Article 24 July 2017

Making the United Nations System More Effective on Conflict Prevention

by Gerrit Kurtz                GPPi

UN Secretary-General António Guterres has identified one overarching priority for his work: the prevention of human suffering. Specifically, Guterres envisions that the concept of prevention, and the mechanisms it entails, will be able to cut across and strengthen the UN’s three pillars: peace and security, human rights, and sustainable development. In more concrete terms, Guterres builds on the Human Rights up Front (HRuF) initiative, a key reform project introduced by his predecessor, Ban Ki-moon, to strengthen the UN’s preventive capabilities.

The HRuF initiative targets the work of UN staff as well as cooperation among UN agencies. It emerged as a reaction to the perceived failure of the UN system as a whole during the last months of the war in Sri Lanka. Following this failure, the UN created new coordination mechanisms in the UN Secretariat; it sought to re-emphasize the human rights work of UN development agencies on the ground, and it bolstered existing instruments in order to support individual UN Country Teams with expert staff.

In his first appearance as secretary-general at the UN Security Council, Guterres said that neither war nor peace were inevitable. Peace, he insisted, is “the result of difficult decisions, hard work, and compromise”; to this end, prevention is “not merely a priority, but the priority” in order to “save lives, reduce suffering, and give hope to millions.” The HRuF initiative provides a cornerstone of this vision.

The Origins of Human Rights up Front

In November 2012, a UN internal review panel identified a “systemic failure” in the work of both the UN Country Team and the UN Secretariat during the last months of the Sri Lankan Civil War in 2008 and 2009. The UN Country Team consists of all the agencies, funds, and programs working in a respective country, for example the UN Development Programme (UNDP), the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), and the World Bank. These organizations seek to fulfill their respective mandate as part of a comprehensive development framework that the UN has agreed on with the host country. A Resident Coordinator (RC) coordinates the overall work of these agencies; usually, the RC is also the head of the local UNDP office. In humanitarian emergencies, he or she takes on the additional function of Humanitarian Coordinator (HC) to manage the members of the Humanitarian Country Team.

Each of these organizations employs program- and analysis-staff related to their respective line of work, but the resources of the RC’s office for political analysis and diplomacy are typically very limited. While the UN Department of Political Affairs (DPA) in New York has analysts dealing with conflicts around the world, DPA is typically reluctant to share its information, and in the past, communication between DPA and UN Country Teams has been irregular. This fragmented structure has had difficulty producing coherent and effective human rights analysis for the UN Country Team on the ground.

This became especially clear in the case of Sri Lanka, where criticism of UN behavior during the last phase of the civil war was less directed towards individual people or organizations, but rather towards the UN’s institutional set-up as a whole. Each UN entity involved examined the situation primarily from its own perspective; there was no joint analysis of the risks and threats to civilian populations coming from the perspective of the entire UN system. While DPA performed an “excellent analysis of the risks,” the analysis and conclusions were seen as exclusively the conclusions of DPA. “No one else felt they should act on them,” a UN official briefed on the matter said in an interview. UN pressure to act on the DPA analysis would have been key, argued another UN official, to commit the parties in the conflict to abide by international humanitarian law.

Yet the conditions on the ground and within the institution made this kind of approach impossible. Coordination between UN agencies in New York and Geneva was lacking. There were too few people in the country versed in dealing with violations of human rights and international humanitarian law. The Sri Lankan government had repeatedly withheld work permits for UN staff members.

In January 2009, several members of the UN Country Team in Sri Lanka began counting civilian casualties on their own initiative, without an explicit institutional mandate. The Resident Coordinator presented the data to diplomatic missions in March 2009; but when the High Commissioner for Human Rights and diplomatic missions published them shortly thereafter, the RC played down their importance to the government. As a result,  the UN as a whole sent mixed messages to the government, who was responsible for the majority of civilian casualties, according to the UN Country Team’s own information at the time.

At the same time, in New York, Emergency Relief Coordinator John Holmes concentrated on maintaining humanitarian access to the conflict zone. He was the only one allowed to brief the members of the Security Council in informal sessions about the situation on the ground. Focusing on humanitarian access was part of his job description, yet this also meant that the Security Council members lacked an explicit human rights perspective from the Secretariat.

When the Executive Office of the Secretary-General studied the internal review panel’s report, it recognized that “a systemic failure needs a systemic solution,” explained Andrew Gilmour, who was overseeing the work in the office at the time, in an interview. The Sri Lankan crisis and the resultant analysis were thus the starting point for the Human Rights up Front initiative. In September 2013, Ban Ki-moon approved a detailed action plan, and in December of the same year, Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson briefed the General Assembly on the initiative.

A Comprehensive Reform Package

The HRuF initiative has three overarching objectives: (1) enacting a cultural change in the UN system so that all UN staff see human rights as part of their work, (2) establishing better early warning and coordination mechanisms both in conflict countries as well as in New York, and (3) promoting more open engagement with UN member states on human rights.

