Reflections on Southeast Asia

A place to gather together my writing about the region

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“As Long As They Don’t Use Violence”: Making Peace and Resisting Violent Extremism in South-East Asia

Resolving conflict in South-East Asia has been an
important part of controlling violent extremism in
the region in the last two decades. Ending communal
violence and long-running insurgencies by signing
peace agreements has allowed violent extremism to
become a manageable problem.

The prospect of a future stake in government has encouraged
some insurgents to shun extremist groups. By coming up with new
sub-national systems for governing formerly rebellious provinces,
governments have helped create both have resistance to extremist
ideology and marginalized those insurgents still committed to the
cause. The future success of these arrangements could provide
an alternative to those groups that continue to advocate extremist
violence as the only way to achieve militant goals such as sharia
or independence. The South-East Asian experience shows that the
tools of conflict resolution, support for peace processes, respect
for human rights, and peacebuilding are still central to aiding the
present challenges of preventing violent extremism.

Changing the conflict environment is one in a complex series of
factors influencing disengagement, resilience, and resistance to
extremism. The experience of South-East Asia shows how militants
in the region are often ready to stop using violence to achieve
their political goals. Even for extremist militants, changing the
context that encouraged them to join violent groups is important
for disengagement. Other factors include disillusionment, reconnecting
with non-radical social networks, and a shift towards
work and family life. In Indonesia, broad historical and political
trends have undermined extremist groups. Indonesia’s democracy
is a decentralized one that allows regional interests to be represented
and flexible enough to permit the advocacy of sharia. In
the Philippines, a key distinction has been understanding the
difference between insurgents and terrorists, and then treating
the two groups differently.

Looking back, different conflicts provide various lessons on how
peace and political processes interact with extremist groups
in the Indonesian archipelago and the Philippines. In East
Timor’s struggle for independence, the resistance movement’s
frustration with a lack of political options led it to consider
tactics usually associated with terrorist groups, such as an urban
bombing campaign. In Aceh, an ethno-nationalist movement saw

international support as a lever aiding its strategic success and
rejected any association with transnational and regional extremist
groups. In the Maluku, communal violence responded better to
a peace agreement, as the social fabric there was stronger and
jihadis more disorganized. In Poso, also in Indonesia, a long-term
strategy implemented by outside militants led to persistent violence
long after a peace agreement was signed. In Mindanao in the
Philippines, a deliberate effort was made by the government not
to call insurgents terrorists and this persisted over many difficult
years during negotiations. In turn, this commitment to a peace
process encouraged insurgents to make unwelcome foreign jihadis
and close their training camps.

These cases studies help illustrate a number of lessons from the
region that might inform how real or perceived extremist threats
can be understood in ongoing South-East Asian conflicts. Conflict
can be an entry point to extremism and targeted prevention
that differentiates between insurgent and extremist violence is
important. In South-East Asia, ethno-nationalist insurgencies
have proved to be a bulwark against extremists. Governments,
insurgents, and terrorists all use violence as a tactic, but
understanding the nature of each group’s grievances, with whom
to negotiate and sorting one kind of violent actor from another is
important. While peace can take decades to negotiate, maintaining
the momentum of a political process can be an important source
of immunity against violent extremism. Insurgents who are
committed to finding peace can also be partners in preventing
violent extremism. The resolution of conflict remains a key part in
promoting the disengagement and containment of violent radicals.
The international community has a role to play by being more
restrained in how it designates terrorists.

For those wishing to support the prevention of violent extremism in South-East Asia, it should be acknowledged that tools used in Indonesia and Philippines can contribute to ongoing challenges in places like Myanmar and Thailand. Insurgents with long standing grievances should be distinguished from terrorists. Instead of using terrorism laws to name and sanction insurgents, insurgents should be brought into established peace processes to minimize the potential of violent extremists taking advantage of these conflicts. Sustained political engagement rather than more unsuccessful deadly military campaigns should be the way forward. Environments that resist violent extremism can be maintained through conflict prevention or encouraged through conflict resolution, peacebuilding, and investing in successful political transitions after a peace agreement. The regional experience shows that preventing violent extremism can also be achieved by creating centripetal forces that pull extremists towards the centre and political processes. This can include putting a premium on talks rather than military action. It can mean finding new ways to encourage militants to disengage from violence rather than focus on the more challenging goal of trying to deradicalize them. It can happen by providing pathways to peaceful action through protest, political parties, and the ballot box. The prevention of violent extremism may also require democracies to tolerate uncomfortable, even anti-democratic, ideas such as majoritarianism, sharia or separatism.

