“New Agenda for Peace” Outlines Reform for UN’s Fracturing Multilateral Governance

UN Secretary-General António Guterres announces the release of the “New Agenda for Peace” policy brief, July 20, 2023. (UN Photo/Manuel Elías)

In his recently published “A New Agenda for Peace,” United Nations (UN) Secretary-General António Guterres calls on UN member states to repair the fracturing systems governing international peace and security. Proposals in the policy brief to reform the UN’s Security Council, Peacebuilding Commission, sanctions regimes, and General Assembly all convey urgency and build on ideas regularly debated by UN diplomats. But while the New Agenda sets a clear vision for these reforms, it does not go into the details on how to achieve them. This cautious approach is a reflection of the secretary-general’s desire to remain balanced at a moment of sharp international divides, and his belief that it is the role of the UN to support—not make—the decisions of member states.

Reforming the Security Council

It is difficult for a reflection on multilateral governance to avoid discussing Security Council reform. Secretary-General Guterres approaches this topic delicately. While the New Agenda sets an ambitious tone in recognizing the “contributions that different parts of the world make to global peace” and calling for “urgent progress in the intergovernmental negotiations on the reform of the Security Council,” it does not delve into specific proposals about how to make the body more just or representative. This cautious approach reflects longstanding divides among UN member states—even within those groupings that align positions in the General Assembly—on how to reform the Council. While staking out a singular position on Council reform could derail discussions on more urgent matters and upset various factions whose support is critical for reform to actually happen, it would have allowed Guterres to provide direction to member states who are unable to break from the long-standing deadlock.

The New Agenda did, however, endorse changes to some of the Council’s working methods that could help reduce outsized balances of power and improve its legitimacy. First, the secretary-general calls for increased burden sharing among Council members. In 2019, Germany and the United Kingdom became the first elected (E10) and permanent (P5) Council members to act as co-penholders on the Darfur file. Other such pairings have since followed on a variety of issues.[1] There has also been a rise in the eagerness of the E10 members to share pens, particularly on thematic files, although it is rare on mandates for multidimensional missions. Member states can continue to improve the balance of power in the Council by seeking out co-penholdership on agenda items traditionally held solely by the P3. However, co-penholdership is not a panacea for the Council’s legitimacy challenges, as it creates a considerable burden on smaller E10 states with limited resources and personnel.

Second, the New Agenda renews longstanding calls for Council members to consult more systematically with host states, regional organizations, and troop- and police-contributing countries (T/PCCs) in advance of mandate renewals. The Council has made some improvements since the original Agenda for Peace three decades ago, whether through formalized meetings with T/PCCs and regional bodies, or by penholders sending delegations to host countries. Nonetheless, growing tensions between the Council, UN missions, and host country counterparts–evidenced by Mali’s abrupt request for the UN to withdraw its mission, MINUSMA—have turned this into a hot-button issue. Proposals to reduce these tensions are not revelatory; for example, E10 members could help facilitate more regular interactions between the Council and host countries, particularly in the periods between mandate renewals. Similarly, the Council could convene more informal dialogues with regional counterparts before mandate renewals and when crises unfold (such as the situation in Niger). However, the New Agenda’s lack of guidance in reducing such tensions places the onus on Council members who already struggle to break from the status quo.

Third, the secretary-general calls for the Council’s permanent members to be more accountable for how they deploy their veto powers. The General Assembly’s April 2022 adoption of the Liechtenstein Initiative was a tangible step forward and has been deployed four times since then. It has also opened up space for Council members to pursue negotiated outcomes on files that would have otherwise been halted by a veto. In the New Agenda, Guterres comes out explicitly in favor of this normative shift toward veto reform—which member states have pushed to make acceptable for over a decade— although he still declines to take a stronger leadership role by offering specific proposals to build upon.

Revitalizing the Peacebuilding Commission

The Peacebuilding Commission (PBC), an intergovernmental advisory body designed to support conflict-affected countries at their request and provide peacebuilding advice to the Security Council and General Assembly, has long been a topic of UN reform discussions. Previous reviews of the UN’s peacebuilding architecture suggest that the Commission has not yet met its initial ambitions. In the New Agenda, the secretary-general calls on member states to strengthen the PBC’s legitimacy, funding, and inclusivity. These recommendations suggest worthwhile but incremental changes that lay the groundwork for discussions at next year’s the Summit of the Future and during the upcoming review of the UN peacebuilding architecture in 2025.

One of the New Agenda’s recommendations is to make the PBC stronger and more proactive. The policy brief calls on bodies like the General Assembly, the Security Council, the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), and the Human Rights Council (HRC) to more systematically approach the PBC for advice, and for the PBC to discuss a wider array of cross-cutting thematic agenda items. This trend is already underway, with the PBC submitting written advice to the Security Council far more frequently than in years past. However, written advice from the PBC is consensus-based, which means that, at times, divisions have delayed the PBC from submitting it promptly to the Council or prevented the PBC from formally engaging with the HRC. To increase the impact of the PBC, member states can advance their timelines on zero drafts and negotiations to ensure more timely delivery of advice. Even though the New Agenda doesn’t offer specific solutions regarding PBC reform, Guterres sends an important signal by encouraging the PBC to forge ahead into new, and often politically sensitive, discussions on, “inequalities, violence, and conflict;” “prevention and peacebuilding;” and “development, climate change, and peace.”

