“Guerrilla Diplomats”: Conflict Prevention Through Frontline Diplomacy

This post first appeared on the blog sustainable security by the Oxford Research Group.

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With conflict causing much political instability and human suffering in parts of the world, there is a need for preventive diplomacy which stops the outbreak, relapse or escalation of organized violence. Frontline diplomats have potentially crucial roles to play in early preventive efforts.

Conflict prevention is popular in international political circles these days. In April 2016, the UN Security Council and General Assembly passed concurring resolutions on the review of the UN peacebuilding architecture in which they confirmed the essential role of the UN in “preventing the outbreak, escalation, continuation and recurrence of conflict”. On 5 July, the German Federal Foreign Office launched a public outreach process for the development of new guidelines on civilian crisis prevention, an area for which it increased its funds by 260% from 2015 to 2016 to 248.5 million €. Last year, the British government announced plans to increase its Conflict, Stability and Security Fund from 1 to 1.3 billion pounds by 2019/20.

The political reasoning behind the call for prevention is simple: if the escalation of political disputes into organized violence or even outright civil war can be stopped in its tracks, it not only saves lives, but also keeps refugee flows created by war at bay and helps leaders avoid making difficult and potentially unpopular decisions about whether to launch military interventions to quell conflicts. Despite what seemed like a long-term decline of organized violence, the number of armed conflicts has ticked up again in the past few years: 2014 saw 40 armed conflicts, the highest number since 1999, and 126,059 conflict-related fatalities, the highest number since 1994, according to the Uppsala Conflict Data Program. At the end of 2015, 65.3 million people were either internally displaced or international refugees, the highest number since the Second World War. Yet many UN member states tend to view conflict prevention with suspicion, as they fear international meddling in what they perceive to be their domestic political affairs.

Putting high-flying international commitments to conflict prevention into practice and “sustaining peace” throughout the conflict cycle, as the SC and GA affirmed in their parallel resolutions, requires an astute handling of sensitive matters with intelligence and tact, prudence and patience. In short: diplomacy. While government ministries can, of course, reach out to their foreign counterparts directly and permanent representatives negotiate mandates for international organisations in New York or Geneva, frontline diplomats, i.e. members of the foreign service posted abroad, have potentially crucial roles to play in early preventive efforts. Preventive diplomacy aims at the short- to medium-term prevention of the outbreak, relapse or escalation of organized violence, through both coercive and non-coercive means serving a political purpose. Taking preventive diplomacy seriously requires a different, more active and principled kind of diplomacy. In order to do adjust to this profile, frontline diplomats need to be better equipped, trained, and organisationally empowered.

Frontline preventive diplomacy: benefits and risks

Frontline diplomats may be able to resort to thematic expertise, funds or international networks that they can employ to tweak political dynamics in a country. As some diplomats are repeatedly posted to conflict regions, they may draw comparative conclusions and show domestic parties the risky trajectories of their actions. And diplomats are, theoretically at least, trained in the very skills of facilitation, brokering and negotiation that might be needed to cool down heated tensions.
As the International Crisis Group lays out in an excellent recent
report, preventive diplomacy is fraught with dilemmas and considerable challenges. Usually, the elites in a given country carry the main responsibility for the escalation of political conflicts, and even high-level officials of major powers have limited entry points when positions have become deeply polarized and parties are entrenched in a zero-sum logic. As the Crisis Group succinctly observes: “Outsiders must tread carefully when pursuing these goals. All early action involves engaging in fluid political environments. There is a high chance of political friction, with misunderstandings and miscalculations derailing plans. No form of crisis response is neutral.”Frontline diplomats may be able to resort to thematic expertise, funds or international networks that they can employ to tweak political dynamics in a country. As some diplomats are repeatedly posted to conflict regions, they may draw comparative conclusions and show domestic parties the risky trajectories of their actions. And diplomats are, theoretically at least, trained in the very skills of facilitation, brokering and negotiation that might be needed to cool down heated tensions.

Frontline diplomats may grant insurgent groups unwarranted legitimacy simply by meeting them. Officially mediating between parties may raise expectations about peaceful conflict resolution, that, when disappointed, may embolden domestic actors to pursue their goals by violent means. Short-term goals of stabilization may conflict with long-term goals of democratisation and transitional justice. Thus, preventive engagements must be based on continuing political analysis and do-no-harm principles.

A different diplomacy

More fundamentally, an active pursuit of conflict prevention requires a different kind of diplomacy. Conventionally, diplomats pursue a narrowly conceived “national interest”, acting on explicit instructions from the capital. They concentrate on the governing authorities as official partners in their bilateral relations. As a result, their engagement is reactive and ad hoc, while preventive diplomacy requires a forward-looking and principled approach, as David Hamburg already wrote in 2003.

“I am not the person who sits all day at the office. I want to see how people live out there,” is how German Ambassador to South Africa Walter Lindner introduces himself in a video message on the embassy’s website. It sums up the kind of spirit diplomats need to embrace are they to further the ambitious objective of conflict prevention. Christopher J. Stevens, the US Ambassador to Libya murdered in 2012, represented the skills of a “guerrilla diplomat” (Daryl Copeland): multilingual, frequently speaking to people on the street, and showing respect and compassion for local cultures, traits which President Obama highlighted in his speech at the UN General Debate in September 2012.

Yet these diplomats are usually seen as “unconventional”. If governments want to take their stated objective of crisis prevention seriously, they need to embrace the following policies that support and empower their agents in the field. Political leaders and senior officials need to foster an organisational culture that grants ambassadors and other frontline diplomats more autonomy, based on frequent reporting on their activities. Leaders need to highlight bold behaviour, even when diplomats encounter hostility from host governments despite their most sensitive efforts; rewarding best practices can start horizontal socialization processes. Ministries need to provide frontline diplomats with the authority to quickly disperse small development funds and include them in internal discussions on government-wide country strategies.

Lastly, they need to offer training to their diplomats in conflict analysis, mediation and critical thinking. The German Federal Foreign Office, for example, only started to provide dedicated mediation courses to its attachés and more senior diplomats a few weeks ago. Similarly, a recent reform report of the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office argued to increase training in stabilisation and mediation as core skills for diplomats posted to fragile areas. Many intra-state conflicts are based on disputes within a country’s political elite; foreign diplomats trained in peace mediation may be able to facilitate conversations between polarized parties. As external third parties, they may help local stakeholders to identify mutually acceptable ways that lead out of their conflicts.

Conclusion

Historically, Western biases and wilful ignorance of domestic politics and cultures have marred international engagement in conflict prevention and resolution. A healthy dose of scepticism towards a renewed push for preventive diplomacy is therefore warranted. Diplomats need to overcome a rigid binary of local stakeholders whose actions need to be prevented and international actors who conduct preventive diplomacy.

