In conflict-prone countries, diplomats must employ a special skill-set that allows them to escape from biased conventional wisdoms and balance the personal and the professional in negotiations. Ministries and international organizations should foster mechanisms such as structured spaces for reflection and frequent exchange with fellow diplomats from relevant missions in the region.
This post summarizing some key insights from my PhD thesis was first published on the PeaceLab Blog on 4 July 2019.
Conflict prevention is an important objective for international organizations as well as in many countries’ foreign policies. However, engaging in state-society conflicts presents a fundamental challenge for diplomats and United Nations (UN) officials posted in “at risk” countries – those on the precipice of violence. State-society conflicts are defined as those relating to the distribution of power between and within societal groups as well as their respective access to state resources; in other words, nothing could be more political. Diplomats, however, are supposed to refrain – by law and convention – from meddling in another country’s domestic affairs. At the same time, for a reform process to be credible and sustainable, it ultimately needs to be driven by local actors – not outsiders. In short: diplomats are caught in a conundrum of seemingly contradictory conventions and political objectives.
So, how do frontline diplomatic actors handle this fundamental challenge on a practical level? This question was central to my PhD research, in which I found that such situations require careful balancing acts. Engaging in state-society conflicts is always marred by trade-offs, e.g. between inclusion and exclusion or legitimacy and effectiveness. There is hardly ever a perfect combination of international objectives. It often falls to frontline diplomats posted in countries experiencing such conflicts to balance the trade-offs presented by those objectives. Trying to influence state-society relations also involves balancing the level of coerciveness and the level of intrusion in diplomatic interventions. Fostering this duality in a competent manner requires closer attention to the ways in which frontline diplomats make sense of conflicts, interact with national stakeholders, and coordinate with their diplomatic peers.
This analysis is based on an empirical analysis of diplomacy in South Sudan since independence as well as in post-war Sri Lanka, where I interrogated the views and everyday practices of frontline diplomats. In total, I conducted 165 semi-structured interviews with diplomats, UN officials, civil society representatives, policymakers, and experts.
Prevention needs to balance actors and structures
As the American academic Barnett Rubin poignantly observed in 2002, “all prevention is political”: Constraining the repertoire of elite actions is inherently disruptive. Preventive action rests on a forward-looking, proactive and conflict-sensitive attitude, requiring courage and close interaction with people in the target society. International influence, though, is heavily circumscribed, and may be subject to geopolitical interests, regional rivalries, economic priorities, and divergent political preferences of local elites. Prevention is also disruptive within bureaucratic organizations, as it often entails questioning established relationships and accepted analyses in addition to imagining scenarios and new ways of engaging. In short: Prevention is not a separate activity, but rather a normative objective that affects diplomatic interactions across conflict stages.
Politics in countries at risk of armed conflict is often highly personal and informal. A thorough understanding of the nature of elite bargains by national stakeholders must incorporate both psychological factors and an analysis of a conflict’s political economy. Leaders in state-society conflicts may be geared more towards immediate political survival than reputational concerns, which has consequences for preventive diplomacy. Standard diplomatic appeals to leaders’ legacy or long-term interests may thus be ineffective. Diplomats need to balance the respective roles of structures and actors operating within them. In my research, I discuss how they do so across three levels of the diplomatic process at the country level: Knowledge production, political engagement, and international coordination.
Frontline diplomats are exposed to cognitive short cuts
When analyzing the politics of their host countries, frontline diplomats are exposed to cognitive shortcuts. Knowledge production involves balancing countervailing interpretations. Organizational rules and professional conventions dispose frontline diplomats towards a bias favoring the legitimacy held by formal state institutions. Even beyond the state, external actors easily assume a strong link between national stakeholders and local sources of power, and patron-client relations are often difficult to identify for outsiders. Diplomats need to reconcile structural forces such as ethnicity, religion, economic inequality, and ideology with the agency of their local interlocutors: Is their behavior an aberration or an expression of the governing political economy? Diplomats with long-term expertise are often more adept at recognizing such structural forces – but may also fail to update their beliefs and perceptions with changing elite incentives. This was the case following the independence of South Sudan in 2011, when many long-term observers struggled to recognize how the creation of the state had exacerbated internal tensions in the ruling elite. Such changes can be difficult to identify in bureaucratic systems that talk to each other mainly in writing, and that value conformity over questioning an internal consensus.
Diplomatic engagement with national stakeholders is often most effective when it is based on dialogue and clear principles. Mediating the intra-party dispute in South Sudan before the start of the war, a seasoned diplomat insisted, was essential – but it was absolutely integral to ensure transparency and avoid even the impression of favoring one contestant over the other. When domestic leaders find themselves in a hole, external actors need to hand them a ladder to climb out rather than a shovel to dig deeper. If nationalist leaders insulate themselves, working through interlocutors can help to create space for constructive dialogue. At the same time, the risk of constructive engagement is abuse and impunity that normalizes extra-legal methods in political competition. Following the protocol of state-to-state relations is thereby no longer neutral, but may end up legitimizing the concentration of power in a central government. Informal politics often require personal engagement, using institutional networks and individual experience to gain access to key people and facts. When diplomats engage on a personal level, they may increase their risk of being dragged into domestic political fights.
Diplomatic coordination can provide the political cover for preventive diplomacy and reduce the exposure of informal engagement. This often poses a dilemma for principled engagement: Those international actors with the most influence may not be those with the most transformative approach. The Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD)-led mediation in South Sudan was a prime example of this phenomenon, with its member states deeply divided and opposed to freezing the assets of certain South Sudanese elites. At the same time, international pressure is more effective when there exists a broad consensus. Shifting geopolitical power structures mean that alternative sources of legitimacy are readily available, as China’s role in Sri Lanka and its close support for former President Mahinda Rajapaksa demonstrates. International organizations such as a UN Country Team may convene a range of diplomats, and maintain a long-term knowledge base of international engagement – if diplomats regularly share and reflect upon their experiences.
Promoting skills to balance trade-offs and creating spaces for reflection
As my research project demonstrates, the individuals engaged in preventive diplomacy matter. Governments and the UN, which have both committed themselves to conflict prevention, should promote mechanisms, policies, and skill-sets that foster diplomats’ ability to make judgements about balancing trade-offs, weighing countervailing interpretations, savvy engagement, and efficient coordination.
Bureaucratic organizations should establish mechanisms to regularly reflect on the disruptive nature of threats and preventive possibilities. Escaping conventional wisdom requires structured spaces for reflection within missions and across government and international organizations. Too often, missions and regional desks are too thinly stretched to be able to conduct structured conflict analyses regularly. External expertise, regular facilitation, and dedicated support mechanisms from capital/HQ can help overcome the limited capacity of missions in at-risk countries.
In situations with strong regional dimensions such as South Sudan, diplomats from all relevant missions in the region should hold frequent videoconferences and meet for internal workshops. Bureaucracies would do well to revamp human resources practices to ensure that diplomats with appropriate experience and skills are deployed where they are needed. At least for heads of missions, experience in a similar context and some basic country training should be compulsory. Top policymakers must give more weight to principled engagement in at-risk countries and foster an organizational culture that encourages individual responsibility, accepts risks, and allows dissent.
