Tag Archives: UN Reform

Herding Cats: The UNSG Leads Wary Constituents Towards Management Reform, Dr. Robert Zuber

12 Nov

Only in growth, reform, and change –paradoxically enough — is true security to be found. Anne Morrow Lindbergh

An institution or reform movement that is not selfish must originate in the recognition of some evil that is adding to the sum of human suffering, or diminishing the sum of happiness. Clara Barton

Reform, that we may preserve. Thomas Babington Macaulay

This was one of those intense weeks at the UN during which if I were smart enough to write them — and you were patient enough to read them — there could have been a policy-related post emanating from this office every single day.  It was a week for the Peacebuilding Commission to assess the difficult circumstances in Burundi, for the UN General Assembly Fourth Committee to review the UN’s commitment to Palestinian refugees, for the Security Council Counter-Terror Executive Directorate to discuss rights-based ways for military and police to respond to the challenges of returning Foreign Terror Fighters, and for the entire Security Council to listen to commanders and otherwise honor the role of UNPOL (UN Police)in stabilizing communities, building trust with local constituents, and paving the way for easier transitions from peace operations to UN country teams and local security forces.

The highlight of the week from a public-interest standpoint was probably the Security Council debate focused on the report of the Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) on the use of chemical weapons in Syria.  This was actually the third recent discussion on the report and/or JIM mandate renewal – one previously in the Council that saw Russia veto a proposal to extend the JIM prior to the report’s release and another in the General Assembly’s First Committee that deals specifically with disarmament and weapons of mass destruction.   As the policy lines sharpened this week among Council members and with occasional professional insults hurled at JIM director Mulet, our twitter account literally exploded with commentary, much of it from persons angry or frustrated at what they saw as attempts by (mostly) Russia and Syria to undermine both the methodology and findings of the JIM report, calling its basic integrity and usefulness into question.

Our “for what it’s worth” recommendations in response to this twitter flurry were twofold: to reauthorize the JIM promptly but also to carefully scrutinize its working methods and possible methodological gaps, especially given fresh allegations of chemical weapons use in Syria that will also need to be investigated, hopefully this time with successful on-site inspections.  Given all of the interest in eliminating these weapons and ending blatant violations of the non-proliferation regime, it is essential that these investigations be as “above reproach” as we can get them.

Despite all this impact-filled drama, our preference for a Sunday highlight was a joint Thursday briefing by the president of the General Assembly and the Secretary-General on the SG’s proposals for reform of the UN’s peace and security pillar. The SG’s report on this subject is largely focused on management reform rather than on specific changes to the ways in that the UN conducts its security-related responsibilities.

Following the SG’s opening statement, a number of states came forward with support for reform efforts, specifically lauding the SG’s focus on UN management and his willingness to reorganize across pillars and sectors.  Others cautiously awaited more specifics on proposed changes to the peace and security architecture with some explicitly calling on the president of the General Assembly to exercise oversight of the reform process on behalf of member states.

Given the SG’s management focus, and perhaps due to constraints of time as well as a reticence to get into too many details on how a post-reform UN would conduct its business, there were several matters of critical importance to peace and security that were barely mentioned during the two-hour briefing:

  • The reform of the Security Council (this was noted in passing by Ambassador Kamau of Kenya but ignored by the remainder of speakers, which included several Council members)
  • The architecture and structure of UN Disarmament Affairs. Indeed, the word “disarmament” was not uttered, neither in a programmatic or management context
  • The potential (and actual) prevention-related functions managed by the UN’s genocide and atrocity prevention mechanisms
  • Full-spectrum motivations for this reform initiative, specifically including funding threats emanating from the US government and other member states; their preferences, more and more, leaning towards earmarked funding rather than pledges for core operations.

What was most welcome from the SG’s remarks is his commitment to enhancing the visibility and functionality of the UN’s peacebuilding architecture, something we have long advocated.  With Guatemala’s Amb. Rosenthal in the room (a primary architect of the UN’s landmark peacebuilding review), the SG made a strong case for why the Peacebuilding Commission and Peacebuilding Fund deserved a broader role in the UN system – beyond its current post-conflict confinements – to hopefully become a significant resource for states seeking guidance on conflict prevention and mediation before facing the prospect of turning up on the agenda of the Security Council.

At this point, I can “feel” many of those who chose to read this thinking, well, this is all well and good for the SG, but what are the takeaways?   I think there are several, but will summarize the following:

