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Fifteen Points for the New Secretary-General

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The United Nations has seldom faced so many challenges. International Crisis Group offers policy ideas on some of the most important strategic questions and crises confronting incoming Secretary-General António Guterres.

António Guterres will become Secretary-General amid major geopolitical upheaval, in perhaps the most dangerous moment in decades. History is running away from the United Nations. Not only have the past few years seen an uptick in the frequency and lethality of war. But world leaders and institutions appear unable to check the currents driving that uptick. Competition between major and regional powers is escalating. Many governments struggle to meet citizens’ aspirations. Populism and inequality erode new and old democracies. Mass displacement and the spread – and fear – of terrorism, both largely by-products of new wars, generate further instability. Misinformation looks set to complicate foreign policymaking much as it skews domestic politics. The international order is in peril.

There are longer-term challenges, too: climate change, nuclear proliferation, population growth, rising joblessness. The Secretary-General cannot ignore these. But his immediate priority must be peace and security. This means a concerted push to end existing wars. It means mitigating as best possible the suffering they cause and avoiding further escalation, particularly direct confrontation between stronger states that for now mostly compete through proxies in weaker ones. It also means preventing new crises: some pivotal states show worrying signs of fragility and an increasing number of leaders aim to resolve problems through repression rather than accommodation. The world is nearing a point at which the number of crises outstrips its ability to cope with the consequences.

The U.S. leadership transition makes Mr Guterres’s first months all the more daunting. President Donald J. Trump will arrive in office with no clear foreign policy program. Implications for U.S. relations with other P-5 members, the Security Council, crises on its agenda, UN funding and counter-terrorism are unclear. Expectations and uncertainty about President Trump’s policies already shape calculations in the world’s hotspots in destabilising ways. Mr. Guterres may face an early test in building relations with the new U.S. administration and convincing it of the UN’s worth, while still offering the strong normative voice many expect of him. He may even confront a Russia-U.S. détente that unblocks the Security Council but further erodes UN norms and forces the Secretariat into high-risk and exclusionary transitions, notably in Syria.

The new Secretary-General brings to the office a high profile after his successful campaign. Many leaders are keen to see how he will navigate the challenges he faces. This note offers ideas on how he can leverage this interest, and a wider sense of global unease, through early personal diplomacy aimed at cementing networks of diplomatic partners. This would involve global outreach, specific initiatives in the Middle East and Africa, and adding substance to two areas where recent years have seen much talk at the UN, but less strategic action: conflict prevention and preventing violent extremism. In addition, it offers policy ideas for five crises atop the Security Council’s agenda and for five that are less prominent but that merit action. The summaries are below, with more detailed analysis.

Strategic Direction:

1. Lay the groundwork for a coalition of states – including China – to support the UN and multilateralism:

Trump’s policies towards the UN are uncertain, but his signals bode ill. The last time the U.S. assaulted multilateralism, just over a decade ago, Europe was stronger and richer and could pick up political and financial slack. A coalition of supporters now would need a broader base. This means a mix of Western and influential non-Western powers, although many heavy hitters are competing with regional rivals or face challenges at home. Such a coalition would probably carry insufficient weight without China. Beijing, like many other governments, values the predictability that multilateralism protects. Encouraging it toward more active engagement – on the Security Council, in peacemaking and peacekeeping and in providing humanitarian aid – should be a priority. U.S. retrenchment would offer Beijing an opening for leadership and new alliances.

2. Engage personally in the Middle East:

In principle the region’s interlocking conflicts need a grand bargain; in practice hope of achieving one is dim. Syria’s trajectory offers no good opportunity for UN diplomacy. Iran-Saudi relations are poisonous, and for now the Saudis and some other Sunni powers reject Iran wielding the regional influence it aspires to. Other fronts – Iran-Turkey, for example – offer slightly better prospects but also risk escalating. Regional leaders are also waiting for clearer contours of U.S. policy to emerge. Despite this gloomy picture, the Secretary-General should prepare to deepen personal ties to leaders across the region, particularly in Ankara, Riyadh and Tehran, and at least test options for ending the region’s conflicts that meet their core interests. He should do so directly, quietly and persistently while keeping expectations low. He should also calibrate public statements on the region’s conflicts to position himself, as best possible, as an honest broker, particularly between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Relations in the Gulf will prove particularly important if the UN is pulled into supporting a Russian-brokered deal in Syria.