Frontline diplomats, in turn, can benefit from maintaining a detailed overview of national stakeholders, including possible agents of change and spoilers. They need to be prepared to combine personal and professional interactions, based on consistency, integrity, and transparency. For them, what matters is a clear-eyed awareness of risks and benefits, and the readiness to seize opportunities where they arise.
Attacks on minorities in Sri Lanka need to be seen in the context of an ethnocratic state and a climate of impunity for the incitement and mobilisation of mob violence.
The following appeared as a letter to the editor in Süddeutsche Zeitung on 5 June 2019, reacting to an article about incidents of anti-Muslim violence in the North-Western Province of Sri Lanka that had originally been published on 14 May 2019. The translation is mine.
As you report, after the terrorist attacks on Easter Sunday in Sri Lanka, there were riots against Muslims. It is important not to disregard the role of the state and of impunity in that regard. In contrast to your wording, there weren’t “clashes between Christians and Muslims” recently. More to the point, according to available reports, it was racist violence. In the past years, there have repeatedly been such acts of mob violence, including in Aluthgama in 2014, in Gintota in 2017, and in Ampara and Digana in 2018. Frequently these are violent acts that are organised and incited by radical Singhalese-Buddhist organisations . They use busses to carry groups of perpetrators to a location, where those people systematically attack Muslim shops, houses, and mosques. Sri Lankan security forces intervene only belatedly. Once arrested, many perpetrators are being released after protests.
Recently, the police arrested Amit Weerasinghe from the organisation Mahason Balakaya. Weerasinghe had already been arrested as one of those inciting the riots in March 2018, but during the constitutional crisis last autumn, he was released. Speaking about religious “clashes” between two communities obscures the one-sidedness and organisation of this violence. It is not spontaneous, but originates in a climate of impunity, structural discrimination, and negligence of security tasks by the authorities.
Since I submitted this letter, things have only got worse. President Maithripala Sirisena pardoned Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thero, a Buddhist monk and the General Secretary of Bodu Bala Sena, on 23 May 2019. Bodu Bala Sena, or BBS, is a radical Buddhist organisation, that has been implicated in many of the violent incidents mentioned above, including Gnanasara personally. In 2014, after initial tensions in the area, BBS held a rally in Aluthgama, where Gnanasara gave a speech threatening “If one Muslim lays a hand at a Singhalese, that will be the end of all of them.” During the violence, at least four people were killed, and many houses damaged. In 2016, he warned of “another Aluthgama”. In March 2018, Gnanasara was again at the scene just before mobs descended on the central towns of Digana and Teldeniya, although BBS claimed he wanted to clam things down. Gnanasara has a close partnership with Wirathu, a radical Buddhist monk inciting hatred in Myanmar.
For none of those events did Gnanasara, or BBS, face judicial consequences. Only in June 2018, Gnanasara was sentenced to six years in jail for contempt of court, after he had interrupted a hearing of a prominent case of an allegedly disappeared cartoonist, and intimitated the cartoonist’s wife, Sandya Eknaligoda. After Gnanasara was released, the president met him in person.
On 31 May, another Buddhist monk, Athuraliye Rathana Thero, began a fast unto death at Sri Lanka’s most sacred Buddhist temple in Kandy, to pressure a Muslim minister and two Muslim governors to resign from their positions, following his allegations about their possible links to the perpetrators of the Easter Sunday attacks. On 3 June, Gnanasara issued a deadline for their resignations. Shortly thereafter, the governors and all 9 Muslim MPs involved in the government, i.e. also those no involved in any allegations, resigned from their positions. More and more, events on the street dominate politics in Sri Lanka.
This post first appeared on the “Strength through Peace” blog of the Council on Foreign Relations. I co-authored it with Christoph O. Meyer.
The centenary of the armistice that ended the First World War last week brought the destructive impact of war again to the attention of world leaders and people across the world. Since it was signed in Compiègne, some commentators maintain, we have learned a lot about how to prevent conflict. That may be true, but research and practice of conflict prevention today remain heavily biased towards technocracy and wishful thinking. Instead, both researchers and practitioners should pay greater attention to individual, informal, and reflexive forms of knowledge. We call it the art of prevention.
As we argue in a recent journal article for Global Affairs, there are three main conceptual approaches to the study and practice of prevention: science, craft, and art. Importantly, despite the labels, all three approaches form part of social sciences. Science and craft approaches are most widespread, but on they often display unacknowledged shortcomings and blind spots.
By science, we refer to an approach that essentially sees conflict like a disease and prevention like a medical intervention that can spot its signs early on to avoid its outbreak in society. Mainly using econometric models, such approaches aim for the probabilistic modelling of events. They are particularly prevalent in forecasting organized violence and often produce watch lists of “at risk” countries. However, decision-makers are frequently skeptical about the value of such rankings and look for more specific, actionable information about the nature, timing and scale of the expected harm than just in which country the next large-scale conflict might occur.
By craft, we mean the tendency among those in think tanks, NGOs and government to talk about the “tool box” of conflict engagement and organizational solutions to overcome the oft-cited gap between early warning and early action. This approach risks treating society like a broken car that needs the right spare parts and tools to fix it. What was required, authors in this tradition argue, is for the right instruments (such as targeted sanctions or the withdrawal of aid) to be applied in a coordinated fashion at the appropriate stage of a conflict. Officials are part of a political and organizational process, however. Certain career incentives (for identifying foreign policy “success stories,” for example) affect their approach to problem-solving. Getting to the heart of a conflict often requires difficult trade-offs that cannot simply be “fixed”.
What is required, therefore, is closer attention to the agency of the people involved in prevention. How do their career incentives impact their approach to domestic politics? Diplomats and UN officials craft specific policies, but they operate in an environment of compromise and uncertainty. Their own experiences, skills, and personalities matter in systems that are characterized by personalized networks and dysfunctional institutions.
This is what we mean by the art of prevention. Such an approach encourages reflecting on one’s own impact, weighing consequences, and constantly recalibrating strategies. Instead of pretending that “all good things come together” in prevention (as well as in peacebuilding), it embraces the explicitly political nature of prevention. The power-sharing strategy required to persuade an authoritarian leader to relinquish power in the wake of large-scale protests may hinder the transformation of the political system in the long term, and sow the seeds for renewed conflict. Stopping a leader from repressing dissent involves acknowledging legitimate grievances. Preventive diplomacy needs to seek face-saving ways for leaders to step down from the ladder of escalation.
What does this involve in practice? It means taking the political choices that external actors and national stakeholders make seriously. The recent UN and World Bank report on prevention is a welcome step in that direction. Moreover, an artful approach to prevention focuses on the human beings at the center of conflict politics—and the ways in which external actors can have an impact on them: their motivations, personality, interests, and capabilities. It also means that citizens need to hold their governments accountable in the way they translate their lofty commitments of “never again” into practice. It is a task for all of us.
Germany brings diplomatic weight to the UN Security Council, to which it was elected on 8th June. The German government should use this advantage to support mediation and peace processes as priorities of its two-year membership. It should focus on three central instruments in this regard: refining sanctions, accountability of troop contributing countries, as well as the organization of more flexible visiting missions by Security Council diplomats.
Every eight years, Germany joins the playing field of major powers at the United Nations. Newly elected members to the UN Security Council like Germany have to prove themselves vis-à-vis the five permanent members every time anew. In the midst of political quarrels about the use of chemical weapons in Syria and the daily management of peace operations, the attention on the core purpose of the Council, to maintain international peace and security, gets lost all too easily. Germany should thus strive to strengthen peace processes and mediation efforts through the Security Council.