You can download the full report here.


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All eyes on COVID-19 recovery, but conflict and extremism won’t just go away!/httpImage/image.jpg_gen/derivatives/original_620/jakarta-bomb-cp-w7040381.jpg
Inside the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Jakarta after the 17 July 2009 terrorist attack

A sudden pressure wave reverberated in my chest while I readied for work. My three-year-old daughter, dressed in her pre-school uniform, rushed to the window and pointed to a plume of smoke. Two suicide bombers had struck almost simultaneously at an adjacent pair of upscale hotels in Jakarta, not far from our 27th-floor apartment.

It was July 17, 2009, just when some had started to feel that the recession caused by the Global Finance Crisis was over. A plot that had been months in the making had come to an explosive end, killing nine and injuring more than 50. While the world was distracted by the economic downturn, extremists in Indonesia with violent intent hadn’t gone away.

While many see the current pandemic as a unique moment in history, I feel we have been here before. The virus and the corresponding economic recession is already consuming the bandwidth of governments near and far. There is pressure to prioritize. Across the world, societies are still hunkered down, isolated, and avoiding travel. The world is ever-increasingly inward-looking and not seeing around corners.

But as those who watch regional conflicts know, in crisis there is opportunity for those with violent plans. Peace deals, such as the landmark peace agreement in the Philippines that lead to the Bangsamoro Transition Authority (BTA), are fragile. As the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis on Conflict (IPAC) has observed, the key to reducing the appeal of Islamic State in the Philippines is to produce a more attractive alternative for Mindanao’s Muslims and this is one of the many hopes vested the new political entity, now only one year old.

As COVID-19 continues to dominate the headlines, ISIS remains a threat in Indonesia, with its members still stuck in Syrian camps and pro-ISIS extremists active across the archipelago. In recent analyses, IPAC notes the health crisis has also intensified anti-Chinese rhetoric, heightened the potential for unrest in Indonesian prisons and raised tensions in Papua.

Responses by extremists seen elsewhere could soon arrive in South-East Asia. Inadequate responses to the crisis will aid attempts to undermine government legitimacy. COVID-19 provides opportunities for disinformation and propaganda by blaming the West and other governments. Extremists could prove more adept than governments in handling responses in some communities.

Dealing with COVID-19 is a priority, but let’s not forget the world that is meeting us on the other side of this crisis.

As part of the Entry and Exit Points: Violent Extremism in South-East Asia report, I looked at a series of persistent conflicts in South-East Asia. These include violence in Aceh, Ambon Maluku, and Poso, Central Sulawesi, in the Indonesian archipelago as well as Mindanao in the southern Philippines. This is a look in the rear-view mirror, but it is intended to inform decisions that are being made today.

History has taught us that resolving conflict helps address violent extremism in this region. To do this, we need to be able to distinguish in rhetoric between ethno-nationalist and extremist groups. Each deserves its own policy response. The peace agreements we have in the region need to be defended. Regional governments need to provide political processes that offer an alternative to extremism. Enhanced monitoring of how extremists respond to COVID-19 should be a priority. Resolving a conflict politically has many advantages, including aiding disengagement from extremist groups.

In such a diverse region, there will always be some conflict. The goal is to manage it, not extinguish it; to choose politics over violence. This is a history lesson of South-East Asia that must not be forgotten.

This blog was first published on 12 November 2020 on the UNDP’s Asia-Pacific blog here.

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Reading between the lines of the Bangladesh-Myanmar MOU

Governance and Development Soapbox

By Jim Della-Giacoma*

In signing a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Bangladesh on the return of Rohingya refugees, Myanmar portrayed the agreement as “a win-win situation for both countries” and a victory for neighbours resolving their differences without the interference of outsiders. But the deal may also reveal that wider conflicts are brewing.

