Germany should advocate in the UN Security Council for a course correction on the international approach to peace in South Sudan. If high-level mediation, addressing impunity, and grassroots reconciliation are not prioritized, international pressure to form a transitional government by November 12, 2019, is likely to lead to renewed violence.
In Juba, South Sudan’s capital, it seems to be Groundhog Day, with the same events reoccurring in a never-ending loop. The current run-up to a November 12 deadline to form a transitional government closely resembles the predicament of just half a year ago, when the parties had extended the initial deadline from May.
Under intense regional and international pressure after the collapse of the original peace agreement of August 2015, the government and opposition parties signed the Revitalized Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in South Sudan (R-ARCSS) in September 2018. It included a ceasefire, which largely still holds across the country, at least among signatories. R-ARCSS also foresaw the creation of a transitional government of national unity, with positions for the various negotiating parties, including five vice-presidential posts.
A delegation of the UN Security Council, led by the United States and South Africa, visited Juba on October 20, 2019. Its mission: impress upon all signatories to the R-ARCSS the need to abide by their commitments, including forming the transitional government by the agreed deadline. The United States has already hinted at additional sanctions if the parties fail. Yet with no adequate security arrangements and political agreements in place, such international pressure risks repeating the same mistakes made at key junctures since the start of South Sudan’s civil war in December 2013.
The issues hindering the peace process and the formation of the transitional government of national unity are well-known. In a statement from early October 2019, the UN Security Council listed them itself: not only is there no agreement between the parties on the internal borders of South Sudan’s federal states and the cantonment and training of government and opposition security forces, but the government is also dragging its feet in releasing funds to support these processes.
The current peace deal risks sharing the fate of the original peace agreement of August 2015, which quickly collapsed three years ago amid the escalation of fighting, spread of violence, and fragmentation of the parties involved. Then, international pressure brought Kiir, Machar, and a smaller opposition group together to sign this agreement, which included a ceasefire, a power-sharing arrangement, and a commitment to establish a hybrid court under the aegis of the African Union. As became clear in the following months, the parties never intended to follow through with many of these commitments. Worse, the regional and international guarantors of the agreement let them get away with it.
Barely two months after he signed the peace agreement, President Kiir announced the reorganization of South Sudan’s federal states, increasing their number from 10 to 28. As the power-sharing arrangements were tied to the original number, his move was a clear violation of the peace agreement. Furthermore, the government failed to withdraw the bulk of its security forces from Juba to cantonment sites on its periphery. Machar and Kiir agreed on security arrangements that brought hundreds of opposition forces to Juba to guarantee the safety of Machar and his team, further militarizing the capital.
Under international pressure and in a weak military position, Machar went to Juba in April 2016 to form a unity government. The arrangement proved to be deeply dysfunctional. When Machar’s and Kiir’s forces clashed at an illegal checkpoint in the city in July of that year, heavy fighting broke out, during which hundreds of civilians and fighters were killed. Machar fled Juba accompanied by a contingent of his rebels, with government security forces in close pursuit. The government later revealed that it had paid Paul Malong, then chief of military staff, five million US dollars directly from the central bank to pursue and kill Machar, then the country’s first vice president.
International and regional reactions to these events were underwhelming. Beyond verbal criticism, there were neither repercussions for Kiir’s reorganization of state borders, nor for the July 2016 crisis. In addition, international and regional partners implicitly accepted that Taban Deng Gai, who had represented the opposition during the peace negotiations, had replaced Machar as first vice president while Machar was on the run.
Waking Up from Groundhog Day
Around 380,000 people are estimated to have died because of South Sudan’s civil war. The South Sudanese need a different international engagement. Germany supported the negotiations that led to the revitalized peace agreement last year with expertise and additional staff for the African Union (AU) and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), the regional organization in the Horn of Africa. As a donor and a current non-permanent member of the UN Security Council, Germany – along with its European partners – now has the chance to steer international policymaking on South Sudan in new, more effective directions.
First of all, in partnership with the AU and IGAD, the Security Council needs to push for continuous mediation between the parties. Security arrangements and the internal political order were already at the heart of the failure of the previous transitional government. Therefore, it is baffling that IGAD has not yet managed to appoint a permanent head of the peace agreement’s monitoring body. South Sudan should not just be seen as an issue to shape US Ambassador to the UN Kelly Craft’s public profile; rather, it deserves sustained political attention from the region, as well as from international decision-makers, including in Europe. There is no shortcut around negotiations between the parties. High-level mediators not only need to bring all the main players to the negotiating table until there is a consensus, but they also need to quickly follow-up with sanctions in the event of serious violations.