Germany is an unusually resourceful non-permanent member
Non-permanent members of the Security Council only have limited influence. The veto power of China, France, Russia, the UK, and the USA is not the only reason for that. Those countries also possess continuous experience in the negotiations, issues, and countries that shape the Council’s agenda. In this game of major powers, smaller members might at most be able to build bridges, improve working methods, or make small substantial suggestions.
As fourth largest financial contributor to the UN’s regular budget and, despite deficits, an important actor on the diplomatic floor, Germany needs to aim higher. In a number of countries on the Security Council’s agenda, German diplomats already play a substantial role. In those cases, the German government should use its membership in the Council as an additional diplomatic forum, whose approaches and instruments have their own benefits. Together with its European partners Germany can, for example, promote the maintenance of the nuclear agreement with Iran, demand humanitarian access and accountability for war crimes in Syria, prepare a peace operation in Ukraine, support the negotiations with the Taliban in Afghanistan, and shape the reconstruction of liberated areas in Iraq. Germany already has a leading position in all these contexts due to its existing channels and contacts – this should be reflected in the Security Council.
Peace operations need to be guided by a political strategy
Reaching consensus among its members on the overarching political objectives that should guide its crisis management is probably the biggest challenge for the Security Council. The High-Level Independent Panel on Peace Operations (HIPPO) already demanded in its seminal 2015 report that peace operations should always follow a political strategy. Otherwise they run the risk of being driven by military considerations, and of falling prey to the diverging interests of the conflict parties. In fragile contexts such as Mali, the Democratic Republic of Congo or South Sudan, there are incessant threats to the civilian population that can justify international protection measures, as the former UN staff member Ralph Mamiya observes. Yet without a political process, there can be no structuring priorities that could guide the strategic deployment of scarce resources and a foreseeable withdrawal of international troops.
Naturally, there are manifest reasons for the lack of political strategies in the UN Security Council. For one thing, these are genuinely difficult questions without obvious and easy solutions. Moreover, the work of the Council relies on hard-fought compromises, which result in frequently vague or complicated language. Furthermore, in some situations, such as in South Sudan, there is no functioning peace agreement that could guide the actions of a peace operation.
Germany should encourage strategic thinking in the Security Council
Germany cannot remove these structural deficits in two years. Neither does it have the diplomatic capacities to work out a strategy for each situation on the Security Council’s agenda . The German government thus needs to set clear priorities. German diplomats can encourage the Security Council to think more strategically. The more interactive and informal the discussions before the proper negotiations are, the more fruitful the latter are in many cases.
The German government could take its cue from Sweden, which, together with Peru, organized a retreat for all ambassadors in the Security Council this year. The Permanent Mission in New York can also organize events at the sidelines of official meetings and informal briefings in line with the Arria formula. This would bring the perspectives of civil society organizations of affected countries as well as experts on current mediation and negotiation processes to Manhattan. Lastly, Germany could organize a thematic debate on the contribution of the whole UN system to peace processes during one of its two monthly presidencies of the Security Council. This debate should address the limitations of the Security Council head on and tackle its cooperation with other UN entities such as special envoys, special rapporteurs, and the UN Development Program.
Using clear listing criteria for targeted sanctions
The improvement of the Council’s working atmosphere and quality of discussion aside, Germany should focus its “peace first” attention on three core instruments of the Security Council: refining targeted sanctions, the accountability of troop contributing countries, as well as the organization of more flexible visiting missions by Security Council diplomats.
The Security Council maintains 14 sanctions regimes, some of which explicitly aim to support peace and transition processes, for example in South Sudan, Mali, or Libya. Theoretically, such sanctions should not primarily punish individuals, but incentivize them to participate in peace processes in a constructive manner through travel bans and asset freezes. In reality, the restraints of those sanctions are often too slow and too backwards-oriented to actually influence mediation efforts substantially. Germany has contributed to the reform of UN sanctions since the late 1990s. As a member of the sanctions committees (and chair of some of them), it should promote the implementation of clear listing and delisting criteria in every single case.
Vetting troop contributing countries
Hardly anything is as damaging to the reputation of UN peace operations as incidents of sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA), as well as a lack of readiness to act decisively to protect civilians at risk in their vicinity. Secretary-General António Guterres has already introduced important reforms in this area. Yet, German Ambassador Christoph Heusgen, when asked about his plans to tackle the issue in the Security Council at a recent event in New York , could only think of the inclusion of more women in troop contingents. However, a more stringent and systematic vetting of all troop contingents regarding their previous human rights records in domestic settings, would be more important in this context. The deployment of 49 non-vetted Sri Lankan soldiers in Lebanon this year demonstrated that the current UN procedures are not sufficient.
Using its increased credibility as troop contributor in Mali, Germany should promote stronger accountability of all troop contributing countries. Based on an existing Security Council resolution, the UN secretary-general should ban states that do not sufficiently investigate allegations of sexual exploitations and abuse against their soldiers from future missions until they improve their procedures. Similarly, performance assessments of troop contingents, such as the ones requested by the Security Council for the UN Mission in South Sudan after a special review, should also be conducted for all other missions.
Make visiting missions more flexible and geared towards crisis management
German diplomats like to point out that they would prioritize conflict prevention in the Security Council. Rarely do they go into the details of the Council’s added value in political crises – and where it might be counterproductive. One important instrument for early crisis management are visiting missions of Security Council diplomats. Under the leadership of up to three members, representatives of all 15 member states fly to a region to talk to the relevant actors on the ground.
Germany should prepare and lead such a mission if the opportunity presents itself. Potential destinations could be Sudan or South Sudan, where Germany has supported dialogue and mediation processes. At the same time, Germany should strive for more flexible mission formats, which could deploy a small delegation of the Security Council and key UN officials more quickly.
Stand up for peace and prevention
A stronger focus on the promotion of peace and transition processes in the Security Council will meet resistance. China, Russia, and a number of member states from the Global South are quick to refer to state sovereignty in the context of international mediation efforts in authoritarian states. The Trump administration in the United States undermines diplomatic processes on Iran and Syria and moves to cut the budget of UN peace operations even in places where violence and conflict are on the rise as in the Democratic Republic of Congo. As former colonial powers, the UK and France hold back on Cameroon, while the conflict about the Anglophone areas is escalating.
With its ambition to promote peace and conflict prevention, Germany must not shy away from conflicts in the Security Council. At the same time, it should rely on stable partnerships and frequent exchange with its European partners as well as countries like South Africa. The latter will also be a member of the Security Council from 2019 and started pursueing more multilateral solutions under President Cyril Ramophosa.
At the end of its membership in the Council, the German government should order an independent evaluation of its diplomacy around the horseshoe table. The objective: learning lessons for its next candidacy to join the playing field of major powers.
Written evidence to the UK House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee for its Inquiry on “Responsibility to Protect and humanitarian intervention”. The final report cites my evidence.
The main value of R2P was as an impetus to conceptual and political debates as well as a tool for policy entrepreneurs to galvanize public attention, mainly in domestic contexts.
R2P has not substantially changed the existence of global power inequalities, domestic incentives for foreign policy making, or the proclivity of violent actors to use force indiscriminately if it suits their objectives.
