“A New Agenda for Peace” Interview with UN Director Asif R. Khan

Asif R. Khan, Director of the Policy and Mediation Division within the UN Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs (DPPA), gives remarks at the launch of DPPA’s "Guidance on Mediation of Ceasefires" at the International Peace Institute (IPI) on September 14, 2022. (IPI)

Since “A New Agenda for Peace,” was launched on July 20, 2023, a wide range of member states, think tanks, and other experts have been eager to discuss its recommendations and reflect on the accomplishments and perceived gaps of this policy brief from the United Nations (UN) secretary-general.

As member states are currently in discussion on how to take the New Agenda for Peace forward into the 2024 Summit of the Future, Jenna Russo had a chance to talk with one of the document’s lead penholders, Asif R. Khan, Director of the Policy and Mediation Division within the UN Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs, to hear his reflections on the document and next steps in the lead-up to the Summit of the Future.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity. It took place on September 8, 2023.

The consultations that fed into the New Agenda for Peace were very broad. Over the past year, you’ve received inputs from a wide range of member states, members of the UN system, civil society groups, think tanks, and other experts from across the globe. What did you learn from that process? Did anything surprise you?

Well, we wanted the policy brief to be something that was seen as credible by member states of different ideological persuasions and from different regions. So, the consultations were critical, and the document is much stronger because it includes the priorities and concerns of different players. This is not to say, of course, that there aren’t deep divisions, but I think member states saw the value of engaging with a document that provides a unifying narrative and vision of the secretary-general in the peace and security arena.

The vast majority of the interlocutors we spoke with expressed a keen interest in strengthening multilateralism, even though they may disagree on how to achieve this. Even as the geopolitical environment is shifting, there is a real appetite to create a common understanding around current developments. This is why we’ve spent so much time on the opening sections of the document, to try and provide, in writing, a clear-eyed analysis of the current moment and how we are thinking about these issues. Overall, I was surprised and quite delighted by the interest and engagement we got from different constituencies, especially the genuine engagement of member states from all regions.

Within the New Agenda for Peace, the secretary-general talks about “the deep sense of unease” that has grown among people, stating that, “Governments and international organizations are failing to deliver for them.” How do you see this process—including the series of policy briefs, the Summit of the Future, and the outcome document—helping to deliver for people?

It’s important to remember that the New Agenda for Peace is only one part of a much larger process that builds on the UN75 Declaration and Our Common Agenda. Within this process, the secretary-general has put out 11 different policy briefs, including the New Agenda for Peace, which address different constituencies. Some of these are explicitly about closer engagement for the people you refer to in your question, for example, the policy brief on youth engagement, which is quite pivotal.

As far as the New Agenda for Peace is concerned, we felt that a central priority was to speak directly to member states about the current moment. Ultimately, the challenges we’re facing can only be addressed if states are fully engaged, both in their domestic actions and international cooperation. This does not mean that states can or should act alone, and I think the secretary-general is quite clear about this in the document, for example, in calling for national prevention strategies, which require whole-of-society engagements.

Within peace and security, the concept of universality is fundamental. We’re not only thinking about those who live in conflict-affected areas or a small subset of fragile states. These are critical issues, but we also recognize that people in stable societies, in richer or more prosperous societies, are also confronted with challenges. And those challenges are growing as a result of exclusion, marginalization, discrimination, and certainly, violence. And so those governments have an equally important obligation to address these issues. That’s at the heart of the approach based on universality.

I’d like to follow up on that point: the New Agenda’s language around the universality of prevention has been of real interest to a number of constituencies. Yet, it could be seen as pushing the bounds of the Security Council or Secretariat’s mandates to talk about broader forms of violence, including domestic or gender-based violence.

How do you understand these to be important topics within the New Agenda for Peace, even though they may extend beyond what we traditionally understand as part of the UN’s work on peace and security?

I think this is really important, because the New Agenda for Peace is also based on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). It’s not just about the Security Council—it’s about the role of other institutions as well. Above all, this is about national governments taking responsibility for prevention efforts through national prevention strategies, through infrastructure for peace. And I think there’s a lot of policy work that will need to be done between now and the Summit of the Future, and even beyond. This is a long-term project. But this is not just about international institutions telling countries what they should be doing. This is about national governments and countries themselves adopting these prevention strategies and really trying to buttress the SDGs, which of course need much better implementation than where they are at the current juncture.

The secretary-general uses bold language when it comes to gender, calling for the dismantling of patriarchal structures. Yet at the same time, the New Agenda for Peace includes a significant focus on military responses to threats through the use of peace enforcement. How would you respond to those who say these two things are at odds with each other? 

I’m not sure I agree with the conflation. The New Agenda for Peace is not about militarized responses to threats. In fact, it calls on member states to consider moving away from overly securitized approaches to peace. I think you have to look at it in the overall picture. The New Agenda for Peace is about reducing military spending. It is about engaging in different forms of disarmament. And it’s about enacting measures to foster human-centered disarmament, all of which contribute to the whole picture.

