We Need More Multilateralism, Not Less.
The Case for Prevention
The following is adapted from the keynote address of Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs Jeffrey Feltman to the United Nations Association of the United States of America (UNA-USA) Annual Members’ Day, held on 17 February 2017 at United Nations Headquarters:
It is a privilege to be speaking to you at this moment of transition in the United Nations and the United States.
At the UN, we have a new Secretary-General with a clear agenda for reinvigorating the peace and security and the development work of the Organization.
Meanwhile, the United States is undergoing a transition that may possibly have a very direct and substantial impact on the United Nations.
It is also a time of turmoil around the world. Old certainties are being shaken, if not swept away. New forces are emerging, within and among states, challenging the established order, and not always for the good.
I am not sure we can yet call this moment a historical inflection point; that is something for historians to assess in the future.
But the state of the world -- and the state of our polities -- certainly makes this a time to ask some very frank and difficult questions, of ourselves, of our leaders and of our would-be leaders.
We at the UN have been asking ourselves and our partners some tough questions over the last few years. There have been recent reviews of our peace operations – political and peacekeeping missions; of the peacebuilding architecture; and of the extent of participation of women in peace processes.
And most recently, the Security Council and the General Assembly agreed on a series of steps and processes – under the label “Sustaining Peace” -- for making peace durable in countries in conflict or otherwise vulnerable.
But all the questions that have preoccupied us recently essentially boil down to one: Is the UN still fit for purpose? In other words, Can we deliver on the promise of peace, security, development and human rights first made 70 years ago?
For me and those who believe in it, the UN remains the essential international organization. The part of the UN that I lead – the Department of Political Affaris – is responsible for the conflict prevention and mediation work of the Organization. I will point later to a number of instances where we have made a difference in averting violence and in bringing together parties at odds.
But it is also clear that the UN has to be able to respond more quickly and effectively to a world changing at a seemingly head-spinning pace.
Changing Conflict Landscape
We do our work against a “landscape of conflict” that is vastly changed since the founding of the United Nations.
We are dealing today mostly with conflicts within states rather than the more classic examples of conflicts between them.
In these kinds of conflicts, issues of sovereignty greatly complicate international efforts to help resolve them.
Furthermore, the triggers of these internal conflicts are many and complex: coups, contested elections, religious and sectarian divisions, or other manner of grievances within societies that can erupt in violence if not addressed in a sensible way.
Protest movements are challenging authorities on the streets, demanding change and often doing so before elections cycles would provide an opportunity at the ballot box.
Phenomena that do not respect borders -- such as organized crime and terrorism – often aggravate longstanding conflicts. The security of our own staff – in places like Somalia, Iraq and Libya -- is increasingly under threat, leaving the UN to try to do effective political work behind layers of sandbags and razor wire.
And where conflicts have left failed or collapsing states in their wake, our prospects for building peace and preventing their recurrence often rests with the very same weak institutions of governance and weak democratic traditions that led to the collapse in the first place.
Over the years the UN has adapted to these changing circumstances with varying success. My own department, the traditional center of discreet diplomacy and analysis, now deploys its own field missions, often to countries still suffering from armed conflict.
Improving the Response
In many cases, the landscape of conflict has changed more quickly than we have been able to adapt. And too often, we have not had the resources, political and material, to do so adequately.
Particularly frustrating for us is not being able to act when we see the signs of impending conflict. And although we diagnosed this problem long ago, moving from early warning to early action remains difficult, for a number of reasons.
First, countries in difficulty are often not receptive to outside help. The United Nations has to respect the sovereignty of its member States. We may see situations that cry out for third party mediation or other assistance, but we need to be asked to help. We cannot force ourselves in.
Naturally, most countries would prefer not to have to involve outside actors in what they see as their internal political processes. They may fear the “internationalization” of their problems. This is understandable to an extent. But it also often translates into an unwillingness to accept help until problems have degenerated to the point where they cannot be ignored by the international community. Ironically, aversion to or fear of intervention can result in actual calls for international assistance down the line.
