In drei neuen Strategiedokumenten zur Krisenprävention formuliert die Bundesregierung hohe konzeptionelle Ansprüche an ihre Arbeit. Als Schwerpunkte sollen Sicherheitssektorreform, Rechtsstaatsförderung und Vergangenheitsarbeit unterstützt werden. Um diese Konzepte auch wirkungsvoll umsetzen zu können, müssen die Aktionspläne aber konkrete Maßnahmen enthalten. Auslandsvertretungen in fragilen Staaten kommt dabei eine besondere Bedeutung zu.
In seiner Rede vor der UN-Generalversammlung Ende September versprach Außenminister Heiko Maas eine „nachhaltige Außenpolitik“. Krisenprävention nehme darin eine besondere Stellung ein, sagte er. Am gleichen Tag stellte die Bundesregierung drei neue Konzepte vor, die zeigen sollen, wie präventives Engagement aussehen kann. Bei der ersten Jahrestagung des Beirats zivile Krisenprävention in Berlin stießen diese auf ein weitgehend positives Echo. Den Strategien sollten jedoch Aktionspläne mit konkreten Zielen für Personal, Ausstattung und Koordinationsmechanismen folgen.
Seit 2014 hat die Bundesregierung ihr Engagement in fragilen Staaten deutlich gesteigert. Allein die Projektmittel des Auswärtigen Amts für Krisenprävention, Stabilisierung und Friedensförderung haben sich seitdem etwa vervierfacht – auf 396 Millionen Euro im aktuellen Haushalt. 2017 verabschiedete das Kabinett die Leitlinien „Krisen verhindern, Konflikte bewältigen, Frieden fördern.“ Ein Ergebnis dieser Leitlinien sind drei themenspezifische Dokumente, die ressortgemeinsam abgestimmt und von einem öffentlichen Konsultationsprozess begleitet wurden. Diese beschäftigen sich mit Sicherheitssektorreformen (SSR), Rechtstaatsförderung sowie Vergangenheitsarbeit und Versöhnung.
Diese drei Bereiche prägen gesellschaftliche Transformationsprozesse. Heike Thiele, Beauftragte der Bundesregierung für Zivile Krisenprävention und Stabilisierung im Auswärtigen Amt, nannte den Übergangsprozess im Sudan bei der Jahrestagung als aktuelles Beispiel: Die Richterbänke sind besetzt mit Leuten des alten Regimes. Armee, Polizei und Milizen müssten sich das Vertrauen der Bevölkerung erst verdienen und massive Gewaltanwendungen aus dreißig Jahren Diktatur müssten aufgearbeitet werden. Nur so könnten die Menschen in Sudan wieder anfangen, den staatlichen Institutionen zu vertrauen.
Gute Konzepte, zu wenig Strategie
In den Dokumenten sind zentrale Konzepte, Instrumente und Handlungsfelder aufgelistet. Damit wird das deutsche Verständnis für die Herausforderungen präventiver Arbeit in drei zentralen Bereichen aufgelistet. Um wirklich ihren Anspruch als Strategien zu erfüllen, muss jedoch noch jeweils klarer werden, wie sich die Arbeit der Ressorts in absehbarer Zukunft messbar ändern soll – außer einer neuen gemeinsamen Arbeitsgruppe.
Ein effektiver und bei allen Bevölkerungsgruppen legitimierter Sicherheitssektor ist Voraussetzung für langfristige Stabilität. In der SSR-Strategie erkennt die Bundesregierung an, dass es sich bei der Reform von Polizei und Militär nicht nur um technische, sondern machtpolitische Prozesse handelt. Denn die Sicherheitskräfte sind ein zentrales Instrument der Unterdrückung und Herrschaftssicherung in autokratischen Staaten. Unter ihnen gibt es zahlreiche Gegner von mehr Transparenz und Rechenschaftspflichtigkeit.
