united nations

A Mexican soldier destroys weapons seized from drug traffickers, August 18, 2010.  (Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP/Getty Images)

While ferocious armed conflicts in Gaza, Ukraine, Libya, and Syria dominate news headlines, the foremost United Nations (UN) process to combat the illicit trade in small arms appears to have lost its way. In 2001, UN member states hammered out a compromise program of action to be the foremost global map to tackle illicit small arms, which are widely used to injure and kill people both in times of war and peace. 

Thirteen years later, as reflected in the diplomatic deliberations during the Fifth Biennial Meeting of States (BMS5) on the implementation of this program of action that took place in New York in June this year, it was evident that the UN process has become preoccupied with peripheral issues. These included small arms marking and tracing, and the management of government weapons stockpiles. If the small arms process was compared to that of food insecurity and malnutrition, it would be as if an initiative that once held the aspiration of eradicating world hunger had now become obsessed with food labeling and warehouse management.


A public transportation fare increase in many Brazilian cities triggered mass protests against the government such as this one in Natal, Brazil, June 30, 2013.  (Isaac Ribeiro/Flickr)

Around the world, governments are experiencing a “crisis of legitimacy.” The popular discontent found from Tahrir Square to Kiev’s Maidan, Bangkok to Brasilia, New York’s Wall Street to Hong Kong’s financial district all share a common ethos that leaders and governments aren’t listening to their people.

Whether the result of corrupt officials, weak institutions, or repressive regimes, widespread disillusionment comes with high risks for security, development, and democracy. In some places such as Iraq, it has helped foster extremism and violence. The question is: How to make governments and institutions more accountable, more inclusive, and more responsive to the needs of their citizenry?


A Palestinian student inspects the damage at a UN school at the Jabalia refugee camp after the area was hit by Israeli shelling on July 30, 2014.   

A little over a week ago, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Advisers on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect (Adama Dieng and Jennifer Welsh, respectively) issued a joint statement on the situation in Gaza. The statement advanced a bold account of the situation in Gaza and outlined steps to strengthen the protection of Gaza’s population. Sadly, the statement generated little interest beyond a small community of diplomats and analysts. It deserves to be revisited.

The Special Advisers noted that Israel (as the occupying power), the Palestinian Authority, and Hamas all shared in the responsibility to protect the population in Gaza, and that the international community had a responsibility to assist in protecting the civilian population. The Special Advisers expressed “shock” at the civilian casualties, observing that the high toll could “demonstrate disproportionate and indiscriminate use of force” by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). They concluded that both sides “are in violation of international humanitarian law” and pointed to the “disturbing” use of hate speech on social media directed especially against the Palestinian population.


The militant group the Islamic State has used social media, videos, and pamphlets in its recruitment efforts. Above: a screenshot from one of their videos. (YouTube)

The extremist groups gaining ground in Iraq and Syria have benefited from the Arab Spring uprisings by reframing the aspirations and disappointments of marginalized youth to gain support, said Richard Barrett in this Q&A with the Global Observatory. Mr. Barrett helped establish the system-wide United Nations working group on terrorism known as the Counter Terrorism Implementation Task Force, and also served as coordinator of the UN’s al-Qaeda and Taliban Monitoring Team.

In this interview, Mr. Barrett noted the limited impact that the UN’s counterterrorism strategy has had in some countries but said that the strategy itself should not change. He also discussed the role of governments and the Islamic faith in sectarian violence.

Mr. Barrett, now Senior Vice President of the Soufan Group, was interviewed by Michael R. Snyder, research assistant with the Center for Peace Operations at the International Peace Institute.


After fleeing heavy fighting, thousands of displaced Sudanese receive rations of emergency food aid, Agok, Sudan, May 21, 2008. (UN Photo/Tim McKulka)

The humanitarian system is failing people in places affected by conflict, and the UN is “at the heart of the dysfunction.” These are some of the claims made by Sandrine Tiller and Sean Healy in their latest report for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), also known as Doctors Without Borders. The report, Where Is Everyone? Responding to Emergencies in the Most Difficult Places, offers a blunt critique of the humanitarian system today.

Ms. Tiller, a humanitarian adviser for MSF in the United Kingdom, spoke to me over the phone about her findings and addressed some of the criticisms that the report has received. What follows is an edited version of our conversation.