Secondly, the resources available for conflict prevention are still quite modest. While everyone accepts that it is better and less costly to prevent a fire than to fight one, prevention is still vastly underfunded. Perhaps that is so because it is harder to show success in prevention: There are usually no cameras to show peace prevailing. But when conflict is not averted, the consequences can be catastrophic. Violence in its many forms has been estimated to costs the world economy $13.6 trillion. We invest a tiny fraction of that in prevention – even though studies indicate that every $1 devoted to prevention can yield as much as $59 in return.
A third difficulty in engaging in effective prevention is lack of international unity. In Syria, for example, we see the dire consequences of Security Council disunity. The same is true of other places where we work. The cost of such disunity is counted in lost lives and destroyed societies.
And yet, although the constraints on prevention are substantial, they are not insurmountable. I believe, for one thing, that the view of prevention as a euphemism for intervention is fading. The common message across the recent reviews of the UN’s peace and security work was the pressing need to bring preventive diplomacy, good offices and peacemaking back to the fore.
Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has made a clear commitment to upholding a “culture of prevention” and pledged a “surge in diplomacy for peace”.
Prevention at Work
Conflict prevention can be a hard sell, but there are many tangible examples of effective preventive diplomacy. In Somalia, for example, where we have a special political mission (SPM). The country has for the past few years lived under the first legitimate government in decades. With the support of a major African Union security operation, and thanks to an electoral process we are helping to shepherd this year, the country is trying to turn the corner. Just last week, Somalia elected a new President.
In Burkina Faso in 2015, our efforts helped overturn an attempted coup and put the country back on the path of democratic transition. Burkina is a good illustration of how we work in partnership with regional and other organizations.
In 2014, we closed our political mission in Sierra Leone, after 15 years of UN peace operations of various kinds. The UN withdrawal was a graduation of sorts for Sierra Leone, moving the country from a horrific armed conflict to a budding democracy.
In Guinea, UN mediation has played a highly successful role in preventing political confrontation from becoming the kind of ethnic conflict that could have spiraled out of control.
Most recently, in The Gambia, the UN and its regional partners helped avert what could have been a major crisis in persuading the loser of presidential elections to finally give up power.
The Way Forward
I cited lack of international unity as one of the main obstacles in the way of effective conflict prevention. And it is probably the most difficult hurdle to overcome. Countries will defend their interests, and oppose what they see as contrary to those interests, occasionally to the detriment of prevention or peace-making. In an increasingly interdependent world, however, the traditional understanding of interests also needs to change. It was the recognition of our interdependence that led to global unity on climate change and the sustainable development goals. The UN is where that unity is best forged.
As the Secretary-General said recently, “in a world in which everything is global, in which the problems are global – from climate change to the movement of people – there is no way countries can do it by themselves. We need global responses, and global responses need multilateral institutions able to play their role.”
For that, he continued, it is important to restore confidence in global multilateral institutions. The crisis in confidence in these institutions mirrors the trust gap afflicting so many societies. For the Secretary-General, the two phenomena go hand in hand, and addressing one can only help the other.
Therefore, in relation to his own role, the Secretary-General has said he is deeply committed to reform in order to adapt the UN’s peace and security strategies, operational set-ups and institutions in order to make them more effective and make major strides in regaining the full trust of the international community. This reform process should move quickly: The Secretary-General has just established a team that will give him recommendations for change by June of this year before he engages in consultations with Member States and relevant entities and takes action.
The Secretary-General has made his agenda clear: to make sure that prevention, enduring peace and human rights prevail, we need to address the root causes of conflict. And to do that, we need to reform the way the UN does business.
The UN needs to reform not because it has failed, although there have been some disastrous failures. Indeed, those failures, and its many successes, point to its abiding strength: the unique capacity, and occasional incapacity, to bring the world community together to continuously forge a common destiny. At a time of significant international tension and change, we need more multilateralism, not less. We need a stronger UN.