Secondly, donor countries like Germany need to spell out their conditions for support of the peace process more explicitly. Right now, the South Sudanese parties shape the narrative by calling for international donors to release further funds for the implementation of the peace agreement, in particular the retraining of government and opposition forces. Instead, donors should insist on the South Sudanese government’s pledge to release 100 million US dollars for this process. While the government currently spends millions on a presidential jet and foreign medical treatment for MPs, it is neither paying security services nor providing sufficient food and water at cantonment sites. Any support of the peace process by external donors should be bound to financial audits and transparency of South Sudan’s oil sector.
Thirdly, peacemaking in South Sudan needs to move away from a purely transactional model of power-sharing, in which government positions are meted out to the parties according to their negotiating strength. As Lotje de Vries and Mareike Schomerus argued in 2017, a peace deal alone will not end the war in South Sudan. Europe needs to follow the US example by going after the cash flows funding the violence more aggressively than in the past. Thanks to investigations by the Sentry, a US civil society organization; the panel of experts appointed by the UN Security Council; and the UN Human Rights Commission on South Sudan, detailed evidence already exists of the patronage networks benefiting from the civil war. The EU should freeze the assets of more corrupt members of the South Sudanese elite. Addressing impunity by getting the proposed hybrid court on South Sudan up and running under the aegis of the African Union also deserves a higher priority.
International pressure on the parties needs to focus on resolving the outstanding issues, not on forming a bloated transitional government with minimal trust. Machar can be forgiven for not trusting the UN’s assurance of his and his team’s safety if they return to Juba. In July 2016, UN troops were bogged down amid the urban fighting in the city and did not even intervene to halt an assault on humanitarian and UN workers at a nearby compound, let alone protect civilians in the vicinity of its camps. While the UN Mission has been bumped up to include additional forces with a robust mandate and improved procedures, it is unclear whether these forces would be able to engage with the thousands of government troops stationed in Juba if the 2016 scenario were to repeat itself.
For the moment, sustaining the ceasefire needs to have priority. It has enabled the conclusion of more than 130 local reconciliation efforts in South Sudan’s myriad inter- and intra-communal conflicts. The UN Mission in South Sudan, as well as the South Sudanese Council of Churches, has supported many of these efforts. Both deserve the Security Council’s full political support. Over time, local peace agreements can help build national peace and development from the ground up – until, one day, South Sudan can break the loop of renewed violence for good.
In der Not eine Tugend demonstrieren: Die von Deutschland gegründete Allianz für Multilateralismus kann jetzt ihre Bedeutung zeigen, indem sie eine schnelle Übergangsfinanzierung des Haushalts der Vereinten Nationen organisiert – und mitfinanziert.
Diesen Beitrag schrieb ich zusammen mit Carina Böttcher. Er erschien am 13. Oktober 2019 im Tagesspiegel.
António Guterres, der UN-Generalsekretär, warnte am Dienstag vor der tiefsten Finanzkrise der Organisation in diesem Jahrzehnt. Zu viele Mitgliedstaaten, besonders die USA, sind im Verzug mit ihren Mitgliedsbeiträgen. Damit gefährden sie die Arbeit der UN für Frieden, Entwicklung und Menschenrechte. Deutschland sollte seine Partner zur besseren Zahlungsmoral motivieren und den Druck auf säumige Staaten anführen.
US-Präsident Donald Trump hat seine Abneigung gegenüber den UN oft betont. Im September warnte er, die Souveränität vieler Staaten sei bedroht. Seine Regierung werde sich der UN-Bürokratie nicht unterwerfen. So wundert es nicht, dass die USA als größter Beitragszahler ihre Beiträge von mehr als 670 Millionen US-Dollar bisher nicht überwiesen haben. Traditionell gehören die USA zu den vielen Ländern, die ihre Beiträge erst zum Ende des UN-Haushaltsjahrs in voller Höhe begleichen. Diese Praxis ist für die UN höchst problematisch. In diesem Jahr wird die Krise dadurch verschärft, dass die US-Administration nicht bereits erste Raten gezahlt hat, sondern den kompletten Beitrag schuldig ist – wie auch andere Staaten. Die Finanzkrise der UN ist auch Ausdruck der viel beschworenen Krise des Multilateralismus. Nationalistische Regierungen sind nicht mehr bereit, die UN politisch und mit ausreichend Geld zu unterstützen. Nicht zufällig steht Brasilien mit seinem rechtsextremen Präsidenten Jair Bolsonaro mit einer offenen Rechnung von 82 Millionen US-Dollar an zweiter Stelle der säumigen Zahler. Auch Saudi-Arabien, Venezuela und Iran, alle auf den vorderen Rängen auf der Liste, haben ein angespanntes Verhältnis zur UN.