If foreign services embrace a bolder, innovative style of (preventive) diplomacy that rewards local sensitivity, autonomy and innovation, however, they may improve the implementation of their foreign policy overall. Frontline diplomats need to travel in their host country extensively, collecting information about local grievances through first-hand observation. They need to reach out to the host population directly, through personal use of social media, as many British diplomats already do. And they need to maintain reliable relationships with key political actors that continue to function in crisis situations. If diplomats do that, they will find that an increased attention towards conflict prevention entails benefits – a deeper understanding of elite politics, influence beyond the capital and credibility with a broad spectrum of a country’s society – that continue to exist when a crisis ends.

Antonio Guterres klarer Sieger bei #SGDebate in London

(c) UN Photo/ Jean-Marc Ferré
(c) UN Photo/ Jean-Marc Ferré

This blog post was posted on the DGVN blog #YourNextSG and the blog “Junge UN-Forschung.”

Dank der erfolgreichen zivilgesellschaftlichen Kampagne 1for7billionfindet die Wahl des nächsten UN-Generalsekretärs vor dem Hintergrund einer breiten öffentlichen Debatte statt. Im Gegensatz zur Geheimniskrämerei vergangener Jahre kennen wir jetzt nicht nur alle Kandidat*innen, sondern können deren Wahlkampf offen verfolgen. Die öffentliche Veranstaltung im Barbican Centre am 3. Juni 2016 in London bot dazu eine willkommene Gelegenheit (hier zum Nachhören).

Auf Einladung der United Nations Association-UK (UNA-UK), einer der Mitbegründer der 1for7billion-Kampagne, und des Guardian kamen drei der mittlerweile elf Kandidat*innen zu einer neunzigminütigen Diskussionsveranstaltung vor einem über tausendköpfigen Publikum zusammen. Trotz intensiver Bemühungen der UNA-UK hatte leider keine der weiblichen Kandidatinnen zugesagt. Von den drei Anwesenden konnte der ehemalige UN-Hochkommissar für Flüchtlinge und Premierminister Portugals von 1995 bis 2002, António Guterres, am meisten überzeugen, wie die Reaktionen des Publikums vor Ort und auf Twitter bestätigten.

Charisma und öffentliches Auftreten

Die Veranstaltung im Barbican Centre war kein gewöhnliches politisches Duell. Zwar haben die meisten Anwesenden keine Stimme in der Wahl des nächsten UN-Generalsekretärs (abgesehen von anwesenden Diplomaten). Dennoch bemühten sich insbesondere die beiden anderen Kandidaten, der ehemalige Präsident der UN-Generalversammlung Vuk Jeremić und Igor Lukšić, der Außenminister Montenegros, Igor Lukšić, auf das Publikum einzugehen.

Jeremić fragte in seinem Eröffnungsstatement nach Handzeichen, wer glaube die UN liefere so wie sie sollte – wenig überraschend blieben die meisten Hände unten. Er verwies darauf, dass es wichtig sei „echten Menschen“ zuzuhören, forderte das Publikum jedoch wiederholt auf, seinen detaillierten 53-Punkte-Plan zu lesen.

Auf die Publikumsfrage, ob er Feminist sei, antwortete Lukšić, der auch stellvertretender Premierminister seines Landes ist, mit einer Gegenfrage: „Meine Regierung war die erste in der Region, die eine weibliche Verteidigungsministerin ernannte – macht mich das zu einem Feministen?“ Lautes Gegrummel verriet, dass viele im Publikum dies nicht als ausreichend ansahen.

Demgegenüber strahlte der deutlich ältere Guterres Gelassenheit und Erfahrung aus. Auf die Frage des Moderators: „António, are you jealous of Vuk’s 53-point platform?“ entgegnete Guterres, dass er Respekt für alle Kandidaten und deren Ideen habe. Anstatt wie die anderen beiden vage über Herausforderungen wie Klimawandel und Entwicklung zu reden, identifizierte Guterres auf eine entsprechende Publikumsfrage hin tatsächlich eine zentrale globale Herausforderung für die nächsten zehn Jahre: eine effektivere Prävention bewaffneter Konflikte und der Aufbau entsprechender Kapazitäten bei den Vereinten Nationen und den Mitgliedstaaten.

Gute Ideen allein reichen nicht, sie müssen auch umsetzbar sein

Wie kann man bei einer solchen Veranstaltung überhaupt die Beiträge der Kandidaten fair bewerten? Charisma und wirksames öffentliches Auftreten gegenüber einem großen Publikum schaden einem UN-Generalsekretär sicher nicht, können für sich genommen aber nicht überzeugen. Für die in Frage stehende Position sollten meiner Ansicht nach mindestens zwei weitere Aspekte hinzukommen: Politischer Ideenreichtum für das System der Vereinten Nationen sowie Beispiele aus eigener Arbeit, die zeigen, dass sich die Kandidaten auch gegen Widerstände für normative Prinzipien eingesetzt haben.

Wie zu erwarten, ist die inhaltliche Debatte zunächst breit und vage – alle Kandidaten setzen sich für eine „bessere Welt“ und „notwendige Reformen“ im UN-System ein. Gleichzeitig sind einige Vorschläge der Kandidaten durchaus spezifisch und können das UN-System voranbringen, wie die Anhörungen der UN-Generalversammlung zeigen. Hier war es aufschlussreich, wie umsetzbar die Vorschläge der drei Kandidaten schienen – gut klingende Versprechen kann schließlich jeder liefern.

So sprach Jeremić davon, dass er „vom ersten Tag an“ die Hälfte der Sondergesandten des UN-Generalsekretärs mit Frauen besetzen und sich für eine neue Generation von robusten „UN-Stabilisierungsoperationen“ einsetzen würde. Angesichts der bürokratischen Maschine des UN-Sekretariats und der tiefen politischen Gräben zwischen truppenstellenden Staaten und dem UN-Sicherheitsrat klang das, sagen wir, sehr ambitioniert. Lukšić sprach sich derweil für die Einrichtung eines Sondertribunals für UN-Friedenssoldaten aus, denen die sexuelle Ausbeutung der Zivilbevölkerung vorgeworfen werde. Guterres warnte: „I am not sure it will be easy to get that“. Während Jeremić sich für eine – notwendige, aber schwierige – 50-Prozent-Erhöhung des Budgets des Hochkommissars für Menschenrechte aussprach, listete Guterres drei relativ konkrete Maßnahmen auf, wie die Human Rights up Front Initiative des UN-Generalsekretärs vorangebracht werden könnte.

Die Kraft, sich für die richtigen Überzeugungen einzusetzen

Der politische Spielraum jedes UN-Generalsekretärs wird auch in Zukunft eng begrenzt bleiben von den Wünschen und Interessen der Mitgliedstaaten sowie der Behäbigkeit des Apparats, so wichtig neue Ideen und Reformbereitschaft auch sein mögen. Daher sind die grundlegenden Überzeugungen des Amtsinhabers oder der zukünftigen Amtsinhaberin entscheidend. Das wichtigste Argument der Debatte konnte dabei nicht die universalistische, liberale Rhetorik sein, der sich alle drei Kandidaten verschrieben, sondern nachvollziehbare Beispiele aus der eigenen politischen Arbeit. Auch hier hatte Guterres die Nase vorn.