Internationale Hilfe für SSR ist stets mit dem Risiko verbunden, durch einseitige Unterstützung neue Vorbehalte zu schüren, wie auch die SSR-Strategie erwähnt. Allerdings legt die Bundesregierung nicht dar, welche genauen Mechanismen sie einsetzt, um diese Risiken zu managen. Dazu sollte auch die Überprüfung des menschenrechtlichen Hintergrunds der Teilnehmerinnen und Teilnehmer an von Deutschland finanzierten Maßnahmen zählen. Ein allgemeiner Hinweis auf konfliktsensibles Handeln reicht nicht. Die Zusammenarbeit mit nichtstaatlichen Gewaltakteuren wie Selbstverteidigungsmilizen stellt die Strategie allerdings zu Recht unter einen hohen Vorbehalt.
Die Beziehungen zwischen Staat und Gesellschaft beruhen auf Regeln. Die transparente, gleichmäßige und konsequente Einhaltung dieser Regeln berührt das Rechtsstaatsprinzip. Auch hier erkennt die Bundesregierung an, dass eine rein technische Unterstützung von Gerichten, Strafvollzug und Rechtspflege nicht ausreicht, sondern politisch flankiert werden muss. Hilfreich ist auch, dass die Strategie auch nichtstaatliche Quellen von Recht anerkennt und Bedingungen für deutsche Unterstützung von informellen, traditionellen oder religiösen Rechtssystemen nennt. Zu diesen Bedingungen zählt ihre Ausrichtung an Frauen- und Minderheitenrechten.
Gleichwohl liest sich die Strategie wie eine Liste von Instrumenten und Handlungsfeldern, deren jeweiliges Ambitionsniveau die Bundesregierung nicht ausreichend reflektiert. So nennt sie die Zusammenarbeit mit China und Vietnam als Beispiele für Rechtsstaatsdialoge. Während einzelne Gesetzesvorhaben durch die Dialoge entschärft werden können, bleibt das von Staatsparteien kontrollierte System jedoch bestehen.
Die stärkste Reflexion findet sich in der Strategie zu Vergangenheitsarbeit und Versöhnung. Nach Krieg und Gewaltherrschaft kann schwelendes Unrecht Auslöser neuer Konflikte sein. Wahrheitskommissionen, Sondertribunale oder Entschädigungskommissionen können einen wichtigen Beitrag zur Aufarbeitung leisten. Die Strategie der Bundesregierung spricht dabei offen mögliche Spannungen zwischen Wahrheitsfindung, Strafrecht und Versöhnung als auch zwischen den Erwartungen verschiedener Opfergruppen, staatlicher Stellen und internationalen Akteuren an.
Deutlich wird, dass die Bundesregierung auf internationalen Lehren im Bereich Vergangenheitsarbeit aufbaut. Die Strategie konzentriert sich nicht allein auf strafrechtliche Aufarbeitung, sondern betont die Bedeutung des jeweiligen Kontexts und die Beteiligung von Opfergruppen. Allerdings verwundert, dass die Arbeit von deutschen Strafverfolgungsbehörden unerwähnt bleibt, die nach dem Weltrechtsprinzip Verbrechen in Drittstaaten aufklären können. Zu Verbrechen in Syrien, Irak und der Demokratischen Republik Kongo hat es bereits Prozesse in Deutschland gegeben.
Deutscher Mehrwert und nächste Schritte
Deutschland bewegt sich in keinem der drei Bereiche allein. Umso wichtiger ist eine klare Vorstellung davon, welchen Mehrwert deutsche Unterstützung im Vergleich zu nationalen und anderen internationalen Akteuren leisten kann, und wo die Bundesregierung ihre eigenen Prioritäten sieht. Hier unterscheiden sich die drei Strategien stark.
Die Strategie zur Vergangenheitsarbeit zeigt die größte Kohärenz. Sie identifiziert vier Bereiche für eine eigene Schwerpunktsetzung und ordnet ihr einzelne Maßnahmen unter. Die Bundesregierung will Vergangenheitsarbeit in eine „Präventionsagenda“ von politischen Reformen einbetten, Opfergruppen stärken und einbeziehen, Geschlechtergerechtigkeit in diesen Prozessen fördern und die spezifischen Erfahrungen Deutschlands beim Umgang mit der eigenen Erfahrung aus NS- und DDR-Unrecht nutzbar machen.