Myanmar is on the defensive. The deal came one day after the US Secretary of State belatedly agreed it was “clear that the situation in northern Rakhine state constitutes ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya”. The agreement is a diplomatic feint rather than a serious step forward in resolving this crisis that has seen more 700,000 refugees flee to Bangladesh since October 2016.

BANGLADESH-ROHINGYA “United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi (3L) walks during a visit to a Rohingya refugee camp in the Bangladeshi city of Cox’s Bazar on July 10, 2017”. Photo/ caption credit: AFP/…

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Is @UN Really Catching up With Reality?

Argentine Foreign Minister Susana Malcorra meets her Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov in Moscow (picture via @SusanaMalcorra)

Jim Della-Giacoma

The recent informal dialogues in the United Nations General Assembly for those aspiring to be the next secretary-general were unprecedented. Webcast to the world, the more than 18 hours of questions and answers opened up a process that once took place solely behind closed doors.

It was also something of a coming of age for social media at the UN, with questions submitted via Twitter to candidates using the #NextSG hashtag. But what does this tell us about the state of digital diplomacy at the UN? Is it actually changing the way the organization works?

It was novel to see Twitter take the stage in a forum more known for long-winded statements. The United Kingdom’s Permanent Representative to the UN, Matthew Rycroft (@MatthewRycroft1), read questions from his mobile device that had been submitted from civil society and members of the public. They were short and to the point.

British student Chris Lauder (@Lauderish), asked of Serbia’s former Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic (@Vuk4UNSG):

And violent extremism researcher Naureen Chowdhury-Fink (@NaureenCFink) inquired of UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova of Bulgaria (@IrinaBokova):

This makes for progress at the UN, where having civil society in the room is still a contested idea. Many are too eager to remind NGOs that this is, after all, an organization of member states.

“Some of my colleagues at the UN seemed shocked at the notion of an ordinary person with a smart phone having a say at public hearings on the biggest world stage,” Rycroft wrote at the end of the week. “But this isn’t radical. It’s the UN catching up with reality.”

But informal dialogues showed that the candidates want to say as little as possible and risk offending no influential member states as they campaign for the UN’s top job. They are not trying to use social media to make arguments, something the incumbent is judged by many to have done poorly.

Moving beyond PR to persuasion is #DigitalDiplomacy, as the Lowy Institute think tank’s Danielle Cave has observed:

“It is one thing to allow embassies, ambassadors … to open up Facebook, Twitter or Instagram accounts and to use these to post announcements…it is an entirely different thing to allow the diplomats using these accounts to project, advocate for and defend…policy positions. The first is public relations and the second is digital diplomacy.”

Pushed by civil society to open up the process, Rycroft led the way with five questions to candidates sourced from his social media feeds. More than just the messenger, the UK Mission (@UKUN_NewYork) is conducting a concerted social media campaign of its own to convince us that the British government really is committed to transparency in the secretary-general selection process, when many believe they are just as happy as the Russians that their Security Council veto gives them an outsized role on the opaque job selection panel.

Having a Twitter account now feels like another box to tick to be eligible for this office. UN Development Programme Administrator and New Zealand candidate Helen Clark (@HelenClarkUNDP) opened up a parallel account (@Helen4SG) to give her some freedom to speak with two tongues. Bokova, meanwhile, has not yet separated her dual identities as an active international civil servant and candidate, which restricts what she can say.

Montenegrin candidate Igor Lukšić (@I_Luksic), Croatian Vesna Pusić (@vpusic), and Slovenian Danilo Türk (@_DaniloTurk) came to race from being politicians and with pre-existing accounts. Moldovan Natalia Gherman (@Natalia_Gherman) joined Twitter just this week. Former Portuguese Prime Minister António Guterres, who has pledged to rid the UN of acronyms, has no account. Macedonia’s Srgjan Kerim also has no Twitter presence.

When Rycroft asked Clark how she would use social media as secretary-general she did not have time to give a proper answer and that highlighted another shortcoming of this “transparent” process. It was rushed and simplified. Bombarded by volleys of questions from member states, candidates skated through their replies or just did not answer them. There was rarely any follow-up.