The recommendations on peace enforcement are not a call for more peace enforcement; they’re a call to clarify that the UN should not do peace enforcement itself. And when these tasks are deemed necessary based on the circumstances, they should be carried out by other actors. I think the secretary-general is very clear on that and has been for the last several years. So, in a way, we’re putting forward a more skeptical view that militarized responses by themselves cannot be the only solution.

When the secretary-general released “Our Common Agenda,” references to peacekeeping were notably absent, and some people were concerned that the secretary-general had moved on from peacekeeping as an important tool for the UN. Should supporters of peacekeeping be assuaged of this concern based on what we see within the New Agenda for Peace?

I’m not sure it represents a shift so much as it’s a bigger issue of focus within the New Agenda. And I think the original authors of the Common Agenda recognized that this was going to be addressed further down the line in this process. Peacekeeping represents effective multilateralism in action, no question, and I think we make this clear within the New Agenda. When we talk about solidarity, the global partnership for peacekeeping is a fantastic example, as it represents member states coming together to address threats often quite far away from their own borders in support of others.

At the same time, the New Agenda for Peace is realistic about some of the challenges peacekeeping faces, many of which are also linked to the broader geopolitical environment. We’re clear in the expectation that peacekeeping will remain a valuable central tool for the UN, while recognizing the need for more reflection, continued Security Council support, and realistic and clear mandates with exit strategies in place.

And I should add here that this is not just about peacekeeping. A number of special political missions also face major challenges. The environment has changed, which is making things quite difficult. Therefore, we need to be realistic, and the Security Council needs to be realistic when it’s assigning mandates. We’ve been saying that for decades, but the need is even greater today.

Within the New Agenda for Peace, the secretary-general echoes long-standing calls for reform of institutions, including a more equitable geographic balance. Yet, he offers few ideas for how this should be accomplished. In what ways can the secretary-general show leadership to help overcome intractable challenges related to Security Council reform and bolstering other UN institutions?

It’s true that the secretary-general does not get into details about the reform of Security Council membership within the New Agenda for Peace, as it’s meant to be a strategic document. In addition, the secretary-general feels this is an issue for member states to discuss in the context of the intergovernmental negotiations (IGN) framework. It is important that the secretary-general states his position on reform, and he has, both within this document and in various public statements. But I’m not sure that it would be useful for the secretary-general to offer any particular details in this regard.

The secretary-general nonetheless does offer additional suggestions that we feel are quite crucial, related to reforming the working methods of the Council, for instance. I think there’s a lot of work that can be done there. Also, suggestions on improving sanctions regimes are hugely consequential. As you know, it’s not just about the Council. He also talks about the revitalization of the General Assembly and enhancing the role of the Peacebuilding Commission. This has been a longstanding question, but I think the voices calling for such changes are growing in number.

So, you’ve just gone through this huge consultative process to put the policy brief together, but in many ways the publication of The New Agenda for Peace is just the beginning of the process, leading up to the Summit of the Future. We understand it’s now in the hands of member states, but can you tell us a bit more concretely what comes next?

Part of my response to this question is informational and part of it is going to be speculative because, as you said, it’s really a member state-driven process. Member states will be convening at the ministerial level during high-level week to discuss the Summit of the Future. That meeting will lay the groundwork for how the intergovernmental discussions around The Pact for the Future will go. Last week, on the 1st of September, they adopted a decision on the scope of the Summit, which involved a lot of discussion and negotiations. Our hope is that The New Agenda for Peace, including the narrative and its recommendations, are going to help shape the thinking that goes into the chapter on peace and security, which they agreed to include within the Pact.

At the same time, there are elements of the New Agenda for Peace that will go beyond the Pact, which will be addressed within other intergovernmental processes. For example, I just mentioned the IGN process around Security Council reform, and there are intergovernmental discussions on disarmament, including, significantly, on new technology. And then there’s the 2025 Peacebuilding Architecture Review that we hope the New Agenda recommendations are going to feed into. So, we’re going to continue to work closely with member states to try and have some level of coherence across these multiple processes and to continue building support.

I’d like to pick up on your earlier point regarding the importance of the broad consultations you undertook within this process. I understand that member states are now in the lead, however, what role do you see for other stakeholders, including civil society, think tanks, and others, to continue taking forward the New Agenda for Peace and shaping member state action on collective security?

The document is out now, and it belongs to everyone. It’s out in the public arena, and I want to encourage people to really try and advocate for those elements of The New Agenda for Peace that speak to you, that you think could be included in the pact. We rely on these partnerships that civil society, think tanks, and others have with member states to try and strengthen these messages and be a multiplying force for change.

It’s really crucial for civil society inputs to be truly representative of the diversity of the membership that we have. These voices were important in feeding into the New Agenda for Peace, and I hope the process continues, as civil society engagement remains absolutely critical now that we’re going to go into consultations and negotiations.

Jenna Russo is Director of Research and Head of the Brian Urquhart Center for Peace Operations at the International Peace Institute.

This interview is part of a series reflecting on the July 2023 publication of the UN secretary-general’s policy brief, “A New Agenda for Peace.”