Blue helmets from Burkina Faso on patrol in Ber, Mali. (MINUSMA/Marco Dormino)

Tomorrow, June 25, the UN Security Council will extend the mandate of the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA). One year after its establishment, MINUSMA is at a critical crossroad. A recent report from the UN Secretary-General concludes that the security situation in northern Mali has deteriorated since the beginning of 2014. The report observes an expansion of areas controlled by armed groups after clashes in Kidal and concludes that there is no common vision between the government and armed groups on the way forward for negotiations. With a decrease in security and no progress in negotiations, let alone in dialogue or reconciliation, MINUSMA is moving further rather than closer to the implementation of its mandate.

In order to bring MINUSMA back on track and make use of its potential, its role has to be framed more comprehensively into both local and regional perspectives. This will require much more than merely “transferring its center of gravity to the north,” as proposed by the UN Secretary-General to the Security Council.


A peacekeeper with the UN mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) walks towards the wreckage of a UN vehicle that was hit the previous year in an ambush by rebel militia. (UN Photo/Sylvain Liechti/March 13, 2014)

In the days leading up to today’s International Day of UN Peacekeepers—a day which “honors the memory of peacekeepers who have lost their lives in the cause of peace”— the Department of Peacekeeping Operations had the unenviable task of reporting an incident in Darfur which had left one Rwandan peacekeeper dead and three others injured. The peacekeepers had been mediating a local dispute when Arab militia elements became hostile and opened fire. This incident, emblematic of the daily work and risks faced by UN peacekeepers, brings home the dangers of trying to build peace in parts of the world still wracked by hostility and conflict. It appeared to be the latest in a long line of attacks on UN peacekeepers in recent months. 

In April 2013, eight Indian peacekeepers were killed when armed militia attacked a convoy they were escorting in Jonglei state, South Sudan. A few months later, seven Tanzanian peacekeepers were killed in Darfur when militia attacked their base. Three more Indian peacekeepers were killed in Akobo in Jonglei state in December, when militia attacked a UN base sheltering civilians. At around the same time, anti-balaka militia in the Central African Republic killed a UN peacekeeper from the Republic of the Congo.


Lakhdar Brahimi in Geneva, August 22, 2013. (Jean-Marc Ferré/Flickr)

Lakhdar Brahimi, the Joint Special Envoy of the United Nations and League of Arab States for Syria, finally submitted his resignation, effective at the end of May. Brahimi was appointed by UN Secretary-General (SG) Ban Ki-moon in September 2012 to succeed the first special envoy, the former UNSG Kofi Annan. 

While this was hardly unexpected, it carries significant symbolic meaning and offers insight into the emerging balance of power in the region. 

Brahimi’s resignation confirms the current futility of negotiations contextualized by insufficient international political will to force a viable political solution and end the carnage in Syria. In an interview with the UN last August, Brahimi made it clear that the problem “was, and still is, how to bring the Syrian sides, and those who supported and support them, to accept the very principle of a political solution.” Brahimi, as he has done so often in his stellar international diplomatic career, embodied this very principle, one that he believes rests on a fundamental premise: “there is no military solution to this devastating conflict.” Indeed, his star peaked when the US backed down from precisely such a military response in Syria, creating disarray in the ranks of its hawkish allies: France, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey, all of whom had supported some version of a military intervention.


A Zambian peacekeeper walks in front of an armored patrol in the disputed region of Abyei, on the the border between Sudan and South Sudan, May 30, 2011. (UN Photo/Stuart Price)

On May 5, a critical round of negotiations will begin at the United Nations (UN), and the outcome will have profound implications for UN peacekeeping. Since the early 2000s, peacekeeping has grown in both size and complexity. The current mandated surge in South Sudan and the recently authorized operation in the Central African Republic are due to bring UN deployment to unprecedented levels, and both missions exemplify the increased focus on the protection of civilians in UN mandates. Yet both missions are struggling to secure the necessary personnel and equipment contributions from UN member states. 

