“Conflict Prevention is in the UN’s DNA”
Interview with Outgoing Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs Jeffrey Feltman
Jeffrey Feltman, Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs, is ending his United Nations tenure. We spoke to him on his last day at UN HQ about the challenges to conflict prevention, the state of the multilateral system and the road ahead.
Today, 29 March 2018, is in effect your last day as head of the Department of Political Affairs of the United Nations. How has the world changed since you came on board in 2012?
It has been a fascinating time to work for the United Nations. It’s been a period of often dizzying changes. The world has continued to grow more intertwined, creating great opportunity but also unprecedented risks. Increasingly regionalized conflicts; transnational threats like terrorism, crime, or climate change; rapidly evolving technologies; and vast digital and financial networks means crises often don’t remain local or isolated. The impact of local events and threats are amplified at the global and regional levels, and vice versa.
One change in recent years is quite worrying. It’s clear that many of the world’s problems require multilateral solutions. But just as we need more global cooperation and solidarity, we are seeing the multilateral system come under attack. We see retrenchment and withdrawal in many parts of the world. Populism, nationalism and protectionism have gained new currency. It is impossible to say now whether we are witnessing an enduring trend or shift. I hope not.
During one of my many farewell events I told a group of member States that I think we can use the relationship between the economy and the stock market as a metaphor for the period we’re living. There are times when, despite a fundamentally sound economy or upturn in the economic cycle, the financial markets suffer great volatility and decline. The gyrations of the market do not necessarily call into question the broader economy. Unless they spiral out of control.
Similarly, I believe the fundamentals of the international system, whose foundations were laid three quarters of a century ago, are sound. And history has shown us the alternative to a rules-based system of cooperation for peace and security, development and human rights.
We are undergoing a period of heightened volatility in global affairs. And this is where my economy/market metaphor reaches its limits. Whereas in the financial world one is advised to wait out the volatility, in the international system we cannot afford to do that. The prevention and resolution of crises on the scale that we see today, and that we risk tomorrow, are an imperative for humanity and must be our shared goal.
What can the UN do to arrest this trend?
Well, as far as the UN is concerned I think you need three things: leadership; good competent staff, and more member State buy in. I think we have the first two: the solid leadership of Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and good, experienced staff. We need to continue working on the third element, explaining to member States in clear language the value of the United Nations and the multilateral system, showing by doing – in conflict prevention and other areas -- how effective we are.
Regarding conflict prevention, what concretely does that work entail? How do you go about it?
I need to ground the answer to this question on the UN’s founding document, the Charter. The Charter enshrines the determination to “save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.” It also provides, in its article 99, that the Secretary-General “may bring to the attention of the Security Council any matter which in his opinion may threaten the maintenance of international peace and security.” So, prevention is in the UN’s DNA.
The Security Council has a large role to play in conflict prevention, given its mandate to uphold international peace and security. But its workload has traditionally been dominated by management of crises and large-scale conflicts.
As you know, the Secretary-General is working to raise the prominence of prevention in the UN’s work and as a cornerstone of the multilateral order. He has laid out a comprehensive vision for how the UN can better help countries to avert the outbreak of crises that take a high toll on humanity, undermining institutions and capacities to achieve peace and development.
Within this broad agenda, the overarching approach of the UN to conflict prevention has most recently been conceptualized in the Sustaining Peace resolutions in 2016, which focus on the UN’s work on “preventing the outbreak, escalation, continuation and recurrence” of conflict.
The UN’s prevention tools operate at all stages of this conflict cycle and vary along a spectrum that ranges from broad and long-term to highly-targeted and short-term.
At one end of the spectrum are activities focused on the structural causes of conflict which aim to strengthen the institutions and social mechanisms of states and societies, helping them to become more resilient. This includes work in areas such as governance, rule of law and security sector reform, electoral assistance and gender equality.
At the other end of the spectrum are short-term and highly focused efforts to stave off impending violence, when the UN’s focus shifts to immediate actions that can prevent the outbreak, escalation or continuation of conflict and influence those that will decide whether or not to engage in or escalate violence.
What are some of the challenges the UN’s conflict prevention work faces? And where have you seen successes?
I see four key elements which have emerged to shape UN conflict prevention efforts, whether in a lead role or in support of the work of others.
A first element is the growth of schisms in the set of shared interest on which multilateralism, and thus our approach to conflict prevention, are based. Shifts in geopolitics have eroded the consensus that emerged after the Cold War that generally accepted a central role for the UN, including the Security Council, in preventing and managing conflict.
A second element is the perennial concern by host countries that UN engagement in prevention may amount to interference in their internal affairs. At times, this concern closes the door for the UN to engage in preventing conflict. Conflict prevention, particularly when it involves discussions at the Security Council, is seen as diplomatically stigmatizing.
A third element is the growing power and relevance of non-state actors that do not respect or recognize territorially-organized statehood. The fluidity, decentralized command structures, and in some cases extreme ideologies and tactics of these armed group pose major challenges for the UN in promoting mediated solutions.
In the Central African Republic, for example, the UN has faced years of challenges in engaging both the Seleka and Anti-balaka armed movements in structured political negotiations with the Government and, even where they have succeeded, the capacity of group leaders to make undertakings on behalf of their group is often limited.
Frequently, the links between non-state armed groups and regional or international inter-state competition makes localized political solutions virtually impossible. The situation in Syria is exemplary of the interconnected nature of local, national, regional and international conflicts in today’s wars.
On a more positive note, a final element that we must not under-estimate is the increasingly effective cooperation between the UN and regional and sub-regional organizations in preventing conflict. The UN’s efforts in West Africa over the past several years are examples of the conditions under which these efforts are most successful, namely where the interests (or disinterest) of the Council align with those of the region.
This was the case after the 2013-15 constitutional crisis in Burkina Faso, when through UNOWAS, the UN was able to work in coordination with the AU and ECOWAS to deter further violence and support peaceful paths to achieve accountability and political transition.
As you depart, what is your advice to the organization to further strengthen UN conflict prevention efforts?
Our efforts to strengthen conflict prevention must aim to improve the political environment for the UN’s conflict prevention work. I see four key areas of work in this regard:
First, build relationships: Cooperation with regional and national actors is easiest when there is a clear counterpart on the ground or in the region that has developed relationships with actors and networks that can be activated in times of crisis. Flying in from New York, Brussels or Geneva and expecting results is not always realistic.
Regional offices and field-based special political missions (SPMs) are particularly important in this regard, but we should also expand support for UN Resident Coordinators in countries, where no peacekeeping or political mission is present, so-called non-mission settings, as is proposed in the Secretary-General’s reform of the UN development system.
Second, cooperation across the UN system. Effective prevention requires the use of all the UN’s efforts to facilitate dialogue, encourage positive actions by the parties, and promote conflict-sensitive programming over time. Sustaining peace provides a strong tool to break down silos across the three pillars – peace and security, development and human rights – of the Organization.
Third, strengthen support to local actors and national mediation. External actors can only accompany and facilitate, not impose, peace. Efforts must broaden inclusion and ownership, including early and sustained involvement of women. Engaging local actors that can support peacemaking present important entry points.
Fourth and finally is how we communicate with Member States on conflict prevention, which remains a sensitive topic for many. We need to depoliticize conflict prevention, assure host countries of our commitment to consent and sovereignty, and emphasize our capacity for low-profile, confidential engagement.