Keiner der drei Kandidaten konnte im Abstrakten erklären, wie er gegenüber den mächtigen Staaten im UN-Sicherheitsrat die Einhaltung globaler Spielregeln anmahnen und gleichzeitig mit ihnen arbeiten würde. Konkrete Beispiele ließen eher einen Schluss auf die Überzeugungskraft der Kandidaten zu: Während Jeremić und Lukšić vor allem auf ihre Reformversprechen verwiesen, führte Guterres wiederholt Beispiele aus einer eigenen politischen Arbeit an. Er erzählte, wie er bereits 1992 Geschlechterquoten in seiner Partei in Portugal eingeführt habe und wie das UNHCR Geschlechtergleichheit in den Führungsgremien erreicht habe. Er betonte jedoch, letztlich käme es auf die Ermächtigung (und nicht nur den Schutz) von Frauen und auf das Mainstreaming von Geschlechtergerechtigkeit an. Das UNHCR habe in den letzten 10 Jahren unter seiner Führung die Verwaltungskosten in der Zentrale von 14 Prozent auf 6.5 Prozent gesenkt und seine Aktivitäten verdreifacht.

Lukšić erzählte von seinem Plan, eine Expertenkommission zur Überprüfung des in den letzten Jahren stark gewachsenen Haushalts, einzusetzen. Dazu meinte Jeremić in einer abwertenden Geste: „I think I am the only person here who has actually chaired the 5th Committee [zuständig für den Haushalt] […]. I think Igor would find it very hard as Secretary-General to pull this particular idea through“.

 

Nach dem trockenen Ban Ki-moon brauchen die Vereinten Nationen einen Generalsekretär, der Menschen inspirieren kann. António Guterres ist ein ernsthafter Kandidat in diesem Rennen. In der Abschlussrunde erzählte er, was ihm Hoffnung mache:

In this last ten years working with refugees, and seeing what it is to be a Syrian family that has seen their house destroyed, friends being killed, moving in dramatic circumstances into Turkey, and then moving into a boat, where they might perish, because they have hope in their future and in the future of their children. When I see their resilience, their courage because they have hope, I think it is our duty not only to be hopeful but to make sure that their hope becomes the true thing”.

Die kommenden Monate werden zeigen, ob Guterres auch bei den ständigen Mitgliedern des Sicherheitsrats punkten kann.

Protecting Civilians Through UN Peace Operations

Co-authored with Philipp Rotmann at GPPi. It appeared in German in Aus Politik und Zeitgeschichte on 7 March. This is the English translation.

Joint operation against ADF in Beni

Under the flag of the United Nations, more than 125,000 civilian experts, police officers and soldiers are currently deployed in 16 missions worldwide to give peacebuilding efforts a better chance of success. In most cases, these efforts take years. Even as politicians and military leaders negotiate, fighting and assaults against civilians continue. Given this context, the UN Security Council as well as the people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, South Sudan and the Central African Republic expect UN peacekeeping operations to do their best to reduce the suffering of civilians and to protect as many of them as possible. According to the mandates of the Security Council, these are in fact the most important objectives of the vast majority of UN peacekeeping missions. Prioritizing civilian protection until it sits at the core of peacekeeping operations is a painful learning process that remains far from complete.

Difficult Learning Process

Since the early 1990s, the tasks of UN peacekeeping missions have significantly expanded alongside the increasing international awareness of intrastate conflicts. These missions formerly comprised just hundreds of UN military observers wearing their iconic blue helmets – a familiar sight during the Cold War. Now they are complex, sprawling organizations with thousands of political experts, police officers and soldiers who cover a wide range of tasks: political analysis, institution building, the monitoring of ceasefires, the protection of human rights and the use of military force to protect civilians.

The double failure of the UN and national governments to adequately respond to the 1994 genocide in Rwanda and the 1995 genocide in Srebrenica plunged the peacekeeping system into a crisis of credibility. The UN overcame this crisis only at the end of the decade by, among other strategies, committing itself to the improvement of civilian protection in armed conflicts. From the outset, this constituted a balancing act between inactivity and excessive demands. Blue helmets are not supposed to be a global SWAT team that uses superior force to suppress violence against civilians; this is neither feasible nor politically desirable. At the same time, however, peacekeepers learned from the UN failures of the 1990s that they must not simply stand by as massacres that they could have prevented, even by military force, unfold before their eyes. In 1999 the UN Security Council authorized, for the first time, peacekeeping forces in Sierra Leone “to afford protection to civilians under imminent threat of physical violence” within their “capabilities and areas of deployment.”

The following year, an expert commission led by Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi urged UN missions to hold fast to the goal of protecting civilians, despite the failures of past attempts. In fact, missions must be equipped adequately and the rules of engagement adapted accordingly to “allow ripostes sufficient to silence a source of deadly fire that is directed at United Nations troops or at the people they are charged to protect.”

The peacekeeping missions in Sierra Leone, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Sudan in the 2000s barely lived up to the demands of the Brahimi report. While the Security Council and member states set high normative standards for themselves (including “the responsibility to protect”), the actual means deployed and the risk tolerance of troop-contributing countries fell substantially short of these self-imposed expectations. As a result of deficiencies in planning and management, commanders on the ground often lacked clear guidance about when the use of military force for protection purposes was justified. In the absence of guidance, most commanders ended up hiding behind maximum caution. For instance, the former UN mission commander in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Indian general Bipin Rawat, stated in 2008, “We have very strict rules against collateral damage. If I kill one civilian, there is no one to hold my hand.”

Instead of dealing with these critical but politically sensitive issues, the UN secretariat’s further conceptual specification in subsequent years has confined itself to emphasizing a mission’s diverse civilian resources dedicated to civilian protection. According to this work, a mission’s responsibilities involve not only military patrols and the use of force against “imminent threats,” but also the demobilization and reintegration of ex-combatants, the training of capable security forces, demining and destruction of weapon stockpiles, the protection of children and the prevention of sexual violence. But the main questions concerning the benefits and limitations of military force remain unanswered.

Protection by Military Force

Peacekeeping missions like those in the Democratic Republic of the Congo or in Sudan’s Darfur region are deployed amidst armed groups that operate in shifting alliances and terrorize the civilian population, frequently with support from government forces or neighboring states. In this context, the effective protection of civilians in conflict areas is often impossible without the use of force. Nevertheless, military force has achieved only limited success thus far.

The controversy over the use of force touches upon traditional, core principles of UN peacekeeping that remain valid to this day: consent of the parties, impartiality and non-use of force except in self-defense or in defense of the mandate. The military fight against any “party” (regardless of its diplomatic classification as a conflict party or not) limits a mission’s impartiality and may harm its freedom of action and movement in the contexts of political mediation, human rights monitoring and institution building. Meanwhile, the local population is often ambivalent: while most victims of armed conflicts appreciate the fight against violent rebel groups, others hold the UN responsible for civilian fatalities that are incurred as a result of UN military operations.

