united nations

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.


The Security Council  adopts a resolution related to sanctions against the Democratic Republic of the Congo, November 30, 2009. (UN Photo/Devra Berkowitz)

Over the last two decades, the key policy question surrounding multilateral sanctions has been effectiveness. Because of studies that suggest that sanctions are effective only about one-third of the time, there has been a concerted effort to develop so-called “smart sanctions,” which increase the effectiveness of Security Council sanctions at the front end by targeting specific groups, individuals, and entities. See, for example, reports here and here that detail the shift away from comprehensive sanctions towards targeted sanctions on the basis of effectiveness.

The emphasis on targeting at the front end, however, has overshadowed an important back-end question that is equally important to effectiveness: termination. This policy lacuna is significant because, once imposed, sanctions tend to stick. Indeed, my research shows that Security Council sanctions tend to last considerably longer than sanctions imposed by regional organizations, and that shorter sanctions episodes are often more effective. In other words, sanctions of long duration may detract from their effectiveness.

Since the end of the Cold War, sanctions have emerged as one of the Security Council’s primary tools for conflict management. Over this period, the objectives of Security Council sanctions have become increasingly ambitious. Although the measures of targeted sanctions are today quite standard, and usually include an arms embargo, asset freeze, and commodity sanctions, the objectives to which those measures are applied can be wide ranging. For example, the objectives of ongoing sanctions today include ending recruitment and targeting of women and children in conflict situations; the protection of civilians; the observance of human rights and international humanitarian law; and longer-term reform of national institutions such as the police, the security sector, and the justice system.


UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (left) marked the completion of UNIPSIL with ceremonies in Sierra Leone. He met with President Ernest Bai Koroma, right. (UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe)

The closing of the United Nations Integrated Peacebuilding Office in Sierra Leone (UNIPSIL) on March 31, 2014 was a celebrated milestone in the UN’s work in the small West African country. The UN took over from the Economic Community of West African States in 1999 as a result of the Lome Peace Agreement, and helped end a long civil war; 15 years later, the UN reports that Sierra Leone has shown remarkable achievements in the strengthening of institutions and in safeguarding stability and promoting democracy. 

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon used Sierra Leone as an example of one of the most successful post-conflict recovery, peacekeeping, and peacebuilding processes in recent years. UNIPSIL showed that steady engagement, assistance in the development of capacities, and engagement with local and national leadership can effectively support peacebuilding in a country. Thus, the withdrawal of the mission is an important indicator that the process is increasingly less in the hands of external actors and more in the hands of Sierra Leone nationals. And for that, there is still a lot of work to be done, as Sierra Leonean actors themselves recognize.

In a previous paper, Cedric de Coning, Leslie Connolly, and I presented some ideas on how external actors can support and contribute to resilience in peacebuilding processes. In that paper, we argued that the peacebuilding environment can be supported by stimulating the development of institutions that are sufficiently resilient, in a process that should be inherently led by national actors. And in this context, we stated that it is important to recognize that peacebuilding is often an irregular process; thus, external actors should identify ways in which to deal with the complexities of its non-linear nature.


A UN police training officer demonstrates how to subdue a criminal suspect using non-violent methods during a training session with Liberian National Police recruits, Unification Town, Liberia. (UN Photo/Staton Winter)

Sectarian violence in the Central African Republic (CAR) has left at least 2,000 dead and over 700,000 displaced since December last year. The United Nations is now preparing to deploy a major peacekeeping mission to CAR, in which the UN police will play a critical role in deterring further attacks on civilians, restoring order, and rebuilding local police and gendarmerie as part of the effort to re-establish the wider rule of law. How United Nations police will stabilize and help to rebuild CAR and other conflict-torn countries such as Mali and South Sudan will be the subject of a major international meeting in Oslo this week, March 19-21.  

Convened by the Police Division in the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations, police and government representatives from over 50 UN member states as well as international and regional organizations will discuss how international police can contribute to developing police institutions in the conflict-torn countries where peacekeeping missions are deployed. The meeting will aim to further flesh out specific areas outlined in the first comprehensive Policy on UN Police in Peacekeeping Operations and Special Political Missions, which formally took effect on February 1, 2014, after more than 5 years in development. 

Although peacekeeping operations are still widely perceived as military affairs, the reality is that over time they have become progressively more complex and ambitious. The role of police in peace operations has concurrently undergone a quiet but highly significant shift. Today, international police are essential for stabilization and, along with civilian experts, critical for peacebuilding and statebuilding in conflict-affected states hosting a peacekeeping mission. 


Schoolgirls in Liberia, December 2007. (USAID)

The role of women and girls was not prominent enough in the UN Millennium Development Goals, which expire in 2015, said Lilianne Ploumen, Minister for Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation of the Netherlands, and any post-2015 development agenda should have both a stand-alone goal for women and girls and specific roles for them in the broader agenda.

“In all other goals, whatever they are, it should be clear that there can be a specific role or a specific issue for women and girls,” Ms. Ploumen said in this interview. These are top priorities for the Netherlands in the post-2015 framework, she added. 

Ms. Ploumen said, “one of the main strategies that we should now look into is to make sure that not only the voices of those women are heard in the meeting rooms of the UN, but they themselves can be represented.” 

As an example, she said, “The most powerful thing to move things forward is to have a girl herself talk about what happened to her when she was forced into an early marriage. So, I think we should work with civil society and the UN to make even more room for the voices of women and girls themselves.” 

Ms. Ploumen also discussed how the Netherlands supports women in peace processes. “In South Sudan, we're working through the FLOW [Funding Leadership and Opportunities for Women] funds—but also through NGOs like Cordaid—to encourage young women to take up leadership positions in their communities, to organize themselves. ” 

“I think women can be a force for good. They are a force for change, but they also need our support to make that happen, and I'm very proud that we are able to do so,” she said.

“I admire the courage of all those women and girls that are there to stand up in their own community, give a voice to their sisters, their neighbors, their nieces, their daughters. We should be there with them.” 

The interview was conducted by Andrea Ó Súilleabháin, Policy Analyst at the International Peace Institute.

Listen to interview (or download mp3):


Andrea Ó Súilleabháin: At the start of the 58th Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) at the UN, I had the pleasure of speaking with Lilianne Ploumen, Minister for Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation of the Netherlands. On March 11th, Minister Ploumen joined me to discuss the Netherlands’ priorities on development, its relation to peace and security, and ensuring sustainable development for women and girls.

The 58th Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), happening at the UN this week, focuses on the Millennium Development Goals for women and girls. Looking ahead, what are the Netherlands’ priorities for the post-2015 framework, and ensuring it reaches women, especially those in conflict-affected states? 

Lilianne Ploumen: We have a few priorities that we would like to see on the agenda. To start with, we advocate for a stand-alone goal on women. I think many people would agree that the Millennium Development Goals were a wonderful tool if you wish to bring about lots of political and public support to development. But many of those people would also agree that the role of women and girls has not been too prominent in many of those goals. So a stand-alone goal in what will come after the Millennium Development Goals I think would be a key priority for us. 

The second would be that in all other goals, whatever they are, it should be clear that there can be a specific role or a specific issue for women and girls. We are also advocating for a separate goal on peace and security—or peace and stability, if you wish—because we feel that without development there can't be peace and without peace there cannot be development. 


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