There are no generalized exemptions from the prohibition on the use of force outside the UN Charter. Any General Assembly resolution could only provide an, albeit strong, political signal of legitimacy, not a legal one.
In UN debates and diplomacy, the concept of R2P should be retired and replaced by a more operational focus on atrocity prevention.
The UK can make use of the notion of “universal jurisdiction” to prepare cases against foreign individuals responsible for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide. With the central position of the UK in the global financial system, it could also engage more forcefully in combating money laundering by elites that are responsible for such crimes.
The UK should include explicit assessments of atrocity risks, including identity-based violence, in its country strategies.
I am a PhD candidate at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London as well as a non-resident fellow at the Global Public Policy Institute (GPPi), an independent Berlin-based think tank. Between 2012 and 2015, I was involved in a major international research project entitled “Global Norm Evolution and the Responsibility to Protect”, which brought together seven international partner institutions from Europe as well as Brazil, China, and India and was coordinated at GPPi. The main objective of the research project was to investigate how the idea of a Responsibility to Protect (R2P) was faring in the context of a changing global order. All our academic and policy publications are accessible on the following website: http://www.globalnorms.net/.
This submission builds on that research, as well as my research on the diplomacy of conflict prevention and peacemaking in the context of my PhD project since then. While it builds on collaborative research, it only represents the views of the author and not necessarily any of the institutions that I am affiliated with. Taking the questions posed by the Committee as a starting point, the submission starts with a discussion of the concept of R2P and what (not) to expect from it. It then highlights a few issues with the implementation of the political commitment to R2P globally. Subsequently, the submission discusses the idea of a “humanitarian intervention”, before it concludes with ideas and recommendations for reform of the discourse and practice of R2P.
The concept of the Responsibility to Protect
The adoption of the three paragraphs on R2P in the World Summit outcome document of 2005 needs to be seen in its proper historical context (UN General Assembly 2005, para. 138-140). It was a response to the heated discussions of the preceding one and a half decades. These are well known and include the acknowledgement of catastrophic failures faced with genocide in Rwanda and ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s as well as the divisions in the Security Council regarding the situation in the Kosovo in 1999. The creation of R2P included an important conceptual shift from earlier debates about “humanitarian intervention”: instead of focussing on the rights of intervening powers, R2P highlighted the responsibilities of all UN member states to prevent atrocity crimes (International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty 2001). Instead of explicitly qualifying state sovereignty, it emphasized the sovereign responsibility of governments for the protection of their populations from atrocity crimes (Evans 2008).
R2P is a political commitment by UN member states, not a legal one. Endorsed by a then record number of heads of state and government, the World Summit outcome document has a high legitimacy, but does not constitute international legal obligations comparable to an international treaty. Notably, it does not change the existing legal context for the use of force under the UN Charter. The use of “timely and decisive action” remains firmly tied to the UN Security Council.
The main value of R2P was as an impetus to conceptual and political debates as well as a tool for policy entrepreneurs to galvanize public attention. After its adoption, UN officials sought to operationalize its meaning and implications for the UN system (Murthy and Kurtz 2016). The work by subsequent UN Special Advisors on the Responsibility to Protect as well as UN Special Advisors on the Prevention of Genocide is particularly pertinent in this regard. As a result of detailed interpretation and wide-ranging consultations, Edward Luck, the first UN Special Advisor on the Responsibility to Protect, developed the three-pillar framework of R2P: government responsibility, international assistance, and timely and decisive action (UN Secretary-General 2009). This framework has since structured conceptual debates among member states about R2P.
The three-pillar framework has allowed a comprehensive focus: by including the essentially uncontested responsibilities under pillars one and two, it made it easier to also discuss much more controversial policy options if governments are “manifestly failing” to protect their populations. Exactly because coercive measures are contested among UN member states, however, relatively few official debates and reports capitalized on that opportunity.
At the same time, controversies on the utility – and abuse – of the use of force could taint the overall concept. Nowhere has this been clearer than in the aftermath of the decision of the Security Council to mandate UN member states to use “all necessary means” to protect civilians in Libya in March 2011 (UN Security Council 2011). As the oral testimony to the committee also acknowledged, the interveners’ shift from a narrow focus on protecting civilians in Benghazi to a much wider demand for regime change in Libya (Obama, Cameron and Sarkozy 2011) seriously undermined the credibility of R2P in the eyes of a global audience (Brockmeier, Stuenkel and Tourinho 2016).
As a tool for policy entrepreneurs, R2P has allowed civil society organisations and members of parliament to refer to their respective government’s responsibility to engage in political debates about adequate action to respond to atrocity crimes – the current inquiry is a case in point. It has provided civil society organisations with a way to frame their demands for diplomatic, humanitarian, human rights, and judicial engagement by pointing to a political commitment that all governments have signed up to on a global level. The Global Center on R2P, for example, is a New York-based NGO dedicated to the implementation and promotion of R2P. The International Coalition for the Responsibility to Protect brings together civil society organizations from around the world with a shared objective. The efforts of these organisations increase awareness among policymakers, officials, and the general public for atrocity crimes, they provide analysis and regular country monitoring, and organize training and capacity building events.
On the global level, our research found that R2P has not been an effective tool to mobilize action between 2004 and 2014. Where there was international agreement, visible through UN Security Council actions, the frame of “genocide” and historical analogies to Rwanda and Srebrenica were much more powerful than references to R2P – including in the decision by Western powers to intervene in Libya in 2011 (Kurtz and Rotmann 2016: 6). No draft Security Council resolution is more likely to be adopted by consensus just because it contains a reference to R2P.
R2P has not resolved geopolitical divisions in the UN Security Council, nor has it made international responses in the most protracted cases of atrocities more likely. The expectation, where it exists, that a political concept like R2P could in and of itself solve some of the most contested questions in international relations and drive political action, is too high. Any idea about an international legal obligation for member states to intervene in situations where atrocities are committed creates unreasonable expectations of international law and global politics. No government can be expected to commit troops on behalf of another country’s population without domestic considerations on a case-by-case basis. Furthermore, it is rarely clear which specific international actions would be effective and proportional to prevent atrocities in a given situation.
The implementation of R2P
Where the salience of a situation has been very high for the permanent members of the UN Security Council, consensus has remained difficult to achieve. The situation in Syria illustrates this dynamic well. Again, R2P has not substantially changed the existence of global power inequalities, domestic incentives for foreign policy making, or the proclivity of violent actors to use force indiscriminately if it suits their objectives.
The inclusion of R2P in the World Summit outcome document was a manifestation of a larger underlying normative change. This normative evolution has also been visible in related fields of the universality of human rights, the development of international criminal law, and in the debate about “protection” in humanitarian action and peacekeeping. R2P should be seen as an instrument in the promotion and contestation of these “norms of protection” (Kurtz and Rotmann 2016: 18). The carriers of this normative evolution have come from all corners of the earth, including from Africa, where most of today’s conflicts take place. As our research project on global debates about the meaning and interpretation of R2P has shown, there is a very wide acceptance of the fundamental normative tenet of R2P: atrocity crimes require international action. How such action may look like in practice, has remained less clear unfortunately (Benner et al. 2015).
