poor and marginalized.

The second of these areas of ‘inclusion’ was in the realm of climate health.  A specific focus here was the widespread concern over the health of our oceans and the small island states threatened both by pollution and rising sea levels. Grave concerns was also raised over the prospects of refugees fleeing drought, flooding and other environmental uncertainties that threaten local crop yields and access to fresh water.  While some stakeholders have expressed skepticism that the December climate meetings in Paris will result in anything other than a delay in facing up to our new climate destiny, none would dare say so publicly.  Indeed, the urgency of climate disaster seems to slowly, steadily, be taking over diplomatic consciousness in ways hitherto unseen, and this higher “leveling” of government concern is most hopeful. We will soon see if we still have sufficient time to change our personal lifestyles, corporate priorities and diplomatic energies as the basis for altering our current, dangerous climate trajectory.

The third of these areas was institutional inclusiveness, not only within and between states, but inside the United Nations itself.   Some of this, of course, made reference to the SDGs, specifically regarding their funding and data requirements.  But other concerns could be lumped under the banner of UN reform, specifically the process by which the next Secretary General is to be elected as well as a voluntary “Code of Conduct” by virtue of which the Security Council can allegedly reach consensus in a timely manner and “act decisively” on threats with a singular voice.

Though the unresolved horrors in Syria provide the backdrop for much of the “reform” discussion, the impetus for reform stems from a more positive place, what the PGA himself noted is the need for a Council that better “reflects new political realities.”  Specifically, these realities relate to levels of regional representation reflecting the growing economic and diplomatic dominance of large states such as India and Brazil.  Of course, there are other “realities” as well, such as the need for closer coherence on policy and practice between the Security Council and other UN entities, a point made often last week at a High Level General Assembly forum on peace and security. It could also indicate the need for “voluntary veto restraint,” though a Council that fails to fully vest the authority of its non-permanent members, remains highly political in its public and private workings, and fails to address potential conflict before it becomes raging conflict – this and more should keep us mindful of the genuine risks associated with turning grave Council decisions into state-driven popularity contests.

All of these inclusion themes were summarized by the PGA Lykketoft on a dreary, unseasonably cold Saturday afternoon.   Too few diplomats remained in their assigned seats to hear the summary though, we presume, more are on board with the potentially species-saving commitments made during this past week.

But an extra bit of caution might be wise here. Most all of us in this ‘business’ have been to conferences and meetings where the rhetoric is inspired, commitments flow like table wine, promises of regular communication with new friends and connections are made, ideas and plans are “hatched” that seem almost too good to be true.

And then we return home to our responsibilities and our stresses, the ones that preoccupied us before we left.  We are speaking with different people at home, children and partners who need our attention, colleagues waiting for manuscripts or resolutions of logistical challenges, friends to whom we have already made promises that might not neatly accommodate the ones we made on our journey.

This phenomenon is not new, but it merits reflection as we think about the responsibilities of states going forward.  Despite high levels of authority and capacity available to most presidents and their ministers, they also have to navigate numerous domestic burdens, including political responsibilities, which can sap energy and distract focus.  Given this, I cannot escape the sense that if the goals of this past week are to achieve their proper incarnation, it is the diplomats here in New York who will most likely keep objectives in focus. These diplomats, who needed secondary passes last week to get into the sorts of meetings that they preside over during the remainder of the year, understand first- hand the opportunities going forward but also the obstacles to inclusion:  the waning attention on climate health, the rhetoric on poverty reduction not mirrored in proper funding and data commitments, the reformist energy that gets hijacked by national interests, at times in tandem with the interests of NGOs.

The general energy around inclusiveness, the acknowledgement of how uneven our economic, social and institutional “playing fields” have remained, the realization that business-as-usual must end even if we haven’t yet worked out all the implications of our “new normal” — all of this is hopeful.   The question, as it so often is for the UN, is one that interrogates the expectations we raise and the commitments we make.   We have dramatically “raised our own bar” in these critical instances of inclusion.   We will now see how well those of us left behind in New York — diplomats and others — can ensure that this bar can be cleared.

Renewing Vows: The Security Council’s Marriage of Convenience, Dr. Robert Zuber

28 Feb

Last Monday, under China’s presidency, the UN Security Council held a most welcome general debate inviting states to “reflect on history and reaffirm the strong commitment to the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations.” Representation in the room was quite robust with a number of Foreign Ministers having made the trip to New York to reflect on their national responsibilities to the UN’s multi-lateral framework.

The debate itself was a mixed bag as one might expect.  Some states used the occasion to recommit to what they understood to be the core principles of the UN Charter.  Others took advantage of the opportunity to remind the Council that, in the eyes of some states, the current system of maintaining peace and security is still uneven, unrepresentative, even politically biased. Still others used the occasion to point fingers at states (mostly at Russia on Ukraine) that they believed were gravely undermining the most important of Charter principles.

