How empty or full is the UN’s Peacebuilding glass? Two years after the publication of its report, the chair of the Advisory Group of Experts (AGE) for the 2015 Review of the United Nations Peacebuilding Architecture assesses the pluses and minuses of the UN’s performance.
The intergovernmental decision to create the Peacebuilding Commission (PBC), the Peacebuilding Support Office (PBSO) and the Peacebuilding Fund (PBF)—collectively known as the “peacebuilding architecture” (PBA)—was broadly hailed as one of the most significant achievements of the 2005 World Summit on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the United Nations. However, five years later, the first review of the “peacebuilding architecture” was characterized as one of “unrealized hopes.” It was recommended that an in-depth review be performed in 2015, on the 10th anniversary of the PBA. By 2015 the “unrealized hopes” had, if anything, intensified, according to some surveys.
Accordingly, in 2015 a new review was undertaken, based on specific terms of reference approved by both the General Assembly and the Security Council. This review was not limited to the entities mentioned above, but covered the United Nations system as a whole, including the development organizations that customarily had been ignored for what was seen mainly as an issue linked to the maintenance of international peace and security. It was to be undertaken in two phases. First, an independent advisory group was tasked to prepare its own assessment and recommendations, to be followed by a second inter-governmental phase, which would presumably translate the recommendations into consensual policy decisions aimed at improving the UN’s performance in peacebuilding.
The first phase of the review was concluded at the end of June 2015 with the presentation of the report of the seven-member Advisory Group of Experts. The main conclusion was that the “unrealized hope” from the “peacebuilding architecture” was misplaced: rather than inherent shortcomings of the PBC, the PBSO and the PBF, the actual problems were systemic and structural. In other words, while peacebuilding entailed numerous and complex activities that fell under the purview of several principal organs—the Security Council on matters of international peace and security, but the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) and the General Assembly on development, governance, and human rights—there were little or no interactions. Indeed, the Security Council tended to perceive peacebuilding as activities that occurred only after the end of a war, while the AGE review suggested that peacebuilding actually can and should occur during all phases of the cycle of armed conflict— before, during, and after—and that peacebuilding should be framed as part of the toolbox of preventive measures at the UN’s disposal.
Another overarching conclusion related to the institutional and organizational implications of how peacebuilding should be conceived. While the Security Council is mandated to maintain international peace and security, it also is the main principal organ involved in UN peacebuilding. The review pointed to the obvious: part of those activities, and especially the development aspects, also fall within the purview of the General Assembly and ECOSOC, and thus require a much clearer definition of “who does what” to counter the long-standing and legendary fragmentation of the system.
To address the issue of fragmentation, the AGE insisted on the decisive role that the PBC, an advisory body, could and should play to bridge the activities of the three principal intergovernmental organs. And a final central point raised by the AGE was that a commitment to peacebuilding involved predictable long-term financing. In that regard, the report pointed out that the PBF had played an essential catalytic role in helping to mobilize additional resources, and it recommended strengthening this role.
Progress to Date: the full part of the glass
After two years, the results on balance have been surprisingly positive, given the inherent difficulties of decision making in large multilateral settings. Part of those positive developments are direct offshoots of the review process put in motion in 2015, and part are the product of parallel factors; three of which deserve special mention: the adoption of the SDGs, including Goal 16 to “promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development”; the exceptional leadership by the successive permanent representatives in New York that the PBC enjoyed from 2014 to 2016; and the start of the mandate of the ninth secretary-general, António Guterres, on 1 January 2017. Guterres has used the term “sustainable peace” repeatedly, and has insisted on forcefully addressing the problem of atomization within the UN system.
Clearly, the most positive development in the implementation of the AGE report’s recommendations was the conclusion of the second phase of the review. Member states adopted two resolutions on 27 April 2016: resolution 70/262 in the General Assembly and resolution 2282 (2016) in the Security Council, with virtually identical texts. The resolutions clearly reflected the main thrust and specific recommendations from the AGE report in the first phase. That the General Assembly and the Security Council simultaneously found common ground on the way forward for the UN’s work on peacebuilding must be viewed as a major achievement.
The first opportunity to analyze the resolutions was the open debate organized by the Security Council on “Post-conflict Peacekeeping: Review of the Peacebuilding Architecture.” This was followed shortly thereafter by the “High-level Thematic Debate on the United Nations, Peace and Security” organized by the president of the General Assembly on 10-11 May, that reaffirmed support for peacebuilding and for sustaining peace. Since that time, both the Security Council and the General Assembly have continued building on the joint landmark resolutions of April 2016.
Another important development with potentially far-reaching consequences was the formation of an informal “Group of Friends of Sustainable Peace”, with a cross-regional membership of over 35 delegations, to maintain the pressure for the fuller implementation of the April 2016 resolutions.
Finally, it is worth pointing out that the latest Quadrennial Comprehensive Policy Review (QPCR) of Operational Activities for Development of the United Nations System, adopted at the end of 2016, is very supportive of moving sustainable peace forward. General Assembly resolution 71/243 calls upon the entities of the UN development system to “enhance coordination with humanitarian assistance and peacebuilding efforts at the national level” (para. 24).
In sum, there is reason to be optimistic about the progress achieved in the past two years.
Problems: the empty part of the glass
Unsurprisingly, there have also been shortcomings in the implementation of the review, which can be divided into three categories: specific areas of contention; continued resistance to ending or at least mitigating fragmentation; and, perhaps most importantly, insufficient funding for the Peacebuilding Fund. First, the frequent appearance in documents and speeches of the term “sustainable peace” is still contested by some countries, which fear the “securitization” of development. Additional work is needed to clarify common understanding of this terminology, perhaps promoted by the secretary-general himself.
Second, the concern expressed mostly by developing countries that are wary about the Security Council’s considerable power has a mirror image in the continuing resistance by some of the permanent members to allow non-member states of the Security Council to encroach on its work through the “back door” that sustainable peace potentially offers. Fragmentation is still an obstacle.
Third, the AGE report stressed the importance of the PBF as a singularly meaningful instrument at the UN’s disposal to be in a position to offer rapid financial assistance and play a catalytic role in mobilizing funds from bilateral and multilateral financial institutions. It recommended assessed contributions to provide the PBF with a firm enough financial footing to engage in predictable and long-term planning. This support has been absent despite the clear recognition of the value in the original resolutions.
The implementation of the AGE report began well, but of course much more should be done to fulfil the ambitions of the seven members of the group and, more importantly, by the member states of the Security Council and the General Assembly. It remains to be seen if the momentum of the past two years can be maintained in putting more liquid in the UN’s peacebuilding glass. Indeed, the United Nations faces new and emerging challenges given the continuing impasse on the part of the Security Council to resolve some long-standing issues and the uncertainty surrounding the change in leadership of the main contributor to the UN’s budgets.
Gert Rosenthal is the former permanent representative of Guatemala to the United Nations and foreign minister; earlier he was the executive-secretary of the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean. He is the author most recently of Inside the United Nations: Multilateral Diplomacy Up Close (London: Routledge, 2017).