The balance ultimately struck by a peacekeeping mission depends critically on the contingent commanders, the senior mission leaders and the rules of engagement of troop-contributing governments. For example, the UN mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) conducted offensive operations as early as 2005. The mission, armed with combat helicopters, destroyed weapon caches and supported the Congolese forces in their fight against rebel groups. Such operations often lead, at the very least, to a short-term decline in attacks on civilians.

Despite those operations, incidents in which peacekeeping troops have failed to intervene in nearby massacres have cropped up time and again. In November 2008 approximately 150 people died in Kiwanja, most of them by the hands of the Congrès national pour la défense du peuple (CNDP) rebels, one of the largest armed groups in the Congo at the time. A UN base with 120 soldiers was less than one kilometer away from the scene of the massacre. But they did not intervene because they had only a few armored vehicles and were concentrating their capacities on the protection of humanitarian aid workers and internally displaced persons who had fled to the UN base.

In 2012 MONUSCO was strongly criticized yet again, having failed to prevent a rebel invasion of Goma, a provincial capital in the Democratic Republic of Congo, by the armed group M23. Six months later, the Security Council took action, not least to avoid a unilateral military intervention by the Southern African Development Community. South Africa, Tanzania and Malawi contributed 3,000 men to the establishment of a Force Intervention Brigade (FIB), equipped with artillery, combat helicopters and surveillance drones. The Security Council explicitly authorized the brigade to “neutralize” armed groups that threaten civilians. Under the leadership of Martin Kobler and Carlos Alberto dos Santos Cruz – the German head of mission and the Brazilian commander of MONUSCO, respectively – the brigade successfully evicted M23 from the mountains of Goma.

The FIB has since been regarded as a new model of offensive peacekeeping. But the Congolese case also reveals the risks and challenges of this approach. As the FIB only takes action in conjunction with official Congolese government forces, the UN mission has de facto given up its principle of impartiality by supporting the Congolese government in its fight against other conflict parties. Congolese forces, moreover, have also been responsible for serious violations of human rights, despite long-lasting international training and support. As a result, the UN mission introduced a policy on “human rights due diligence.” Subsequently, all other UN peacekeeping missions adopted the policy as well.

Another concern raised by the FIB is that large military offensives with artillery and combat helicopters, as used by the brigade in its 2013 fight against M23, may be effective only if rebel groups engage in conventional warfare. The M23, a group of Congolese soldiers who had deserted from the Congolese armed forces, was one such case. However, many other rebel groups in the Congo and other areas of UN peacekeeping missions operate underground, carry out single attacks on military units and local populations, and then withdraw once more.

Despite the UN’s recent willingness to authorize robust missions that carry out offensive operations against armed groups, a UN investigation in 2014 showed that military force is rarely used to protect civilians even in cases of severe threats. The reasons are many: troop-contributing countries differ in their views of what constitutes being “under imminent threat of physical violence”; troop-contributing governments want to minimize risks for their soldiers; and, for reasons of impartiality, mission leaders are often reluctant to prevent atrocious human rights violations by taking action against not only rebels, but also national armed forces, even if the mission’s mandate would allow them to do so.

Political Analysis, Conflict Management and Human Rights Work

The dispute over the role of military force should not obscure the fact that civilian instruments such as early warning, civilian conflict management and human rights work are also crucial factors in the effective protection of civilians. Neither preventive, deescalating political interventions nor military operations can be effective if missions lack necessary information on local conflict dynamics. Where are armed groups primarily active? Who supports them, and for what reasons? How do they obtain weapons and other supplies? Countries like the Democratic Republic of the Congo, South Sudan and Mali are huge and have only very limited infrastructure, making it impossible even for large missions to protect all threatened communities effectively. Moreover, the military units of peacekeeping missions often lack the knowledge of regional languages and geography needed to properly communicate with the local population.

MONUSCO was a pioneering mission in this regard. The mission boasts more than 200 Community Liaison Assistants (CLAs), Congolese citizens who are posted with military units or in nearby villages. By maintaining constant communication with the local population through telephone calls or personal visits, they receive crucial information on current risks and conflict dynamics. MONUSCO was also the first peacekeeping mission to deploy drones for tactical reconnaissance in remote areas.

UN missions can use the information obtained to support local efforts in civilian conflict management. They can organize roundtable events with members of local communities, offer logistical support to convene key figures in dialogues and organize workshops with local elites to familiarize them with conflict management methods.

Furthermore, all larger and multi-dimensional peacekeeping operations have their own human rights divisions. They monitor and report on human rights violations, help victims understand their rights and urge the appropriate authorities to punish violations and implement legal reforms. However, the UN’s efforts to ensure fair trials for criminals and murderers in accordance with the rule of law sometimes encounter local resistance. For example, Cuibet in South Sudan lacks judges of sufficient qualifications who can deal with capital crimes. As a result, trials are sometimes delayed for months, increasing tensions in the local community. “Justice delayed may cause acts of revenge,” a representative of a women’s association warned at a roundtable event on the implementation of a peace agreement in June 2015. “The relatives of a murder victim may take the law in their own hands.”

Protection From the Protectors

The credibility of UN missions has suffered not only from doing too little in response to violence. Too often, blue helmets are the ones sexually exploiting or abusing civilians. For more than 10 years, the fight against sexual exploitation and abuse has been a core element of reform efforts by two UN secretary-generals.

Much progress remains to be made. The core problems persist: troop-contributing countries retain disciplinary responsibility for their military units flying the UN flag; troops enjoy immunity in their host country; and troop-contributing countries rarely initiate investigations. Even when perpetrators are convicted, victims are not informed of the outcome. Many troop-contributing countries, according to an independent study, are “reluctant to admit the misconduct of their peacekeepers, especially where such misconduct can be traced back to inadequate training, and would rather sweep allegations under the rug.” Reported allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse have declined since 2007 while the number of UN troops increased, but plateaued at a constant level of about 60 accused per year since 2012. These numbers should be viewed with caution, for many victims do not dare to report such incidents and certainly would not approach the UN mission.

The allegations of sexual abuse that emerged in April 2015 demonstrated that the need for essential changes within the UN secretariat persisted even after Kofi Annan’s reforms of 10 years prior. French soldiers of the UN-mandated Operation Sangaris, which is not a blue helmet mission under orders of the secretary-general, allegedly lured children in the Central African Republic into sexual acts in exchange for food. The reaction of the UN mission and secretariat was highly problematic, as confirmed by an independent investigation set up by Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon. Information about the allegations was “passed from desk to desk, inbox to inbox, across multiple UN offices, with no one willing to take responsibility to address the serious human rights violations.” The UN officials who dealt with the allegations were primarily concerned with technical and procedural questions. In the meantime, French authorities initiated investigations, but they have yet to make any convictions. While Ban took the unprecedented step of dismissing the head of the UN mission in the Central African Republic, the highly symbolic move did not put a stop to the problem. Since then, more and more similar accusations against soldiers of the UN mission in the same country became public.