A few states were even in the mood to talk a bit of reform. One of the ideas raised by several delegations, including some Council members, was in support of the French proposal for ‘voluntary restraint’ on the use of the veto in cases where mass atrocities have been determined. This idea has been growing in popularity, especially among certain NGOs focusing on atrocity crime response.

We have written about this idea previously and mostly cautiously.   In our view, there are conditions for such voluntary restraint that should be honored if the proposed change is to solve more problems than it creates.   The primary conditions for restraint are a more horizontal Council power structure that is less inclined to ‘politicize’ findings from UN officials tasked with monitoring the potential for mass violence. There is also need for greater Council willingness to “work and play” better with other UN agencies responsible for diverse aspects of violence prevention.

While listening to the Charter debate, another wrinkle on “conditionalities” came to mind.  This ‘condition’ was courtesy of the Minister of Foreign Affairs of New Zealand, a delegation that we greatly respect but where, in this instance, there seemed to be an attempt to ‘pair off’ two principles that probably need a bit more time to sort out their individual business.

For New Zealand (as for Spain and others) priorities were joined that really don’t seem ready to ‘marry’ each other, despite pressure from the relatives.  The most welcome priority is to get the Council more involved in supporting other UN efforts focused on the preventive side of conflict – heeding early warning and working more closely with other UN capacities devoted to mediation and other preventive tools.  The other is related to veto restraint, which is touted as a solution to difficult, “gridlock” situations like Syria and comes from an urgent desire both to save lives and to protect the reputation of the UN and its partner institutions.

Unfortunately, the discussion on restraint comes attached neither to carefully verbalized conditions nor to a helpful overview of the Council’s coercive measures now underway despite the presence of the veto in a manner, perhaps unfortunately if not inconveniently, consistent with the Charter.

For instance, the current “lack” of veto restraint has not impeded what a number of states see as the Council’s over-reliance on coercive peacekeeping operations to solve international problems. It did not prevent the ongoing carnage in Libya traceable in part to implementation of SCR 1973.  It has not prevented the (mostly ineffective to date) bombing raids against ISIS targets in Syria and Iraq, nor the imposition of US/EU sanctions against Russia.  It has not impeded French military exercises in support of threatened governments in Mali or CAR.  It has not prevented Council endorsement of the still-somewhat-dubious Force Intervention Brigade in the DRC.

Indeed, if there are lessons to be learned here, it is that the veto is used relatively sparingly (though it is threatened more often), and that it is generally used (or threatened) in the most coercive contexts – sanctions and militarized responses.   Spain’s important messaging on mediation capacity might be insufficiently heeded, but it is not vetoed.  Early warnings from the Joint Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect might be tossed into a metaphorical drawer until a full-blown crisis erupts, but neither are these findings candidates for veto.

And it is not at all clear to us, in a situation characterized by voluntary veto restraint, how the Council’s actions on Syria (the poster child for such restraint) would be so very different.   What would the Council be advocating now on Syria that is distinguishable from its current practice?  How much of that ‘difference’ would be military in nature?  And why do we think that military activity directed at Syria would produce peace and security outcomes less like Libya and more like Sierra Leone?  If these questions have answers, they would help make the case for veto restraint.  If they cannot be answered then we should be careful advocating a step that might well satisfy our need to ‘do something’ more than it clarifies what needs to be done, when action is needed, and how we should respond.

During Monday’s Charter debate, the US made what might have been a ‘slip’ during its statement, though it was a telling one – citing the Council’s ‘restoration’ responsibility alongside its maintenance function.   ‘Restoration’ of course is not specifically a Charter-mandated activity of the Council, though the term accurately describes much of current Council practice – fighting raging fires while accusing other states of ‘arson,’ rather than responding in a timely manner to smoke warnings.   We recognize that much about any Council assessment is related to our own expectations; how we judge is in large measure a function of our assessment of capability and culpability.   But we feel that the amount of institutional energy put into ‘restoration’ of conflict settings that the UN system could surely have done more to prevent in the first instance is a most sobering thought, one that, in our view, does not yet recommend veto restraint.

Our fear is that, without addressing the larger concerns related to Council working methods, veto restraint represents permission for downstream “business as usual” to continue or even grow.   Indeed, there is reason to believe that the preventive architecture that the New Zealand Foreign Minister rightly advocated would become even less likely in situations where the international community, and specifically its permanent members, didn’t have to make their full (and hopefully even non-political) case for recourse to coercive measures.

Despite some welcome changes in transparency, in large part motivated through more vigorous involvement by non-permanent members, an ‘unrestrained’ Council still acts too often (and too coercively) without sufficient discernment regarding longer-term security implications or the need for engaged consultations with its many UN partners.  We aren’t anxious to have those temptations magnified.

