Security Studies Program Wednesday Seminar
A Quarter Century of UN Peacemaking: Drawing Lessons
Alvaro de Soto
Former UN Under-Secretary-General
October 10, 2007
- There has been much scholarly pontification on the performance of different UN Secretaries General, and a tendency to compare them. In practice, such comparisons are difficult to draw, because the quality of their performance depends greatly on the hand they were dealt.
- Successfully activist Secretaries General have established themselves in roles approaching that of world's chief diplomat. The UN Charter does not specify this role. Rather, it has been advanced (initially by Dag Hammarskjold) in his practice, based on the provision in the charter that the Secretary General may bring matters which might threaten peace and security to the Security Council.
- The lack of a clear legislative mandate for the Secretary General to conduct peacemaking is due in part to a constituency of the UN that was not present at its founding – a group of ex-colonies who resist any attempt at interference and multiethnic countries wishing to avoid precedents of foreign meddling. They are reluctant to grant the Secretariat general authority for peacemaking, which they would prefer to confine to those cases for which the Secretary-General has a specific mandate.
- Hammarskjold had put the membership on notice, upon re-appointment to a second term, that while he preferred to receive direction from the appropriate organs, he would if needed “fill any vacuums” that might arise in the absence of such direction. Others have followed this mold with great success, including Javier Perez de Cuellar. His office mediated a number of disputes, including the Falkland Islands, the Iran-Iraq War, the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan , the independence movement in Namibia and the Central American wars of the 1980s.
- Boutros Boutros-Ghali had quite a different temperament, but still advocated an activist's role. In 1992, at the Security Council's request, he issued a report in which he equated the concept and role of “post-conflict peace-building” with those of peacemaking, peacekeeping and preventive diplomacy. The explosion of UN activity following the end of the Cold War led to a certain hubris: the idea that the UN could solve everything. There were many setbacks, due to over-commitment and improvisation ( Somalia , Yugoslavia ).
- There will always be tension associated with an expansion of the Secretary General's role. But, de Soto argues, if we support the existence of an office with goals broader than the aggregate interests of the UN's member states, we should support this continued gradual expansion.
- The Secretary-General is a peculiar peacemaker. He requires bilateral consent to Secretariat mediation, as well as the backing of one of the main intergovernmental organs of the UN. But he brings an impressive array of comparative advantages to the task: the stature and moral authority of the office and the drawing power that comes with it, the capacity to mobilize the Security Council, resources to plan and lead implementation of agreements, and the ability to mobilize UN agencies.
- These advantages are not without their drawbacks. The Secretary-General cannot mediate just any deal; he must operate within the UN Charter and the body of law developed under its aegis. For instance, the UN cannot be associated with any agreement that provides blanket amnesty for genocide, war crimes or crimes against humanity.
- When these guidelines were discussed with envoys of the Secretary General, some worried that “business was going to dry up.” Indeed, one contemporary problem with UN peacemaking is that the peacemaking process is low-tech, and many governments think they can do it on their own. Or, smaller mediating bodies get involved, which leads clever disputing parties to play the different mediators off each other.
- The UN should not aspire to a monopoly on conflict resolution; there are cases where other mediators are better suited. For example, Norway mediates in Sri Lanka , the Communita Sant'Egidio, a small Catholic church body handled much of the Mozambique civil war negotiations, and an NGO called Humanitarian Dialogue played a pivotal role in Aceh. In order to preserve the indispensable unity and integrity of a mediating effort it is highly desirable that there should be someone clearly in the lead. Starting in El Salvador , one technique that has been developed is the creation of “friends of the Secretary General” in order to harmonize and coordinate the actions of various potential players who might otherwise compete.
- The existence of other parties, if they are viable, can spare the Secretariat from the “empty pool syndrome” – the tendency to jump into mediations with inadequate information and mandate and at an unripe moment, in situations where other players might be more appropriate.
- Two broad areas are of particular concern to de Soto vis-à-vis the Secretary General's continued productivity:
- Independence : It is critical that the Secretary-General and the Secretariat be able to act in a way that is and appears to be impartial. Even logistical shortcomings in this regard can have negative consequences. For instance, when the insurgency movement in El Salvador approached de Soto for mediation, they expressed concern that the Secretariat had evidently favored South Africa in Namibia . (In fact, the UN had simply been unable to deploy its peacekeeping troops in time, and was forced to allow South Africa to order their police from the barracks to which they had been cantoned to re-establish order following a clandestine infiltration by SWAPO.)