The Human Rights up Front initiative is not simply concerned with individual action points. Rather, UN staff members are being encouraged to see themselves as part of a whole, instead of thinking only in terms of the narrow competences of their respective department, fund, programme, or agency. They should feel empowered to act on the basis of the normative principles of the United Nations – in particular on the pivotal issue of human rights. Summarizing the core message, former Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Kyung-wha Kang noted that the UN’s work is “about the human beings,” whose challenges “are not subdivided into different mandates as the UN system is.”

The cultural change on systemic human rights engagement should come about through three main forms of action: public commitments by the UN leadership, training for all UN staff members, and a revised selection and appraisal system for Resident Coordinators. Thirteen thousand UN staff members have already undergone new human rights training through an online course. In addition, the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights (OHCHR) now has an active role in the selection and regular appraisal of RCs. Furthermore, the UN Development Group has updated the generic job description for Resident Coordinators to include an emphasis on human rights and created new guidance on human rights work for RCs and UN Country Teams.

At the same time, everyone involved is aware that an organization of the size and complexity of the United Nations cannot change its culture overnight. Reforms need time to work in practice, and UN leadership needs to show that it stands behind the engagement of its staff members in crisis situations. In addition, the UN needs to make clear that leadership failure has consequences. Too often, senior UN officials are promoted rather than dismissed. Ban Ki-moon’s decision to ask the head of the UN mission in Central African Republic, Babacar Gaye, for his resignation when reports about sexual abuse and exploitations by French and UN peacekeeping troops in the country emerged in 2015 is a significant step in the right direction.

Early Warning and Coordination Mechanisms

Skeptical member states have typically been a major obstacle to the implementation of effective early warning mechanisms in the UN system. Many do not want to be faced with the prospect of risk ratings or of landing on the agenda of the UN Security Council, which might impose coercive measures in line with chapter seven of the UN Charter. Similarly, UN development agencies may be cautious or hesitant when it comes to monitoring the situation of human rights and other risk factors on the ground, as they work closely with host governments and seek to avoid drawing their ire.

The HRuF response to this challenge is to take a universal approach. The early warning mechanisms pertain to all member states, in particular those that are not on the agenda of the UN Security Council. For this purpose, the UN introduced regional quarterly review mechanisms, which are jointly chaired by DPA and UNDP and bring together all relevant UN agencies in New York to discuss pertinent issues and the response of the UN system as a whole. These reviews, which are divided into six different regional formats, consider information from all relevant entities in the UN system and also consult with the respective Resident Coordinators. If the participants of these mechanisms think it necessary, they can bring challenges up to the political leadership level and trigger a decision that is formally carried by the whole UN system.

According to participants in these reviews, their value goes far beyond tangible results. The open discussion format at the meetings allows the creation of a comprehensive picture of a given situation, as insights are drawn from the network of UN entities working in sustainable development, humanitarian aid, human rights, and political analysis. UNDP staff members, for example, reported that they would now consider human rights topics more seriously as a result of these reviews; legislation in certain countries that aims to restrict civil society organizations was mentioned as one particular point of future attention. One interviewee remarked that they were now looking into the levers available to UNDP to urge governments to withdraw such legislation.

Similar coordination mechanisms on the country level took longer to be set up, but are currently in their pilot phase. In one country, where the UN Country Team started these preventive coordination meetings in May 2016, the joint brainstorming in these sessions led to heightened confidence among the representatives of UN agencies involved, one UN official noted. Because of the directness and intimacy of these meetings, participants felt comfortable sharing sensitive observations that they otherwise would not include in formal reports. These positive responses underscore the value of the formats introduced by the HRuF initiative.

Engagement with UN Member States

The early warning mechanisms that the United Nations has established as part of HRuF are restricted to the UN system; member states and civil society organizations do not take part in the discussions. To the degree that these coordination mechanisms lead to a more coherent UN position vis-à-vis host governments, they can still increase the effectiveness of the UN conflict prevention efforts as a whole. UN staff members said, for example, that the UN acted more coherently in the run-up to the 2015 Nigerian presidential election than on previous occasions. This included appointing a designated senior UN official as point person on Nigeria in the Secretariat. The specific impact of the greater UN coherence on the relatively peaceful outcome of the election and change in government remains to be researched.

The increase in informal DPA briefings for the Security Council also demonstrates the new dynamics that the HRuF initiative has brought to how the UN Secretariat deals with member states. There were twice as many such briefings in 2015 compared to the year before. DPA uses the agenda item “any other business” for this purpose, to present member states with background information on countries that may not be on the council’s existing agenda.

Meanwhile, a new format, in which the Secretariat informally briefs the members of the Security Council about the political and human rights dimension of a particular situation, has emerged. These situational awareness briefings were introduced during the monthly presidency of New Zealand in September 2016 and have taken place on a monthly basis since then. The early warning function of these briefings is limited, however, since, at least until January 2017, these briefings only dealt with countries that were already on the council’s agenda.

