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

September 25, 2017

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

Richard Ponzio

With world leaders converging on New York this past week for the annual “UNGA” jamboree – including Monday’s high-level meeting on UN reform presided over by U.S. President Trump – even seasoned practitioners and analysts within our peacebuilding community may have missed Secretary-General António Guterres’ public announcement of his much-anticipated reform proposals under the heading “Restructuring of the Peace and Security Pillar.” Representing potentially far-reaching improvements in how the United Nations delivers on serving the needs and aspirations of billions of people for a more peaceful and just world, it is important that peacebuilders raise awareness, debate, question, and lend their support and additional ideas to key aspects of this innovation and modernization agenda.

In the Secretary-General’s succinct six-page note to UN Member States, five recommendations stand out:

  • Combining the Department of Political Affairs (DPA) and Peacebuilding Support Office (PBSO) within a new Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs (DPPA): This reform is designed to ensure a more holistic approach to conflict prevention, peacemaking and mediation, and post-conflict peacebuilding – each a powerful concept and area of engagement under the emerging UN “sustaining peace” agenda of the Secretary-General and General Assembly. Among other objectives, DPPA aims to support the S-G’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 that members of our community should raise is: “Will peacebuilding now be pigeon-holed within one (albeit important) UN 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 PBSO within the Executive Office the Secretary-General (EOSG)?”
  • Folding the DPA Special Political Missions under (essentially) the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO), though now called the new Department of Peace Operations (DPO): Recognizing the distinct nature of peacekeeping operations and special political missions (SPMs), while bringing their management under a single department, the DPO reform seeks to promote greater nimbleness, coherence and consistency, and to encourage the creation of an integrated “center of excellence” for UN peace operations. It would house field-oriented capacities in support of, for example, rule of law, justice, and corrections; security sector reform; disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR); civil affairs; and mine action. One possible concern is that in “following the money,” the political attention of major powers and EOSG alike will gravitate (even further) 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 may be more appropriate.
  • Establishing a single political-operational structure of three regional offices led by Assistant-Secretaries-General that would report simultaneously to the two Undersecretaries-General leading DPPA and DPO: The Secretary-General proposes to combine the current regional divisions of DPA with those of DPKO’s Office of Operations, yielding three regional successor bodies that would report to and support both DPPA and DPO, aiming to promote coherence and reduce duplication of effort. This shared capacity would support the entire range of UN political and operational engagements in mission and non-mission settings, from mediation to peacekeeping, including provision of strategic and political guidance and crisis monitoring and response support. A potential risk is that the three ASGs may direct their staff to privilege DPO priorities at the expense of DPPA, as the weight and scope of the DPO missions, 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 SPMs. The S-G’s unifying concept drops the earlier barriers between DPA and DPKO in the interest of efficiency, but perhaps at the cost of effectiveness in the quieter zones of the UN’s conflict management work.
  • Standing up a new High-Level Advisory Board on Mediation: Comprising senior experienced mediation and dialogue practitioners, this new high-level advisory group brings substance to the Secretary-General’s call for a “surge in diplomacy for peace.”  The recommendation follows from the EOSG’s comprehensive mapping of the UN system’s conflict prevention capabilities earlier this year and the identified need to dedicate capacities within the EOSG to guide planning and evaluation of peace operations, as well as to undertake integrated analysis. Ideally, the High-Level Advisory Board on Mediation will help to equip all Special Envoys and representatives of the Secretary-General with the latest mediation and negotiation techniques and methodologies prior to and during a deployment. Though only an advisory body, a division of labor will need to be worked out between it and the current DPA Mediation Support Unit and its Standby Team.
  • Calls for other measures to strengthen the UN’s ability to deliver effective, nimble, and accountable operational support to peace operations, including through the full implementation of the women, peace, and security agenda: Further underscored in the Secretary-General’s recent internal review on management reform, these measures envisage a “whole-of-pillar” approach to improve the working culture, methods, and processes of the departments in the UN’s peace and security pillar. They stress the need to achieve gender parity within the world body, in particular at senior levels. Though less glamorous and lower-profile than the reorganization proposals detailed above, these changes have the potential to make a deeper and more lasting impact on the overall performance of the United Nations.

The above and related reform proposals built upon earlier recommendations and analysis, including from the 2015 UN initiated High-Level Independent Panel on Peace Operations, the Advisory Group of Experts on the Review of the United Nations Peacebuilding Architecture, and the Global Study on the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 (2000). Some recent independent analysis on similar themes are found in the reports of the Independent Commission on Multilateralism and the Albright-Gambari Commission on Global Security, Justice & Governance, and the S-G’s proposals are likely to complement the forthcoming recommendations of the United Nations-World Bank Flagship Study on the Role of Development in the Prevention of Violent Conflict.

While this latest supplement in the Secretary-General’s three-part reform agenda – alongside “internal reviews” released earlier this year on the UN development system and management issues – raises legitimate questions and possible new challenges, the proposed “Restructuring of the Peace and Security Pillar” is, in many ways, long overdue. In large part, it holds out the promise to both counter UN detractors threatening severe budget cuts and, importantly, to enhance the world body’s performance in fulfilling its critical peace and security maintenance responsibilities. In doing so, it wisely sets the stage in preparing the new sustaining peace agenda, culminating, in April 2018, in a United Nations High-Level Event in New York organized under the auspices of the President of the General Assembly. It further contributes to broader efforts to implement Sustainable Development Goal #16 on the promotion of peaceful and inclusive societies, including by reinforcing significant multi-stakeholder initiatives such as The Roadmap for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies announced last Thursday, September 21, 2017, in New York on International Peace Day.

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