One reason for this is that the UN’s system for financing state contributions to peacekeeping operations has not kept pace with its growing peacekeeping ambitions and commitments. Countries contributing military and/or police personnel to UN operations are eligible for two main kinds of reimbursement payments: one for the costs of deploying their personnel, and the other for the costs of deploying their equipment. One acute problem with this system is that the standardized basic rate for personnel cost reimbursements has stagnated since 2002, causing deep resentment among troop contributing countries and raising fears that current levels of personnel contributions may become unsustainable. A second, fundamental problem is that the current reimbursement structure provides virtually no financial incentives for states to contribute specialized or highly capable military units, or to assume the risks associated with implementing ambitious peacekeeping mandates.

To sustain and enhance its peacekeeping capacity, the UN needs to create a better financial incentive structure for troop and/or police contributing countries. Its ability to do so depends critically on the outcome of negotiations during the 2014 Second Resumed Session of the General Assembly’s Fifth Committee, which begins on May 5. 


In Bor, South Sudan, people fleeing ongoing clashes board boats headed for Minkammen, February 27, 2014. (Mohammed Elshamy/Flickr)

The mass atrocities in Rwanda and Srebrenica provided “a shock to the international community,” said Adama Dieng, the United Nations Secretary-General's special adviser on the prevention of genocide. The UN has been widely criticized for its failures in both, but in the intervening years, Mr. Dieng said the United Nations has made a lot of progress. “It takes time to change [UN] culture,” he said.

He said, “too often, strategic interests of the member states are placed above human lives,” and the failure of the UN to act is often rooted in Security Council members letting their own interests impact their decisions.

“And I keep repeating it: we have to make sure that the Security Council acts timely and decisively whenever we are witnessing situations of potential genocide or atrocity crimes,” he said.

In Central African Republic (CAR), where, since 2012, sectarian violence has escalated and caused internal migration and hundreds of deaths, Mr. Dieng said a genocide is not happening, though there is a risk. “We do not use, of course, the term lightly,” he said. “We talk about this risk of genocide because we have seen elements of the crime in place. We have seen very clear statement of intent to destroy, to wipe a population from the country, and I'm referring here to the Muslim population.” He said CAR is at risk for all atrocity crimes, particularly crimes against humanity.

Mr. Dieng said the UN needs to invest more in prevention. “We must get involved earlier if we are to save lives, and if we are to stop tensions from escalating,” he said. “We cannot say that we are not aware of what is happening in the world. We have enough early warning information.”

Mr. Dieng used CAR as an example of the potential cost difference between early interventions and peacekeeping interventions. “With certainly less than $100 million dollars, one could've prevented the crisis in Central African Republic leading to the establishment of a peacekeeping operation.” In contrast, he said the CAR’s peacekeeping operation could cost “at least $1 billion dollars.”

Mr. Dieng listed many improvements the UN has made in its approach, including its ability to act as “one UN,” which he said means deciding on policy at headquarters and implementing coherent strategies on the ground. As an example, he cited the decision in February 2014 to “open the gates” of the peacekeeping mission in South Sudan and provide refuge to South Sudanese fleeing bloody political violence. “Thanks to that decision, thousands of lives were saved,” he said. He contrasted this with 20 years ago “when the gates were opened, but only to release the soldiers to go back home.”

Mr. Dieng said one situation his office is monitoring but does not receive enough attention is the sectarian violence in in Myanmar. He said concern over the upcoming election, which is seen as a crucial step in Myanmar’s democratization, is clouding the issue. “We have to make sure that political appointees/opportunists will not allow that the people of Myanmar, particularly the Rohingya, who are at risk, be left abandoned… Because if we allow the situation to continue, you are facing the risk after the election of a situation which will be worse than what we are witnessing today.”

The interview was conducted by Adam Lupel, Director of Publications and Senior Fellow at the International Peace Institute.

Listen to interview (or download mp3):

As you know, this month marks the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide. So, I'd first like ask you what have we learned since then, what is United Nations doing better, and where are we most in need of improvement?

Well, I would first of all like to say that the genocide not only Rwanda but also in Srebrenica provided a shock to the international community, which was forced to take a hard look at the unacceptable human cost of failing to take action or not be adequately prepared. And speaking about the United Nations in particular—an investigation into why we've fail to prevent these genocides—and most recently the death of civilians in the last months of the conflict in Sri Lanka—have resulted in several processes of reform within the UN. And, of course, it takes time to change culture. But, I believe that we have made a lot of progress in 20 years.


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