Problems and Challenges

In light of the high ambition of the initiative, it is not surprising that the cultural change has not taken hold completely. There are structural constraints inherent in UN institutions. The entities in the UN system all take very different approaches to addressing human rights violations. Consider the question of whether, and under which conditions, public advocacy is more effective than quiet diplomacy. The Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights, which has a mandate to monitor and report all human rights violations, will take a different approach to this question than, for example, the World Food Programme, which depends on humanitarian access. The situation is similar regarding the role of the UN towards host governments. Development agencies like UNDP depend on cooperation, even with authoritarian governments, whose conduct towards civil society OHCHR might publicly criticize. This poses an enduring structural challenge that the UN will have to address over time.

In addition, multiple scandals have plagued the UN even after the introduction of the HRuF initiative, which underline the enduring challenges that the initiative faces. One example is the manner in which different agencies handled information about sexual exploitation and abuse by French soldiers that were part of the UN mandated operation “Sengaris” in the Central African Republic. Instead of taking the information seriously, the UN suspended Anders Kompass, the OHCHR staff member who had passed on evidence to French authorities, after UN channels had failed to respond to his warnings. In language reminiscent of the internal review panel on Sri Lanka, another independent inquiry published in December 2015 spoke of “gross institutional failure” in this case.

Moreover, the decisions of coordination mechanisms are not always easily translated into actionable results. For example, demand for additional peace and development advisors, which UNDP and DPA provide to UN Country Teams upon their request, has grown faster than the quantity of available funds. Currently, there are 39 such advisors deployed worldwide. According to UN officials, an additional $4 million will be required from 2018 in order to cover current demand for eleven more advisors. Such constraints thus remain a significant issue limiting the potential success of the HRuF initiative.

On a similar note, the deployment of UN human rights advisors has proven to be challenging. These are tasked with supporting Resident Coordinators and UN Country Teams with a human rights-based approach to development, and in advising them and the host government on the human rights treaty system. Unfortunately, their deployment can take up to 24 months. According to one evaluation, by the time the advisors are ready, the RC that originally requested the additional personnel may have already left the host country, and his or her successor might not see the same demand for a human rights advisor. If UN Country Teams are supposed to put human rights up front, the deployment of human rights advisors needs to be sped up and their management improved.

New Enthusiasm for Prevention

Since taking office, Secretary-General Guterres has started to translate his rhetorical commitment to prevention into a number of specific actions. He restructured the early warning and coordination mechanisms in the UN Secretariat. As a result, the prevention mechanisms have become more integrated since March 2017. Regional reviews now take place on a monthly basis; in addition, the new Deputies Committee that brings together the heads of relevant agencies at the level of assistant secretary-general now also meets on a monthly basis, and has a new standing item on prevention. Decisions can be forwarded to the Deputies Committee and, if necessary, to the Executive Committee, where Guterres and his most senior advisors meet weekly.

Secretary-General Guterres has also announced that he wants to increase the mediation and conflict resolution capacity of the UN. He has commissioned a number of reviews of the peace and security architecture, including on prevention. According to some observers, this reform process might lead to a greater focus on preventive diplomacy, away from expensive and complex peace operations.

Conclusion and the Role of Germany

Have any of these mechanisms and actions contributed to a reduction in human rights violations? In light of the complex nature of international relations, the long causal chains involved, and the high number of actors at play, it is not possible to answer this question unequivocally. International organizations always have a limited influence on intra-state conflicts, and the UN can only mitigate, rather than eliminate, regional rivalries and geopolitical interests. This uncertainty lies in the nature of prevention. A lot depends on a comprehensive and flexible analysis of the situation, the qualifications and courage of leaders on the ground, and the readiness of conflicting parties to resolve their dispute peacefully. At the same time, the UN has definitely improved its capacity to respond to grave human rights abuses, as exemplified by the new mechanisms of the Human Rights up Front initiative.

Member states such as Germany that want to strengthen the role of the UN in the area of prevention need to do their best to ensure that the HRuF initiative and Guterres’s prevention agenda become a success. For that purpose, they can further contribute to the funding of peace and development advisors (Germany is already a donor to the program), promote human rights and prevention in executive boards of UN development agencies, funds and programs, and coordinate closely with Resident Coordinators on the ground on human rights and other political issues.

Germany, which is currently campaigning for a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council in the 2019–2020 period, should take a leading role in this regard. In the Security Council, it should promote more visiting missions in a preventive function, similar to the mission to the Lake Chad region organized by the United Kingdom in March 2017. It should push the United Nations to hold its senior leaders on the ground to account when they fail to adopt a preventive posture and to empower those UN leaders and staff members that show courage. In doing so, the German government could start to operationalize the high ambitions it set for itself in its recently adopted white paper on crisis prevention, conflict management, and peace promotion.

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This is an edited and slightly revised translation of a German article that first appeared in the journal Vereinte Nationen.

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