Im Bereich der Rechtsstaatsförderung erwähnt die Strategie, dass die Rechtsbindung von Verwaltungen im Vordergrund stehen soll. Allerdings wird dies nicht weiter erläutert oder als ordnendes Prinzip genutzt. Die SSR-Strategie kommt sogar ganz ohne Schwerpunktsetzung aus. Dies überrascht insofern, da sich die parlamentarische Kontrolle der Streitkräfte und das Prinzip der inneren Führung in der Bundeswehr als Erfahrungen anbieten würden.
Nach dieser konzeptionellen Ausarbeitung sollte der nächste Schritt darin bestehen, Aktionspläne zu jedem der drei Handlungsfelder aufzustellen. Denn noch wird kaum klar, wie die Dokumente die Arbeit der Bundesregierung in Zukunft tatsächlich verändern werden und wie sich die Ziele zum gesetzten Datum 2025 überprüfen lassen. Gesellschaftliche Transformationsprozesse sind stets von Unsicherheit und Rückschlägen gekennzeichnet, aber zumindest für die eigene Arbeit sollte die Bundesregierung messbare Indikatoren aufstellen.
Die Bundesregierung sollte ihre Prioritäten klären, diese mit Mitteln unterlegen und ihr Personal weiterbilden und ausreichend ausstatten. Deutsche Auslandsvertretungen in fragilen Staaten verfügen oft über zu wenig politische Referentinnen und Referenten. Sie müssen aber in die Lage versetzt werden, die deutschen Stabilisierungsprojekte zu verfolgen, wie es die Strategien vorsehen. Die beteiligten Ressorts sollten weiterhin eng mit zivilgesellschaftlichen Akteuren zusammenarbeiten, die häufig seit Jahrzehnten in der Krisenprävention tätig sind. Über Indikatoren und Aktionspläne hinaus sollte der „gemeinsame Lernprozess“ weitergehen, wie bei der Jahrestagung des Beirats zivile Krisenprävention deutlich wurde.
Zudem muss die Bundesregierung auf ihre eigene Glaubwürdigkeit achten. Eine globale Handels-, Wirtschafts-, Klima- und Rüstungspolitik ist oft struktureller Konflikttreiber. Eine präventive Außenpolitik, die den Namen verdient, braucht nicht nur überprüfbare Strategien, sondern auch eine ganzheitliche Ausrichtung
An independent inquiry into the UN system’s response to the mass violence against the Rohingya population in Myanmar found “systemic and structural failures”, echoing an earlier finding of a similar investigation on Sri Lanka. At the same time, the inquiry conducted by former Guatemalan diplomat Gert Rosenthal leaves important questions unexplored. Crucially, Rosenthal did not explore allegations that the UN Country Team in Myanmar was complicit in the regime’s discrimination against the Rohingya population. For the UN to learn from the past, it needs to have a more detailed record of the decisions taken.
This text first appeared on medium.com on 15 September 2019.
Learning lessons from past mistakes is important. That is true both on an individual level as well at the level of the United Nations. Rwanda, Srebrenica, Sri Lanka, Haiti, South Sudan: there have been many independent inquiries into the UN’s actions in a situation where serious human rights violations took place. They have spurred influential, albeit imperfect reform processes of the organization’s institutional architecture, processes and policies. Unfortunately, the latest such report, into the UN system’s response to the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar between 2010 and 2018, is too shallow and generic to allow for substantial learning to take place how the UN system could have used potential leverage to prevent the atrocities. It also fails to investigate allegations of the UN’s complicity in the systemic discrimination of the Rohingya population that are already part of the public record.
The Rohingya people have suffered
from systemic discrimination by the Myanmar government for decades. In a
Buddhist-dominated country, the government and many Buddhist citizens regard
the Rohingya as foreign, rejecting even their name and calling them “Bengali”,
i.e. belonging to neighboring Bangladesh. The Rohingya have lacked citizenship
and associated rights since the 1982 nationality law. Amid the democratic
reform process in Myanmar since 2012, discrimination against the Rohingya has
increased, including restrictions on their freedom of movement. In reaction to an
attack on police stations by a Rohingya armed group in August 2017, the Myanmar
security forces engaged in indiscriminate violence against the
civilian population, killing thousands and driving around 700,000 people across
the border into Bangladesh. Former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid
Ra’ad al-Hussein described these attacks as “textbook example
of ethnic cleansing”. A fact-finding mission recommended that senior military commanders
should be investigated for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. It
found six indicators of “genocidal intent”, including in its most recent report
evidence of sexual violence by the security forces,
with hundreds of women and girls gang-raped.