Wenn jeder nur an sich selbst denkt…
Dabei nützen die UN allen Ländern. 2019 mobilisierten und koordinierten sie humanitäre Hilfe im Wert von 15 Milliarden US-Dollar, die 133 Millionen Menschen in Not erreichte. In 165 Ländern sind die UN präsent, um die nachhaltigen Entwicklungsziele voranzutreiben. Politische UN-Missionen vermitteln in Friedensprozessen in Afghanistan, Kolumbien oder Libyen. Schließlich bieten die UN das wichtigste Forum, in dem sich verfeindete Staaten und Oppositionelle auf neutralem Boden treffen können. Diese Arbeit steht auf dem Spiel, wenn die Trumps und Bolsonaros dieser Welt – und nicht nur sie – nicht zahlen. Wenn jeder nur an sich selbst denkt, bleibt nichts mehr für die großen gemeinsamen Aufgaben übrig. Die Menschen in Krisenregionen verdienen globale Aufmerksamkeit und Unterstützung. Selbst nationalistische Staatenlenker müssen erkennen, dass mehr als 70 Millionen Geflüchtete weltweit gleichsam Ausdruck und Beschleuniger sicherheitspolitischer Herausforderungen sind.
In der gleichen Woche, in der Trump vor den Gefahren globaler Bürokratien warnte, setzte Deutschland einen vielbeachteten Kontrapunkt. Zusammen mit Frankreich gründete es die Allianz für Multilateralismus. Mehr als 60 Staaten kamen dazu zusammen. Nun muss die Allianz beweisen, dass sie es mit der internationalen Zusammenarbeit ernst meint. Die Partner sollten sich für eine schnelle Übergangsfinanzierung des UN-Haushalts einsetzen. Als Initiator des Netzwerks fällt die Führungsrolle an den deutschen Außenminister Heiko Maas. Anfangen könnte er bei seinen Partnern für den Multilateralismus: Südkorea, ein Mitglied der Allianz, schuldet den UN noch rund 63 Millionen US-Dollar für das laufende Jahr. Das EU-Mitglied Rumänien steht ebenfalls noch in der Kreide. Was sind Bekenntnisse zum multilateralen Engagement der Europäischen Union wert, wenn noch nicht mal alle ihre Mitgliedstaaten pünktlich ihre Beiträge an die UN überweisen?
Deutschland könnte in Vorleistung gehen
Deutschland ist der viertgrößte Beitragszahler für den regulären Haushalt und für die Friedensmissionen, sowie der zweitgrößte Geber für das Entwicklungssystem. Daher hat es wenig Interesse daran, die Berechnung der Beiträge zu verändern, die sich an der Wirtschaftsleistung jedes Landes bemisst. Sofern die Zahlungsmoral einiger finanzstarker Mitgliedstaaten miserabel bleibt, wird sich die Allianz aber fragen müssen, wie man die UN weniger abhängig von wenigen Staaten machen kann. Kurzfristig könnte die Allianz bereits mit einem gemeinsamen Aufruf und politischem Druck für eine bessere Zahlungsmoral aller Mitgliedsstaaten eintreten.
Um die Finanzkrise abzuwenden könnte sich die Bundesregierung für einen Übergangsmechanismus einsetzen. Sie könnte beispielsweise anbieten, zusammen mit anderen Staaten in Vorleistung zu gehen, also einmalig einen Teil ihrer Beiträge für das kommende Jahr vorzuziehen. Damit das Licht in New York nicht ausgeht.
Deutschland sollte jedoch noch weiter gehen. In der Allianz für Multilateralismus könnte es für freiwillige Zusagen werben, Beiträge pünktlich und vollständig zu begleichen. Dazu muss Deutschland sich auch an die eigene Nase fassen und in Zukunft wie Kanada, Indien oder die Niederlande jedes Jahr seinen Beitrag im Januar überweisen. Nur wer auf diese „Ehrenliste“ kommt, darf als Führungsmacht für den Multilateralismus gelten. Deutschland muss zeigen, ob es seine Versprechen ernst meint.
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.
Germany brings diplomatic weight to the UN Security Council, to which it was elected on 8th June. The German government should use this advantage to support mediation and peace processes as priorities of its two-year membership. It should focus on three central instruments in this regard: refining sanctions, accountability of troop contributing countries, as well as the organization of more flexible visiting missions by Security Council diplomats.
Every eight years, Germany joins the playing field of major powers at the United Nations. Newly elected members to the UN Security Council like Germany have to prove themselves vis-à-vis the five permanent members every time anew. In the midst of political quarrels about the use of chemical weapons in Syria and the daily management of peace operations, the attention on the core purpose of the Council, to maintain international peace and security, gets lost all too easily. Germany should thus strive to strengthen peace processes and mediation efforts through the Security Council.