Comprehensive Political Strategies

Alan Doss, head of MONUSCO from 2007 to 2010, claims that “the use of force must be anchored in a political strategy to end armed violence.” Too often, UN missions fight only the symptoms of violence, not their root causes. In its 2015 report, the High-Level Independent Panel on UN Peace Operations also emphasized the importance of political action. But what may seem like an intuitive recommendation faces serious resistance in practice: “It’s far easier for the Security Council to send peacekeepers to a trouble spot than to agree to apply pressure on political leaders whom some members of the council invariably view as allies,” argues James Traub, a long-time UN expert.

To protect civilians from massacres and persecution in war and conflict regions, all actors involved must come together – that is, the political leadership of missions on the ground, the UN Security Council and its permanent members (United States, France, Great Britain, Russia, China), the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations in New York, the UN secretary-general, various UN agencies, funds and programs, and the relevant member states, whose bilateral relations with conflict parties are particularly important.

The US is a telling example in this regard. As long as it came to Rwanda’s defense, despite its support for rebel groups in Eastern Congo, it impeded MONUSCO’s activities. Therefore, an important signal was sent to the FIB’s offensive when the US eventually froze its military aid to Rwanda in response to Rwanda’s support for M23.

The UN system has increased its efforts to incorporate the issue of human rights protection into its operating procedures. The “Human Rights up Front” initiative established by Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon in 2013 has contributed to a gradual change in the organizational culture, which has so far been marked by bureaucratic silos and turf wars between its humanitarian, security and development arms. The UN has begun to attach greater importance to coordination in the areas of early warning and crisis response, and it frequently convenes relevant UN actors on the ground and in its New York headquarters to better understand the different risks and benefits perceived by their colleagues. But there is still a long way to go before a consistent policy on the protection of civilians is established at all levels of the UN.

Notwithstanding these reform efforts, the experiences of UN peacekeeping missions to protect civilians underscore the need for transparent management of expectations, clear communication with all stakeholders and an appropriate degree of humility about what the international community can do. Even in the most fragile states, large peacekeeping missions are no panacea. The presence of thousands of soldiers and well-paid civilian employees from different cultures is bound to disturb the local economy; in the worst case, it may even lead to further crimes committed against the local population. Host country institutions remain the most important actors in the prevention of violence against civilians. They cannot be released from this fundamental responsibility, no matter how well equipped or politically backed a peacekeeping mission might be.

 

Kein Frieden ohne Aufarbeitung   

Die Bundesregierung sollte sich für eine unabhängige gerichtliche Aufarbeitung des Bürgerkriegs in Sri Lanka einsetzen.

Diese Woche besucht der sri lankische Präsident Maithripala Sirisena Berlin. Als er vor dreizehn Monaten sein Amt antrat, begleiteten ihn große Hoffnungen auf demokratische Erneuerung, die Aufarbeitung von Kriegsverbrechen aus dem Bürgerkrieg und ein erneuertes Verhältnis zu internationalen Institutionen. Während eine neue Verfassung ausgearbeitet wird und die sri lankische Regierung gerade den Hochkommissar der Vereinten Nationen für Menschenrechte zu Gast hatte, ruderte die Regierung in den letzten Wochen beim Thema Aufarbeitung zurück. Die Bundesregierung sollte auf ihr traditionell gutes Verhältnis zu Sri Lanka bauen und sich bei Präsident Sirisena für eine substantielle internationale Rolle bei der juristischen Aufarbeitung mutmaßlicher Kriegsverbrechen einsetzen.

Teil der politischen Agenda der großen Koalition unter Präsident Sirisena und Premierminister Ranil Wickremasinghe ist seit Amtsantritt ein konstruktiverer Umgang mit der tamilischen Minderheit. Dazu gehört ein grundsätzliches Bekenntnis zur Aufarbeitung von schwerwiegenden Menschenrechtsverletzungen während des sechsundzwanzigjährigen Bürgerkriegs, der im Mai 2009 mit einem militärischen Sieg der Regierung zu Ende ging. In seiner Rede zum sri lankischen Unabhängigkeitstag am 4. Februar 2016 bezeichnete Präsident Sirisena die Versöhnung zwischen den Volksgruppen Sri Lankas als zentrale Aufgabe, um wirtschaftlichen Aufschwung zu sichern und politische Stabilität zu garantieren.

Ein entscheidender Teil dieses Versöhnungsprozesses ist die Aufarbeitung vergangenen Unrechts. Zahlreiche Expertenberichte werfen sowohl den Regierungsarmee als auch den Rebellen der tamilischen Befreiungstiger (LTTE) massive Menschenrechtsverletzungen während des gesamten Bürgerkrieges vor. Insbesondere die letzten Monate des Kriegs im Frühjahr 2009 geraten dabei immer wieder in den Blickpunkt: damals waren rund 300.000 tamilische Zivilisten zwischen den Fronten gefangen. Die LTTE ließ die Zivilbevölkerung nicht fliehen und die Armee schoss mit schwerer Artillerie auf dicht besiedelte Gebiete und medizinische Einrichtungen. Wenige Monate nach Ende der Feindseligkeiten tauchten Handyvideos, Photos und Zeugenaussagen unter anderem beim britischen Sender Channel 4  auf. Dieses Material zeigt, wie Soldaten gefesselte Gefangene erschießen, und lässt auf Folter und Vergewaltigung durch die Regierungstruppen schließen.

Sirisenas Vorgänger Mahinda Rajapaksa bestritt stets die Echtheit dieses Materials und verweigerte die Zusammenarbeit mit den Vereinten Nationen beim Thema Aufarbeitung. Sirisena wird nicht müde zu betonen, dass es Rajapaksas Versagen war, nach dem Ende des Krieges die Versöhnung der sri lankischen Volksgruppen zu verfolgen, welche zunehmenden internationalen Druck für die Aufarbeitung von mutmaßlichen Kriegsverbrechen zur Folge hatte.

Im Oktober 2015 einigte sich die neue sri lankische Regierung mit den Mitgliedern des UN-Menschenrechtsrats auf einen umfassenden Maßnahmenkatalog zur Versöhnung, Wiedergutmachung und Aufarbeitung mutmaßlicher Kriegsverbrechen. Nach zähen Verhandlungen unter Federführung von Großbritannien und den USA stimmten die sri lankischen Verhandlungsführer zu, dass Sri Lanka einen Sondergerichtshof zu diesem Zweck einrichten solle, welcher „Commonwealth und andere ausländische Richter“ beteiligt.

