After more than nine months of gestation and suspense, the new United Nations Secretary-General, António Guterres, has put on the table a comprehensive set of reforms for the UN’s peace and security operations, aimed at ensuring the UN is fit for contemporary challenges and able to engage early, flexibly and effectively across the spectrum of conflict. His vision is for a renewed focus on prevention and political strategies to guide the design and conduct of UN missions (what the UN calls “the primacy of politics”) in order for the organization to “significantly reduce the need to intervene through large-scale peace operations and large-scale humanitarian responses.” The reform is also directed at creating an organization that is more coherent, operates less in silos, where duplication is avoided, and where decision-making power is devolved to those working in the field.
The reform package comes on the heels of major reviews of the UN’s work in 2015 — particularly the High-Level Independent Panel on Peace Operations (HIPPO). Guterres’s predecessor could not fully implement the recommendations of that panel. Part of the intent of the current Secretary-General’s proposed reforms is for the UN to move toward more modest and realistic endeavours. At a time of severe budget constraints, these goals make eminent sense. They would mean having less focus on heavy multi-dimensional operations (such as the large missions in Mali or South Sudan), and more investment in lighter and more creative preventative options (such as the more politically focused mission in Colombia).
But Guterres’s proposals on the peace and security pillar are also part of a much broader package of interrelated reforms that he envisions for the global institution. The proposals that will potentially have the most direct and far-reaching consequences for the design and conduct of UN peace operations are (1) the restructuring of the peace and security architecture (i.e., the way the departments of the UN Secretariat are organized to deliver on mandates given by the Security Council); and (2) system-wide management reform designed to decentralize decision-making, empower managers and reduce duplicative structures and overlapping mandates. The risk is that such reform proposals will be too centred on structures, processes and individuals in headquarters and will have limited impact on the ground for the UN staff who need to be empowered and on the populations for which the missions are there in the first place.
Other reforms include: (3) the Secretary-General’s renewed focus on prevention and sustaining peace (as opposed to large multidimensional operations), with the recent establishment of a High-Level Advisory Board on Mediation. The board is composed of 18 current and former global leaders who can help the Secretary-General navigate big-power politics; (4) a newly established UN Office of Counter-Terrorism. The impact the office will have on peace operations is unclear; and (5) an ambitious reform of the UN development system proposing a “new generation” of UN country teams and empowered resident coordinators who will be directly accountable to the Deputy Secretary-General.
Guterres also launched initiatives aimed at stamping out sexual exploitation and abuse, achieving organizational gender parity and advancing the women, peace and security agenda in UN peace operations.
The challenge (described in our recent report) for the UN will now be to translate the parallel tracks of reform into a concrete and coherent plan that not only stays true to the Secretary-General’s vision but also has a real impact at headquarters and in the field. To be successful this time around, the proposals will need not only to increase efficiency and effectiveness, but also to demonstrate the continued relevance of the organization. This at a time when member states are divided over the very nature of peace operations, and when peacekeeping operations are confronted with ever more complex operating environments in the field, and carry the burden of scandals such as cholera in Haiti and sexual exploitation and abuse in the Central African Republic.
To be successful the proposals will need not only to increase efficiency and effectiveness, but also to demonstrate the continued relevance of the organization.
Guterres’s plan involves getting the consent of member states this year, their formal approval throughout 2018 (based on a detailed cost breakdown presented to the General Assembly), and having a new system in place by January 2019. Guterres is, however, both a pragmatic and a skilled politician and may adjust and refine his proposals along the way based on feedback he’s received, particularly from member states.
While reception of the initial reform proposals has been lukewarm from some UN bureaucrats wary of pay cuts and layoffs, member states have generally been supportive of the broad strokes of the Secretary-General’s reform package, including through a Declaration of Support to UN Reform at a high-level event signed by some 129 member states on the margin of the General Assembly in September.
It remains to be seen whether this enthusiasm will be matched by support for more detailed (and costed) reform proposals that will arrive down the road. The risk is that Guterres loses momentum and misses out on the honeymoon period during which a reform package might encounter less opposition — often seen as the first six months of the term. Members states might start getting frustrated by the complexity of the proposals and the slow pace of implementation, particularly if by fixing old problems new ones are created.
But Guterres is right to think that change does not happen easily or overnight at the UN, and that process matters and expectations should be managed. While the temptation will inevitably be to focus on short-term structural reorganizations and what they mean for power relations within the bureaucracy, the Secretary-General has already insisted on multiple occasions that change will need to come from improvements in working culture, methods and processes over time. This change will also require a new generation of empowered UN leaders who are less risk-averse and more accountable for results, rather than simply adhering to processes and rules.
The Secretary-General will need to rely on senior officials and heads of new departments to faithfully implement the spirit and the letter of these reforms on his behalf. He will also need to remain personally involved, because this is what member states expect from him, and because it might be the only way to avoid new turf wars between departments around the implementation of reforms.
UN peace operations and their successful reform require support from a broad range of member states — the Security Council, troop- and police-contributing countries and financial contributors — and continued engagement with the UN Secretariat on a range of issues. The UN Peacekeeping Ministerial in Vancouver will be a good opportunity to continue such engagement, primarily around peacekeeping capabilities and performance (i.e., the military tools that allow peacekeeping missions to be more efficient and accountable for actions on the ground). It should also be an opportunity to continue discussions around the broader strategic shifts the 2015 HIPPO report called for: the primacy of politics, a continuum of peace operations, regional partnerships, and a greater focus on the field and on the people. This approach will be much more valuable than narrow discussions around some of the technicalities of UN peacekeeping only.
This article is part of the special feature Peacekeeping Reimagined.
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