Guterres and Clark made the case that communication skills were an important prerequisite for the job. It is apt, then, that when the latter spoke about Twitter it was in a sentence that had less than 140 characters: “I did see a tweet from the member of the public that my greatest fear is that Helen Clark will stop doing her own tweets if she becomes SG.” It made for a cute quote, but does Twitter really matter in this secretary-general selection battle?

In the absence of unity in the General Assembly, the truth is that the process so far has not clipped the power of the veto-wielding P5, who are the ones who will really chose the next secretary-general. The serious business will begin with a series of straw polls later in the year in the closed Security Council chamber.

The informal dialogues and the use of social media do have modest value, however, in revealing certain information that might not be widely known to the public. This includes a tweet from Rycroft from 4:45pm of the final hearing on Thursday last week:

This means there will mostly likely be another round of informal dialogues, but despite the commitments to do doing things out in the open, there is still much lobbying going on behind the scenes. It has been widely rumored that former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd (@MrKRudd) and Argentine Foreign Minister Susana Malcorra (@SusanaMalcorra) aspire to the job and, as my colleague Richard Gowan (@RichardGowan1) recently wrote, they are likely second-round picks.

This information won’t feature on those individuals’ Twitter feeds just yet, but it is possible to see in real time where they are, and with whom they are meeting (i.e. lobbying). As the declared candidates were in the UN Trusteeship Council chamber for their dialogues, Malcorra, Ban Ki-moon’s former Chef de Cabinet, tweeted that she was in Moscow, ostensibly with a trade delegation, meeting Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

Since leaving Ban’s 38th floor offices at the UN, her Twitter feed shows she has visited Washington, London, and Paris to meet heads of government and other senior officials. Maybe we will soon see her in Beijing too. It is in the capitals and the UN permanent representative offices in New York where the real dialogues are taking place in the race for the next secretary-general. When the deal is done, the rest of us will likely be reading about it for the first time on Twitter.

This piece was originally posted on IPI’s Global Observatory on 22 April.

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U.N. Peace Operations Need Less Jargon and More Direction


U.N. peacekeepers from Rwanda secure a polling station, Bangui, Central African Republic, Feb. 14, 2016 (AP photo by Jerome Delay)

Jim Della-Giacoma

Monday, April 4, 2016

Peace and the United Nations go together; at least that’s what its founders intended. But in the meeting rooms of the organization’s New York headquarters, diplomats often argue over the buzzword vocabulary of compound words and phrases for advancing the U.N.’s peace mandate. They parse whether an operation is a special political mission or a peacekeeping mission. They worry that calling something a “peace operation” is too imprecise. When they cannot agree whether something should be peace building or “sustaining the peace,” they compromise by using both terms.

Maybe it’s time for the semantic arguments to be replaced with a focus on results.

A good start on how to do so is a joint resolution of the U.N. General Assembly and the Security Council finalized Thursday, which should be tabled and passed by both bodies in mid-April. The resolution, shepherded over months by Angola and Australia, follows up on a report last year by an advisory group of experts who reviewed the U.N.’s “peace-building architecture.” They aptly titled their final document “The Challenge of Sustaining Peace.”

In today’s divided U.N., some feel it is something of an achievement that member states agreed on a resolution with 31 operative paragraphs and 21 normative ones. They say it is the most comprehensive resolution on peace building agreed to by both the Security Council and the General Assembly, representing a first step in breaking down silos. It firmly connects peace building with prevention and talks about how to implement it. It sees sustaining peace as part of a continuum, rather than just a post-conflict activity. It calls for a stronger relationship between the Peacebuilding Commission (PBC) and the Security Council, conceiving of them as partners rather than rivals. It tries to build a better bridge across the Delaware River between the U.N. system based in New York and the World Bank in Washington, D.C.

But some key issues were placed in the “too hard to resolve now” basket, especially how peace building should be paid for. The advisory group of experts had proposed the Peace Building Fund receive core funding of either $100 million or a “symbolic” 1 percent share of the total U.N. budgets for peace operations, comprising both peacekeeping and Special Political Missions, but member states couldn’t agree. Instead, they asked the next secretary-general to look into this issue and report back in two years time.