Fire and Rain:  The Council Divides its Urgent Attentions

31 Aug

The world is, to reference the Washington Post and virutally every other media outlet, beset with crises.   From Mali to Ukraine, hardly a day goes by without at least one new eruption of hostility, one new warning that the armed violence we struggle to manage may well be entering a new and more potent phase.

At such times, eyes are cast towards the UN Security Council hoping that its ‘maintenance of peace and security’ mandate will translate into policies and actions that can put out some of the fires ranging across half the world, or at the very least lower their searing heat.

The Council is trying hard to do just that, but there are simply too many fires raging, too many escalating conflict zones, any one of which could take up Council members’ full attention.  We find the Council careening from one issue to another, focusing on Syria one week but not the next; obsessing on the ISIS threat while diverting attention from Gaza; assuming that a soon-to-be-deployed peacekeeping operation in Central African Republic will stop that bleeding while Libya disintegrates before our eyes.   Only Ukraine, and that in large measure because of the involvement of permanent Council members and their large militaries, tends to keep its Council focus.

Under the presidency of the United Kingdom, the Council had a busy and varied August, which including a ‘field trip’ to the Hague, Somalia and other locations; some forceful efforts to limit the length of statements, even by governments that have limited access to the Council and are party to grave conflict; and at least two important discussions – one on protection of humanitarian workers and the other on UN capacities for preventive response to violence prior to its full eruption.

Both of these discussions brought out a range of deep UN member state anxieties.   The loss of life from the community of humanitarian workers is shocking and worthy of both great honor and urgent response.  Most of us can barely imagine the challenges of bringing relief to people isolated by violence and abandoned by governments and insurgencies alike.  In the case of the prevention discussion, it is somehow reassuring to those who carefully follow Council deliberations that there be an acknowledgement of how untenable the current situation is, a situation that lends itself to short-term crisis management rather than the longer term crisis prevention which  is closer to our common hope.

In life as in policy, it is often the things left unsaid that are of more significance than those which are named.  This also pertains to webcast Council meetings where statements too often traverse well-worn paths that seem to be designed to ‘inform’ constituents more than sharing thoughtful policy assessment.  In these discussions, there is much text devoted to what Council members care about and occasionally even what they are prepared to do about it.   But much of that is in the form of general recommendations that offer neither kernels of lessons learned nor honest assessments of the failures of past policy.   When the Council speaks of the disintegration of Libya, for instance, while defending (or ignoring altogether) the Council’s resolution authorizing ‘all necessary means’ to stop Gaddafi and the ethnic chaos and the grotesque and highly fluid arms market that were left in its aftermath, it is natural to wonder if Council members are paying enough attention to the longer-term implications of their own decisions.   The rest of us, after all, can ignore the potential consequences of our life choices only at our peril.

So what about those unmentioned items with significant policy reference?   Briefly, two stood out.   In the case of humanitarian workers, we were hoping that someone on the Council would raise clearly the uncomfortable relationship for these workers being protected by peacekeepers who are increasingly seen as partisan, in part because of the expansion of peacekeeping mandates, especially regarding use of coercive force beyond the mantra of “self-defense and the defense of the mandate. “  Such forward projection of force, which in the DRC seem to have won the confidence of diverse UN officials, need to be more carefully vetted from the standpoint of their implication for the safety of already beleaguered humanitarian operations.  As we have seen in South Sudan and just this weekend with capture of Fiji and Filipino peacekeepers, there are legitimate concerns about playing with peacekeeper neutrality in a manner that can jeopardize the safety of more than peacekeepers.  The more that others – states as well as ‘spoilers’ — see PKOs as partisan forces, the more likely that affiliated UN humanitarian workers and other ‘country team’ members could be dragged into threatening situations caused by such ‘partisan’ conflict.

On prevention, the ‘debate’ style format elicited many comments from non-Council members, most of which were laced with anxiety about the state of the world and the Council’s often tepid responses.  From our standpoint, there needed to be more commentary from Council members about the dangers of continually ignoring the smoke that signifies potential danger.   We would also have liked to see more representation in the debate from the people who manage the understaffed and too often ignored preventive architecture of the UN system.

We are extremely grateful to outgoing High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, and felt that her presence at the debate added considerable value.   But there are others who also should have been in that chamber, including the Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide. The Council is unlikely to successfully shift its distracted gaze towards prevention responsibilities without routinely acknowledging and consulting with those already tasked with preventive functions.

As our understanding of conflict-related threats continues to grow, opportunities for Council over-stretch will grow likewise.   The discussions this month pointed again to the grave need for Council members to engage the full measure of the UN’s preventive capacity as well as to demonstrate to an anxious global public why they believe that the  current crop of Council resolutions and related responses to the many violent outbreaks now on its agenda are both sufficiently mindful of the needs of humanitarian workers and also more likely to suppress violence in the end than to inflame it further.

