united nations

Police secure an area around UN headquarters as world leaders gather for the 69th Session of the UN General Assembly in New York.  (Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images)

Observing the annual opening session of the UN General Assembly from a certain distance for the first time in ten years, it is quite refreshing. On the one hand, it spares me the “circus” of road blocks, media vans, motorcades, receptions, and overcrowded streets around Turtle Bay in New York. On the other hand, stripped to its essence—the actual debate—the event remains a unique opportunity to take the pulse of global affairs, as I have argued in the past. The statements on the threat posed by the Islamic State and extremism on Wednesday make the new “coalition of the willing” look more like a “coalition of the ambiguous,” whose members have competing interests and divergent agendas. This properly reflects the tone of global reality beyond the rhetoric, highlighting the growing geopolitical tensions.

Leaders in New York are focusing on the crises at hand, in particular terrorism and extremism, Ebola in West Africa, and climate change. Development, and in particular the post-2015 agenda, which currently proposes 17 new Sustainable Development Goals, also takes central stage in the speeches, with countries stressing different angles, be it poverty, inequality, health, or environment, depending on their main concern. It is not surprising that governments focus on the urgent troubles under the spotlight.


A mother and daughter walk to a polling station in Juba during South Sudan's independence referendum, January 10, 2011. (Spencer Platt)

During the next 12 months, the United Nations, its member states, and partners will define their vision for sustainable development over the next 15 years. Earlier this month, the UN General Assembly agreed that its Open Working Group’s proposals for 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs) would form the basis for a transformative post-2015 development agenda. However, this noble vision can only be implemented if it has the power to inspire citizens around the world. In some regions, this will be much harder than in others, especially where the main structures of the state entrusted with leading the goals’ implementation are under severe stress. Yet the future of this visionary endeavor rests, more than anything else, on questions of governance and leadership.

The 17 SDGs define objectives for governments and multilateral agencies, with measureable targets. A product of negotiation, they will never be perfect. Critics argue that there are too many themes, that the goals are too vague, or that they are not sufficiently focused on empowering people and communities. Yet the fact is that these goals have the potential to energize a new, genuine spirit of partnership that can unite forces for goodwill around the world.


In June 2013, Syrian opposition forces attempted to take control of the Syrian side of the Syria-Lebanon-Israel border, and in particular, the Quneitra border crossing, recognizing its strategic and symbolic importance. More than a year later, they finally succeeded. On August 27, the al-Nusra Front, the al-Qaeda affiliate Syrian organization, took over the Syrian side of the border-crossing after fierce fighting with the regime’s army and abducted 45 Fijian United Nations peacekeepers, releasing them on September 11 only after Qatar paid a large ransom. The Irish and Filipino battalions of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) were spared a similar fate thanks to the direct involvement of the Israeli army which, by providing intelligence and guidance, helped them cross the border unharmed into Israeli-controlled Golan Heights. This week, more UN forces withdrew from the Syrian side as armed groups made further advances on peacekeepers’ positions.

Twenty miles north in Lebanon, there is increasing concern the activities of the al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State will surge in ‘Arqub, an area on the northern slopes of Mount Hermon, and in particular, the village of Shebaa, the largest in the region. The region has been hosting thousands of Syrian citizens who fled their country because of the civil war, and there are grave concerns in Lebanon that Shebaa might meet the same fate as Arsal, the predominantly Sunni village in northern Lebanon that, since early August, has been the site of a series of violent clashes between radical Islamists and the Lebanese Army, causing the killing of scores of soldiers, the abduction of nineteen others, and the public beheading of one them, dragging Lebanon deeper into the Syrian quagmire.


Violence forced South Sudanese to seek shelter at the United Nations compound in Bor, South Sudan, March 29, 2014. (Flickr/Sudan Tribune)

There is no longer serious debate whether or not the international community has a responsibility to protect people from genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and ethnic cleansing, said Simon Adams, executive director of the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect. He said that is a sign of great progress around the responsibility to protect (RtoP), the international security and human rights principle adopted ten years ago at the World Summit.

“We’ve won the battle of ideas,” Mr. Adams said. “I think the debate now is how we meaningfully implement it in specific circumstances.”

While he remains optimistic, he said, “we’ve still got very far to go,” and cited Rwanda as an important turning point when the United Nations (UN) had to “accept its inability to live up to the promises it made in the charter.”


The headquarters of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Jakarta, Indonesia. (Gunawan Kartapranata/Wikipedia)

States belonging to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) joined the whole membership of the United Nations in making a solemn commitment to the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) principle at the World Summit in 2005. As ASEAN now seeks to integrate more closely by 2015, a High Level Advisory Panel chaired by the former ASEAN secretary-general and foreign minister of Thailand, Surin Pitsuwan, is arguing that R2P offers an important pathway to the establishment of an ASEAN Community. The panel (for which I serve as secretary) will launch its report on Mainstreaming the Responsibility to Protect in Southeast Asia at UN Headquarters in New York on Tuesday, September 9.


Bags of rice being distributed at one of the camps for ex-Seleka combatants in Bangui, July 15, 2014. MINUSCA's Security Institution Unit has coordinated weekly food distribution by the International Organization for Migration to over 2,000 ex-Seleka combatants in the capital. (UN Photo/Catianne Tijerina)

September 15 will mark the beginning of the latest peacekeeping intervention led by the United Nations, when blue helmets take over from African Union forces in the Central African Republic (CAR). Since 1997 there have been 13 regional and international peacekeeping operations deployed to end violence, disarm combatants, and restore peace in CAR. As the UN launches yet another mission, it is clear that none of the previous interventions was able to address the root causes of the country’s instability, which range from fractured and predatory state structures to deep-seated feelings of marginalization in some communities, particularly where public administration has been historically weak.


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.


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