Independent inquiry fails to answer important questions on the UN’s role in Myanmar

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 act”.

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 assumed.

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 recommendations.

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.

A Question of Leadership: Lessons from the UN’s Actions in Myanmar

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.

Making the United Nations System More Effective on Conflict Prevention

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.

Secretary General Antonio Guterres meeting with Greek Community leader H. E. Nicos Anastasiades and Turkish Community leader H.E. Mustafa Akinci, (c) UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe.

This post appeared on GPPi’s website.

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.

How to sell a UN reform to member states

Five lessons from the Human Rights Up Front initiative

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This post appeared on the Blog Junge UN-Forschung.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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