The evolution of those norms does not follow a linear path, but they do shape the social context in which international politics takes place. Research has shown, for example, that the ratification of the Rome Statute and investigative actions by the International Criminal Court exerts a deterrent effect on the commission of atrocity crimes (Jo and Simmons 2016).
Inconsistency, hypocrisy, and contradictions undermine the evolution of norms of protection as well as the credibility of R2P. Policymakers should devote greater attention to the permissive effects of their statements and policies in this area. The focus on “red lines” on the use of chemical weapons in Syria, for example, by President Obama and, more recently, by President Macron, not only set their users up to follow through on their threats. They also gave the impression that atrocities committed by conventional means are somewhat more acceptable. Even if governments denounce the killing of civilians rhetorically, such ultimatums and threats send a contradicting message.
A similar permissive effect could be observed regarding narrowing action in Syria against ISIS/Da’esh, thus sparing the Syrian regime. In 2014, when the US government, in conjunction with its allies, took the decision to militarily intervene against ISIS/Da’esh, it may have been too late to broaden the intervention to include anti-regime actions (Yacoubian 2017: 27). A more detailed investigation of the permissive effects of this decision on the dynamics of the Syrian civil war notwithstanding, the focus on counterterrorism risked sending a signal that massive violence against civilians by the Syrian government did not attract the same kind of coercive punishment as the violence committed by ISIS/Da’esh.
Similarly, continuing support to the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, including by arms exports, undermines the UK’s credibility on atrocity prevention in Yemen. British military support to the Saudi-led coalition also undermines UK aid and diplomacy for a political solution in Yemen, as such support empowers a military approach to the crisis. As the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (2017) said in September 2017, “[c]oalition airstrikes continue to be the leading cause of civilian casualties, including of children.” The UK should immediately halt all arms exports to Saudi Arabia and all other members of the coalition involved in the war in Yemen.
The idea of a “humanitarian intervention”
The committee asked for evidence on the question whether the concept of a “humanitarian intervention” was recognized as an exemption to the general prohibition of the use of force under the UN Charter. I am not an international lawyer, but it seems to be very clear to me that there is no international consensus that the doctrine of “humanitarian intervention” could provide an exemption to Art. 2 (4) of the UN Charter. Indeed, the general prohibition of the threat and use of force remains an important achievement in international law. It cannot be incumbent on UN member states to create an exemption from this fundamental norm by themselves. The bar to any use of force outside the UN Charter is therefore very high, as it should be. Without the resort to any court of law that could interpret unilateral justifications for the use of force, the concept of “humanitarian intervention” opens the door to abuse. Furthermore, the concept is tainted with a very problematic history, including the French operation Turquoise during the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. Framed as humanitarian intervention, it ended up helping perpetrators to escape into neighbouring Zaire.
If “humanitarian intervention” does not provide the legal justification for military action without UN Security Council mandate or in self-defence, what can? In any given situation, potential interveners should contemplate whether military force is really the last resort, urgently needed, and an effective and proportional instrument. If they conclude that military action fulfils these criteria, they should at least seek a wider international agreement in the UN General Assembly. Any resolution adopted by the General Assembly under such circumstances would not have the force of law, in my understanding. There are no generalized exemptions from the prohibition on the use of force outside the UN Charter – they would undermine the whole system. A political statement in the form of a resolution of the General Assembly would, however, provide a strong signal of legitimacy. It cannot undo the fundamental power inequalities inherent in the international order, which are manifested by the authority of the UN Security Council and the power of its permanent members.
The need for reform
The concept of the responsibility to protect was developed to spur international action on atrocity crimes. On that score, its success is very limited. It has contributed to the specification of conceptual debates within the United Nations, and provided a helpful tool for policy entrepreneurs, mainly in domestic settings. On a global level, its utility has run its course. In UN debates and diplomacy, R2P should be retired and replaced by a more operational focus on atrocity prevention. Indeed, recent reports by the UN Special Advisor on the Prevention of Genocide already point in that direction.
Instead of focusing on issues of global order and intervention, as R2P inevitably does, atrocity prevention focuses on the role of victims, in particular civilians. Indeed, actors such as the UK that say they want to promote the global rule of law and prevent atrocities should embrace this civilian-centred perspective. They should ask themselves in diplomatic, development, humanitarian, and military engagements in political crises how their actions are going to affect the situation of civilian populations. Are there ways to empower the capacity of civilians to protect themselves by unarmed means? In contrast to R2P, atrocity prevention cannot be mistaken as legalistic justification for military interventions.
In cases where governments are directly responsible for atrocities, it is important to find ways to coerce them to stop these violations of fundamental human rights, including by targeted financial and judicial means. The UK can make use of the notion of “universal jurisdiction”, for example, to prepare cases against foreign individuals responsible for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide. With the central position of the UK in the global financial system, it could also engage more forcefully in combating money laundering by elites that are responsible for such crimes.
Building on the Brazilian proposal of a “responsibility while protecting” in 2011, UN Security Council members, including the UK, should consider more rigorous monitoring arrangements for UN-mandated operations. These could include requirements for regular reporting by lead nations of such mandated operations to the Council via the Secretary-General. The Security Council could also create independent monitoring teams that report on the implementation of mandates by third-party forces, similar to panels of experts in the context of UN sanctions regimes. Such mechanisms would facilitate a higher quality of information and decision-making in the Security Council (Benner et al. 2015: 25-26).
In the specific case of chemical weapons use in Syria, it is questionable how one-off airstrikes such as those conducted by the US in April 2017 and by the US, France, and the UK in April 2018, would credibly deter the Syrian government. The UK government should focus on re-establishing an investigative mechanism that investigates culpability for chemical weapons incidents. If the Security Council remains blocked on this question, then the General Assembly should provide a new mandate for this mechanism, whose original mandate ran out in November 2017. Furthermore, the UK should hand over any evidence that is has collected through its own sources on chemical weapons use in Syria to theInternational, Impartial and Independent Mechanism on international crimes committed in the Syrian Arab Republic (IIIM). The UK should help the European Union to prepare targeted sanctions on individuals and companies involved in the chemical weapons programme in Syria, whether they are from Syria or not. Lastly, the UK should contribute to fund humanitarian appeals on Syria and accept a much larger share as part of the resettlement programme that the UN High Commissioner for Refugees operates.
Finally, the UK government should invest in consistent political engagement through diplomatic tools, including in its own diplomatic capacities and in multilateral capacities. As the United States is withdrawing diplomatic capacities on a large scale, Europeans need to step up to at least provide detailed analysis, monitoring and engagement in crisis areas around the world. The UK should include explicit assessments of atrocity risks, including identity-based violence, in its country strategies. It should exchange these risk analyses on a regular basis with like-minded states and create joint response strategies.
Benner, Thorsten, Sarah Brockmeier, Erna Burai, C.S.R. Murthy, Christopher Daase, Madhan Mohan Jaganathan, Julian Junk, Xymena Kurowska, Gerrit Kurtz, Liu Tiewa, Wolfgang Reinicke, Philipp Rotmann, Ricardo Soares de Oliveira, Matias Spektor, Oliver Stuenkel, Marcos Tourinho, Harry Verhoeven and Zhang Haibin (2015): Effective and Responsible Protection from Atrocity Crimes: Toward Global Action. Policy Paper. Berlin. Global Public Policy Institute.
Brockmeier, Sarah, Oliver Stuenkel and Marcos Tourinho (2016): The impact of the Libya intervention debates on norms of protection. Global Society 30:1, 113-133.