Germany is an unusually resourceful non-permanent member
Non-permanent members of the Security Council only have limited influence. The veto power of China, France, Russia, the UK, and the USA is not the only reason for that. Those countries also possess continuous experience in the negotiations, issues, and countries that shape the Council’s agenda. In this game of major powers, smaller members might at most be able to build bridges, improve working methods, or make small substantial suggestions.
As fourth largest financial contributor to the UN’s regular budget and, despite deficits, an important actor on the diplomatic floor, Germany needs to aim higher. In a number of countries on the Security Council’s agenda, German diplomats already play a substantial role. In those cases, the German government should use its membership in the Council as an additional diplomatic forum, whose approaches and instruments have their own benefits. Together with its European partners Germany can, for example, promote the maintenance of the nuclear agreement with Iran, demand humanitarian access and accountability for war crimes in Syria, prepare a peace operation in Ukraine, support the negotiations with the Taliban in Afghanistan, and shape the reconstruction of liberated areas in Iraq. Germany already has a leading position in all these contexts due to its existing channels and contacts – this should be reflected in the Security Council.
Peace operations need to be guided by a political strategy
Reaching consensus among its members on the overarching political objectives that should guide its crisis management is probably the biggest challenge for the Security Council. The High-Level Independent Panel on Peace Operations (HIPPO) already demanded in its seminal 2015 report that peace operations should always follow a political strategy. Otherwise they run the risk of being driven by military considerations, and of falling prey to the diverging interests of the conflict parties. In fragile contexts such as Mali, the Democratic Republic of Congo or South Sudan, there are incessant threats to the civilian population that can justify international protection measures, as the former UN staff member Ralph Mamiya observes. Yet without a political process, there can be no structuring priorities that could guide the strategic deployment of scarce resources and a foreseeable withdrawal of international troops.
Naturally, there are manifest reasons for the lack of political strategies in the UN Security Council. For one thing, these are genuinely difficult questions without obvious and easy solutions. Moreover, the work of the Council relies on hard-fought compromises, which result in frequently vague or complicated language. Furthermore, in some situations, such as in South Sudan, there is no functioning peace agreement that could guide the actions of a peace operation.
Germany should encourage strategic thinking in the Security Council
Germany cannot remove these structural deficits in two years. Neither does it have the diplomatic capacities to work out a strategy for each situation on the Security Council’s agenda . The German government thus needs to set clear priorities. German diplomats can encourage the Security Council to think more strategically. The more interactive and informal the discussions before the proper negotiations are, the more fruitful the latter are in many cases.
The German government could take its cue from Sweden, which, together with Peru, organized a retreat for all ambassadors in the Security Council this year. The Permanent Mission in New York can also organize events at the sidelines of official meetings and informal briefings in line with the Arria formula. This would bring the perspectives of civil society organizations of affected countries as well as experts on current mediation and negotiation processes to Manhattan. Lastly, Germany could organize a thematic debate on the contribution of the whole UN system to peace processes during one of its two monthly presidencies of the Security Council. This debate should address the limitations of the Security Council head on and tackle its cooperation with other UN entities such as special envoys, special rapporteurs, and the UN Development Program.
Using clear listing criteria for targeted sanctions
The improvement of the Council’s working atmosphere and quality of discussion aside, Germany should focus its “peace first” attention on three core instruments of the Security Council: refining targeted sanctions, the accountability of troop contributing countries, as well as the organization of more flexible visiting missions by Security Council diplomats.
The Security Council maintains 14 sanctions regimes, some of which explicitly aim to support peace and transition processes, for example in South Sudan, Mali, or Libya. Theoretically, such sanctions should not primarily punish individuals, but incentivize them to participate in peace processes in a constructive manner through travel bans and asset freezes. In reality, the restraints of those sanctions are often too slow and too backwards-oriented to actually influence mediation efforts substantially. Germany has contributed to the reform of UN sanctions since the late 1990s. As a member of the sanctions committees (and chair of some of them), it should promote the implementation of clear listing and delisting criteria in every single case.
Vetting troop contributing countries
Hardly anything is as damaging to the reputation of UN peace operations as incidents of sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA), as well as a lack of readiness to act decisively to protect civilians at risk in their vicinity. Secretary-General António Guterres has already introduced important reforms in this area. Yet, German Ambassador Christoph Heusgen, when asked about his plans to tackle the issue in the Security Council at a recent event in New York , could only think of the inclusion of more women in troop contingents. However, a more stringent and systematic vetting of all troop contingents regarding their previous human rights records in domestic settings, would be more important in this context. The deployment of 49 non-vetted Sri Lankan soldiers in Lebanon this year demonstrated that the current UN procedures are not sufficient.