- Lists of Terrorist Organizations: The stigma attached to organizations on lists with which the international community cannot negotiate severely hinder the ability of the Secretary-General to engage all parties in disputes. De Soto, for instance, was unable to talk to the Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority even though he was the Secretary-General's personal envoy to the Authority when Hamas won the election there, thus forsaking the possibility of pushing the movement further in the desirable direction.
Q. Isn't the changing role of UN not so much a change in the Secretary General's role as a change in member states' roles?
A. Member states, and particularly the Security Council, select the Secretary General. But high office tends to change temperaments. Once he was installed, Perez de Cuellar became quite assertive, breaking new ground with unprecedented activities such as wide-scale monitoring of human rights and elections.
Q. What type of situation makes an actor more or less able to mediate? Are there different ways actors carry out negotiations (e.g., the “Norwegian way”)?
A. Non-UN mediators are frequently sought out of fear of UN intervention which might legitimize rebel movements. The US Institute of Peace has conducted a series of studies on negotiating behavior of different states ( China , Israel , Palestine ).
Q. American elites are divided on the question of the UN's role. Those in favor of the UN usually hope the Secretary General will carry out the aims of the United States . There is a tension between that goal and the need for the Secretariat's independence.
A. Whatever the Secretary General does is under careful scrutiny, and if he is seen to be unduly responsive to the bidding of the US or any other member State this could discourage potential candidates from resorting to the UNSG as a third party. The impression that he's doing the bidding of the US or any member State could be damning for his future usefulness. This tension is part of the job.
Q. A tradeoff was identified between non-discriminatory application of international law and the ability to cut deals. The solution proposed was “let Norway do it.” What are the broader solutions (e.g., a stronger International Criminal Court)?
A. An envoy of the Secretary General confronted with a deal that violates international law should make no secret of the necessity of walking away from such an agreement. At the same time, envoys should make clear that the UN, as part of the emerging doctrine of post-conflict peace-building as set out in Boutros-Ghali's “agenda for peace,” will work for deals that are durable. In order to achieve that, the Secretariat will lead an effort to ensure that the international community and the UN system of agencies are on board. In order to persuade parties tempted to do inappropriate deals not to do so, the Secretary-General's envoy can draw the attention of parties to a conflict that if the Secretariat walks away, they would be sacrificing that potential resource. It's very much in the interest of a sustainable deal that the Secretary General be involved.
Q. How is the rising role of NATO playing out? Are certain conflicts handed over to NATO?
A. The breakdown of UN peacekeeping efforts in the former Yugoslavia opened the door for the first NATO out-of-area operation. Things had reached a point where enforcement measures were required that the UN could not cope with. NATO usually operates in such cases. But NATO does not carry out a peacemaking role.
Q. On the issue of malfeasance by peacekeeping forces, what has been the response of the Secretary General's office?
A. This is a major problem, given the great demand for peacekeepers. Europe has seen a reduction of military budgets. When you cast a wider net, the quality is uneven. The UN is dependent on national forces placed at the disposal of the UN to observe certain standards and bring to justice perpetrators of violators of those standards. These days peacekeeping forces tend to be small contingents from many countries, whereas in the past the reverse was preferred.
Q. The UN Charter is for the 20 th century. There needs to be a complete change in the ways nations relate to the UN. There is an increased need to yield sovereignty in international field, and national armed forces shouldn't be sent beyond their borders. The UN needs its own military force, which can enforce international law.
A. There was a proposal for a small standing UN force at the disposal of the Security Council (5,000 or so). Such a force, at the disposal of the Security Council, could deal with small crises, preventing them from escalating. However, this idea received no support from member States. There is no constituency for such an autonomous force, so the UN will have to continue to rely on case-by-case decisions and provision of personnel.
Q. Do you have any insight into the debacle with the safe zones in Yugoslavia ?
A. I was representing the Secretary General in the Security Council on the day the Secretary General was requested to provide his opinion on what would be required to establish safe zones. I got into a lot of trouble for providing overnight, in writing, an estimate of what it would require (troop numbers in the low 30,000s and the disarming of the safe zones). Later, Boutros-Ghali put a number of options before the Security Council, the low option of which involved 7,600 troops. The council went for the low option. However, the first paper, when there was an investigation later, the Secretariat was able to say “we told you so.”
Alvaro de Soto held various senior positions at the UN; until May 2007 he was UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process.
Rapporteur: Nathan Black
back to Wednesday Seminar Series, Fall 2007