  • First, for a range of reasons, the “mood of the room” on Thursday was mostly supportive of the SG’s reform push. Uruguay and Japan, as examples, were two current Security Council members who reinforced the SG’s “mandate for change” and sought ways to support that change without seeking to “micro-manage” it.
  • Second, there is a clear and tangible concern among many member states that the UN is simply not delivering “on the ground” in accordance with expectations that we in this policy space have raised but often failed to meet. In an age of austerity for the UN system, the pressure to deliver “more with less” is being felt across the UN and certainly has “raised the bar” for the current leadership.
  • Third, Morocco’s Ambassador and other officials reminded colleagues that reform of one aspect of the UN system changes – at least in potential – all other aspects of the system. Changes in the management structure and architecture of the UN’s security apparatus – including peace operations — will change institutional dynamics and policy options on gender, counter-terrorism, human rights, children’s issues and other key dimensions of the UN’s multilateral contribution.
  • And fourth, there was some helpful recognition in the room that, to use our own analogy, there is quite a difference between planning a wedding and sustaining a marriage. As Algeria’s Ambassador Boukadoum noted near the end of the session, everyone seems to be in favor of reform until they figure out what they are likely to lose (or have to pay for, or change) as reform commences.   Pakistan picked up this theme urging the SG to initiate thoughtful reform “that does not replicate the ills that it seeks to fix.”  The recognition that a push for reform does not, in itself, guarantee successful (or happily embraced) institutional outcomes was a sobering reminder for delegations. This led to one of the more noteworthy comments of the day, a request by Singapore’s Ambassador for a “framework of assurances” to help member states track reform progress but also to help ensure, as noted by the Ambassador of the Solomon Islands, that we all do everything that we are able in order to “get this reform right.”

On Friday, in another reform-minded session with SG Guterres, ECOSOC President Marie Chatardová noted that where matters of reform are concerned, “the devil is in the details, but also the opportunity.” As Amb. Chatardová knows well, the UN does not control many of the variables that can threaten successful management reforms and those changes that could well add to “the sum of happiness” far beyond Turtle Bay.  And many of the variables the UN does control, it controls only in part – such as the actions of major powers in the Security Council or the rates at which states honor funding commitments to urgent matters such as core UN functions and emergency provisions of assistance.

What this reform push does recognize is that this is a time of trial for the entire UN community.  Can we fix the ills that hinder us without replicating them or creating new problems out of the ashes of the old?  Can we assure states – but more importantly constituents – that reform is more than a concession to budget threats but is actually capable of increasing the general threshold of human well-being and building back what has become significantly compromised confidence in multilateral structures?

Like any marriage, UN reforms will be won or lost in the trenches – in the challenges of day-to-day communication, confidence-building measures, systemic trust and steady reassurances.  The SG on Thursday noted that Algeria had once offered haven to political refugees from his home country of Portugal.  He then shared the hope – jokingly we trust — that the current push for UN reform won’t end up with him scurrying to Algeria seeking a safe haven for himself!

But beyond the humor lies a somber recognition: if this community fails to embrace and sustain the changes that can preserve and enhance our collective service to the global community, more than the SG will eventually find their own professional security “up for grabs. “

Reform School:  The UN Seeks to Fix What and Where it Can, Dr. Robert Zuber

24 Sep

Reform School

In our view, successful reform is not an event. It is a sustainable process that will build on its own successes – a virtuous cycle of change. Abdullah II of Jordan

Someone recently asked what keeps me up at night.  My answer was simple:  Bureaucracy. Fragmented structures.  Byzantine procedures.  Endless red tape.  UNSG Guterres

Don’t marry a man to reform him – that’s what reform schools are for. Mae West

The security and access barriers are starting to come down, the celebrities have left the building and motorcades are less numerous by the day, indicating the immanent end of this year’s High Level Segment at the opening of the 72nd UN General Assembly.

And what a time it has been: Yemen’s president now insisting on a military solution to an already gut-wrenching conflict; another typically slow and tepid response by the international community to Myanmar military abuses of Rohingya; insults hurled at each other by the US president and the North Korean (DPRK) Foreign Minister in which the specter of an “inevitable” attack was invoked, rhetoric mirroring provocations occurring in real time, with real deadly weapons, across the Korean peninsula. At the same time, leaders from Eastern Europe and the Caucuses called attention to still largely-ignored security concerns and the reluctance of Russia to address them forthrightly. And support for the Iran nuclear agreement (JCPOA) was being questioned (mostly by the US) and potentially undermined behind closed doors.

On the plus side a staggering array of events took place in UN conference rooms – from torture prevention and ocean care to Yemen relief and financing for development –often in parallel and generally with too few participants beyond the myriad officials accompanying their Ministers and Heads of State.  A Security Council resolution demanding justice for victims of ISIL abuses in Iraq was highly regarded and another Council session on peacekeeping reform added value – including what appeared to be some Russian openness to a Minsk-focused peacekeeping mission for Ukraine — despite a bit of an “off the rails” statement by the US Vice President which merely highlighted the political and logistical complexities associated with attempts to make already-stretched peace operations simultaneous more security efficient and cost-effective.

Not surprisingly, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) received vast attention from state officials and other UN stakeholders, mostly in a sincere effort to move our collective implementation commitments and energies from the current stroll to more of a full-out sprint.  Most all key aspects of what we now call the 2030 Agenda received ample attention – finance, data, national strategies, private sector engagement.  One of the matters left unaddressed, unsurprisingly, is how we use sustainable development policy to inspire people to modify their eco-footprint, change their habits, interrogate their “needs” for comfort and consumption, do our fair part to build a world that is not only fit for children but fit for their children. That the UN – this particular week and every week – generally fails to blend policy norms with personal commitments to change and modify life habits from its norm entrepreneurs makes the sales job with the global public that much more difficult.  If those closest to sustainable development norms and their various states of urgency don’t particularly feel the need to adjust their lifestyles, it becomes harder to make the case why any of us should do so.