Existing allegations: timidity or even complicity?
For several years, there have been
serious allegations of misconduct by the UN Country Team based in Myanmar and
senior UN officials elsewhere, including through leaked internal reports,
statements by former employees, and investigative reporting. These allegations
are complex, but essentially fall into either of two main points. The first
concerns a lack of coherence both within the UN presence in Myanmar and among
the UN leadership in New York. Even though the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon
and his deputy Jan Eliasson had spearheaded a reform to improve the UN system’s
processes and internal mechanisms in the wake of the Sri Lanka inquiry, these
reforms were not effective in Myanmar. Specifically, public reports charged
that the Resident Coordinator, the highest UN official in the country, excluded critical voices from meetings and suppressed a report warning of a deterioration
of the situation in early 2017. Mirroring differences between public advocacy
and quiet dialogue at the country level, senior UN officials disagreed on the organization’s overall
approach, with Eliasson and al-Hussein on one side, and the head of the UN
Development Programme, Helen Clark, and Vijay Nambiar, special advisor for
Myanmar, on the other side. Limited public or private criticism by the UN after
an earlier massacre, “proved to the Myanmar government that it could manipulate
the U.N.’s self-inflicted paralysis in Rakhine”, a UN official told the journalist Column Lynch. In other words, the
activists allege that contradictory messages from different parts of the UN
system and relative muteness on major human rights issues signaled to Myanmar’s
security forces that it could get away with them.
The second point that those reports
make goes even further. They allege that the UN Country Team was complicit in
the discriminatory policies of the Myanmar government towards the Rohingya
people. The UN and its international partners sustained displaced Rohingyas in
internment camps, which the government did not allow them to leave, and
collaborated with the government in the so-called Rakhine Action Plan. The plan,
supposedly aimed at improving the humanitarian situation, included the registration of Rohingya as “Bengalis”,
thus erasing their identity. Liam Mahony, an international consultant, spoke
with representatives of the humanitarian community in Myanmar and observed in a
critical report in 2015: “The State benefits not only from having the cost of
minimally sustaining the population carried by others, it also gets a
legitimacy benefit from having all these international organizations present
(and better yet, present and quiet.)”
Explaining “systemic failure”
In his report, Gert Rosenthal largely confirms the first
allegation, and ignores the second one. He identifies the tension between quiet
diplomacy and public advocacy as the core challenge for the UN in dealing with
the situation in Rakhine state, and “systemic and structural failures” in
resolving them. In a chapter of just six pages, Rosenthal describes five
reasons for these failures: lack of support from member states; the absence of
a common strategy by the UN leadership; too many points of coordination; a
dysfunctional country team led by a Resident Coordinator out of her depth but
unable to receive more expert support from headquarters because of government
opposition; and competing lines of reporting from the field, muddling
information and analysis available in New York. Because the problems were
systemic, no single entity or individual should be singled out, he concludes,
pointing to the “shared responsibility on the part of all parties involved”.
The report’s observations are
pertinent, and in mentioning the lack of executive decision-making by the Secretary-General go beyond
the findings of the Sri Lanka inquiry that was published in 2012. As a new generation of UN
Country Teams has started to deploy since the start of the year, extracting
lessons for their engagement would be important. Rosenthal acknowledges that
pushing for change in the government of Myanmar’s behavior towards the Rohingya
while simultaneously working with it on humanitarian and development issues as
well as supporting the democratic transition process was “a difficult balancing
Diplomacy on human rights issues
often involves such balancing acts for the UN. The restrictions present in
Myanmar – a repressive government, divided member states, and lack of dedicated
UN capacities on political and human rights issues – were not unheard of. The
Resident Coordinator was in a very difficult position to engage in advocacy, as
Mahony had already concluded in 2015: humanitarian organizations were
“expecting UNHCR and the Resident Coordinator to do it all for them.” Yet it is
difficult to conclude from Rosenthal’s synoptic account which kind of advocacy
and at what points in time could have been successful in dissuading the
security forces from their attacks.
