29. UN Remains Toothless Despite Best Intentions To Reform

Adekeye Adebajo

The latest proposals by United Nations (UN) Secretary-General, Portuguese politician, Antonio Guterres, submitted in September 2017, represent yet another futile attempt at institutional alchemy. They propose an emphasis on conflict prevention, strengthened partnership, and a more effective regional approach, all without increasing the UN’s budget (doubtless a sop to the Donald Trump administration). Specifically, the UN Departments of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) and Political Affairs (DPA) as well as its Peacebuilding Support Office are to be restructured to collaborate more closely in order to increase the UN’s effectiveness in prevention, mediation, peacebuilding, and peace support operations. A new Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs (DPPA) is proposed, combining the DPA and the Peacebuilding Office’s mandates to promote strategic partnerships (including capacity-building of regional bodies), mediation, and electoral assistance.

A new Department of Peace Operations (DPO) is also proposed to combine DPKO’s peacekeeping and DPA’s field-based special missions to support security sector reform; disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration; and regional bodies. A unified Department of Operational Service is also to be created. Decision-making is to be decentralised, with more authority delegated to the field. There is still much confusion and overlap in this alphabetic soup-bowl, and any close observer of the UN knows that the problem is not a technical one of “coordination”, but of powerful political actors manipulating the system amidst institutional turf battles between administrative tin-gods.

Previous UN reform efforts have had mixed results. A June 2015 High-Level Independent Panel on Peace Operations had called for flexible use of UN peacekeeping tools; strengthening relations between the UN and African regional bodies; improving coordination between the UN Secretariat in New York and peacekeeping missions in the field; strengthening conflict prevention and mediation; and enhancing the capacity to protect civilians. But this report was strikingly unoriginal in going over ground already covered by earlier UN panels in 2000, 2005, and 2008.

A report on peacebuilding also published in June 2015 was more substantive but has so far failed to attract sufficient resources for implementation. The UN Peacebuilding Commission remains weak and ineffectual a dozen years after its establishment. The 2015 report confirmed a failure to prioritise post-conflict peacebuilding, while the failure to tackle root causes of conflicts and strengthen national ownership and capacity remains a major challenge; a power-hungry UN Security Council has failed to work out an effective division of labour with the Peacebuilding Commission; the bureaucracy continues to work in silos amidst intense inter-departmental and inter-agency rivalries; and cooperation with regional actors and the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) remains ineffective.
Former UN Secretary-General Ghana’s Kofi Annan’s 2005 report to the General Assembly of March 2005, In Larger Freedom, had built on the 2004 UN high-level panel report supporting calls for reform of the 15-member UN Security Council, the 193-member General Assembly, the 54-member Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), and the Secretariat; the creation of a UN Peacebuilding Commission and Human Rights Council; and advocated effective collaboration with civil society and the private sector, as well as effective collective action by regional and global institutions.

But 12 years later, the UN Security Council remains stubbornly untransformed, with its five veto-wielding permanent members – the United States (US), Russia, China, France and Britain – continuing to practice “selective” rather than collective security. The undemocratic Council’s legitimacy remains threadbare, and it must be reformed to bring in new members such as Nigeria, South Africa, Brazil, and India. The General Assembly continues to be a toothless “talking shop”, while ECOSOC is as ineffectual as it was in promoting development two decades ago. The body still lacks the authority and resources of the World Bank and the IMF which powerful countries prefer doing business in due to its weighted voting. The UN Secretariat largely remains stagnant, bureaucratic, and full of careerists protecting perks and privileges. Its development system continues to be committed to bureaucratic inertia and allergic to innovation. The UN Human Rights Council is as ineffectual as its discredited predecessor.

In order to reverse this situation, the cynical game of the “pretence of peacebuilding” must be urgently halted and the massive resources needed for rebuilding post-conflict societies urgently provided. Over 80 percent of funding in UN peacekeeping missions typically go directly to support the salaries and other needs of the mission itself, rather than to rebuilding war-torn countries. UN reform has truly become an oxymoron.

Dr. Adekeye Adebajo is Director of the Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation at the University of Johannesburg.

Business Day, 13 November 2017.