3. Strike a new security bargain in Africa:

Despite its large peace operations on the continent, the UN leads no major peace process in sub-Saharan Africa. Over the past decade, the Security Council has delegated political management of the continent’s conflicts to African powers and organisations. The increase in the capacities and confidence of the African Union (AU) and other regional security actors should be welcomed and encouraged. But the incoherent responses to recent crises and frequent sub-regional paralysis suggest the UN and region have yet to strike the right balance. As the High-Level Independent Panel on Peace Operations (HIPPO) identified, the UN’s role has also been diluted by overambitious and contradictory mandates, with insufficient political focus. Mr. Guterres enjoys warm relations in many African capitals. He should combine personal diplomacy on specific crises with a broader strategic discussion with regional leaders, including the incoming AU Commission chair, about how to coordinate top-level conflict prevention initiatives in the future.

4. Establish an internal architecture for prevention:

The immediate priority is to ensure the Secretary-General has the analysis to develop policy on imminent crises. While many of the sensible HIPPO reforms may have to wait for clarity on U.S. funding, small but significant steps are feasible. The Secretary-General should convene a core group of the UN’s senior leadership regularly for an unscripted discussion to develop policy on areas vulnerable to immediate escalation. This group should be served by a substantive policy and planning team, building on that already in the executive office, with clear authority to tap analysis from within the system and outside. It should draw on the quarterly reviews that are already part of the Human Rights up Front initiative, but the group should meet more often – at least monthly – and engage regularly with other parts of the Secretariat. Mr. Guterres should, of course, raise situations of concern to the Security Council, briefing it himself, particularly on major crises, and engaging flexibly with its members. But his team should focus, too, on options for his and the Secretariat’s own preventive diplomacy to avert crises before they need the Council’s attention.

  1. Review the UN’s counter-terrorism and preventing “violent extremism” (PVE) work:

A rethink in this area would be timely, particularly if the new U.S. administration reverts to some of the excesses of the early post-9/11 years, conflates different currents of political Islam or contributes to an even more benign environment for leaders to use labels like “terrorist” or “violent extremist” against rivals. Heavy-handed counter-terrorism tactics are already gaining currency. Here the Secretary-General should err towards stronger public statements and, where possible, reorient the Secretariat’s work toward monitoring states’ policies. A review would examine in particular the benefits and risks to the UN’s departments and agencies of framing activities as PVE. Enthusiasm and funding for PVE have meant that its spread has outstripped evidence of its value and risks distorting the UN’s development and political work. Vital, too, is to preserve space for the UN to engage even the most radical movements; and examine how UN peace operations can work in areas where al-Qaeda- or Islamic State-linked groups operate. Most important is to recognise that war causes violent extremism more than violent extremism causes war. Redoubling efforts to prevent crises is the most valuable contribution the UN can make against terrorism.

Major Crises

6. Democratic Republic of Congo:

President Kabila looks set to remain in office and weather protests, if they materialise, over coming weeks. But popular anger at his rule and the economic downturn make protracted instability likely, potentially with protests and repression in cities, an upsurge of armed groups’ violence in the east and intercommunal clashes elsewhere. Major bloodshed or even Kabila’s violent removal remain possibilities; either could provoke a collapse that would destabilise the region and leave in tatters the UN’s legacy in the DRC. The overarching challenge is to prepare the ground for a peaceful transition while narrowing President Kabila’s options, for which Chinese and regional backing is essential. An immediate priority is to ensure neighbours, particularly Angola, continue to engage constructively. They will not publicly exhort Kabila to stand down, but their continued support to the Catholic Church-led mediation, which for now offers the best chance of a path forward, is vital. Next year’s strategic review of MONUSCO, the UN mission, should recommend narrowing its mandate away from institution-building and toward good offices and human rights monitoring. It should also rethink the Force Intervention Brigade’s role.