Lack of detail, counterfactuals and potential leverage
A detailed narrative investigating
incidents where the UN was faced with a concrete incident and needed to make a
choice between advocacy and diplomacy would have been helpful. Which
information did which UN entity have, how was it handled within the system, and
who used it in which form in any engagement with the government? In which ways
did the actions of the government, member states and the UN entities interact
to inform decision-making in the UN Country Team and at UN headquarters? For
example, the journalist and Myanmar expert Francis Wade writes about the way in which an incident in the
village of Du Chee Yar Tan had instilled greater caution in the UN’s advocacy.
Based on initial reports of a massacre, the UN had raised the issue with the
government authorities, only to be rebuked and find out later from further
sources that the alleged incident was apparently not as serious as initially
Closer attention to such incidents
would have been important. But Rosenthal had very limited capacity, having to
work on its own without support staff or colleagues. He did not travel to
Myanmar. Investigating inflection points would have helped to persuade the
reader of his conclusions. It would have also allowed to point out more
counterfactual decisions, or the consequences of the choices that were made for
the calculus of the security forces and for how events unfolded on the ground.
The only benchmark that Rosenthal mentions is an observer mission in Rakhine
state that could have monitored the actions of armed groups and the military.
Such a mission could have investigated incidents such as the attacks on police
stations in 2016 and 2017 that provided the excuse for the security services’
“clearance operations”. But, as he himself acknowledges, such a mission was
impossible without the agreement of the government.
Lastly, Rosenthal hardly enquires
into the potential leverage of the UN system, or any other actor to change the
government’s behavior. He briefly mentions China, India, Indonesia and ASEAN as
“privileged” partners of the UN, but does not discuss any specific efforts UN
officials made to convince them to put pressure on the government, including
for the failed upgrade of the UN presence in the country. Nor does he inquire
whether the US gave in too quickly to Chinese opposition to dealing with
Myanmar in the UN Security Council earlier on. Rosenthal observes that even when
Guterres wrote a stern letter to the Security Council in
early September 2017 after the start of the ethnic cleansing campaign, it did
not lead the council “to respond in either a forceful or a timely manner.”
In contrast, Mahony’s 2015
assessment talks of the “uniquely privileged position” of the UN and member
states in relation to a government that desperately sought international
legitimacy for its democratic reform process and the “huge financial rewards
that this new leadership brings”. It would have been essential to learn if UN
actors felt the same and in what ways they used such leverage.
Why accountability matters
The shortcomings of such an internal
review matter. Not only does the UN owe greater accountability to the Rohingya
victims of the systemic discrimination, forced displacement, and indiscriminate
killings, but also to its own staff, and to the wider public. The Secretary
General’s Office is currently leading a follow-up process to the Rosenthal
report. Its first task will need to be to expand on Rosenthal’s very short
Even though Rosenthal does not say
so explicitly, some commentators have drawn the conclusion that his report “assigns
collective responsibility for the atrocities committed during the 2017 Rohingya
crisis to both the UN civil service and UN member states.“ That is
misleading – there is nothing in the report to suggest how a more coherent UN
system supported by member states could have prevented the atrocities. Maybe
more pressure could have emboldened the civilian government led by Aung San Suu Kyi to try and
stand up to the military, or earlier and more widespread targeted sanctions
could have influenced the military leadership. Without a more thorough analysis
of international engagement, we can only guess.
In the meantime, the UN’s reputation further deteriorates, potentially undermining its work elsewhere as well as the reform of the country team system. No official, diplomat, or government representative has been held accountable for a responsibility that is shared collectively. More than one million Rohingya refugees continue to live in horrid conditions in Bangladeshi refugee camps.
The UN’s inquiry into its own actions in Myanmar since 2012 draws significant parallels with a similar exercise that focused on the UN’s role during the end of the war in Sri Lanka. Once again, the UN found itself in a situation where a government was committing atrocities, but the UN showed an incoherent, ineffective response. Without clear leadership adjudicating differences among key stakeholders in the UN system, the principled engagement to which Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had committed himself remained elusive.