Another PBC recommendation in the brief calls for member states to amplify their financial support to multilateral peacebuilding efforts. The secretary-general suggests a new mechanism to “mobilize political and financial support for the implementation of the national and regional [prevention] strategies,” and urges the Commission to formalize its existing, informal relationships with international financial institutions (IFIs) and development banks. These recommendations come against the backdrop of ongoing debates in the UN’s Fifth Committee about using assessed contributions to capitalize the Peacebuilding Fund.

The secretary-general also suggests improving how regional organizations participate in the Commission’s proceedings in order to make its deliberations more holistic and inclusive. At present, regional organizations are regularly invited to brief specific PBC meetings, and the Commission convenes annual consultations with the African Union’s Peace and Security Council. The New Agenda encourages member states to formalize these engagements, although it does not elaborate on how they should do so. This is a missed opportunity by Guterres to lay out clear markers for how member states could put his vision of “networked multilateralism” into practice. Taking the existing model of Security Council-PBC coordination (with one member as an informal coordinator between them) and applying it to the PBC’s partnerships with different regional organizations could merit further discussion.

Refining Sanctions Regimes

One area where the New Agenda makes clear suggestions is on reforming the Council’s sanctions regimes. The secretary-general suggests that member states more regularly adjust and review sanctions regimes, provide clearer benchmarks, and develop prompt procedures for listing and delisting individuals and entities. Additionally, Guterres notes an area for future consideration as “whether future [UN] sanctions regimes specifically relating to terrorism should include terrorism motivated by xenophobia, racism and other forms of intolerance, or in the name of religion or belief.”

While the New Agenda affirms the important role that sanctions play in international peace and security, it urges caution, noting that “they have a durable positive impact only as part of an overarching political process.” Guterres’s balanced positions reflect changing Council attitudes. Despite the Council agreeing to impose a new sanctions regime on Haiti last October, some of its members have sought to weaken (or eliminate) long-standing arms embargoes imposed on host states where UN missions are deployed. In the past year alone, the Council has weakened provisions imposed on the Congolese, Central African, and South Sudanese governments.

The secretary-general’s reiteration of the importance of targeted sanctions alludes to deeper debates about humanitarian exemptions. The Council’s December 2022 resolution mandated humanitarian exemptions for asset freezes in existing and future sanctions regimes. These exemptions allow for certain organizations to provide humanitarian assistance despite sanctions being in place, mitigating some of the negative consequences on local populations. Member states can further the New Agenda’s emphasis on targeted and adaptable regimes by implementing these exemptions on the national level, following the example set by the United States in their immediate adoption of general licenses only 11 days after the Council’s resolution passed.

The New Agenda acknowledges that sanctions can have negative impacts on vulnerable populations, and proposes a more expansive study on their “deleterious impact on political dialogue and peace processes when applied too early, reactively or broadly.” While this is a good starting point, member states can respond to these recommendations by mandating the Secretariat to produce such a report, which can be used to inform both existing sanctions regimes and new ones.

Revitalizing the General Assembly

The New Agenda also calls for governance reform to the General Assembly by highlighting its role when the Council is “unable to fulfil its primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security.” The secretary-general further clarifies this role by recommending annual General Assembly meetings to discuss “the peaceful settlement of any situation which it deems likely to impair the general welfare or friendly relations among nations,” and calling for more regular discussions between General Assembly Committees on cross-cutting issues. This language shows strong support from Guterres for a stronger General Assembly on issues of peace and security, despite likely P5 opposition. The secretary-general also emphasizes the “primary role” of the General Assembly in the revitalization of disarmament institutions and recommends the establishment of an intergovernmental process on how best to achieve these goals.

The secretary-general’s recommendations build on the General Assembly’s own revitalization process, by emphasizing the importance of institutional memory. Revitalization has been a dedicated item on the General Assembly’s agenda since the 46th session, but in recent years, special attention has been brought to its relationship with the Security Council; in September 2023, the General Assembly’s working group on this issue passed a resolution which aims to build this institutional memory through a digital handbook on what the General Assembly can do on issues of peace and security when faced with a deadlocked Council. In pursuit of a more informed and able General Assembly, member states can push forward this proposal and related revitalization motions.

Filling in the Details

The New Agenda encourages reforms that strengthen the UN’s collective security machinery. Stopping short of offering detailed proposals for change, the secretary-general reiterates the importance of member states as the primary decision-makers in these discussions, conveniently sidestepping political landmines beneath many of these issues. Member states should recognize the limitations of a UN which must remain balanced in an era of increasing divisiveness and adjust expectations accordingly.

The New Agenda is, at its core, designed as a call to action for member states to better understand and collectively deal with the magnitude of challenges facing our global system. Member states, therefore, should take the recommendations outlined by the secretary-general and flush out the critical “how will this be achieved” piece that is currently missing from much of the New Agenda’s discussions on reform to the Security Council, Peacebuilding Commission, UN sanctions regimes, and General Assembly. The Summit of the Future in September 2024 offers an opportunity for member states to agree upon such proposals in the hope of strengthening our systems of international governance, and bringing us closer to the values of trust, solidarity, and universality that Guterres has identified as paramount.

Maya Ungar is the UN Project Officer at the International Crisis Group.

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

[1] According to Security Council Report’s penholders chart, there have been 5 co-pens shared between permanent (P5) and elected (E10) members since 2019: Germany and the UK on Darfur (2019-20), Germany and the UK on Libya sanctions (2019-20), U.S. and Ecuador on Haiti (2023), U.S. and Albania on Ukraine political affairs (2023), and France and Ecuador on Ukraine humanitarian affairs (2023).