7. Libya

Averting an escalation is priority number one. The failure to implement the Libyan Political (or “Skhirat”) Agreement, and the dwindling international consensus behind the Presidency Council that deal created, have deepened the country’s de facto partition into east and west, each dominated by loose and fractious military coalitions. Amid the uncertainty of the U.S. transition, both sides risk overestimating their strength and foreign backing. General Haftar, buoyed by his recent takeover of oil facilities in the Gulf of Sirte and his popularity in eastern Libya, could try to mobilise toward Sirte itself or even Tripoli. He cannot hope to conquer the whole country, even with foreign support, but averting such a misstep probably requires Egypt and Russia to dissuade him from an offensive. Fighting could also escalate if Presidency Council-aligned forces lend their support to an offensive against Haftar-led units. Resetting Skhirat is priority number two. This would involve direct talks between the Presidency Council and politicians from the east to produce a new and broader-based unity government. A parallel security track should include Haftar and major western armed groups. A reset should also have an economic dimension, which would involve an economic track to bridge divides in Libya’s economic and financial institutions, and mobilising to prevent its economic meltdown. A more ambitious approach for the Secretary-General would be to use the likely U.S. hiatus over the coming months to explore opportunities for a new convergence between Libya’s neighbours centred on improved Egypt-Algeria relations.

8. South Sudan

An opportunity exists now to promote negotiations between President Salva Kiir and parts of the armed opposition. Since the July 2016 fighting between the government and Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army-In Opposition (SPLM/A-IO), the president has strengthened his position in Juba and the region. The Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) has helped marginalise his main rival, former First Vice President Riek Machar. SPLM/A-IO members act with increasing autonomy, which risks multiple armed groups operating without clear leadership. The security situation in Juba has improved, but elsewhere fighting and ethnic killing continue. In a hostile environment, the UN mission, UNMISS, neither plays a political role nor fulfils other key parts of its mandate. While the Security Council focuses on deploying a Regional Protection Force and an arms embargo, opportunities for course correction by the Secretary-General lie elsewhere. He should focus on (i) giving the new UNMISS leadership backing to reform the mission, particularly with a view to better protecting civilians; (ii) more active diplomacy, in support of IGAD, toward negotiations between the government and armed groups currently outside the transitional government to bring the latter in; and (iii) behind-the-scenes efforts to reconfigure relations between South Sudan and its neighbours. A glimmer of hope in South Sudan’s tragedy is the delicate rapprochement between Juba, Kampala and Khartoum.

9. Syria

The war’s trajectory is bleak. Over coming weeks, regime and Iran-backed militia forces, supported by Russian airstrikes, could advance on Idlib (north west) or eastern Ghouta (Damascus outskirts), two of the last remaining rebel strongholds after Aleppo. In either case, humanitarian costs will be enormous. Though tensions remain between al-Qaeda-linked Fath al-Sham and fellow rebels, defeat in Aleppo has shifted the intra-rebel balance in the north west in favour of the former. On a separate front, Turkey’s joint offensive with other rebels, “Euphrates Shield”, appears set to recapture al-Bab from the Islamic State (IS), which could lead to direct clashes with Kurdish forces. Both the pro-regime camp and Turkey will look to maximise immediate gains. Unless his Russian backers decide otherwise, Assad remaining in power is now a reality. Whether rebel leaders will ever accept that is unclear, and for now regime forces, even with foreign backing, cannot control the whole country. A Russian attempt to broker and involve the UN in a peace process between the regime and some opposition figures could pose the Secretary-General a thorny early dilemma. He will have to weigh any benefit UN involvement might bring Syrians against a high normative and operational price tag. While he may not be able to take as strong a moral stand on the crisis and its humanitarian impact as many expect, he must resist attempts to portray non-jihadist groups as terrorists, if Russian-U.S. consensus moves that way. He may also have to press the new U.S. administration to avoid a narrow focus on IS in both Syria and Iraq.