Evans, Gareth (2008): The Responsibility to Protect: Ending Mass Atrocity Crimes Once and For All. Washington, D.C.: Brookings
International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (2001): The Responsibilty to Protect. Ottawa. International Development Research Centre.
Jo, Hyeran and Beth A. Simmons (2016): Can the International Criminal Court Deter Atrocity? International Organization 70:3, 443-475.
Kurtz, Gerrit and Philipp Rotmann (2016): The Evolution of Norms of Protection: Major Powers Debate the Responsibility to Protect. Global Society 30:1, 3-20.
Murthy, C. S. R. and Gerrit Kurtz (2016): International Responsibility as Solidarity: The Impact of the World Summit Negotiations on the R2P Trajectory. Global Society 30:1, 38-53.
UN Secretary-General (2009): Implementing the responsibility to protect – Report of the Secretary-General. UN Doc. A/63/677. 12 January
UN Security Council (2011): Resolution 1973 (2011). New York: S/RES/1973 (2011). 17 March
Yacoubian, Mona (2017): Critical Junctures in United States Policy toward Syria. An Assessment of the Counterfactuals. Series of Occastional Papers. Washington, DC. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. August.
 As such, it would contribute to an assessment that the Independent International Commission on Kosovo (2000: 186) made with regard to the NATO-led intervention in 1999 when the commission qualified it as “illegal, yet legitimate”.
This piece originally appeared on the Global Observatory that is run by the International Peace Institute.
Today marks the end of the fourth year of civil war in the youngest state on earth, South Sudan. Over the years, attempts to build a lasting peace agreement have faltered. The Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in South Sudan (ARCSS)—facilitated by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD)—was signed by President Salva Kiir Mayardit and former Vice President Riek Machar Teny in August 2015, but by July 2016 the deal broke apart after several days of heavy fighting between Kiir’s and Machar’s troops in Juba. Current attempts to revitalize the ARCSS, although welcome, face an array of obstacles. To overcome these and to avoid repeating the same mistakes that led to the demise of the ARCSS, new thinking and approaches are needed.
Obstacles to a Lasting Peace Agreement
The model of peacemaking thus far has been characterized as “big tent”: after several rounds of fighting lead to a stalemate, the government provides rebel leaders with an opportunity to control and disperse resources, and to integrate their militia into the national army. This policy formed the basis of the ARCSS. In June 2017, the IGAD council of ministers called for a “high-level revitalization forum” of the ARCSS. The initiative has support within the government and from all major opposition groups who have expressed their readiness to participate in the negotiations. However, IGAD diplomats face a delicate balancing act. Some provisions of the peace agreement, including the security arrangements, are clearly obsolete and need to be reviewed. At the same time, opening the whole agreement for renegotiation risks drawing out the process and potentially losing some of the commitments to constitutional reform, economic management, and transitional justice that are included.
More importantly, it is fundamentally unclear how “revitalization” will look. Since the July 2016 crisis, political and military realities have changed considerably. After Riek Machar fled the country, President Kiir appointed the opposition politician Taban Deng Gai to replace him. Yet the government’s expectation that he would be able to bring along opposition fighters with him has not been met. Most of Riek Machar’s troops remain loyal to him. His involvement in the process remains a major stumbling block for the negotiations. No one in the diplomatic community in Juba that I spoke to during a recent research trip expects Machar to return to Juba, after SPLA units tried to kill him twice, in 2013 and 2016. Accommodating Machar in the government thus seems impossible, though marginalizing him has also not worked.
The underlying problem remains the logic of dividing the spoils. Positions of authority in South Sudan have served the self-enrichment of office-holders and the accumulation of political budgets. As a result of the insecurity in the country and the macroeconomic crisis, the resources that could be allocated are becoming smaller. Moreover, the lack of accountability of officials and politicians is a core challenge that contributed to the outbreak of the civil war in the first place. If there is no overarching political vision for South Sudan, another purely transactional power-sharing deal will inevitably result in dissent and confrontation just as in 2016.
No Easy Solutions
The last few years have made clear that there are no quick fixes in South Sudan. No single process will be able to bring a comprehensive peace to the country in the foreseeable future. For the time being, a number of measures can be taken that may mitigate and contain the scale and brutality of the violence, and even create space for a long-term peace agreement.
The first is for IGAD mediators and international interlocutors to make clear that perpetrators will face justice. Looting, sexual violence, and mass atrocities need to have consequences. Regional support for asset freezes and anti-money laundering measures, for example, is growing. In September, the African Union Peace and Security Council warned that the revitalization process represented “a last chance for the Parties” and threatened unspecified sanctions against spoilers. After the United States strengthened its unilateral sanctions regime, the Kenyan Central Bank instructed its banks to implement asset freezes that the UN Security Council had passed in 2015.
Second, international actors, such as the Troika—the three-nation group supporting negotiations consisting of Norway, the UK, and the US—but also Germany and the EU, could lobby other countries for an informal arms embargo on South Sudan. US pressure has already stopped Sudanese arms deliveries for Machar’s troops. Engaging with Ukraine, Uganda, and Egypt, which the UN Panel of Experts sees as the government’s arms dealers, would be crucial as well. A commitment to a ceasefire at the beginning of the revitalization forum could provide the diplomatic backing for those states to reconsider their covert arms shipments.
Third, empowering civil society and other constructive forces will be crucial. The churches play a very important role in peacemaking and reconciliation as they are the only institutions with a reach in all corners of the country. They also have the patience and stamina to stay engaged when national and international actors have long left. Their biggest advantage is also a challenge though. Part and parcel of South Sudanese society, they are not immune to the polarization that has divided the country. Work on intercommunal conflicts by the churches, the UN mission, and non-governmental organizations needs donor support, including for targeted early recovery measures.
A Need for International Introspection
Finally, Western countries, and in particular the Troika, will contribute more positively to negotiations if they are aware of their own impact on the conflict and the peace process. For example, Troika acceptance of the replacement of Riek Machar with Taban Deng Gai lent legitimacy to the process. On the other hand, the rushed and failed effort of the US to expand the UN sanctions regime and create an arms embargo “gave Juba a degree of increased confidence,” in one Western diplomat’s perception. The government then continued its operations in Equatoria that displaced hundreds of thousands of civilians, and obstructed humanitarian access. Another example is the disappointment of South Sudanese civil society organizations when German foreign minister Sigmar Gabriel stood them up during a visit in August 2017.
Ultimately, there is no silver bullet to ending the civil war in South Sudan. At the very least, international actors should ensure that their actions and omissions do not prolong the suffering, however unintentionally. Overcoming the tendency to broker conventional transactional power-sharing agreements would be an important start.
Gerrit Kurtz is a PhD candidate at King’s College London and a non-resident fellow with the Global Public Policy Institute in Berlin. His research focuses on conflict prevention diplomacy in South Sudan and Sri Lanka.
UN Secretary-General António Guterres’ prevention agenda builds upon the achievements of the ›Human Rights up Front‹ initiative launched by his predecessor. The initiative has created a more integrated early-warning system, strengthened the preventive work of UN Country Teams, and initiated a cultural change within the UN system. However, creating confidence between the different pillars of the UN system remains a challenge. Step by step, the new early-warning mechanisms at headquarter and country level will contribute to a more holistic understanding of the risks of grave human rights abuses, allowing a more coherent UN response.