But even more that the SDGs, the preoccupation of the week seemed to be on strategies for UN “reform.”   UN SG Guterres laid out his recommendations to address those “things that keep him up at night” and received much rhetorical support from states and others for his efforts. He outlined administrative reforms to bring service back to the bureaucracy, suggested adjustments to the way in which we deliver development and humanitarian assistance, and offered new tools and ideas to move our peace and security architecture to a more preventive space. Included here are more robust mediation resources, more effective early warning, and (we hope) a broader consultative role for the Peacebuilding Commission and Support Office beyond the post-conflict configurations that have largely defined (and restricted) their role.  We must do more, he as noted often as part of his “sustaining peace” initiative, to get out in front of conflict and, where such strategy fails to prevent, to ensure that any peace arising from the ashes of conflict is sustainable and lasting.

Guterres also acknowledged the degree of difficulty in any UN reform process, one of which is related to reform’s end game.   If the objective, as the US and some other states suggest, is to create a leaner, more cost-effective structure, this is a relatively easy if painful objective to pursue.  The large contributors pull parts of their funding commitments altogether and place much of the rest into earmarked programs that essentially remove discretion from UN leadership.

But if the objective of reform is more along the lines of helping “the UN to better meet today’s complex and interlinked challenges,” then we need to examine priorities and impediments beyond tightening our collective fiscal belts. Money is not always the answer to global problems; but the demands currently being placed on the UN system in the areas of social and economic development, migration governance, humanitarian response, peacekeeping, conflict prevention, human rights, gender violence and much more will require more (not less) of the very same “predictable funding” that the Security Council is now examining seriously with regard to SC-authorized, African Union peace operations.

In the often-sordid environments of reform schools, the emphasis is too often on reform-as-punishment.   “Beating the devil” out of children was a common phrase in my childhood, and apparently the devil was believed to have established quite a productive beachhead within many reform school residents.  “Reform” positioned as a stand-alone, dehumanizing, cost-obsessed project can certainly seem like an institutional Tsunami – jobs are threatened, programmatic relationships are severed, expectations for assistance and relief are dashed.  But the point of reform in UN contexts should not be about punishing an erstwhile ineffective bureaucracy but inspiring the system to ensure, as the SG has noted, that “we are positioned to better deliver for people” and uphold the values in our Charter.   This is the only reform objective worthy of our time and support.

There are many ways in which we can help make this UN system more accountable to constituents, and more inspiring to all who work within its walls.  There are still under-utilized capacities including the Office of Genocide Prevention and the Peacebuiling Commission.  There are “byzantine procedures” to change that might offer a predictable environment for some delegations but that equally reinforce the system’s endless rhetorical replication that dulls the senses and even obscures the best of the changes that our constituents long for.  We can even do a better job of recycling our waste!

There is also an urgent need to address the persistent power imbalances at the UN both inside and outside the Security Council, imbalances that at times seem as entrenched as distrust in a troubled child.  As Guterres has noted, “We don’t need to hear more from the SG.  We need to hear more from the large states that have imposed their will on the UN system, and especially on its peace and security priorities, for too long.”  What we especially need to hear is what these large powers are willing to change, to adjust, even to renounce, in order to make the system they seek to “reform” function in a more inclusive and accountable manner, a system that might actually be able to stop the violence as effectively as it now cleans up messes left in violence’s aftermath.

If “reform” of the UN is to matter to the world, if it is to be about anything more than cost-cutting and control, then the full UN system – including its largest and most powerful states — must reinforce its full commitment to address the urgent and difficult circumstances that plague our planet and endanger the future health and well-being of all our children.  The remainder is mere posturing, using “inefficiency” as an excuse to impose national will on multi-lateral affairs. It is this will to impose, more than any bureaucratic or budgetary excess, that endangers that “virtuous cycle of change” that UN reform could otherwise become. The SG was right to place this responsibility where it most belongs.

Face the Nations:   Security Council Candidates Make a Public Pitch, Dr. Robert Zuber

29 May

There was so much of value to write about this week at the UN.  Jordan and Italy convened the last of three experts’ events to examine the phenomenon of degraded and trafficked cultural artifacts by organized crime and terror groups.  The Security Council with leadership from Spain and Ukraine organized a useful session on the security implications of climate change and desertification on Sahel states. Also in the Council, Egypt presided over yet another discouraging briefing on the state of Syria humanitarian assistance by UN “Relief Chief” Stephen O’Brien.  Others welcomed International Criminal Court (ICC) Prosecutor Bensouda who both briefed the Council on her Libya activities and held a smaller, well-regarded consultation on a broader range of topics relevant to international justice for a group of ICC “friends.”

But minor ‘historic’ events trump even the most insightful briefings. One such event took place this week over two half-days when, for the first time, candidates to become non-permanent (N-10) members of the Security Council faced an audience of their peers.  While two of the regional groups that contribute such members produced candidate running unopposed, the Asia Group (Kazakhstan and Thailand) and the European (and other) group (Italy, Sweden and the Netherlands) held separate, non-binding, “public” discussions consisting of statements by Ambassadors (mostly a recitation of their national priorities and UN contributions) followed by questions and answers from the curious audience.