10. Yemen

Prospects look equally gloomy in Yemen. Neither side – the Huthi/Saleh alliance nor the Saudi-led coalition – is fully committed to the UN-sponsored roadmap, which offers the basis for a compromise that would end regional aspects of the war and return it to a Yemeni-Yemeni process. The Saudi-backed government has gone so far as to publicly reject it. Both sides continue to take escalatory steps. These include the Huthi/Saleh front unilaterally forming a new government, launching missiles deeper into Saudi Arabia and firing on U.S. and United Arab Emirate (UAE) ships in the Red Sea. The Huthis’ Iran ties are overstated, but Tehran is happy to keep the Saudis bogged down in Yemen and uses its influence accordingly. The Saudi-led coalition is attempting to capture Huthi-controlled territory along the Saudi-Yemeni border and preparing to open a new front along the Red Sea coast. Calling for an immediate ceasefire would be unwise without doing the political groundwork first. Better would be to work with the United Kingdom, the UAE and Oman to encourage backchannel communications between (i) Saudi Arabia and the Huthis and (ii) Saudi Arabia and the Saleh family, in an attempt to outline informal guarantees and understandings that would support the UN roadmap. The Secretary-General should, however, launch a humanitarian appeal to alleviate the threat of famine and urge coalition forces to postpone a potential Red Sea coast offensive on this basis. If that cannot be avoided, the UN should negotiate a humanitarian access plan for both the Red Sea coast and the Huthi/Saleh highlands, which could be required if Saudi-led forces make a deeper push.

Five Others

11. Afghanistan

Afghanistan’s war and political instability pose a threat to international peace and security as grave as most of those listed above. The Secretary-General should keep the crisis prominent on the Security Council and Secretariat agendas. The National Unity Government, the result of a U.S.-mediated deal after the 2014 electoral crisis, is still stuttering, largely due to the internal rift resulting from President Ghani’s and Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah’s contrasting understandings of that deal. The Taliban insurgency looks set to make additional gains when the fighting season starts next spring. Further weakening of the Afghan security forces would risk fracturing the country along ethno-political and tribal lines, leaving the Taliban the most potent armed group and large ungoverned spaces that transnational groups could exploit. Afghanistan-Pakistan relations have deteriorated to their lowest point of recent years, mainly because of Pakistani support for Afghan militants and a spike in their deadly attacks. Large numbers of returnees from Pakistan, Iran and Europe, combined with even more displaced internally, threaten a humanitarian crisis. With NATO and now potentially the U.S. less prominent politically, the UN’s good offices are vital. Forging consensus on rules of the game ahead of what will be a fraught 2019 presidential election is a looming challenge. The strategic direction over time must be toward a settlement with the Taliban, which will require greater regional convergence and U.S. and Chinese involvement. But for now priorities are to (i) promote a clearer understanding of the Ghani-Abdullah working relationship to defuse internal tensions and enable service delivery; (ii) cope with the worsening humanitarian crisis; (iii) reinforce the UN mission’s important human rights, civilian casualties and international humanitarian law monitoring; and (iv) keep lines of communication to the insurgency open if the Trump administration further militarises U.S. policy.