UN Secretary-General António Guterres has identified one overarching priority for his work: the prevention of human suffering. Specifically, Guterres envisions that the concept of prevention, and the mechanisms it entails, will be able to cut across and strengthen the UN’s three pillars: peace and security, human rights, and sustainable development. In more concrete terms, Guterres builds on the Human Rights up Front (HRuF) initiative, a key reform project introduced by his predecessor, Ban Ki-moon, to strengthen the UN’s preventive capabilities.
The HRuF initiative targets the work of UN staff as well as cooperation among UN agencies. It emerged as a reaction to the perceived failure of the UN system as a whole during the last months of the war in Sri Lanka. Following this failure, the UN created new coordination mechanisms in the UN Secretariat; it sought to re-emphasize the human rights work of UN development agencies on the ground, and it bolstered existing instruments in order to support individual UN Country Teams with expert staff.
In his first appearance as secretary-general at the UN Security Council, Guterres said that neither war nor peace were inevitable. Peace, he insisted, is “the result of difficult decisions, hard work, and compromise”; to this end, prevention is “not merely a priority, but the priority” in order to “save lives, reduce suffering, and give hope to millions.” The HRuF initiative provides a cornerstone of this vision.
The Origins of Human Rights up Front
In November 2012, a UN internal review panel identified a “systemic failure” in the work of both the UN Country Team and the UN Secretariat during the last months of the Sri Lankan Civil War in 2008 and 2009. The UN Country Team consists of all the agencies, funds, and programs working in a respective country, for example the UN Development Programme (UNDP), the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), and the World Bank. These organizations seek to fulfill their respective mandate as part of a comprehensive development framework that the UN has agreed on with the host country. A Resident Coordinator (RC) coordinates the overall work of these agencies; usually, the RC is also the head of the local UNDP office. In humanitarian emergencies, he or she takes on the additional function of Humanitarian Coordinator (HC) to manage the members of the Humanitarian Country Team.
Each of these organizations employs program- and analysis-staff related to their respective line of work, but the resources of the RC’s office for political analysis and diplomacy are typically very limited. While the UN Department of Political Affairs (DPA) in New York has analysts dealing with conflicts around the world, DPA is typically reluctant to share its information, and in the past, communication between DPA and UN Country Teams has been irregular. This fragmented structure has had difficulty producing coherent and effective human rights analysis for the UN Country Team on the ground.
This became especially clear in the case of Sri Lanka, where criticism of UN behavior during the last phase of the civil war was less directed towards individual people or organizations, but rather towards the UN’s institutional set-up as a whole. Each UN entity involved examined the situation primarily from its own perspective; there was no joint analysis of the risks and threats to civilian populations coming from the perspective of the entire UN system. While DPA performed an “excellent analysis of the risks,” the analysis and conclusions were seen as exclusively the conclusions of DPA. “No one else felt they should act on them,” a UN official briefed on the matter said in an interview. UN pressure to act on the DPA analysis would have been key, argued another UN official, to commit the parties in the conflict to abide by international humanitarian law.
Yet the conditions on the ground and within the institution made this kind of approach impossible. Coordination between UN agencies in New York and Geneva was lacking. There were too few people in the country versed in dealing with violations of human rights and international humanitarian law. The Sri Lankan government had repeatedly withheld work permits for UN staff members.
In January 2009, several members of the UN Country Team in Sri Lanka began counting civilian casualties on their own initiative, without an explicit institutional mandate. The Resident Coordinator presented the data to diplomatic missions in March 2009; but when the High Commissioner for Human Rights and diplomatic missions published them shortly thereafter, the RC played down their importance to the government. As a result, the UN as a whole sent mixed messages to the government, who was responsible for the majority of civilian casualties, according to the UN Country Team’s own information at the time.
At the same time, in New York, Emergency Relief Coordinator John Holmes concentrated on maintaining humanitarian access to the conflict zone. He was the only one allowed to brief the members of the Security Council in informal sessions about the situation on the ground. Focusing on humanitarian access was part of his job description, yet this also meant that the Security Council members lacked an explicit human rights perspective from the Secretariat.
When the Executive Office of the Secretary-General studied the internal review panel’s report, it recognized that “a systemic failure needs a systemic solution,” explained Andrew Gilmour, who was overseeing the work in the office at the time, in an interview. The Sri Lankan crisis and the resultant analysis were thus the starting point for the Human Rights up Front initiative. In September 2013, Ban Ki-moon approved a detailed action plan, and in December of the same year, Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson briefed the General Assembly on the initiative.
A Comprehensive Reform Package
The HRuF initiative has three overarching objectives: (1) enacting a cultural change in the UN system so that all UN staff see human rights as part of their work, (2) establishing better early warning and coordination mechanisms both in conflict countries as well as in New York, and (3) promoting more open engagement with UN member states on human rights.
The Human Rights up Front initiative is not simply concerned with individual action points. Rather, UN staff members are being encouraged to see themselves as part of a whole, instead of thinking only in terms of the narrow competences of their respective department, fund, programme, or agency. They should feel empowered to act on the basis of the normative principles of the United Nations – in particular on the pivotal issue of human rights. Summarizing the core message, former Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Kyung-wha Kang noted that the UN’s work is “about the human beings,” whose challenges “are not subdivided into different mandates as the UN system is.”
The cultural change on systemic human rights engagement should come about through three main forms of action: public commitments by the UN leadership, training for all UN staff members, and a revised selection and appraisal system for Resident Coordinators. Thirteen thousand UN staff members have already undergone new human rights training through an online course. In addition, the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights (OHCHR) now has an active role in the selection and regular appraisal of RCs. Furthermore, the UN Development Group has updated the generic job description for Resident Coordinators to include an emphasis on human rights and created new guidance on human rights work for RCs and UN Country Teams.
At the same time, everyone involved is aware that an organization of the size and complexity of the United Nations cannot change its culture overnight. Reforms need time to work in practice, and UN leadership needs to show that it stands behind the engagement of its staff members in crisis situations. In addition, the UN needs to make clear that leadership failure has consequences. Too often, senior UN officials are promoted rather than dismissed. Ban Ki-moon’s decision to ask the head of the UN mission in Central African Republic, Babacar Gaye, for his resignation when reports about sexual abuse and exploitations by French and UN peacekeeping troops in the country emerged in 2015 is a significant step in the right direction.
Early Warning and Coordination Mechanisms
Skeptical member states have typically been a major obstacle to the implementation of effective early warning mechanisms in the UN system. Many do not want to be faced with the prospect of risk ratings or of landing on the agenda of the UN Security Council, which might impose coercive measures in line with chapter seven of the UN Charter. Similarly, UN development agencies may be cautious or hesitant when it comes to monitoring the situation of human rights and other risk factors on the ground, as they work closely with host governments and seek to avoid drawing their ire.
The HRuF response to this challenge is to take a universal approach. The early warning mechanisms pertain to all member states, in particular those that are not on the agenda of the UN Security Council. For this purpose, the UN introduced regional quarterly review mechanisms, which are jointly chaired by DPA and UNDP and bring together all relevant UN agencies in New York to discuss pertinent issues and the response of the UN system as a whole. These reviews, which are divided into six different regional formats, consider information from all relevant entities in the UN system and also consult with the respective Resident Coordinators. If the participants of these mechanisms think it necessary, they can bring challenges up to the political leadership level and trigger a decision that is formally carried by the whole UN system.