Die genaue Rolle von internationalen Juristen in diesem, noch einzurichtenden Sondergerichtshof bleibt jedoch weiterhin hochumstritten. Während Tamilenverbände und Vertretungen von Folteropfern sich für eine mehrheitlich internationale Besetzung der Richterbank aussprechen, lehnt die sri lankische Regierung jegliche internationale operative Rolle von internationalen Richtern ab; lediglich „technische“ Beratung unter dem Dach des Hochkommissars für Menschenrechte sei denkbar. In einem BBC-Interview im Januar 2016 lehnte Sirisena die Beteiligung internationaler Richter ab und zeigte eine beunruhigende Gelassenheit, wann der Gerichtshof überhaupt eingesetzt werde.

Diese Einstellung widerspricht der eigenen Verpflichtung zur Versöhnung. Über Jahrzehnte haben sri lankische Gerichte Verletzungen der Streitkräfte nicht oder nur unzureichend aufgeklärt. Stattdessen wurden Zeugen unter Druck gesetzt, Beweismittel vernichtet und Prozesse nach staatlichem Druck ausgesetzt, wie ein UN-Bericht letztes Jahr beobachtete. Im Oktober letzten Jahres stellte eine noch von Rajapaksa eingesetzte Expertenkommission unter Vorsitz des sri lankischen Richters Maxwell Paranagama fest, dass das sri lankische Justizsystem nur dann in der Lage wäre, diese Verbrechen zu verfolgen, wenn es die bestehenden internationalen Standards ins Strafgesetzbuch aufnehme, insbesondere zur Befehlshaberverantwortlichkeit. Sogar aus Sicht der regierungstreuen Kommission sei eine Beteiligung von Commonwealth Richtern wünschenswert.

Kanzlerin Merkel kann also auf die Empfehlungen einer einheimischen Kommission verweisen, wenn sie Präsident Sirisena auf die Umsetzung der UN-Resolution anspricht. Weiterhin sollte sie deutlich machen, dass die Resolution des Menschenrechtsrats, welche dieser unter deutschem Vorsitz beschloss, eine gemeinsame Verpflichtung der sri lankischen Regierung und der Ratsmitglieder darstellt. Wenige Tage nach Sirisenas umstrittenen Äußerungen zeigte sich Premierminister Wickremasinghe im britischen Fernsehen offen gegenüber einer Beteiligung internationaler Juristen und einer möglichen Anklage Rajapaksas.

Wie wir in Deutschland nur zu gut wissen, dauert die Aufarbeitung vergangenen Unrechts lange und muss viele strukturelle Hindernisse überwinden. Dies ist auch in Sri Lanka der Fall. Sirisena steht unter Druck des nationalistischen Lagers in seiner eigenen Partei, das sich um den früheren Präsidenten Rajapsaka schart. Doch deren Lautstärke sollte nicht darüber hinweg täuschen, dass die große Koalition der Regierung über eine breite Mehrheit verfügt. Der momentane Verfassungsreformprozess bietet eine gute Gelegenheit, die legalen Voraussetzungen für die Beteiligung internationaler Richter zum Beispiel in einer Sonderkammer des obersten Strafgerichts Sri Lankas zu schaffen.

Freilich kann eine gerichtliche Aufarbeitung allein nicht die Versöhnung der sri lankischen Volksgruppen garantieren. Weitere Maßnahmen wie die Entmilitarisierung des Nordens und Ostens der Insel, eine Dezentralisierung der Verwaltung und die Identifikation der in der Haft gestorbenen Tamilen können zu einem ganzheitlichen Prozess beitragen. Ohne Frage muss dieser Prozess auch auf das Leid der Singhalesen durch terroristische Anschläge der LTTE eingehen. Die Beteiligung unabhängiger internationaler Experten an der gerichtlichen Aufarbeitung würde diesem ganzheitlichen Verständnis von Versöhnung dienen.

How to sell a UN reform to member states

Five lessons from the Human Rights Up Front initiative

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This post appeared on the Blog Junge UN-Forschung.

They had expected it anxiously. When I spoke with the UN officials working on the Secretary General’s Human Rights Up Front initiative last year, they were concerned the internal initiative could become intertwined in the polarized debates between UN member states on the role of human rights in the organization. The UN Secretary-General launched the initiative in 2013, with the aim to raise the profile of human rights in the work of the whole UN system. As a reaction to a devastating internal review panel report on the UN’s actions in Sri Lanka, the initiative includes a detailed action plan to improve the mechanisms for raising serious human rights violations with member states, for internal crisis coordination, and information management regarding such violations. The UN officials – rightly – felt that the new engagement of the UN system with member states that the initiative entailed had to build on its two other elements: cultural and operational change within the UN system, i.e. coherence between the development, peace and security and human rights arms of the UN.

As I argued in my policy paper published last July, Human Rights Up Front could not remain a pure UN matter; to be successful in the mid- to long-term, member states need to endorse it wholeheartedly. This includes an increased funding for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and an intergovernmental mandate for a more political role of UN Country Teams. In a letter on Christmas Eve 2015, the Secretary-General officially recognized the crucial role of member states: “While the Initiative is internal, its objectives speak to the purposes of the whole United Nations and will be greatly enhanced by support from Member States.”

On 27 January 2016, Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson briefed the General Assembly on the initiative’s implementation since its inception more than two years ago. The broad support he received from the member states present holds five important lessons for selling UN human rights diplomacy more generally.

First, open consultations facilitate trust and transparancy. Many of the 22 member states and one regional organization (EU) that spoke during the informal briefing session, expressively welcomed the opportunity for open dialogue itself. While Eliasson had briefed member states twice before (in New York and Geneva) on Human Rights Up Front, and both he and Ban Ki-Moon referred to it in their speeches, the interactive session provided an opportunity to take stock with member states.

Second, take on board your critics. In reaction to previous comments from member states, Eliasson explicitly referred to the relevance of social, economic and cultural rights violations as precursors to physical violence and instability. China’s and Nigeria’s inputs duly acknowledged the importance of development for prevention.

Third, universality. The delegate from Iran asked how the UN could adequately respond to human rights violations in the Global North such as increasing xenophobia when most of its offices were in developing countries – a longstanding criticism in UN human rights forums. Eliasson emphasized the comprehensive reach of the early warning and coordination mechanisms, and compared it to the successful example of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in the Human Rights Council, which commits every UN member state to a thorough peer-review of its human rights record. Indeed, the regional quarterly reviews, a new early warning and coordination mechanism introduced as part of Human Rights Up Front, look at all world regions. These coordination meetings bring together officials from divergent UN agencies to review adequacy of the UN’s response to potential risks for serious human rights violations.

Forth, association with existing mandates and agendas. Whenever the UN secretariat comes up with its own initiatives, it creates certain anxieties among member states eager to control the international bureaucracy. It was a sign of the Deputy Secretary-General’s successful outreach that no member state questioned the initiative and the role of the secretariat in coming up with it per se. In addition, Eliasson had his staff compile a list of the Charter provisions, treaties and resolutions by the General Assembly and the Security Council relevant to conflict prevention and human rights diplomacy. Responding to calls to do so for example by China, he also welcomed the role of conflict prevention as part of agenda 2030, in particular its goal 16.