12. Central African Republic

Despite peaceful elections in early 2016, deteriorating security, intensifying armed group activity and rising tensions with civil society leaders and political opponents have brought President Faustin-Archange Touadéra’s government under mounting pressure. This puts the UN in the predicament of having to provide a vulnerable government protection, advice and support for reform. The withdrawal of France’s Operation Sangaris, the dry season’s onset and neighbours’ meddling have meant more armed group movement and an uptick in attacks. Ex-Seleka groups have consolidated control over territory in the east and the north and fight for control of resources. Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration (DDR) has stalled: some militia leaders demand integration into state security forces; hardliners reject calls for dialogue. A priority should be more active regional engagement, so as to ensure AU initiatives in CAR support those of President Touadéra and to persuade Chad’s President Déby he has a stake in CAR’s stability. The president should pursue more meaningful reconciliation by expanding his cabinet and ensuring balance in civil service and security force appointments. Notwithstanding the challenges of a more aggressive posture, the UN mission, MINUSCA, needs to show that it can at least take some action against armed groups. This would include dismantling anti-balaka and ex-Seleka checkpoints, when possible arresting hardliners and regaining control of the main gold and diamond production sites.

13. Mali

The country could face a major crisis next year. Eighteen months after the signing of the Bamako peace agreement, its implementation is badly faltering. It has done little to consolidate peace in the north, inspires scant confidence from Malian parties and neglects many of the conflict’s root drivers. The recent fracturing of the main rebel coalition, the Coalition of Azawad Movements, combined with some communities' marginalisation, has led to a proliferation of armed groups. Attacks by al-Qaeda-linked militants, often with fluid ties to other movements, exact a heavy toll on government and UN forces; the UN mission, MINUSMA, remains ill-equipped to cope. Algeria, as the Bamako deal's main broker, assumed a lead role in monitoring implementation, but its attention has waned. The peace process is at risk of collapse, which could provoke another nationwide crisis. This is all the more worrying as central Mali, which is outside the agreement’s provisions, has also suffered a recent upsurge in violence. One option would be to raise the urgency of the situation in Mali at the January AU summit and push with regional powers for a more active UN role in monitoring and using its good offices to advance the peace process. The Secretary-General may also have to prepare to revisit the peace deal next year. Although neither Bamako nor the region show much appetite for a major course correction, further deterioration in 2017 could require it. A reset would allow all sides to air concerns, potentially include constituencies that are currently left out, revise the peace process and reboot its implementation.

14. Myanmar

The crisis in Rakhine state has taken a nasty turn just as the UN’s political role in Myanmar winds down. The recent killings of security officials have provoked a heavy-handed offensive against the long-suffering Muslim Rohingya minority. The group behind the attacks, Harakah al-Yaqin (HaY), is new, and its expertise suggests foreign training. The emergence of such a group is potentially a game changer in Rakhine’s conflict. But exaggerating its foreign ties would be a mistake – its targets and goals are for now local. The government’s disproportionate and indiscriminate use of military force, denial of humanitarian assistance and lack of political strategy risk generating a spiral of violence. They also risk radicalising sections of the Rohingya population, whose leaders have until now mostly eschewed violence, and creating conditions transnational groups can exploit. The Secretary-General should assess early in 2017 how the UN can fill the gap left by the non-renewal of the mandate for the Office of the Special Adviser of the Secretary-General, with its important role in good offices and enhancing the UN’s situational awareness. He should also take any opportunity that arises to press Myanmar authorities not to overplay the HaY’s transnational nature and to respond with greater dexterity.

15. Venezuela

The crisis is simultaneously political, economic and humanitarian. An unresolved political standoff pits a fractious multiparty opposition alliance against an increasingly authoritarian, military-backed government that has dismantled checks and balances and institutions that could help mediate. Dialogue facilitated by the regional bloc, UNASUR, and the Vatican provides the best hope of a breakthrough. But thus far little suggests the government will restore constitutional rule or change its economic policy. Oil output is declining sharply, the economy is collapsing, preventable diseases are spreading fast and refugees are already appearing in neighbouring countries. Risks include a chaotic default, a popular revolt or a coup that would install an outright military dictatorship. Regional sensitivities have prevented the UN engaging in a meaningful way, but the gravity of the situation merits the Secretary-General or a newly appointed envoy playing some role. This might involve exploring ways the UN could assist and strengthen the dialogue, while recognising the Vatican’s lead; or engaging in the region to structure a common approach to the crisis.