According to participants in these reviews, their value goes far beyond tangible results. The open discussion format at the meetings allows the creation of a comprehensive picture of a given situation, as insights are drawn from the network of UN entities working in sustainable development, humanitarian aid, human rights, and political analysis. UNDP staff members, for example, reported that they would now consider human rights topics more seriously as a result of these reviews; legislation in certain countries that aims to restrict civil society organizations was mentioned as one particular point of future attention. One interviewee remarked that they were now looking into the levers available to UNDP to urge governments to withdraw such legislation.
Similar coordination mechanisms on the country level took longer to be set up, but are currently in their pilot phase. In one country, where the UN Country Team started these preventive coordination meetings in May 2016, the joint brainstorming in these sessions led to heightened confidence among the representatives of UN agencies involved, one UN official noted. Because of the directness and intimacy of these meetings, participants felt comfortable sharing sensitive observations that they otherwise would not include in formal reports. These positive responses underscore the value of the formats introduced by the HRuF initiative.
Engagement with UN Member States
The early warning mechanisms that the United Nations has established as part of HRuF are restricted to the UN system; member states and civil society organizations do not take part in the discussions. To the degree that these coordination mechanisms lead to a more coherent UN position vis-à-vis host governments, they can still increase the effectiveness of the UN conflict prevention efforts as a whole. UN staff members said, for example, that the UN acted more coherently in the run-up to the 2015 Nigerian presidential election than on previous occasions. This included appointing a designated senior UN official as point person on Nigeria in the Secretariat. The specific impact of the greater UN coherence on the relatively peaceful outcome of the election and change in government remains to be researched.
The increase in informal DPA briefings for the Security Council also demonstrates the new dynamics that the HRuF initiative has brought to how the UN Secretariat deals with member states. There were twice as many such briefings in 2015 compared to the year before. DPA uses the agenda item “any other business” for this purpose, to present member states with background information on countries that may not be on the council’s existing agenda.
Meanwhile, a new format, in which the Secretariat informally briefs the members of the Security Council about the political and human rights dimension of a particular situation, has emerged. These situational awareness briefings were introduced during the monthly presidency of New Zealand in September 2016 and have taken place on a monthly basis since then. The early warning function of these briefings is limited, however, since, at least until January 2017, these briefings only dealt with countries that were already on the council’s agenda.
Problems and Challenges
In light of the high ambition of the initiative, it is not surprising that the cultural change has not taken hold completely. There are structural constraints inherent in UN institutions. The entities in the UN system all take very different approaches to addressing human rights violations. Consider the question of whether, and under which conditions, public advocacy is more effective than quiet diplomacy. The Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights, which has a mandate to monitor and report all human rights violations, will take a different approach to this question than, for example, the World Food Programme, which depends on humanitarian access. The situation is similar regarding the role of the UN towards host governments. Development agencies like UNDP depend on cooperation, even with authoritarian governments, whose conduct towards civil society OHCHR might publicly criticize. This poses an enduring structural challenge that the UN will have to address over time.
In addition, multiple scandals have plagued the UN even after the introduction of the HRuF initiative, which underline the enduring challenges that the initiative faces. One example is the manner in which different agencies handled information about sexual exploitation and abuse by French soldiers that were part of the UN mandated operation “Sengaris” in the Central African Republic. Instead of taking the information seriously, the UN suspended Anders Kompass, the OHCHR staff member who had passed on evidence to French authorities, after UN channels had failed to respond to his warnings. In language reminiscent of the internal review panel on Sri Lanka, another independent inquiry published in December 2015 spoke of “gross institutional failure” in this case.
Moreover, the decisions of coordination mechanisms are not always easily translated into actionable results. For example, demand for additional peace and development advisors, which UNDP and DPA provide to UN Country Teams upon their request, has grown faster than the quantity of available funds. Currently, there are 39 such advisors deployed worldwide. According to UN officials, an additional $4 million will be required from 2018 in order to cover current demand for eleven more advisors. Such constraints thus remain a significant issue limiting the potential success of the HRuF initiative.
On a similar note, the deployment of UN human rights advisors has proven to be challenging. These are tasked with supporting Resident Coordinators and UN Country Teams with a human rights-based approach to development, and in advising them and the host government on the human rights treaty system. Unfortunately, their deployment can take up to 24 months. According to one evaluation, by the time the advisors are ready, the RC that originally requested the additional personnel may have already left the host country, and his or her successor might not see the same demand for a human rights advisor. If UN Country Teams are supposed to put human rights up front, the deployment of human rights advisors needs to be sped up and their management improved.
New Enthusiasm for Prevention
Since taking office, Secretary-General Guterres has started to translate his rhetorical commitment to prevention into a number of specific actions. He restructured the early warning and coordination mechanisms in the UN Secretariat. As a result, the prevention mechanisms have become more integrated since March 2017. Regional reviews now take place on a monthly basis; in addition, the new Deputies Committee that brings together the heads of relevant agencies at the level of assistant secretary-general now also meets on a monthly basis, and has a new standing item on prevention. Decisions can be forwarded to the Deputies Committee and, if necessary, to the Executive Committee, where Guterres and his most senior advisors meet weekly.
Secretary-General Guterres has also announced that he wants to increase the mediation and conflict resolution capacity of the UN. He has commissioned a number of reviews of the peace and security architecture, including on prevention. According to some observers, this reform process might lead to a greater focus on preventive diplomacy, away from expensive and complex peace operations.
Conclusion and the Role of Germany
Have any of these mechanisms and actions contributed to a reduction in human rights violations? In light of the complex nature of international relations, the long causal chains involved, and the high number of actors at play, it is not possible to answer this question unequivocally. International organizations always have a limited influence on intra-state conflicts, and the UN can only mitigate, rather than eliminate, regional rivalries and geopolitical interests. This uncertainty lies in the nature of prevention. A lot depends on a comprehensive and flexible analysis of the situation, the qualifications and courage of leaders on the ground, and the readiness of conflicting parties to resolve their dispute peacefully. At the same time, the UN has definitely improved its capacity to respond to grave human rights abuses, as exemplified by the new mechanisms of the Human Rights up Front initiative.
Member states such as Germany that want to strengthen the role of the UN in the area of prevention need to do their best to ensure that the HRuF initiative and Guterres’s prevention agenda become a success. For that purpose, they can further contribute to the funding of peace and development advisors (Germany is already a donor to the program), promote human rights and prevention in executive boards of UN development agencies, funds and programs, and coordinate closely with Resident Coordinators on the ground on human rights and other political issues.
Germany, which is currently campaigning for a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council in the 2019–2020 period, should take a leading role in this regard. In the Security Council, it should promote more visiting missions in a preventive function, similar to the mission to the Lake Chad region organized by the United Kingdom in March 2017. It should push the United Nations to hold its senior leaders on the ground to account when they fail to adopt a preventive posture and to empower those UN leaders and staff members that show courage. In doing so, the German government could start to operationalize the high ambitions it set for itself in its recently adopted white paper on crisis prevention, conflict management, and peace promotion.
This is an edited and slightly revised translation of a German article that first appeared in the journal Vereinte Nationen.