Fifth, personal experience and credibility. Human Rights Up Front’s outreach benefits tremendously from having DSG Eliasson as champion in the secretariat. Not only did he conduct several mediation efforts himself, he was part of key normative and operative developments in the United Nations in the past twenty years that pertain to the Human Rights Up Front agenda. As first Emergency Relief Coordinator of the United Nations, he saw at first hand the resulting coordination challenges for the newly created position of humanitarian coordinators, a task usually taken up by the existing resident coordinator and resident representative of UNDP. In 2005, he presided over the record-breaking World Summit as president of the General Assembly, which endorsed the notion of a responsibility to protect populations from mass atrocity crimes, and agreed on the establishment of the Human Rights Council and Peacebuilding Commission. Under his leadership, the General Assembly later agreed on the details of the Human Rights Council, including the UPR. All of this provides Eliasson with unrivaled credibility among member states; his diplomatic skills enable him to put this status into practice.

The overwhelmingly positive welcome in the General Assembly session should not disregard the fair and important questions that even constructive member states still have. Several representatives such as Australia and Argentina asked for concrete examples of the initiative’s implementation, and China wanted to know which experiences the Secretariat had made in the first two years of the action plan’s implementation. While much of the high diplomacy of the UN may be sensitive and should remain confidential for the time being, there is no reason why the UN could not report on efforts taken after the fact, in consultation with the country concerned. After all, OHCHR reports annually about its activities including on a country basis, as do other UN entities. Indeed, three UN officials wrote a blog entry for UNDG how Human Rights up Front had helped them in following up on Argentina’s pledges under the UPR mechanism.

Finally, the UN leadership should not shy away from calling remaining challenges within the UN system by their name. It is understandable that Eliasson and others prefer to stress how “enthusiastic” staff members have greeted the initiative. Yet the action plan has also included new tasks for OCHR, without generating new funding. The creation of a common information system on serious human rights violations was hampered by different understandings of the objectives of protection and varying standards for the protection of victims and witnesses of violations. The new universal human rights training for all UN staff was seen as ineffective and beside the point by a number of observers within the UN system. Most troublingly, an independent expert panel on sexual abuse and exploitation in UN peace operations pointed to „gross institutional failure“ in the UN system, exposing a serious deficit in the organization’s internal culture (Eliasson has, in fact, made the link with Human Rights Up Front at a press conference). If Human Rights Up Front is to gain more traction with member states, Eliasson and his team should confront these challenges head-on.

Von fliegenden Walen und einem Wald aus Blumen

London erlebt sein erstes Lichtfestival
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In Berlin erstrahlen jedes Jahr Unter den Linden und das Brandenburger Tor sowie einige weitere öffentliche Orte in bunten Farben. Vergangenes Wochenende konnte nun auch London in sein erstes Lichtfestival eintauchen. Die Weltstadt verwandelte sich in ein Reich der Phantasie, bevölkert von den bezaubernden Schöpfungen internationaler Lichtkünstler.

Mein Besuch begann am Trafalgar Square, dem Herz der ehemaligen Kolonialmacht mit Statuen für General Havelock, der den indischen Aufstand 1857 niederschlug, und den ehemaligen Verwaltungssitzungen kolonialer Regierungen von Kanada, Südafrika, Nigeria und Australien in der näheren Umgebung. Einer der beiden zentralen Brunnen auf dem Platz war geschmückt mit einem Ring aus Licht. Bei näherem Hinsehen wurde deutlich, dass die Installation aus allerlei Plastikflaschen bestand, dem schwer vergänglichen Müll moderner Gesellschaften. Der Anblick erinnerte mich an Straßenseiten in Delhi, Puri oder Juba; eine Müllquelle und Umweltverschmutzung wurde sichtbar, die sonst den meisten Menschen hier in Europa in ihren Auswirkungen verborgen bleibt.

Den Menschenmengen folgend lief ich weiter zum Leicester Square mitten im Vergnügungsviertel Londons mit seinen Kinos, Theatern und Restaurants. Die kleine Parkfläche des Platzes war verwandelt in eine Szene aus Alice im Wunderland. Überlebensgroße Blumen und Pflanzen formten einen regelrechten Lichterwald. Neongrüne Gräser erhoben sich links und rechts des Weges, Blüten hingen herab wie Glocken und rote Spitzen krönten die gigantischen Graspflanzen.

Immer enger schoben sich die Zuschauerinnen und Zuschauer – das viertägige Festival kam trotz Temperaturen nur wenig über dem Gefrierpunkt sehr gut an. Es ging Richtung Einkaufsviertel. Piccadilly Circus ist zu normalen Zeiten schon sehr belebt, nun ging es nur noch langsam voran. Grell blendeten die Leuchtreklamen von Londons Version vom New Yorker Times Square.

Doch heute Abend spielte der Kommerz nur zweite Geige. Der Platz bietet eine beeindruckende Kulisse viktorianischer Prachtbauten, deren angestrahlte Schmuckfassaden sich in den anschließenden Straßen fortsetzen. Es war eine gebührende Bühne für meinen persönlichen Höhepunkt von London Lumiere. Der majestätische Anblick dieses Kunstwerk aus Form, Farben und Musik ließ erwachsene Menschen verstummen und mit offenem Mund gen Himmel blicken.

Drei meterlange Wal-artige Figuren mit breiten Flügeln und langgezogenem Schwanz flogen über der gekrümmten Straße. Zu mal spielerischer, mal sphärenhafter Geigen- und Klaviermusik flatterten diese Giganten der Lüfte zwischen den Häusern. Durch die ständige Bewegung mit Steuerungsseilen vom Boden erschien es so, als schwämmen die Wale über den Köpfen der Menschen. Rauf und runter, vor und zurück, von Häuserwand zu Häuserwand bogen sie sich in gemächlichen Bewegungen und wechselten dabei ihre Farben. Der sichelförmige Mond, der sich über den Ballonwalen erhob, vervollständigte die magische Atmosphäre.

Dass eine Installation in London, die naturgemäß zuerst Besucherinnen und Besucher: sprich Konsumentinnen und Konsumenten, Touristinnen und Touristen anziehen soll, überhaupt solch eine Wirkung entfalten kann, ist nicht selbstverständlich. London ist zur globalen Marke geworden, seine Sehenswürdigkeiten werden zu Hunderten in Souvenirshops als Modelle, auf T-Shirts und Postkarten verkauft und sind aus allen erdenklichen Winkeln abgeknipst und auf Festplatten und in Photobüchern festgehalten. Londons Einkaufsstraßen sind voller Geschäfte internationaler Ketten, Cafés und Restaurants sind häufig austauschbar. Wachwechsel vor Buckingham Palace oder der Geburtstag der Königin sind vor allem Schauspiele für Touristinnen und Touristen. Die Stadt und ihre Bevölkerung haben schon so viel gesehen, in ständiger Wiederholung.