The event was organized by the World Federation of UN Associations (WFUNA) and the questions were generally helpful.  Perhaps the best of these was posed by Poland during both sessions, making the point that the Ambassadors on the podium are not at all guaranteed to be the ones sitting around the oval after a successful candidacy, thus begging the question about the degree to which the respectful salesmanship in evidence actually reflects relevant state priorities.   Other questions raised during both sessions related to matters ranging from a Council “code of conduct” to priority issues (such as climate health and gender balance) that the elected N-10 would wish to highlight on the Council’s agenda.  NGOs, mostly New York-based were also invited to participate though, as we explained directly to organizers, this was often a matter of the usual questions posed by the usual suspects.

As readers of this blog are likely aware, the UN community has several Security Council “reform” movements afoot.  In a variety of contexts, the general membership remains concerned about the power imbalances within the Council, its limited regard for other relevant UN organs and agencies, and its willingness to entertain interventions from other states without evidence of how any of those disclosures actually impact Council working methods or policy outcomes.  It seems at times, as we have written before, that the Council has established a large and lovely picture window allowing all to peer into a dinner party to which they are too-rarely invited.  This distance makes non-Council members understandably nervous as some articulate forcefully and routinely during Council “open debates.”

As these discussions ended, and as an organization which has witnessed hundreds of Council meetings, we collectively wondered if the sessions (which we were mostly grateful for) actually got to the heart of the matter.  We know the work of these five delegations well.  They are all worthy of Council membership; they are all making important contributions to core UN objectives; they are all taking leadership on structures, issues and delegate groupings that have become indispensible to the UN’s core mission, including on promoting women’s participation in peace negotiations (such as the Netherlands has for Syria) and for Secretary-General candidature. (More women’s voices on the Council would help also.) Moreover, each is doing significant work to enhance key UN objectives beyond the UN itself, including Italy’s stirring rescues of desperate immigrants and their capsized vessels in the Mediterranean Sea. Thus there is some reason to believe that at least a significant measure of what the five Ambassadors pledged at these sessions will ultimately be honored by their capitals.

Of course, Council membership remains quite demanding, especially on small and mid-sized missions.  The responsibilities related to subsidiary committees, for producing statements at many “open” meetings, for weighing in on consultations and participating in private briefings – these and other duties can be quite taxing on delegations from N-10 missions.  In addition, N-10 members receive requests to confer with non-member states that tend to see these diplomats (often so) as collectively having the interests of the general UN membership more “at heart.” Sweden was one of the candidates pledging to speak on diverse Council matters “with states, not at them,” but meaningful conversation takes energy, not a luxury that many small and mid-sized delegations can claim.

Given these burdens and given what these states have “taken on” to prove their mettle – from convening the G-77 (Thailand) or Peacebuilding Commission (Sweden) to the aforementioned work on the preservation of cultural heritage and the promotion of international justice – it would have been relevant to ask how mid-size missions plan to fulfill Council responsibilities on top of their many existing commitments?  As these states are selected, what will be the likely impact on their 2030 development work within ECOSOC?  What will happen to General Assembly and related duties for which these states are already known and about which expectations have already been generated?  What policy commitments are most in danger of falling by the wayside so that sometimes-relentless Council demands can effectively be fulfilled?

Moreover, it would have been interesting to ask these diplomats about their impressions of life as an N-10 member, drawing lessons from states now sitting around the oval, and from those that have previously served (including their own previous tenures).  There have been recent grumblings, including from current members Malaysia and Venezuela as well as New Zealand and Uruguay, that the Council is insufficiently democratic space, that permanent (P-5) members manipulate both the language and timing of resolutions in ways that exclude full member participation, and that Council mandates to “maintain peace and security” are often held hostage by the largest states, a reasonable accusation given that none can hold the P-5 accountable in the manner that these states seek to hold others.

Given these factors, it would have been valuable to ask candidates for specific impressions and concerns about the ‘office” for which they seek election.  In a similar light, it would also have been helpful to explore ways in which they believe that the N-10 can, individually and in unison, promote a more equitable Council structure both for themselves and for the states that will succeed them.  If there is any hope for meaningful and lasting Council reform, it seems clear that the N-10 members and alumni must do more to lay out issues, structures and implications that continue to impede peace and security progress and compromise the overall reputation of the UN, especially in the eyes of the most vulnerable. N-10 alumni know a good deal about what these five states are likely to face.  Their wisdom remains indispensible to any efforts – as Kazakhstan recommended with regard to the Sustainable Development Goals and Thailand with regard to the Peacebuilding Commission – to broaden what the Council supports while limiting what it controls.

There are risks associated with asserting this preference of course, including risks to political “favor” and careers from a too-bold confrontation with the largest and most powerful states.  But if the UN is to preserve a global confidence, some measure of political risk-taking must be part of the N-10 job description. We urge in any future “public” discussions with N-10 candidates that their reflections on Council risks-worth-taking are accorded a higher priority.

