What’s new? World leaders are participating in the UN General Assembly’s annual high-level session after a year in which the world organisation has failed to respond decisively to a series of crises and wars from Haiti to Myanmar. The UN looks ever more marginal to international crisis management.
Why does it matter? For all its flaws, the UN system retains unique crisis response tools. UN relief agencies remain essential to mitigating conflicts like those in Afghanistan and Ethiopia. The organisation is also the only mediator available in cases ranging from the decades-long division of Cyprus to the Yemen war.
What should be done? This briefing sets out ten areas where the Security Council and secretary-general can take initiatives to mitigate conflict, ranging from urgent humanitarian crises to steps to address long-term challenges including the security implications of climate change.
World leaders participating in the annual high-level session of the UN General Assembly in September have no shortage of challenges to discuss. Many conversations will focus on climate change and COVID-19. But it will be hard to ignore a series of security crises that have demonstrated the UN’s political and operational limitations over the last year, ranging from the Nagorno-Karabakh war and the conflict in Ethiopia to Myanmar’s coup, May’s upsurge of Israeli-Palestinian violence and the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. In dealing with these situations, the Security Council has appeared risk-averse and often divided; Secretary-General António Guterres has generally avoided taking politically bold positions; and the UN’s main conflict management tools – such as mediation and peacekeeping – have appeared largely irrelevant to the problems at hand. All too often, the best the UN can hope to achieve is to keep lifesaving aid flowing to vulnerable populations, mitigating the effects of violence but doing little to address its causes. Yet the UN still has an important role to play.
The UN is often the only organisation with the mechanisms necessary for dealing with dangerous and deteriorating situations. In cases such as Afghanistan and Ethiopia, where war threatens to create regional humanitarian crises, UN agencies such as the World Food Programme are essential for managing the fallout. Elsewhere, as in Libya and Yemen, UN mediators remain the international actors best positioned to secure sustainable peace deals. The UN has long helped keep a lid on recurrent tensions in places such as Cyprus and Haiti, where new political dynamics could sow instability. In each of these cases, the Security Council, secretary-general and UN officials on the ground can realistically take steps to protect suffering people, take advantage of openings for peacemaking and stop bad circumstances from getting worse.
The UN also has considerable scope for long-term thinking on the future of conflict. Salient issues include countering disinformation and misinformation that can exacerbate conflicts, addressing linkages between climate change and political violence, and helping blunt the impact of COVID-19 in volatile areas. Despite the UN’s struggle to address conflicts, many of its members are keen to use it as a platform to debate future risks. The organisation, which has seen its role in peace and security wax and wane many times before, is not entirely irrelevant yet.