Kunst, so heißt es in den Zielen des Kreativunternehmens Artichoke, welches das Festival organisierte, soll den prosaischen Alltag durchbrechen und „eine Welt erschaffen, in der wir alle gern leben würden.“ Die über dreißig Lichtinstallationen boten Raum zum Staunen, Nachdenken, und manchmal gar zum Schwärmen. Die dadurch gewonnene Inspiration kann vielleicht in der Tat den Möglichkeitsraum schaffen, in dem neues Denken für eine bessere Welt entstehen kann.

P.S.: Hier sind ein paar Photos vom Festival: https://www.flickr.com/photos/gerritkurtz/albums/72157663668637065

The UN at 70: Diplomacy as the art of the possible

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Photo (c) UN Photo.

This post first appeared on the Blog Junge UN-Forschung.

These days, people all over the world commemorate the founding of the United Nations 70 years ago. On 24 October 1945, the UN Charter entered into force and a new international organization was born out of the ashes of the Second World War and the Holocaust. Today, commemorating the UN is often an occasion to question its continuing relevance, and stress the need for its wholesale reform. Even UN enthusiasts are resigned; the best argument put forward is usually along the lines: there is no alternative to this universal international organization that provides a forum for world leaders, an authority on international norms, and a lifeline for millions affected by conflict, poverty, and disease.

The atmosphere was decidedly more upbeat at the recent commemorative event organized by the United Nations Association UK (UNA-UK), the civil society organization in the United Kingdom devoted to the United Nations. Bringing together around 1,000 guests in the medieval Guildhall in central London, the discussions and keynote speech underlined the nature of multilateral diplomacy. It is the art of the possible and often up to individuals, exploring the opportunities that lie in “the space between where your instructions end and you as a thinking negotiator invest your own thought”, High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein said once to The New York Times. His remarks at the event reflected this insight, just as much as the thorough recommendations from Gro Harlem Brundtland, former Prime Minister of Norway, and Hina Jilani, Pakistani Supreme Court Advocate in the panel discussion preceding the High Commissioner’s keynote. Both are members of The Elders, an advocacy organization on peace and human rights founded by Nelson Mandela.

Holding such an event in London had a particular historic significance: Just a few miles from Guildhall, the UN General Assembly met for the first time on 10 January 1946 in Westminster Methodist Central Hall. The UN Security Council followed a week later, with a meeting in Church House in Westminster, London.

More transparency for the Secretary General’s election and the use of the veto

Seventy years later, everyone agrees that the UN needs reform, but opinions diverge how that can be achieved. Three examples highlight areas where consistent advocacy and careful negotiations can advance the overall effectiveness and legitimacy of the United Nations and its work: electing the new Secretary General, the use of the veto in the Security Council, and transitional justice in Sri Lanka.

At the end of next year, the UN will choose a new Secretary-General, as Ban Ki-moon’s second term comes to an end. Traditionally, the five permanent members of the Security Council have decided on the final candidate just by themselves, without public debate, campaigns, or any meaningful inclusion of the General Assembly which could only confirm the lowest common denominator candidate the five powers could agree on. Improving this process is important, as Gro Harlem Brundtland outlined, as the Secretary General can prove an influential normative leader. To be able to work for the world community, he (or she!) needs to be independent and impartial, and all countries need to have the feeling that the Secretary General represents their common interest.

For this purpose, UNA-UK started the 1for7billion campaign. Its objective is to make the selection process of the Secretary General more transparent, including encouraging member states to suggest candidates that would run on an open platform, spelling out official criteria for the selection, informal meetings with the candidates by the General Assembly, and encouraging a female candidate.

Unrealistic? Requires a charter change? Actually, on 11 September 2015, the General Assembly adopted a resolution outlining all of the above principles. Activists, including The Elder member Brundtland, would like to see further changes such as limiting the term of the SG to one, non-renewable seven-year term, and the actual submission of more than once candidate by the Security Council to the General Assembly. Still, the 1for7billion campaign is a primary example how a civil society-led campaign can push the boundaries of multilateral diplomacy further.

The issue of restraining permanent members from using their veto in the Security Council is a tougher nut to crack. The French government, as well as a group of member states called the “Accountability, Coherence and Transparency Group” (ACT) have assembled 73 member states behind their pledge not to use the veto in case of mass atrocities. Recently, the UK joined the French in signing up to the code of conduct for the permanent members, leaving the US, Russia, and China, which have all declared their opposition to the proposal. Here, The Elders member Jilani advocated that permanent members should at least be required to explain their position publicly, if they do decide to resort to the veto. This explanation could then provide the basis for further deliberation – and further pressure to find an agreeable solution.

Transitional justice in Sri Lanka

Lastly, High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid delivered a passionate plea for the value of human rights in our time: refugees crossing a border illegally should not be regarded as criminals, he said. More than any other high-level official in the UN system, his office confronts him with evidence of the worst offences against ordinary human beings on a daily basis. Recounting a recent visit to Mexico, where he met with families of some of the 26,000 persons that have disappeared in recent years, he vented his frustration and despair: “It leaves you feeling empty”, he said. Still, “if we did nothing, the situation would have no chance of getting better”, he added defiantly.

Transitional justice in Sri Lanka is a recent example what a careful diplomatic approach can accomplish. On 1 October, the UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution, in congruence with the Sri Lankan government, recommending a host of measures designed to advance the process of reconciliation, accountability and non-recurrence more than six years after the end of the brutal civil war in the island nation. One particularly hard-fought issue was the inclusion of international judges in the judicial mechanism to investigate crimes and try perpetrators for international crimes.

Despite its general openness to work with international partners on reconciliation and accountability, the new Sri Lankan government had promised its electorate at home that alleged perpetrators would only be tried by domestic judges. For the high commissioner, as well as the UK and the US as main sponsors of the resolution, the decades-long history of delayed and flawed trials for human rights abuses in Sri Lanka meant that some international element was going to be crucial to make the mechanism meaningful. After hurried last-minute negotiations, the Sri Lankan diplomats finally agreed to the “participation of… Commonwealth and other foreign judges” in the Sri Lankan mechanism.

As Sir Jeremy Greenstock, chairman of UNA-UK, asked the High Commissioner whether he believed that this was actually enough, the latter pointed out that the Human Rights Council adopted his recommendations “almost in total” and that there was “immense legal expertise” in Sri Lanka. He is due to travel to the country until the end of the year to further clarify the implementation of the resolution.

Public consultations for the election of the new Secretary General, a code of conduct for Security Council action in situations of mass atrocities, and redress for massive human rights violations during Sri Lanka’s civil war: three recent examples how diplomacy, pushed by strong civil society advocacy, can make a difference at the United Nations. In a time where public debate is dominated by the failures of UN member states in Syria and Ukraine, as well as of UN staff in the Central African Republic or Darfur, it is important to highlight the role of individuals and their actions in international crises. Given a window of opportunity, individual diplomats, senior UN officials and civil society activists can meaningfully contribute to make the vision of the UN Charter a living reality, bit by bit.