Life after 70:  The Security Council Labors to Articulate Accomplishments and Limitations, Dr. Robert Zuber

7 Sep

Last Monday, the Security Council under the leadership of Amb. Ogwu of Nigeria took time to assess a few of its accomplishments and functional liabilities as the opening of the 70th UN General Assembly approaches and Russia assumes the Council presidency.

While the Council has increasingly made time to such vetting in front of other members states, there was no such meeting in July under New Zealand’s presidency.  Thus this session served as a combination of two months’ worth of summer assessment with much justifiable praise tossed about towards both New Zealand’s and Nigeria’s leadership.

As with many of the Council’s formal sessions, this event also had its moments of political scripting.  With a few exceptions, permanent members spoke primarily of what they understood to be Council achievements (often related to their own national interest) with some subtle and occasionally not-so-subtle finger pointing at states (mostly aimed at Russia) that blunted progress on key Council matters such as creating an international tribunal to prosecute persons responsible for the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17. For its part Russia reminded its Council colleagues that despite much discussion there was “no light at the end of the tunnel” regarding Libya and Yemen, while mostly ignoring the Syrian misery for which Russia has endured ample criticism from other Council members.

There were two notable statements specifically by permanent members regarding Security Council conduct.  The US reflected on the peacekeeping scandal that has plagued the UN for much of the summer and urged members to “examine their own levels of tolerance” when it comes to peacekeeper abuse.  The UK picked up on the theme of ending impunity, placing it in the context of maintaining the UN’s institutional credibility.  Amb. Rycroft also urged more opportunities for the Council “to air its limitations in public,” wise advice from a trust-building standpoint, especially if accompanied by visible, active resolve to actually fix those limitations.

That said, most of the interesting commentary from this meeting came from then-president Nigeria and the other non-permanent Council members.   Indeed, it is the non-permanent members that have been more likely to initiate what the UK encouraged, airing Council limitations in public and seeking ways forward to make the Council more fair, functional and even far-reaching in its engagement with global security crises.

Suggestions at this review session from non-permanent members came fast and furious and often mirrored suggestions that we and other observers have made. Jordan sought more Council engagement on Security Sector Reform and more tangible measures to aid Palestinians.  Spain urged commitments to more effective working relationships linking the Council and other UN organs, especially the General Assembly.  Chile recommended more urgent efforts to address sexual violence in all its forms, including by peacekeepers. Chad and Nigeria urged more attention to the quality of Council engagement with regional organizations, especially the African Union. Venezuela noted the devastating crumbling of public institutions and infrastructure resulting from what it called “reckless military interventions” authorized by the Council. Angola joined with other members in pleading for more Council “unity” to address major security crises on its agenda. New Zealand, as it did during its own presidency, urged more frequent discussions, including with all UN membership, on Council working methods.

In addition to these comments, there were other methods-related concerns. Chile urged “pen holders” on Council resolutions to make documents available sooner for consideration by the full Council membership.  This was in support of Malaysia’s contention that information on the important Council resolution (2235) establishing a Joint Investigative Mechanism for Syria was not able to be fully vetted by non-permanent members before the vote.   This incident seemed to give some credence to Venezuela’s claim of “anti-democratic” SC practices that marginalize the views of non-permanent members.

Beyond this, there were efforts by some Council members, especially Lithuania and Chile, to urge consideration of Council reform measures focused on “veto restraint” and a “code of conduct” for Council members as proposed by the states of ACT – Accountability, Coherence and Transparency.  These ACT recommendations compliment, but are on a somewhat separate track from reforms that seek to increase and/or reorganize Council membership largely along geographic lines.

We – our office and partners — have written previously about issues regarding the reform of the Council and its use of the veto.  Here we would like to share a couple of additional thoughts.

While we certainly understand the desire of Angola and others for more Council unity in decision making, it is important that such unity not be achieved at the expense of Council thoughtfulness. We have seen too much in the recent history of the UN of what we refer to as the cult of like-mindedness, seeking out “allies” and then branding proposed solutions rather than helping constituents to fully understand their value – and especially their limitations.  There is no magic bullet for the violence in Syria or for the health of our oceans.  There is no one-stop policy that will reverse climate change or bring Libya back from the brink.   There is no norm or treaty which, by itself, will eliminate mass atrocities or the migrations of millions of second-hand weapons. These are complex matters to address, we generally address them too late in the game, and trust is compromised when we claim more for any of our individual policy preferences than they can possibly bear.

On veto restraint, the assumption is that the use of vetoes prevents action that could lead to the successful resolution of disputes. Perhaps. But in a highly politically charged environment such as the UN Security Council, vetoes also prevent dubious responses from becoming normative, such as a preference for bombing or other coercive measures rather than recourse to diplomatic prevention or mediation. The need to “do something” must be tempered by a sober view of what is to be done, when it should be done and, especially, the consequences of “doing,” the genies that we so cleverly release without the slightest clue of how we will get them back in their bottles once our erstwhile “mission” has concluded.