Dr. Robert Zuber

Raising the Stakes on Conflict Prevention Stakeholders

25 May

On Thursday, an unusually large crowd of diplomats, invited guests and NGOs gathered in the Security Council to observe the veto of a resolution on Syria (S/2014/348) that had been drafted by France and endorsed by an array of other states inside and outside the Council.

The gist of the resolution was a referral to the International Criminal Court as one measure of ending impunity or at least, in the words of the Australians, to remind abusers that there is no ‘statute of limitation’ on crimes being committed in Syria.

Such reminders are important, to be sure, though it is unclear that the ICC is well suited to conduct investigations and render judgments in the midst of a protracted civil war.   The Chief Prosecutor of the ICC speaking at a briefing on Libya earlier in the month pointed out to the Council that conducting investigations with little funding while confronting massive security threats is difficult at best.  That Syria (like Libya) features massive abuses by multiple parties only complicates jurisprudence, perhaps placing the attainment of justice in this instance well beyond the reasonable capacity of the court.

The failed resolution on Syria seemed somehow consistent with a recent pattern in the Council of trying to ‘do something’ by punting the political football to DPKO (in the form of more complex and coercive mandates) or the ICC (in the form of hastily conceived, unfunded, imprecise referrals) rather than examining the limitations of its own power and process.   The Council remains among the most politicized spaces in the UN.  It is also among the most uneven spaces from the standpoint of power and influence.   The non-permanent members (with the exception of their time as president) largely populate sub-committees and make public statements.  The Russians and Chinese would have little say on many resolutions if they could not force Council members to pay attention to them through threat of the veto.   And the rest of the UN system too often sits on its proverbial hands waiting to see if the Council will take on yet more ‘thematic concerns’ for which it then presumes to act as global legislator.

The present preoccupation with veto restraint within some parts of our policy community is a diversion that belies full recognition of the limitations of the Security Council and the under-tapped resources of the broader UN system (including the Joint Office on the Prevention of Genocide and the Responsibility to Protect) which the Council seems largely to ignore.    As we have written previously, effective veto restraint implies the existence of depoliticized findings of impending mass atrocity violence, a sincere and robust commitment to solve violence primarily through diplomatic means, and Council members whose motives are transparent and attached to the kinds of assessments and accountabilities that have eluded that body for most of its history.  In a system where findings are politicized, where preventive measures are under financed and too often disregarded, and where there is no way to hold the Council accountable for its own mistakes, veto restraint would simply be a gift to the P-3, one which they have not necessarily merited.  Whether or not such restraint would also be a ‘gift’ to victims has to do in part with organizational assessments of the relative efficacy of diplomatic vs. militarized solutions to complex patterns of violence.

Capacity support is the lifeblood of the UN system, and this is true for atrocity crime prevention as in other areas.   But the success of such support is only enhanced when the full complement of stakeholders is acknowledged and engaged.  Regarding RtoP, for instance, it has never been clear who the relevant stakeholders are.  Is it permanent Council members?  Other member states?   The small group of NGOs that gather around the issue here in NY?  Regional or national governmental/military alliances?   What is the role for a small office like GAPW aside from routine (and often ineffective) ‘squawking’ about systemic limitations?   What is the role of media?  Business?   Education?  Development agencies?   Local civil society organizations? Is atrocity crime prevention a responsibility of the entire, extended UN ‘family’ or is it a responsibility of a few powerful states and some random national focal points?   It has often seemed as though the RtoP/atrocity crime prevention community has been more effective in shutting off hard questions than in welcoming them, of closing the gates on offers of energy and commitment rather than finding ways to put such to work.   But our own limitations notwithstanding, the stakes remain critical for the prevention of mass atrocities. We need to get this right, by which we mean to establish reliable and fair structures that are largely prevention oriented and that encourage the broadest possible stakeholder involvement.   We remain far from that goal.

The UN Charter does, indeed, confer upon the Council the primary responsibility for maintaining peace and security.    However, this does not indicate ‘sole’ responsibility nor does it imply that ‘maintenance’ is primarily a reactive matter rather than a preventive one.  Whatever the results of the parallel reform movements afoot within the UN regarding the membership and working methods of the Council, it is imperative that the current Council takes stock of itself and does more to address violence than fling accusations across the desks of political adversaries. Perhaps it could start with an examination of its own ‘franchise.’ After all, the more the Council is understood (or understands itself) as the only relevant player on atrocity violence the more unlikely it is to endorse and encourage other stakeholders.  However, such endorsements and encouragements are the key to an effective system of protection from mass violence that can both energize diverse conflict prevention capacities and help spare the international community the spectacle on Syria that we recently witnessed and which frankly was hard to watch.

Dr. Robert Zuber