The past 18 months have seen a number of multilateral triumphs: among them the adoption of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the Paris Agreement on climate change, the Addis Ababa Action Agenda on financing for development, and the “sustaining peace” resolutions for revitalizing United Nations peacebuilding passed by the Security Council and General Assembly in April. These successes point the way forward for responding to the multitude of challenges facing the international community.
Flawed as it may be, the multilateral system still has the capacity to deliver. Indeed, in an age of multiple crises—complex and interlinked in nature and global in scope—cooperation among states and other stakeholders is more needed than ever. This is the key message of Pulling Together: The Multilateral System and Its Future. The report is the result of an extensive process of consultation and review by the International Peace Institute’s Independent Commission on Multilateralism (ICM), spanning two years and five continents.
It is evident that states are under stress in many parts of the world. Pressure is coming from both external factors and internal vulnerabilities. Universal values are under siege or are being sacrificed in the pursuit of narrow self-interest. Challenges such as human displacement, terrorism, climate change, cybersecurity threats, and pandemics know no borders.
Too many states and peoples have responded to these problems by unilaterally using force or by turning inward, building barriers instead of bridges, and stifling dissent, under the guise of fighting external threats. Dialogue is being replaced by belligerent monologues. Intolerance is on the rise. Mistrust within and among nations is increasing.
There is, therefore, an urgent need for states to work together, to rebuild trust, identify common interests, and enable collective action to address the challenges of our times. The ICM report puts forward 10 general principles for achieving this:
- Recommit to Multilateralism: States are sometimes tempted to act unilaterally. This can exacerbate rather than improve the threats to international peace and security and set back efforts to achieve sustainable development and ensure respect for human rights. A recommitment by member states to operate within multilateral structures and rules can help avert the disorder caused by going it alone.
- Put Prevention into Practice: Prevention should be at the center of the UN’s work. The need to invest more in prevention, particularly before the outbreak of crises, was also a central theme in the 2030 Agenda, the Paris Agreement, the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, and the sustaining peace resolutions.
- Include the People: Strengthening the multilateral system is not only about states. It must also address the needs, concerns and perspectives of “we the peoples” enshrined in the UN Charter. A more people-centered approach that actively engages local populations and civil society would enhance the system’s legitimacy.
- Empower Women and Youth: No commitment to inclusion would be complete without a concerted effort to further empower women and engage with youth. The implementation of Security Council Resolution 2242, on women, peace, and security; Resolution 2250, on youth, peace, and security; and SDG 5, on gender equality, could go a long way in addressing some of the obstacles that still stand in the way of a meaningful contribution by these critical stakeholders.
- Bridge the Silos: Sustaining peace depends upon work flowing through all three foundational pillars of the UN’s work—peace and security, development, and human rights. A concerted effort will have to be made to bridge the institutional divisions to bring greater coherence to the UN’s activities. Such engagement has been discussed for years. It is time for action.
- Follow Through on Implementation: Policies are only as good as their implementation. This is true for the UN Secretariat, as well as for member states. The cultivation of a culture and practice of implementing decisions taken by member states, and an effective system of performance auditing of this implementation, should be a top priority.
- Enhance Partnerships: The UN must strengthen its capacity to engage with local, national, regional, and international partners. Greater cooperation with regional and subregional organizations, civil society actors, and the private sector would help bolster its standing as an effective leader in setting norms, coordinating responses, delivering services, and providing assistance.
- Promote Accountability: There is a growing demand for improved accountability within the UN system. To ensure management and staff are accountable for their performance, evaluation mechanisms should be periodic, transparent, independent, based on clear objectives, and tied to well-defined targets.
- Develop Sustainable and Predictable Financing: Sustainable financial capacity could allow the UN to fulfill its mandates more effectively across all policy domains. While maintaining operational capacity and funds to respond to crises, the secretary-general should prioritize a new fundraising drive to make resources available for preventive initiatives rather than only for emergency responses.
- Communicate Success: At all levels of action, the UN must be able to effectively communicate its purpose based on clear goals, clear messages, and clear results. This is imperative in order for the UN to sustain its legitimacy and funding base among member states, as well as its reputation and image in the eyes of the world.
The ICM report also contains a series of concrete recommendations tailored to 15 specific issue areas. Many of the recommendations are directed at member states or various parts of the UN system. But it is important to ask: What should be the top priorities for the new secretary-general as she or he takes office in January 2017?
There is one that demands particular attention: delivering on the promises of the recently agreed global frameworks for sustainable development and climate action. But how?
The preamble of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development states that, as a plan of action for people, planet, and prosperity, the agenda should seek to “strengthen universal peace in larger freedom.” The new secretary-general should seize the opportunity to articulate a practical and unifying vision of what this could look like.
Next year marks the 25th anniversary of former Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali’s seminal report “An Agenda for Peace,” which framed UN approaches to peace and security for a generation. It is time for a “New Agenda for Peace.” This can bring together emerging normative advances, the wealth of lessons learned, and the breadth of recent reform initiatives into a single strategic, holistic vision and plan of action for helping the UN better deliver peace.
Investing in prevention should be at the heart of this vision. The challenge is to put prevention into practice. Or looked at another way, we need to move from keeping the peace after conflict to building sustainable peace before conflict happens. In part, this can be done by pursuing development in the service of peace, and vice versa.
The “sustaining peace” resolutions demonstrate a commitment from member states to work toward that end. But it will take the collective effort of the secretary-general, member states, and civil society to see that this commitment is effectively reflected in the work of the UN. Providing leadership and vision for this effort should be the next secretary-general’s top priority.
A full list of recommendations for the UN secretary-general, member states, and civil society is included in the ICM report. A further 15 issue-specific ICM policy papers will be published separately in the coming months.
Adam Lupel is Vice President of the International Peace Institute. Barbara Gibson is Secretary-General of the Independent Commission on Multilateralism, Youssef Mahmoud is a Senior Adviser at IPI.