United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres rightly prioritizes performance by including it as one of the five pillars of his Action for Peacekeeping (A4P) reform initiative. Peacekeeping operations are a principal tool, and one of the most expensive and visible ways, that the UN intervenes to prevent and mitigate conflict. Improving peacekeeping performance is thus essential, but it will not be easy.
Last year was a banner one for progress on multilateral norms, with adoptions of the Paris climate change agreement, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and “sustaining peace” resolutions by United Nations member states. It was also a notable year for a different multilateral genre: UN reform proposals. Comprehensive plans were developed by the Independent Commission on Multilateralism and the Commission on Global Security, Justice and Governance; and three blockbuster reviews of UN peace operations and architecture were completed—the High-Level Independent Panel on UN Peace Operations (HIPPO), the Advisory Group of Experts on Peacebuilding, and the UN Global Study on Women, Peace and Security. The bottom line was clear: dramatic changes are imperative in UN headquarters and the field if the world organization is to respond to the 21st century’s complex threats.
The stage was set for 2016, only the second time—the first was in 1996—that the campaigns for the United States president and the UN secretary-general would run in parallel. Both have been protracted. As the race to become the ninth secretary-general heats up, it is important to remember an essential consideration: on January 1, 2017, a “honeymoon” begins. The position still may be what the first secretary-general Trygve Lie called “the most impossible job in the world,” but the post-Cold War era has provided its holders with more possibilities for institutional housecleaning. And history provides lessons for 2016’s successful candidate. Many recall Lie’s successor Dag Hammarskjöld’s first year as an unparalleled struggle for institutional reform, but Cold War secretaries-general were less able quickly to shake up the world organization’s machinery than their post-Cold War counterparts.
Last month, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon released a long-awaited report, One Humanity: Shared Responsibility, outlining his vision for reforming the global humanitarian system. Riding a wave of successful negotiations on climate change and the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the Secretary-General is seeking to end his final term by laying the groundwork for what he calls “a new paradigm” for the international aid system. During his tenure, the UN has witnessed large-scale suffering in Syria, climate-related natural disasters, and a massive exodus of refugees to Europe. With the humanitarian system buckling under extraordinary pressure—including 60 million people forcibly displaced and requiring an estimated $20 billion USD to feed and care for them—the timing could not be better.
UN secretaries-general from Dag Hammarskjöld to Kofi Annan have released landmark reports and spearheaded initiatives that went on to have significant—albeit under-recognized—impacts on the multilateral system. Notable among these is Agenda for Peace, written by former UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali in 1995 in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide and the Srebrenica massacre. The fact that Ban titled his report’s annex Agenda for Humanity is likely no coincidence. Some of these past initiatives may offer instructive guidelines for today. With the first ever World Humanitarian Summit (WHS) approaching in May in Istanbul, can the Secretary-General help reshape the global humanitarian agenda?
The United Nations was created to foster peace and stability among nations and promote economic prosperity and social justice for all. Seventy years later, there is a shared sense that the global structures entrusted with peace and security are not keeping pace with today’s more complex and interconnected world, where local problems have global dimensions and where the monopoly of violence is no longer the sole preserve of states—a world where the nature of peace and conflict is challenging the analytical frameworks, norms, and paradigms that have been painstakingly fashioned over the past two decades.
The three major peace and security reviews conducted in 2015 have taken stock of the changing global environment; analyzed UN responses; and come up with several key policy messages, as well as a number of complementary recommendations which, if implemented, could help the UN peace and security architecture be better fit for purpose.