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UN Peace & Security Secretariat Reforms: An Important Step Forward?

Words: Richard Ponzio
Pictures: United Nations

With world leaders converging on New York last week for the annual “UNGA” jamboree — including Monday’s high-level meeting on UN reform presided over by US President Trump — even seasoned analysts may have missed Secretary-General António Guterres’ public announcement of his reform proposals under the heading “Restructuring of the Peace and Security Pillar.” But his recommended changes could result in far-reaching improvements in how the United Nations delivers on serving the needs and aspirations of billions of people.

In the Secretary-General’s note to U.N. Member States, five recommendations stand out:

1: He seeks to establish two new departments. The first is a new Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs to support the Secretary-General’s good offices, early warning and response, special envoys, regional political and political processes offices, and other preventive, peacemaking, and peacebuilding activities. A fundamental question this raises with implications for U.N.’s peace and security work is: “Will peacebuilding now be pigeon-holed within one (albeit important) U.N. department, whereas, since 2005, it has been embraced as a system-wide concept with both policy and operational meaning, in part due to the location of the Peacebuilding Support Office within the Executive Office the Secretary-General?”

2: The second is a new Department of Peace Operations to house field-oriented capacities in support of, for example, rule of law, justice, and corrections; security sector reform; disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration; civil affairs; and mine action. One possible concern is that, in “following the money,” the political attention of major powers will gravitate to relatively few, high-profile, costly, and often politically intrusive peace operations – leading to the use of sometimes blunt, security-oriented instruments for conflict management, when lower profile prevention and peacemaking tools employed by the Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs may be more appropriate.

3: The Secretary-General proposes three new regional offices that would report simultaneously – in a somewhat innovative way – to both abovementioned new departments, so as to support the entire range of UN political and operational engagements in mission and non-mission settings. A potential risk is that these regional bodies may privilege peace operation priorities at the expense of non-military political and peacebuilding interventions, as the weight and scope of the peace operations, the associated level of activity, and the perceived criticality of issues in locales of greater danger to deployed personnel might inevitably draw away focus from mediation and lower key special political missions.

4: Guterres seeks to stand up a new High-Level Advisory Board on Mediation, comprised of senior experienced mediation and dialogue practitioners, including former heads of state and foreign ministers. Ideally, the High-Level Advisory Board on Mediation will provide country-based representatives of the Secretary-General with an influential new global resource to de-escalate tensions and help both combatants and victims address the root causes of their protracted violent conflict.

5: Finally, the Secretary-General calls for other measures to strengthen the UN’s ability to deliver effective, nimble, balanced, and accountable operational support to peace operations, including by achieving gender parity through the world body’s women, peace, and security agenda. These changes have the potential to make a deeper and more lasting impact on the overall peace and security performance of the United Nations.

While this latest supplement in the Secretary-General’s three-part reform program – alongside “internal reviews” released earlier this year on the UN development system and management issues – raises legitimate questions and possible new challenges, the proposed changes are, in many ways, long overdue. In large part, they hold out the promise to both counter UN detractors threatening severe budget cuts (ahem, the Trump Administration) and, importantly, to enhance the world body’s performance in fulfilling its critical peace and security maintenance responsibilities, by, for instance, pooling resources, reducing duplication, and introducing new operational tools for peacemaking and preventive action. In doing so, they set the stage for more ambitious peacebuilding innovations requiring Member State deliberation and approval – such as the creation of a new Conflict Prevention Platform and mandating the Peacebuilding Commission with new conflict management authorities – at next year’s UN General Assembly high-level meeting on sustaining peace.

Richard Ponzio directs the Just Security 2020 Program at the Stimson Center and co-chairs the Peace & Security Committee for UNA-NCA. You can follow him on Twitter @RichardPonzio.

Richard Ponzio

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