We have written previously about the two criteria that should accompany any veto restraint if it is to become anything more than a “get out of jail” card for the P3 – a more horizontal power dynamic within the Council, and depoliticized findings that can mandate Council deliberations at much earlier stages. The fact that Council members supporting restraint are now complaining about their limited access to key documents is a sign that power balancing has a significant way left to travel. Moreover, until the Council demonstrates that it can heed genuinely depoliticized warnings of pending mass atrocity violence — at a stage when those warnings can reasonably be addressed without coercive impositions — calls for military intervention are likely to remain numerous, if almost always misguided.

Our position is that the most effective reform of the Security Council is best facilitated through the active, robust engagements of non-permanent Council members. For the past several years, and especially during these last two cycles of non-permanent membership, we have witnessed a welcome leveling of the Council playing field – members “crying foul,” demanding Council accountability and assuming their own full responsibility rather than accepting as inevitable the massive power imbalances that have traditionally reinforced the UN version of a security “caste system.”

Despite these welcome changes, more reform is needed and the various proposals floating about the UN to make the SC more democratic and accountable deserve a wider hearing. The Council can help the cause of legitimacy by “working and playing” more effectively with the General Assembly, ECOSOC and other UN agencies at a time when the security implications of human rights, sustainable development, climate change, etc. are becoming more widely acknowledged.  It can also help the cause by making a sincere and sober commitment to truly “maintain” peace and security rather than attempting mostly to restore peace once societies have already “surrendered” to violence.  As Nigeria rightly noted during the recent monthly assessment, “we pay too much attention to symptoms and not enough to causes.” We need to row harder upstream and arrive as quickly as we can on a more prevention-oriented shore.

Paying attention to causes is less about restraining the veto and more about restraining a Council culture that too-often copes with crises mostly at the stage that they can safely be addressed without fear of meaningful “intervention” from the rest of the UN membership. To counter this culture, to broaden member state involvement in the current, complex, multi-dimensional security challenges, leadership from the non-permanent members is critical.   Amplifying and fortifying those member’s voices, and especially their thoughtful engagement with global crises – those on the Council’s active agenda and those knocking at the window — should command the highest priority for both UN member states and Council reformers.

Promise Keepers:  The Septuagenarian UN Sharpens its Policy Resolve, Dr. Robert Zuber

28 Jun

There are times at UN Headquarters when the winds (head and tail) of policy development and assessment are blowing so hard that you literally have to “hold on to your hat.”  This period in late June, as we have been trying desperately to capture on twitter (@globalactionpw), has been one such time.

Needless to say, not all of the events of relevance to UN policies this past week happened in New York. Terror attacks in Tunisia, Kuwait and France (not to mention the fallout from Charleston) along with the welcome news that marriage in the US is no longer subject to state prohibition provided the backdrop for a season of promises we have kept and have yet to keep. In these instances, the messaging seemed clear — that we still have much more to do to understand and address terror threats, and that social inclusion can be every bit as important to the quality of our lives as its political and economic counterparts.

And then there were the ceremonies held in New York and San Francisco to honor the 70th anniversary of the signing of the UN charter.  The San Francisco ceremony was much more dramatic, but comments in New York by Amb. Samantha Power and DSG Eliasson also set a “promising” tone. Power took note of the US Supreme Court’s ruling on gay marriage and affirmed the UN’s ongoing, challenging search for common ground based on what she cited as respect for international law and adherence to various versions of the “golden rule.”

The Deputy Secretary General was equally reflective. Echoing the current negotiations on sustainable development goals (and as someone who claims to carry a copy of the Charter in his pocket), DSG Eliasson affirmed the Charter as a “grand attempt to bring the world we have closer to the world we want.” It should be noted that Eliasson has highlighted in many UN conference rooms the need for diplomats to be more attentive to the many gaps separating our common aspirations and the “road” to implementation along which the UN sometimes wanders without clear direction; aspirations representing promises that we enthusiastically “table” but which are then too often allowed to sit more or less right where we left them.

In the days preceding and following the Charter signing anniversary, the UN has taken up peacebuilding funding and the last, difficult vestiges of colonization; peacekeeping mandate renewals and counter-terrorism strategies; a high-level assessment of climate health; and what promises to be a challenging discussion between the Security Council and ICC Chief Prosecutor Bensouda regarding the discouraging situation in Darfur. In ECOSOC, its High-level political forum is seeking to build broad, robust and reliable stakeholder engagement on sustainable development goals and priorities.  Last Friday in another conference room, the UN Security Council received a scolding of sorts from Syrian activists and rescue workers regarding the Council’s inability to achieve actionable consensus on policies to end barrel bombing, humanitarian blockades and displacement affecting millions.

In these and other contexts, the “table” at the UN is remarkably full now with many occasions and options for policy development representing a mixture of promises made, promises pending and promises deferred – thankfully with mostly high levels of sincere, energetic engagement.  Apparently, for the UN at least, “70” really is the new “50.”

As the UN considers its fidelity and flexibility with respect to all core Charter obligations in this anniversary year, three major programmatic assessments authorized by the Secretary General seek to revise and reaffirm some of the most important of UN promises. Two of these, on peacebuilding architecture and Women, Peace and Security, are forthcoming.  The third report from the peace operations review was recently submitted to the Secretary General by co-facilitators Mr. Jose Ramos-Horta and Ms. Ameerah Haq. We have seen the report as have a wide array of other interested persons, and we commend many of its insights and recommended actions.

