The major challenge for the United Nations and the multilateral system is to save the lives of people immediately at risk. That is the key assessment of Michael Doyle, Director of the Global Policy Initiative at Columbia University, when considering the competing demands on global cooperation.
“Whether they are people in Syria, in Aleppo, for whom we’re trying to negotiate a truce, or citizens in the Central African Republic, or in Mali, who have been subject to ferocious armed factions, that’s number one in terms of priority,” Mr. Doyle said.
While identifying the task came easy, Mr. Doyle told Global Observatory Editor Marie O’Reilly that solving it is anything but. He said this is because the UN has proven good at clarifying the culture of responsibility in the world, but has struggled to move beyond a normative role.
He said the UN, as an organization of states, is struggling to keep up with an international agenda focused on threats such as non-state armed groups with extremist ideologies.
“We need a considerable amount of innovation to think through how these new conflicts should be managed,” Mr. Doyle said. “For that the real challenge is to bring all the talents on board, develop a political commitment to address these new conflicts, and do so within the context of the principles of the [UN] Charter.”
Mr. Doyle urged the UN to focus on furthering the concept of “responsibility to protect” as one way of facing up the challenge.
He said development of this principle, which requires states to protect their citizens or face international consequences, was a “great normative leap forward,” but UN member states have since failed to properly put it into action.
The conversation was part of a series of interviews done on the sidelines of the inaugural retreat of the Independent Commission on Multilateralism (ICM) on February 20-21.
Listen to interview:
Michael, you spoke today about the changing nature of armed conflict. What are the key characteristics that we’re seeing in peace and security in the 21st century?
There are changes and there are not changes. Many things that have held in the past hold today. The immense danger of nuclear weapons, the spread of internal armed conflicts, the destructiveness that comes from the spread of small weapons—all these issues persist and continue to shape conflict.
What is somewhat new is the role of non-state armed groups and how prominent they are. They always existed; they are just more prominent today. And also the role of… let’s call them “extremist ideologies,” whether religious or otherwise, in shaping the action of these groups. It means that it’s hard to find coherent parties to negotiate with if armed groups are engaged in violence that is also lucrative, profitable, and more like criminality. And it’s hard to negotiate with groups that have extreme ideologies so that the very idea of peace and cooperation is something they’re fundamentally opposed to, and that war itself is their form of validation. So we’ve got much larger challenges today.
How, in your view, is the UN dealing with these challenges? Can you give us some examples of success and some examples of areas where the UN is struggling?
I’d say overall the UN is struggling with this new agenda. It’s an organization of states, and it was pretty good at dealing with inter-state conflict through mediation. It became pretty good in the 1990s in dealing with civil wars when there were coherent factions that could credibly commit to various peace agreements. When we’re talking about these new armed groups, these non-state groups—more like criminal gangs—and we’re talking about these extremist forces, they don’t fit well in any of the established tools that are available.
And so we need a considerable amount of innovation to think through how these new conflicts should be managed. For that, the real challenge is to bring all the talents on board, develop a political commitment to address these new conflicts, and do so within the context of the principles of the [UN] Charter. I think this is work to be done and a very large challenge.
Do you think that the UN system needs to change its understanding of what peace is? Has some progress been made on that front?
Overall my answer is no. One of the virtues of the Charter—the original conception of the UN from 1945—is that it had a multi-dimensional understanding of peace. Peace was the non-use of force, [which is] very important. Peace was also the fulfillment of the principles of human rights, so that a peace has deep legitimacy. Peace was also economic and social justice and development. And the Charter has each of those three things built into it. I think that’s still quite a relevant vision for today. There’s a large gap between the vision and implementation, and that’s where I think our challenges are right now.
What role does the UN have in developing norms in order to achieve this kind of peace?
It’s a major function. You know, the UN develops norms, it has the operational activity, which is humanitarian assistance and peacekeeping, and then it does technical work in development. Those are the major functions of the organization. Norms have always been important. It is a normative body, it was founded for the sake of saving future generations from war. It developed through its mechanisms—the first Universal Declaration [of Human Rights] is a declaration of the General Assembly. The assembly then negotiates treaties—one treaty after another treaty have helped establish the normative architecture of the international system. Then on top of the treaties, which are binding once they’ve been consented to, there are all sorts of soft norms that are developed by the institution on things like sustainable development, [which is] one of the most decisive changes that are taking place in our present time.
Then there is the emergence of the “responsibility to protect” agenda, which is taking the institution beyond the narrow interpretation of Chapter VII [of the Charter], which is for international peace and security, to a responsibility that states have to protect the well-being of their own populations and, if they fail to do so, the international community will step in. Those normative changes are very important.
There was quite a lot of interest in the responsibility to protect in the year 2000 and again in 2005. Is it languishing a little? What status do you think that has now?
It’s languishing in the sense that the member states understand that the easy part of the work was passing the declaration. In 2005, [we had] the two paragraphs 138 and 139 [of the outcome document from the 2005 UN World Summit] that describe the responsibility and the three pillars that are attached to it—that member states have to protect their own citizens, that they can expect assistance from the international community to do so on the matter of voluntary choice, and that if they fail to do there’s a residual responsibility in the Security Council to act. It was a great normative step forward.
What we don’t know now and what we need to tackle is the strategic commitment to how to operationalize that. We don’t have a clear understanding of which of these tools to use in what circumstances. When does the gravity of the harm rise to the need to engage in coercive activity? When, on the other hand, does facilitation work the best? We also have challenges about thinking about how one maintains accountability between the Security Council, which grants a mandate, and various member states that implement it. It can’t be a blank check anymore. And lastly, a lot more attention needs to be paid to the strategies of how you rebuild a country that’s gone through a humanitarian or security-oriented emergency, and all those are huge challenges to come.
If you had one key message for the International Commission on Multilateralism—one of the thorniest issues it should be focusing on, or one of the most important—what might that be?
Right now I would say that the most important thing is saving people whose lives are immediately at risk. From a moral or ethical point of view, nothing is more important than that. Whether they are people in Syria, in Aleppo, for whom we’re trying to negotiate a truce, or citizens in the Central African Republic, or in Mali, who have been subject to ferocious armed factions, that’s number one in terms of priority.
But that’s very difficult for a whole lot of reasons. It may be ethical priority number one, but the reachable activities the UN can do are often normative—clarifying what should be the culture of responsibility in the world. The UN tends to be relatively good at that if we look through history. And for me, the thing I would urge the UN to focus on today is the responsibility to protect. It’s not going to save Syria or the next country, but overall it’s going to enhance the prospects of responsible international action. That would be a step forward.
Michael Doyle, thank you very much for speaking with me.
My pleasure—nice speaking with you.