This text first appeared on Strife Blog hosted at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London.
Engaging with severe human rights violations requires courage and coherence, setting clear principles and the readiness to stand by them if they are under pressure. An independent inquiry on the UN’s action during the Rakhine crisis in Myanmar, which came out in June, observed that the international organisation showed a “systemic failure” in dealing with the state’s repression of the Rohingya people between 2010 and 2018. Choosing his words carefully, its author, the former Guatemalan foreign minister Gert Rosenthal, echoed a similar exercise on the UN’s behaviour during the end of the war in Sri Lanka in 2008/09. Importantly, the UN system’s shortcomings were not a simple matter of failing to speak out, but of incoherence across the system, exacerbated by the lack of executive decision-making in Myanmar and at headquarters level. The lack of leadership by Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, despite his strong rhetorical commitment to human rights and atrocity prevention, deserves further attention.
From the UN’s perspective, the situation in Sri Lanka and Myanmar showed uncanny parallels, despite all objective differences. In Sri Lanka, the armed forces pursued a relentless final assault on the Tamil Tigers’ last hold-outs in Sri Lanka in 2008-2009. In Myanmar, the security forces attacked Rohingya civilians repeatedly, culminating in full-scale ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya population in 2017. In both countries, governments were the major perpetrators of violence, the presence of armed groups notwithstanding. Both governments were opposed to a strong human rights presence by the UN, and frustrated efforts by the UN Secretariat to increase its relevant capacity.
Myanmar and Sri Lanka, though both at the time host to significant armed violence, had successfully objected to any political or peacekeeping presence. The Resident Coordinators (RC), the head of the UN Country Team, in both countries had been chosen at a time of relative peace and with a strong development focus, not a profile in international humanitarian and human rights law. There were even some personal overlaps: Vijay Nambiar, the special advisor on Myanmar between 2012 and 2016, had been one of the most important UN officials during the Sri Lanka crisis, as Ban’s chef de cabinet. Lastly, there were strong geopolitical divisions that manifested themselves in a reluctance of the UN Security Council to discuss the situation as an official agenda item. In short, they were among the most difficult situations for the UN to work in.
The central challenge, as identified by Rosenthal, is a familiar and highly pertinent one: “how the United Nations can maintain some type of constructive engagement with individual member states where human rights abuses are systematically taking place, while at the same time pressing for those states to uphold their international commitments.” In other words, the UN needs to find an adequate mix of “quiet diplomacy” and “outspoken advocacy”, approaches that are associated with different parts of the UN system. For such a mix, the UN needs an inclusive organisational structure to produce a coherent policy, communicated across the system, owned by the leadership, and based on current, on-the-ground information and analysis.
The failure in Myanmar, according to Rosenthal, was that none of those prerequisites were present. Both at country and at HQ level, there were stark differences of opinion regarding the most adequate modus operandi. These manifested themselves in an increasingly polarised working environment, as a function of the high stakes involved in the crisis in Rakhine state. Both sides of the argument thought that the other approach was not only wrong-headed, but potentially dangerous and counterproductive to de-escalate the violence and reduce discrimination. The emotionally charged atmosphere explains the reports about critical individuals being excluded from key meetings by Renata Lok Dessalien. The UN also had difficulty accessing the most volatile areas of Rakhine state and providing independent monitoring after alleged incidents.
Perhaps most importantly, there was a lack of strategic leadership, not just at the country level, but also at the highest level of the UN system. Differences between Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson, who pressed for advocacy, and Special Envoy Vijay Nambiar and UNDP Administrator Helen Clark, who stressed quiet diplomacy and development efforts, respectively, were never resolved by Secretary-General Ban. Rosenthal writes, “even at the highest level of the Organization there was no common strategy.”
