What does new momentum for UN peace and security really mean?

The UN requested reviews on peace operations; peacebuilding and women; and peace and security. Now that they have been completed, it is time for action.

A famous maxim of uncertain origin defines insanity as doing the same thing repeatedly, but expecting different results. In her opening statement at the United Nations (UN) High-Level Thematic Debate on Peace and Security, Nobel Peace laureate Leymah Gbowee used this definition to describe challenges faced by UN engagements in peace operations and peacebuilding.

The 10-11 May meeting, called by the president of the UN General Assembly (UNGA) and themed In a world in risks: a new commitment for peace, provided a platform to reflect on current challenges to international peace and security. These focused, in particular, on responses to the 2015 reviews on peace operations, peacebuilding, and women, peace and security.

The reviews were a response to the realisation that the important role of the UN in supporting many countries emerging from conflict is often challenged by the re-emergence of such conflict. Following a period of increased peace in the early 2000s, global conflict has again risen in the past five years. Additionally, with the growing presence of violent extremism, the need for different approaches from the UN and others, including the African Union (AU), is becoming ever more urgent.

The UN is currently scrutinising candidates for the position of secretary-general, and this person will have a critical role in implementing the outcomes of the different reviews. The election of a new secretary-general must therefore be kept in mind when considering the process of reviewing UN peace and security tools.

The new UN secretary-general will need to be capable of making contentious decisions

Whoever succeeds Ban Ki-moon will have the difficult task of coordinating and pushing for real changes within the UN system. Many of the most salient recommendations provided at the different reviews require much institutional change and political buy-in. For these to be used effectively, the incumbent will need to be capable of making contentious decisions; and not only those that solely depend on the UN Secretariat to be addressed.

The next secretary-general will have to push for difficult political conversations among member states on how the agenda could be made more effective. Along these lines, the Ethiopian foreign minister, Tedros Adhanom, stated that implementation is absolutely critical in the aim of a paradigm shift and for credibility to be restored.

Ahead of the high-level event, many governments and global think tanks shared their concerns and hopes surrounding the UN peace and security reviews. This included the risk of failing to focus on effective implementation, and the need for strong buy-in from countries to ensure that changes actually occur.

The new UN secretary-general will not be able to respond to all of these issues alone – nor should they be expected to. Member states must support the UN peace and security architecture through continued funding and political will, beyond providing positive responses in an open thematic debate.

Promisingly, member states largely supported the findings of the review reports. Member states, civil society, and academics all emphasised the findings of the reports in relation to prevention, the primacy of politics, the role of regional organisations (particularly the AU) and the need for more sustained financing for UN engagements in peace operations and peacebuilding processes.

The core UN goal of sustaining peace increasingly risks becoming lost within its bureaucracy

South Africa’s statement summarised this. It presented that the UN and regional organisations should adopt a more holistic, long-term preventive approach in addressing conflicts and its root causes, thereby moving beyond managing conflicts as they arise.

That there seemed to be consensus among such a diverse group of countries is a promising indication of increased unity on some of the evolving principles surrounding peace and security responses.

Many actors, for example, mentioned the importance of creating an enabling environment where implementation, leadership and political will become the core aspects of UN peace and security structures and responses. There were also, however, words of caution. Brazil and Egypt stressed that for the three reviews to be successful, broader and more systemic reform of the UN system is needed. Another key challenge was how coordinated approaches among different UN organs could be enhanced.

Countries like Mali and Sweden also emphasised that peacebuilding efforts are likely to fail without honest acceptance of national and local ownership over processes. Margot Wallström, Sweden’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, stated that peacebuilding takes place at a national level, undertaken by national actors – and that while international actors can provide support, facilitation and accompaniment, they can never lead.

The UNGA meeting also indicated that a difficult road lay ahead in convincing member states of the need to change their methods of interaction. This is significant from an African perspective. Many agree on the importance of respectful cooperation among international, regional and sub-regional partners. However, stronger mutual understanding of comparative advantages for addressing conflicts, notably between the UN and AU, must also be fostered.

This was well presented by Macharia Kamau, Kenya’s Permanent Representative to the UN and Chair of the UN Peacebuilding Commission. Kamau stated that we cannot have peace in the world when we don’t respect each other as regions and treat our institutions as equals.

The UN must be able to identify where its actions went wrong, and act on its own recommendations

The key idea of bringing conflict prevention to the forefront of the UN responses seems, in principle, to be well accepted. But there are still many questions on what it really means for specific roles and responsibilities within the UNGA, the Security Council, and the Peacebuilding Architecture.

Some countries presented concerns around the risk of equating prevention to interventions. However, Ramos Horta, former president of Timor Leste and chair of the peace operations review panel, highlighted an important interpretation of the concept.

He stated that prevention is not just an action, it is the space to provide assistance in addressing root causes, including those related to development. Similarly, while many agree that sustaining peace is a core goal of the UN, there is also a risk that this concept is increasingly becoming lost within its complicated and complex bureaucracy.

Currently there are diverse views on how stronger coherence can be created between different organs of the UN; notably the Peacebuilding Support Office, the Department of Political Affairs, the Department of Peacekeeping Operations and the role of UN Agencies, Programmes and Funds. Many called for stronger coordination between these organs, and it was also mentioned that trust has to be rebuilt between member states and the Secretariat.

The P5 members remained notably reserved during the discussions at the debate. Given that the P5 hold disproportionate influence over the potential success of the reviews’ objectives, a more significant contribution could have bolstered political momentum on the three reviews.

In her opening speech, Gbowee emphasised that if we want peace, we must invest in peace. Therefore, the role of the P5 in providing resources for peacebuilding initiatives is critical.

If the UN wants different peace and security results, it must be serious in its ‘new commitment for peace.’ A new focus on preventative action is important, but risks becoming a vague concept that is neither fully understood, nor effectively implemented. Rather, to be holistic, pragmatic and nimble, the UN must ensure that the necessary requirements – notably funding, political will and member-state leadership – are provided.

And thus, the UN must not only be able to identify when and where its actions went wrong, but also boldly act on its own recommendations.

Gustavo de Carvalho, Senior Researcher, Peace Operations and Peacebuilding Division, ISS Pretoria and Jonathan Rozen, independent researcher and writer, Toronto

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