Anything that reaches the Security Council is by definition a political problem, on which member states’ interests prevail.

This reflects how, for the U.N., funding and naming are always sensitive issues. A case in point is the new mission established by the Security Council in January for a team of international observers to monitor an imminent peace agreement between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Though it looks like a traditional peacekeeping operation, it was called a special political mission.

This could be because the peacekeeping “brand” has acquired an image problem over the past few years. A quick look at the map of current operations, especially in Africa, makes it clear why member states associate peacekeeping with failed states. For this reason, Colombia is more comfortable with a political rather than a peacekeeping mission. This also means the mission will be funded from the U.N.’s regular budget, rather than by assessed contributions to its peacekeeping account.

The decision displays an obvious lack of consistency. The U.N.’s missions in Western Sahara and Cyprus wrestle with glacial political processes, but are technically peacekeeping missions. The U.N. Assistance Mission in Iraq has more than 400 personnel, but is a special political mission. As the “Oxford Handbook of UN Peacekeeping Operations” recounts, the U.N.’s 1965 mission in the Dominican Republic had a task similar to the forthcoming mission in Colombia—namely, monitoring a cease-fire alongside a regional organization—but was called a peacekeeping operation.

But there is an explanation for the semantic games played over the mission in Colombia: Anything that reaches the Security Council is by definition a political problem, on which member states’ interests prevail. This means that a policy designed to save face and money for member states prevails over determining the best form or function for a future peace operation. Rather than pay a little now to prevent a conflict, we pay much more later to manage a crisis.

U.N. peace operations have the capacity to change; they have demonstrated this in the past 15 years since the landmark Brahimi report. They need to continue to evolve, because the environments where peace operations are deploying are fluid and resist the application of templates. Circumstances on the ground change, and missions need to constantly adapt. The U.N.’s expert advisory reports from the past year have re-emphasized the political nature of conflict and the need for the international system to think more creatively about preventing it. Last year’s High-level Independent Panel on Peace Operations (HIPPO), for instance, called for the U.N. to deliver “right fit” missions along a “continuum of response and smoother transitions between different phases of missions.”

Ian Johnstone believes the process should start with asking the right questions. What is the political process? Where is the conflict? Who are the targets of violence? What are the reasons for it? How legitimate is the state? Is it cooperating with or consenting to a U.N. mission? What role are the neighbors, regional actors and global powers playing?

A U.N. peace operation, Johnstone argues, performs a range of tasks including political engagement, protection, capacity-building, monitoring, service delivery and coordination. In addition to its blue helmets and uniformed police, it has at its disposal civilian instruments, such as envoys and mediators as well as human rights, political and civil affairs officers.

Thinking of a spectrum of peace operations rather than a type of mission would require profound changes in behavior at all levels, Johnstone acknowledges. To start with, locals cannot be bypassed if a mission is to work; U.N. envoys must stop legitimizing “imported peace” or “elite peace.” Mandates from the Security Council also need to be simpler. Troop-contributing countries who are reimbursed based on the size of their contingents will have to accept that an operation with lots of battalions might not always be the best international tool to resolve a conflict. At U.N. headquarters, the secretary-general would require much better planning and analysis capabilities to understand how the organization’s instruments fit with the actions of regional and subregional groups. The General Assembly’s administrative and budgetary committees must stop micromanaging mission finances to allow the Secretariat to become much more flexible in the way it deploys operations.

In short, Johnstone argues, U.N. peace operations need less bureaucracy and more “adhocracy.” This is an organizational form that lends itself to innovation in a fluid environment. It is flexible, adaptable and informal. Indeed, in its purest form, it functions without bureaucratic policies or procedures.

At the very least, thinking with greater flexibility about peace operations would quickly start a discussion about the artificial departmental split between political affairs, peacekeeping operations and field service. There is little appetite for a debate on restructuring, but it has to happen.

