The United Nations (UN) is currently in poor health but the severity of its condition is not yet clear. Over the last six months, the organisation has repeatedly shown signs of operational feebleness and political paralysis. Symptoms have ranged from the failure of the UN mission in South Sudan to foresee the country’s implosion last December to the prolonged agony (and predictable futility) of bringing the Syrian government and opposition together in Geneva in January. The organisation’s initial response to the Ukrainian crisis was equally messy, as the Secretary-General’s envoy Robert Serry was expelled from Crimea by pro-Russian forces and the Security Council was unable to react because of Moscow’s veto. From Darfur and Somalia to the Central African Republic (CAR) and Mali, UN peace operations and political missions have had to contend with poor resources, personnel and security.
But while these symptoms are worrying, their significance is uncertain. Are these merely the spasms and chills that inevitably affect any organisation involved in crisis management? Or could they be evidence of a chronic disability with the potential to cripple the organisation’s long-term contribution to peace and security?
There are reasons for optimism. UN missions and officials have demonstrated resilience in the face of recent setbacks. Although caught off-guard in South Sudan, the peacekeepers there sheltered over 80,000 civilians in their camps despite incurring fatalities. The multilateral effort to dismantle the Syrian chemical arsenal has made remarkable progress. The battered UN operation in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has regained leverage by employing force against militias in the east of the country. Even the Cypriot peace process has stuttered back to life.
The UN’s current woes do not approximate to the series of cataclysmic failures – Somalia, Rwanda and Srebrenica – that overwhelmed the organisation in the early and mid-1990s. And although tensions among the permanent five (P5) members of the Security Council have escalated over Syria and Ukraine, other organs of the UN system appear to be functioning better than expected. The Human Rights Council, typically bogged down in East–West and North–South disputes until a few years ago, has passed a series of strong and detailed resolutions addressing Syria. The High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, and her team have taken a concomitantly larger role in recent crises. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, often accused of paying insufficient attention to crisis management early in his tenure, has spoken out forcefully on conflicts like that in CAR that could otherwise be forgotten.
Yet, while the UN’s successes may balance its failures on paper, something remains profoundly amiss. Faced with a mass of crises and conflicts, it is hard to discern underlying political or strategic patterns. A diagnostic framework is required to assess the UN’s health and sift decisive developments from more transient factors. In 2008, in an article on peacekeeping in the mid-2000s, this author laid out one possible framework for distinguishing between “immediate, systemic and paradigmatic” crises facing the UN.This paper returns to this tripartite scheme, and argues that the UN’s operational system and political paradigm for crisis management are surely in crisis – and vulnerable to further failures in the near future.
The paper then goes on to argue that UN mediators cannot cure the organisation’s deep flaws but do have a range of options to mitigate its weaknesses. These options include: (i) using diplomatic means to rescue blue-helmet operations that lack the military means to fulfil their mandates; (ii) acting as a buffer between Russia (and possibly China) and the West in a context of increasing international tension; (iii) undertaking “niche diplomacy” and de-escalatory activities in cases where the big powers wish to avoid clashes; and (iv) building relations with increasingly ambitious regional powers and regional organisations that may be able to drive peacemaking efforts even at times when the P5 are divided, distracted or powerless.