We were fortunate to be able to contribute in some small way to the peace operations review via policy that we wrote for discussion and eventual submission by some African partners.   We also were pleased to help lead a project on the future of peace operations resulting in an edited volume from Springer publishers. The volume includes diverse cultural lenses on peacekeeping’s many challenges and offers recommendations that we hope will influence future agendas for both the policy and academic communities.

Attempting to sum up such recommendations in light of the SG’s report is (too) risky business.  GAPW would however seek to reinforce the following as integral to keeping the lofty and essential promises of peace operations:

  • First, we appreciate the report’s emphasis on prevention and mediation capabilities, recognizing that peace operations that arrive too late or are mis-utilized as a substitute for robust diplomatic engagement are more likely to endanger peacekeepers, risk mandate failures, and gravely disappoint civilians in need of protection. The best way to honor UN Charter promises to constituents in conflict zones is to prevent conflict from flaring/expanding in the first instance. This requires more than the Security Council, more than DPKO; it requires full-spectrum response from a wide variety of UN and regional stakeholders who understand that conflict prevention is a system-wide responsibility requiring high-end, system-wide expertise.
  • We also appreciate the report’s willingness to highlight the “widening gap” between what is expected of peacekeepers and their capacity and skill to deliver. We would however note the tendency in both SC mandates and in contributions such as those by the C-34 Special Committee, to overload peacekeepers with tasks that only seem to grow in number and complexity. Narrowing this gap “from the middle” will require both additional training and mandate restraint.  Peace operations cannot be expected to do difficult work often under the most challenging physical and logistical conditions while asked to undertake tasks – from training local law enforcement to restoring good governance – that would challenge the competency of the most accomplished professionals in those fields. This expanding menu of responsibilities also threatens energy and ability for civilian protection, a non-negotiable mandate for many of us.
  • We appreciate the report’s endorsement of a rapid response mechanism for peace operations based in part on the recognition that the “United Nations is often too slow to engage with emerging crises.” Such a mechanism, such as the UNEPS proposal with which we have worked for years, could be a cost effective means of getting needed capacity in the field at the earliest stages of a conflict to both help stabilize dangerous situations and buy time for diplomacy and other complementary measures– much like the outcomes expected of an emergency vehicle attached to a competent hospital.  The value of such a capacity, in our view, is less about “reinforcement and new mission start-up” and more about skillfully obviating the need for expensive, large-scale peace operations in the first instance.  The more attention and protection are available from the start of a potential conflict, the better any country’s longer-term prognosis is likely to be.
  • Finally, as we have written previously, the shocks to the reputation of the UN’s peace and security architecture from unaddressed violations of abuse by UN personnel must not be allowed to fester.  The failure to address abuses forthrightly invites further abuses, but also undermines faith in the UN system and places peacekeepers and other members of UN country teams in danger.  As was clear during an emotional honoring ceremony for fallen peacekeepers at UN Headquarters in May, threats to the physical safety of peacekeepers are numerous. The addition of scandal to vast operational challenges and (founded or unfounded) accusations of abandoned impartiality is simply more than peace operations should have to bear.

In peace operations as in other areas of UN practice, this 70th anniversary is indeed a time to bring the world we have closer to the world we want: a world that has achieved climate health and full social inclusion; a world that practices fairness and ensures equality of participation; a world with fewer countries to rebuild thanks to a more robust diplomatic, preventive and protective architecture; a world where rogue plastics no longer choke ocean species now threatened with extinction; a world in which the entitlements of elites give way to a more nuanced, compassion-based social responsibility; a world where children can be children without having to assume excessive burdens of responsibility that should still be ours for a world far too often in “shock” from one crisis or another.

Peace operations are an essential part of that larger promise, key to the UN’s core mission that people still want to believe in and that we still need to improve as part of honoring that confidence. We recall important recommendations from the Year 2000 “Brahimi Report” that have yet to be implemented fifteen years later.  We urge that the best of this new crop of recommendations can find operational pathways much sooner.

Restraining Order: Dampening Enthusiasm for the Use of the Veto on Atrocity Crimes

30 Oct

One of the trendy ideas floating around the UN system as we continue to wrestle with the implications of Syria refers to veto restraint – that is, pushing hard for permanent Council members (P-5) to voluntarily refrain from the use of the veto in situations where there has been a clear finding of existing or immanent atrocity crimes.

The idea seems simple enough on its face and, in most instances, reflects a sincere desire to make the UN more responsive and accountable to the horrifying violence that state and non-state actors have inflicted and are inflicting on civilian populations.  Once P-5 members commit to even the possibility of veto restraint, it then becomes possible to put pressure on these states in situations like Syria where atrocities threaten and where there are equally obvious geo-political impediments to Council achievement of consensus on coercive remedies.

The ability to exert such pressure would be welcome news for civil society and many non-Council states. As we and others have noted to senior UN officials, whether we like it or not and whether it is entirely fair or not, many in the world judge the UN by how quickly and effectively it can respond to the violence in Syria and elsewhere that fills our computer screens and televisions with often horrific images. It is possible that restraint of veto could lead to timely, life-saving interventions in certain instances.

