Showdown or slowdown? The UN and peacebuilding in 2015


Marius Müller-Hennig, FriEnt/Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung

In her FriEnt essay on “Peacebuilding at the UN over the last ten years”, Vanessa Wyeth stated in 2011 that “(i)f the last decade has proved anything, it is that, however flawed, the UN has a unique legitimacy and indispensible role to play in peacebuilding”.

At that time, however, the discussion about peacebuilding was on the political backburner and practical interest among peacebuilders outside the UN in coordinating and cooperating with the UN in peacebuilding appeared to be rather limited. This fall might be different, both politically and operationally. This blog post fleshes out some reasons why this might be the case.

The strategic level – Evolution or revolution for the Peacebuilding Commission?

It is difficult to draw a concise map of all relevant recent developments at the UN with regard to peacebuilding, yet the three recent most prominent processes are well-known and often cited:

All three processes prominently feature at the diplomatic level in New York at the moment and – on a positive note – we can state that the discussions heretofore have not been lead in isolation. An explicit cross-referencing between the processes took and takes place. Yet, at the same time it is unclear for all three processes, to which degree their individual implementation will live up to the expectations that surround them; not to speak of a coherent implementation that reflects the interconnectedness of these processes.

Among the three of them, the outcome of the review of the Peacebuilding Architecture is perhaps still the vaguest. While the report of the expert advisory group is already finalised and published, the diplomatic part of the review is yet to come. This will take the form of an intergovernmental process (November 2015 - March 2016) under the lead of Angola and Australia. And since this topic is far from the top of the agenda of foreign ministries these days, few experts and observers will have a clear overview of positions by the various actors involved worldwide. Quite contrary to the debates about the SDGs and the reform of Peace Operations, which are both heatedly debated and widely covered by expert analysis.

The recommendations of the expert group among others argue for:

  • an evolution of the Peacebuilding Commission (rather than fundamental structural reform);
  • a strengthening of the Peacebuilding Fund and
  • an increased identification of all major UN organs with peacebuilding as a core mandate of the UN system.

However, the recommendations by the expert group are by no means the only game in town. An independent Commission on Global Security, Justice and Governance, headed by Ibrahim Gambari and Madeleine Albright, for example, instead suggested to transform the Peacebuilding Commission into a Peacebuilding Council. The historic precedent which inspires this proposal is the transformation of the former Human Rights Commission to today’s Human Rights Council.

While these and other questions related to the Peacebuilding Review traditionally are often overshadowed by the discussion about the SDGs (due to their power of steering ODA-flows) and reform of peacekeeping (due to the high visibility of blue helmets and the according political attention in capitals), they might be just as relevant for the future of peacebuilding at the UN.

The operational level – it’s time to talk (more) with UN peacebuilers

In the past, however, it proved even more difficult for us to stir the debate about the role of UN peacebuilding in operational terms with German peacebuilders. Despite the fact that every (German) peacebuilding practitioner from the field finds a plurality of different UN counterparts in his host country and despite the fact that nearly every peacebuilding practitioner outside the UN system has reservations about the UN’s role in any given conflict-context, there seems to be little systematic discussion about coordination and cooperation with the UN. At the same time, traditionally the UN system is also not well prepared to systematically involve state and civil society peacebuilders for a variety of reasons. Two of them might be worth to highlight again here: (1) Whereas the UN is usually well interconnected with foreign ministries, the bulk of operational peacebuilding (at least in Germany) is associated with the development community and the Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development. (2) The UN, being a member state based organisation, faces systemic difficulties in involving civil society actors.

Yet, the reasons for peacebuilders to intensify the discussion with the UN peacebuilding community are compelling, and even more so against the impulses from the ongoing reviews. First and foremost, the SDG inclusion of a goal for peaceful societies and the impulses from the HIPPO and PBA-review all converge around the need to focus on prevention and peacebuilding as a core rationale for the UN. Accordingly, there is every reason to believe that the policy and operational relevance of peacebuilding at the UN will increase rather than decrease; even in spite of the more recent sobering results and setbacks in countries such as the Central African Republic and Burundi (both of which have been on the Peacebuilding Commission’s Agenda for some time). Secondly, it seems highly likely that more resources will be made available for UN peacebuilding in the future. Even if you leave out the potentially significant re-routing of ODA flows towards peacebuilding tasks by means of the inclusion into the SDGs, both the PBA-review and the HIPPO call for scaling up the UN Peacebuilding Fund. Thirdly, despite all its drawbacks, the UN remains the one global organization which can claim to act on behalf of the international society as a whole with the most legitimacy. Accordingly peacebuilders should focus their attention on enhancing UN contributions to peacebuilding rather than merely criticizing it from the sidelines. It is time to talk! And, luckily, it is a debate that does not have to start from scratch. In fact, in addition to the UN documents cited above, there were at least three relevant initiatives that provided substantial input to the official peacebuilding architecture review which merit a closer look and provide food for thought for our respective parallel session on October 1st :

By and large, analysis as well as sensible recommendations for progress have been put forward. The question now is, is the pressure in the system sufficient to make important actors finally walk the talk and take peacebuilding to a new level? Both in strategic and operational terms this fall is about “showdown or slowdown” at the UN over peacebuilding.

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