Using its increased credibility as troop contributor in Mali, Germany should promote stronger accountability of all troop contributing countries. Based on an existing Security Council resolution, the UN secretary-general should ban states that do not sufficiently investigate allegations of sexual exploitations and abuse against their soldiers from future missions until they improve their procedures. Similarly, performance assessments of troop contingents, such as the ones requested by the Security Council for the UN Mission in South Sudan after a special review, should also be conducted for all other missions.
Make visiting missions more flexible and geared towards crisis management
German diplomats like to point out that they would prioritize conflict prevention in the Security Council. Rarely do they go into the details of the Council’s added value in political crises – and where it might be counterproductive. One important instrument for early crisis management are visiting missions of Security Council diplomats. Under the leadership of up to three members, representatives of all 15 member states fly to a region to talk to the relevant actors on the ground.
Germany should prepare and lead such a mission if the opportunity presents itself. Potential destinations could be Sudan or South Sudan, where Germany has supported dialogue and mediation processes. At the same time, Germany should strive for more flexible mission formats, which could deploy a small delegation of the Security Council and key UN officials more quickly.
Stand up for peace and prevention
A stronger focus on the promotion of peace and transition processes in the Security Council will meet resistance. China, Russia, and a number of member states from the Global South are quick to refer to state sovereignty in the context of international mediation efforts in authoritarian states. The Trump administration in the United States undermines diplomatic processes on Iran and Syria and moves to cut the budget of UN peace operations even in places where violence and conflict are on the rise as in the Democratic Republic of Congo. As former colonial powers, the UK and France hold back on Cameroon, while the conflict about the Anglophone areas is escalating.
With its ambition to promote peace and conflict prevention, Germany must not shy away from conflicts in the Security Council. At the same time, it should rely on stable partnerships and frequent exchange with its European partners as well as countries like South Africa. The latter will also be a member of the Security Council from 2019 and started pursueing more multilateral solutions under President Cyril Ramophosa.
At the end of its membership in the Council, the German government should order an independent evaluation of its diplomacy around the horseshoe table. The objective: learning lessons for its next candidacy to join the playing field of major powers.
Written evidence to the UK House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee for its Inquiry on “Responsibility to Protect and humanitarian intervention”. The final report cites my evidence.
The main value of R2P was as an impetus to conceptual and political debates as well as a tool for policy entrepreneurs to galvanize public attention, mainly in domestic contexts.
R2P has not substantially changed the existence of global power inequalities, domestic incentives for foreign policy making, or the proclivity of violent actors to use force indiscriminately if it suits their objectives.
There are no generalized exemptions from the prohibition on the use of force outside the UN Charter. Any General Assembly resolution could only provide an, albeit strong, political signal of legitimacy, not a legal one.
In UN debates and diplomacy, the concept of R2P should be retired and replaced by a more operational focus on atrocity prevention.
The UK can make use of the notion of “universal jurisdiction” to prepare cases against foreign individuals responsible for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide. With the central position of the UK in the global financial system, it could also engage more forcefully in combating money laundering by elites that are responsible for such crimes.
The UK should include explicit assessments of atrocity risks, including identity-based violence, in its country strategies.
I am a PhD candidate at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London as well as a non-resident fellow at the Global Public Policy Institute (GPPi), an independent Berlin-based think tank. Between 2012 and 2015, I was involved in a major international research project entitled “Global Norm Evolution and the Responsibility to Protect”, which brought together seven international partner institutions from Europe as well as Brazil, China, and India and was coordinated at GPPi. The main objective of the research project was to investigate how the idea of a Responsibility to Protect (R2P) was faring in the context of a changing global order. All our academic and policy publications are accessible on the following website: http://www.globalnorms.net/.
This submission builds on that research, as well as my research on the diplomacy of conflict prevention and peacemaking in the context of my PhD project since then. While it builds on collaborative research, it only represents the views of the author and not necessarily any of the institutions that I am affiliated with. Taking the questions posed by the Committee as a starting point, the submission starts with a discussion of the concept of R2P and what (not) to expect from it. It then highlights a few issues with the implementation of the political commitment to R2P globally. Subsequently, the submission discusses the idea of a “humanitarian intervention”, before it concludes with ideas and recommendations for reform of the discourse and practice of R2P.
The concept of the Responsibility to Protect
The adoption of the three paragraphs on R2P in the World Summit outcome document of 2005 needs to be seen in its proper historical context (UN General Assembly 2005, para. 138-140). It was a response to the heated discussions of the preceding one and a half decades. These are well known and include the acknowledgement of catastrophic failures faced with genocide in Rwanda and ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s as well as the divisions in the Security Council regarding the situation in the Kosovo in 1999. The creation of R2P included an important conceptual shift from earlier debates about “humanitarian intervention”: instead of focussing on the rights of intervening powers, R2P highlighted the responsibilities of all UN member states to prevent atrocity crimes (International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty 2001). Instead of explicitly qualifying state sovereignty, it emphasized the sovereign responsibility of governments for the protection of their populations from atrocity crimes (Evans 2008).