These shortcomings are particularly salient because Ban and Eliasson had vowed to turn a page after the damning findings of the Sri Lanka inquiry. They launched the “Human Rights up Front” initiative in late 2013 with the aim to improve coordination, information management, engagement with member states, and the UN’s organisational culture. One of the new mechanisms established as part of the initiative was the so-called Senior Action Group (SAG). The SAG brought together the system’s most important parts at the top leadership level, including the UNDP Administrator, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Emergency Relief Coordinator, and other high-level officials. It was chaired by Deputy Secretary General Eliasson.
In the SAG’s discussion of the crisis in Rakhine state, Helen Clark, then UNDP administrator, protected UNDP and her RC, insisting that investing in development would also benefit the Rohingya, which should not be jeopardised by an overly focus on human rights advocacy. Allegations of specific incidents required more investigation, she often insisted. According to a UN official familiar with these discussions that I interviewed, “any time there was a contentious issue, a dilemma between quiet diplomacy, public diplomacy and so on, the differences were simply discussed, and no executive decision was taken.”
While the UNDP administrator is appointed by the Secretary General, he or she also reports to the UNDP Executive Board. At the time, Clark had the final say on appointing or replacing RCs. The UN official that I interviewed described her behaviour as “territorial.” In any case, Ban could have insisted on a common position on the Rakhine crisis, not the least since Helen Clark had officially signed up to Human Rights up Front. Eliasson, who knew the destitute situation of the Rohingya from his time as Emergency Relief Coordinator in the early 1990s, had pressed for the replacement of the RC as early as 2015. Still, Ban did not overrule Clark nor did he “arbitrate a common stance between these two competing perspectives,” as Rosenthal writes.
The lack of leadership was highly problematic: the whole purpose of such high-level meetings as the SAG was to deal with questions that UN officials at the country level had not been able to agree on, and to create a common analysis and joint ownership of decisions. The different perspectives are ingrained in the distinct mandates and ways of working of the parts of the UN system; it falls to the collective leadership of the UN system to resolve tensions arising from the operational work. “Systemic failure” sounds like the reasons for incoherence lie mainly in structural differences. While these are important, ultimately responsibility for ensuring that the whole UN system works falls to its leadership, including the Secretary General and member states.
Clearly, the UN system is subject to the same cleavages and divisions that characterise the international system as a whole. As Renata Lok Dessalien herself points out in a paper written after her assignment in Myanmar, conceptual differences regarding the meaning and interpretation of basic principles are ingrained in the UN Charter, for example between the promotion of human rights and the respect for national sovereignty. No internal UN reform such as Human Rights up Front can do away with those tensions, or abolish geopolitical differences. What it can do, and it has done with some mixed success, is change the way the organisation works, improving communication, analysis and decision-making procedures.
If the UN can hope to influence events in situations like those in Rakhine state in Myanmar at all, a coherent and coordinated policy across the whole system is a prerequisite. Otherwise both governments and critical member states are always able to play different parts of the system against each other, muting their respective effectiveness.
Luckily and despite significant opposition from key member states, the UN has started to improve its coherence in dealing with the crisis in Myanmar. Shortly after he came into office, Secretary General António Guterres appointed a permanent monitoring group within the UN, and prioritised strategic dialogue with Myanmar’s government, including State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi. He also championed a reform of the RC system. When Myanmar’s armed forces began their military offensive that included ethnic cleansing in Rakhine state in August 2017, Guterres resorted to public diplomacy. In a rare step, he wrote to the UN Security Council, urging its members to take action. Also in 2017, Renata Lok Dessalien finished her position as RC in Myanmar. Her successor, the Norwegian Knut Ostby, emphasized communication and principled engagement, for example threatening to reduce all but essential aid to IDP camps in Rakhine state if the government did not improve the Rohingyas’ freedom of movement. At the same time, renewed fighting between the ethnic Rakhine Arakan armed group and the government as well as continued denial of citizenship have left around a million Rohingya refugees stranded in refugee camps in neighbouring Bangladesh.
UN diplomacy consists of difficult balancing acts, in particular in dealing with unrepentant governments committing atrocities against their own population. Faced with an increasing emphasis of state sovereignty, including by the United States, Guterres has, at times, appeared to waver on human rights. If his prevention agenda is to succeed, he needs to mobilise all pillars of the UN to support each other, not just in Myanmar.
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.
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.
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.