Indeed, the need for the UN to ‘do something’ in such instances comes from a place that is politically and psychologically complex but largely based on a canon of responsibility.  Diplomats and UN officials have some sense of how deep the public longing is for that time when the threat of mass atrocity crimes can finally be laid to rest. And we know that the closer such violence comes to families and communities with which we have a living connection, the more that frustration and impatience is likely to grow.   As well it should.

That said, we have questions about how well the idea of veto restraint would play in a highly politicized environment such as the UN, an environment filled with good and dedicated people running a gauntlet of states interests largely generated from outside New York and playing on a field which, if anything, is heavily tilted in favor of certain states and their own political interests.

There are two essential conditions for a successful policy to restrain the use of the veto – sufficient de-politicized, evidence-based concern (political will) to protect lives, and the right (and fairly engaged) blend of institutional capacities and contexts.   While veto restraint may indeed increase functionality of those politically inclined to ‘do something’ of either a coercive or protective nature, it does not help to address more fundamental issues that continue to bog down the UN system.   Indeed, it may well be, for instance, that the UN turns out not always the place to manage atrocity crime response.   If the UN is going to maintain a central role in such response, the next phase in atrocity crime prevention might well see the Council authorizing regional actors rather than managing responses itself.   It may also be, indeed it should be, that in this next phase the Council will forge closer relationships with UN agencies, including and especially the Joint Office on the Prevention of Genocide and the Responsibility to Protect.  Such relationships could help the Council to be seized of difficult circumstances at earlier (preventive) stages, but would also commit the Council to do more to encourage the development of less coercive options for response that can head off atrocities long before the missiles begin to fly.

The idea of veto restraint comes from a good place, but it is also largely a concession to a system that in fact has not yet found a reliable formula for effective prevention and which has exercised little ‘restraint’ when it comes to maintaining political and power divisions that are largely opaque to all but those who spend lots of time sitting and watching in UN conference rooms.

Many of those seeking ‘veto restraint’ are inclined to support the policies of the so-called P-3, all of which are NATO members and all of which sought coercive response in Syria if not for the concerns of China and especially Russia.  And indeed, If Russia and China had exercised veto restraint given what was, in the beginning at least, a clear example of a state inflicting grave violence on its own citizens, it might have eased the path towards more coercive engagements with such violence.  But would this lead to a less politicized Council regarding its attention to mass atrocity warnings, let alone the implementation of the full complement of its security responsibilities?  Would it lead to greater levels of commitment to develop and fund viable, robust preventive capacities that can simultaneously resolve tensions that trigger violence while preserving vestiges of sovereignty? Would it guarantee a less politicized engagement with findings by UN offices and UN member states of conditions ripe for the evolution of mass atrocities?   Would it help build durable, complementary relationships with regional authorities and capacities?  Would it help create viable, coercive implementation options to NATO, an organization which remains as a primary security competitor for two of the permanent Council members? Would it help states clinging to relevance in a Council overwhelmingly dominated by the “P3” find ways to ‘check’ that influence without offering up civilians to sacrifice in the process?   These are just some of the difficult institutional questions which veto restraint raises and which must be addressed soberly if the drive for such restraint is to avoid being the latest in a series of fads, albeit born of legitimate frustration, to make the UN a more relevant actor on the challenging path towards ‘never again.’

In our view, if proposals for veto restraint are to maintain both momentum and merit, they need to be grounded in a more sophisticated package of reforms such as those proposed by the Accountability, Coherence and Transparency (ACT) group chaired by Switzerland.   Veto restraint must not be seen as a stand-alone measure, but one that is tied directly to the functionality of the UN’s preventive mechanisms, levels of fairness and equity within the Council, and other considerations.    It is, like all other operations and activities, tied to a particular institution and its own contexts.  The more that the veto restraint advocates understand the system in which vetoes occur and the implications of such reform for member state conduct, including that of permanent Council members, the more likely they are to find success.

On Syria, it is perhaps too simple a matter to lay blame for the ongoing violence solely on Russian vetoes.   There were unheeded warnings, foot dragging over definitions, and geopolitical alliances that were resistant to amendment.  It will take scholars some time to sort out all of the angles and implications of this tragedy, including its relationship to earlier situations in Libya and elsewhere. Though we all wished for a decisive remedy for Syria with full justice for victims, the many complications of a conflict that evolved before our eyes — from an atrocity crime to an amoral and equally messy civil war– have long been evident.

We have all taken a ‘hit’ to our credibility and our humanity on this one.   It might be many years before we make even token gestures of justice to the millions who have been victimized by this conflict.   It seems clear to us that if the UN is to remain at the forefront of atrocity crime response, we need more than veto restraint just as we need more than impassioned speeches from Council members ready to roll out the fighter jets but not fight as hard themselves to resolve conflicts earlier and with less coercion.  Those who support restraint, and we are among them, are urged to invest energy as well in examination of other security policies and participation in ongoing reform efforts regarding the institutional structures responsible for enacting those policies.

Dr. Robert Zuber