R2P is a political commitment by UN member states, not a legal one. Endorsed by a then record number of heads of state and government, the World Summit outcome document has a high legitimacy, but does not constitute international legal obligations comparable to an international treaty. Notably, it does not change the existing legal context for the use of force under the UN Charter. The use of “timely and decisive action” remains firmly tied to the UN Security Council.
The main value of R2P was as an impetus to conceptual and political debates as well as a tool for policy entrepreneurs to galvanize public attention. After its adoption, UN officials sought to operationalize its meaning and implications for the UN system (Murthy and Kurtz 2016). The work by subsequent UN Special Advisors on the Responsibility to Protect as well as UN Special Advisors on the Prevention of Genocide is particularly pertinent in this regard. As a result of detailed interpretation and wide-ranging consultations, Edward Luck, the first UN Special Advisor on the Responsibility to Protect, developed the three-pillar framework of R2P: government responsibility, international assistance, and timely and decisive action (UN Secretary-General 2009). This framework has since structured conceptual debates among member states about R2P.
The three-pillar framework has allowed a comprehensive focus: by including the essentially uncontested responsibilities under pillars one and two, it made it easier to also discuss much more controversial policy options if governments are “manifestly failing” to protect their populations. Exactly because coercive measures are contested among UN member states, however, relatively few official debates and reports capitalized on that opportunity.
At the same time, controversies on the utility – and abuse – of the use of force could taint the overall concept. Nowhere has this been clearer than in the aftermath of the decision of the Security Council to mandate UN member states to use “all necessary means” to protect civilians in Libya in March 2011 (UN Security Council 2011). As the oral testimony to the committee also acknowledged, the interveners’ shift from a narrow focus on protecting civilians in Benghazi to a much wider demand for regime change in Libya (Obama, Cameron and Sarkozy 2011) seriously undermined the credibility of R2P in the eyes of a global audience (Brockmeier, Stuenkel and Tourinho 2016).
As a tool for policy entrepreneurs, R2P has allowed civil society organisations and members of parliament to refer to their respective government’s responsibility to engage in political debates about adequate action to respond to atrocity crimes – the current inquiry is a case in point. It has provided civil society organisations with a way to frame their demands for diplomatic, humanitarian, human rights, and judicial engagement by pointing to a political commitment that all governments have signed up to on a global level. The Global Center on R2P, for example, is a New York-based NGO dedicated to the implementation and promotion of R2P. The International Coalition for the Responsibility to Protect brings together civil society organizations from around the world with a shared objective. The efforts of these organisations increase awareness among policymakers, officials, and the general public for atrocity crimes, they provide analysis and regular country monitoring, and organize training and capacity building events.
On the global level, our research found that R2P has not been an effective tool to mobilize action between 2004 and 2014. Where there was international agreement, visible through UN Security Council actions, the frame of “genocide” and historical analogies to Rwanda and Srebrenica were much more powerful than references to R2P – including in the decision by Western powers to intervene in Libya in 2011 (Kurtz and Rotmann 2016: 6). No draft Security Council resolution is more likely to be adopted by consensus just because it contains a reference to R2P.
R2P has not resolved geopolitical divisions in the UN Security Council, nor has it made international responses in the most protracted cases of atrocities more likely. The expectation, where it exists, that a political concept like R2P could in and of itself solve some of the most contested questions in international relations and drive political action, is too high. Any idea about an international legal obligation for member states to intervene in situations where atrocities are committed creates unreasonable expectations of international law and global politics. No government can be expected to commit troops on behalf of another country’s population without domestic considerations on a case-by-case basis. Furthermore, it is rarely clear which specific international actions would be effective and proportional to prevent atrocities in a given situation.
The implementation of R2P
Where the salience of a situation has been very high for the permanent members of the UN Security Council, consensus has remained difficult to achieve. The situation in Syria illustrates this dynamic well. Again, R2P has not substantially changed the existence of global power inequalities, domestic incentives for foreign policy making, or the proclivity of violent actors to use force indiscriminately if it suits their objectives.
The inclusion of R2P in the World Summit outcome document was a manifestation of a larger underlying normative change. This normative evolution has also been visible in related fields of the universality of human rights, the development of international criminal law, and in the debate about “protection” in humanitarian action and peacekeeping. R2P should be seen as an instrument in the promotion and contestation of these “norms of protection” (Kurtz and Rotmann 2016: 18). The carriers of this normative evolution have come from all corners of the earth, including from Africa, where most of today’s conflicts take place. As our research project on global debates about the meaning and interpretation of R2P has shown, there is a very wide acceptance of the fundamental normative tenet of R2P: atrocity crimes require international action. How such action may look like in practice, has remained less clear unfortunately (Benner et al. 2015).
The evolution of those norms does not follow a linear path, but they do shape the social context in which international politics takes place. Research has shown, for example, that the ratification of the Rome Statute and investigative actions by the International Criminal Court exerts a deterrent effect on the commission of atrocity crimes (Jo and Simmons 2016).
Inconsistency, hypocrisy, and contradictions undermine the evolution of norms of protection as well as the credibility of R2P. Policymakers should devote greater attention to the permissive effects of their statements and policies in this area. The focus on “red lines” on the use of chemical weapons in Syria, for example, by President Obama and, more recently, by President Macron, not only set their users up to follow through on their threats. They also gave the impression that atrocities committed by conventional means are somewhat more acceptable. Even if governments denounce the killing of civilians rhetorically, such ultimatums and threats send a contradicting message.
A similar permissive effect could be observed regarding narrowing action in Syria against ISIS/Da’esh, thus sparing the Syrian regime. In 2014, when the US government, in conjunction with its allies, took the decision to militarily intervene against ISIS/Da’esh, it may have been too late to broaden the intervention to include anti-regime actions (Yacoubian 2017: 27). A more detailed investigation of the permissive effects of this decision on the dynamics of the Syrian civil war notwithstanding, the focus on counterterrorism risked sending a signal that massive violence against civilians by the Syrian government did not attract the same kind of coercive punishment as the violence committed by ISIS/Da’esh.
Similarly, continuing support to the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, including by arms exports, undermines the UK’s credibility on atrocity prevention in Yemen. British military support to the Saudi-led coalition also undermines UK aid and diplomacy for a political solution in Yemen, as such support empowers a military approach to the crisis. As the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (2017) said in September 2017, “[c]oalition airstrikes continue to be the leading cause of civilian casualties, including of children.” The UK should immediately halt all arms exports to Saudi Arabia and all other members of the coalition involved in the war in Yemen.
The idea of a “humanitarian intervention”
The committee asked for evidence on the question whether the concept of a “humanitarian intervention” was recognized as an exemption to the general prohibition of the use of force under the UN Charter. I am not an international lawyer, but it seems to be very clear to me that there is no international consensus that the doctrine of “humanitarian intervention” could provide an exemption to Art. 2 (4) of the UN Charter. Indeed, the general prohibition of the threat and use of force remains an important achievement in international law. It cannot be incumbent on UN member states to create an exemption from this fundamental norm by themselves. The bar to any use of force outside the UN Charter is therefore very high, as it should be. Without the resort to any court of law that could interpret unilateral justifications for the use of force, the concept of “humanitarian intervention” opens the door to abuse. Furthermore, the concept is tainted with a very problematic history, including the French operation Turquoise during the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. Framed as humanitarian intervention, it ended up helping perpetrators to escape into neighbouring Zaire.
If “humanitarian intervention” does not provide the legal justification for military action without UN Security Council mandate or in self-defence, what can? In any given situation, potential interveners should contemplate whether military force is really the last resort, urgently needed, and an effective and proportional instrument. If they conclude that military action fulfils these criteria, they should at least seek a wider international agreement in the UN General Assembly. Any resolution adopted by the General Assembly under such circumstances would not have the force of law, in my understanding. There are no generalized exemptions from the prohibition on the use of force outside the UN Charter – they would undermine the whole system. A political statement in the form of a resolution of the General Assembly would, however, provide a strong signal of legitimacy. It cannot undo the fundamental power inequalities inherent in the international order, which are manifested by the authority of the UN Security Council and the power of its permanent members.
The need for reform
The concept of the responsibility to protect was developed to spur international action on atrocity crimes. On that score, its success is very limited. It has contributed to the specification of conceptual debates within the United Nations, and provided a helpful tool for policy entrepreneurs, mainly in domestic settings. On a global level, its utility has run its course. In UN debates and diplomacy, R2P should be retired and replaced by a more operational focus on atrocity prevention. Indeed, recent reports by the UN Special Advisor on the Prevention of Genocide already point in that direction.
Instead of focusing on issues of global order and intervention, as R2P inevitably does, atrocity prevention focuses on the role of victims, in particular civilians. Indeed, actors such as the UK that say they want to promote the global rule of law and prevent atrocities should embrace this civilian-centred perspective. They should ask themselves in diplomatic, development, humanitarian, and military engagements in political crises how their actions are going to affect the situation of civilian populations. Are there ways to empower the capacity of civilians to protect themselves by unarmed means? In contrast to R2P, atrocity prevention cannot be mistaken as legalistic justification for military interventions.
In cases where governments are directly responsible for atrocities, it is important to find ways to coerce them to stop these violations of fundamental human rights, including by targeted financial and judicial means. The UK can make use of the notion of “universal jurisdiction”, for example, to prepare cases against foreign individuals responsible for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide. With the central position of the UK in the global financial system, it could also engage more forcefully in combating money laundering by elites that are responsible for such crimes.
Building on the Brazilian proposal of a “responsibility while protecting” in 2011, UN Security Council members, including the UK, should consider more rigorous monitoring arrangements for UN-mandated operations. These could include requirements for regular reporting by lead nations of such mandated operations to the Council via the Secretary-General. The Security Council could also create independent monitoring teams that report on the implementation of mandates by third-party forces, similar to panels of experts in the context of UN sanctions regimes. Such mechanisms would facilitate a higher quality of information and decision-making in the Security Council (Benner et al. 2015: 25-26).
In the specific case of chemical weapons use in Syria, it is questionable how one-off airstrikes such as those conducted by the US in April 2017 and by the US, France, and the UK in April 2018, would credibly deter the Syrian government. The UK government should focus on re-establishing an investigative mechanism that investigates culpability for chemical weapons incidents. If the Security Council remains blocked on this question, then the General Assembly should provide a new mandate for this mechanism, whose original mandate ran out in November 2017. Furthermore, the UK should hand over any evidence that is has collected through its own sources on chemical weapons use in Syria to theInternational, Impartial and Independent Mechanism on international crimes committed in the Syrian Arab Republic (IIIM). The UK should help the European Union to prepare targeted sanctions on individuals and companies involved in the chemical weapons programme in Syria, whether they are from Syria or not. Lastly, the UK should contribute to fund humanitarian appeals on Syria and accept a much larger share as part of the resettlement programme that the UN High Commissioner for Refugees operates.
Finally, the UK government should invest in consistent political engagement through diplomatic tools, including in its own diplomatic capacities and in multilateral capacities. As the United States is withdrawing diplomatic capacities on a large scale, Europeans need to step up to at least provide detailed analysis, monitoring and engagement in crisis areas around the world. The UK should include explicit assessments of atrocity risks, including identity-based violence, in its country strategies. It should exchange these risk analyses on a regular basis with like-minded states and create joint response strategies.
Benner, Thorsten, Sarah Brockmeier, Erna Burai, C.S.R. Murthy, Christopher Daase, Madhan Mohan Jaganathan, Julian Junk, Xymena Kurowska, Gerrit Kurtz, Liu Tiewa, Wolfgang Reinicke, Philipp Rotmann, Ricardo Soares de Oliveira, Matias Spektor, Oliver Stuenkel, Marcos Tourinho, Harry Verhoeven and Zhang Haibin (2015): Effective and Responsible Protection from Atrocity Crimes: Toward Global Action. Policy Paper. Berlin. Global Public Policy Institute.
Brockmeier, Sarah, Oliver Stuenkel and Marcos Tourinho (2016): The impact of the Libya intervention debates on norms of protection. Global Society 30:1, 113-133.
Evans, Gareth (2008): The Responsibility to Protect: Ending Mass Atrocity Crimes Once and For All. Washington, D.C.: Brookings
International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (2001): The Responsibilty to Protect. Ottawa. International Development Research Centre.
Jo, Hyeran and Beth A. Simmons (2016): Can the International Criminal Court Deter Atrocity? International Organization 70:3, 443-475.
Kurtz, Gerrit and Philipp Rotmann (2016): The Evolution of Norms of Protection: Major Powers Debate the Responsibility to Protect. Global Society 30:1, 3-20.
Murthy, C. S. R. and Gerrit Kurtz (2016): International Responsibility as Solidarity: The Impact of the World Summit Negotiations on the R2P Trajectory. Global Society 30:1, 38-53.
UN Secretary-General (2009): Implementing the responsibility to protect – Report of the Secretary-General. UN Doc. A/63/677. 12 January
UN Security Council (2011): Resolution 1973 (2011). New York: S/RES/1973 (2011). 17 March
Yacoubian, Mona (2017): Critical Junctures in United States Policy toward Syria. An Assessment of the Counterfactuals. Series of Occastional Papers. Washington, DC. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. August.
 As such, it would contribute to an assessment that the Independent International Commission on Kosovo (2000: 186) made with regard to the NATO-led intervention in 1999 when the commission qualified it as “illegal, yet legitimate”.
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.