The expert reports released in 2015 have done a thorough job of mapping the challenges and plotting a few possible ways forward. When the declared candidates for the position of U.N. secretary-general appear before the General Assembly later this month, someone should ask them a question or three about the future of peace operations—not just the buzzwords, but the goals and processes. We will be all be listening to see in which direction they want to lead the organization.

Jim Della-Giacoma is the deputy director at the Center on International Cooperation at New York University, the editor-in-chief of the Global Peace Operations Review, and a visiting fellow in the department of social and political change at the Australian National University’s College of Asia and the Pacific.

This article was first published on the World Politics Review on 4 April 2016.

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At the U.N., Only Optimists Need Apply

The United Nations Security Council during a meeting on North Korea, New York, March 24, 2016 (AP photo by Mary Altaffer).

Jim Della-Giacoma Monday, March 28, 2016

First published on the World Politics Review on 28 March 2016.

The first time I heard the German word “zwangsoptimist” was in a meeting to discuss ways to improve how the international system functions. Meaning “someone who feels compelled to be an optimist,” the word not only succinctly sums up my work for and alongside the U.N. over the past 27 years, but could also be a one-word job description for the organization’s next secretary-general.

Not everyone sees the world, or the U.N., this way. In his recent op-ed in The New York Times, titled “I Love the U.N., but It Is Failing,” outgoing senior U.N. official Anthony Banbury saw the glass as more than half-empty. The U.N. Secretariat that the next secretary-general will administer, he wrote, has a sclerotic personnel system. He described a dysfunctional organization with minimal accountability, where political expediency trumps universal values and facts on the ground, and whose peacekeeping operations apply antiquated tools to 21st-century conflicts.

It was quite an indictment, and an uncomfortable one for someone like me, whose day job involves reflecting on how to make peace operations more effective. A close relative, upon reading the Banbury op-ed, sent me a message asking, “Are you ready to give up?”

I am not, nor should any of us be.

The most surprising thing about Banbury’s op-ed is not its content, but that it even made the pages of The New York Times. It reads like a revelation, but anyone who was in the U.N. system for as long as Banbury was should already have been well familiar with the problems he enumerated.

Most people involved with the organization already are. The 16 members of the U.N.’s High-level Independent Panel on Peace Operations, for instance, pre-empted Banbury’s critique of U.N. peacekeeping last June:

“The messages the Panel has received from the field have been resounding: UN administrative procedures are failing missions and their mandates. Force commanders and troop contributors are exasperated by bureaucratic constraints that fail to meet reasonable demands in difficult settings. Senior managers complain of deep dysfunction and are frustrated by the inability to recruit rapidly on one hand and the obstacles to removing poor performers on the other.”

It recommended that the secretary-general allow the Department of Field Support to develop policies to expedite recruitment, empower managers in the field, and make them accountable. In emergencies, they needed leeway to do things quickly outside the normal rules.

What may not be evident to outsiders is that Banbury’s former role, and the target of his post-parting remarks, concerns the U.N. Secretariat, and not the organization’s myriad agencies, funds and programs—such as UNHCR, UNICEF and the World Food Programme—which manage their own operations, budgets and personnel systems, often far more effectively than the Secretariat’s peace operations.

We are once again in an era when the U.N. is divided between East and West, North and South.

But even in the area of peace and security, the U.N. has made many important and broad contributions to resolving conflict, restoring stability and ending disorder. I’ve seen it firsthand in East Timor, Liberia and Southeast Asia.

Presumably, Banbury has too. His first U.N. posting was as a human rights officer in a Cambodian refugee camp along the Thai-Cambodian border; his first peacekeeping mission was the U.N. Transitional Administration in Cambodia (UNTAC). Deployed in February 1992 after the fall of the Khmer Rouge and Cambodia’s subsequent civil war, UNTAC played a small part in resolving one of the great humanitarian tragedies of the Cold War. The operation was far from perfect: It was where sexual exploitation and abuse by peacekeepers first came to widespread public attention. But the Cambodian conflict was a complex problem that took years to resolve, in which the U.N. and its agencies were central and a U.N. peace operation was a key part of the solution.

Of course, resolving conflict is never neat and tidy. Peace agreements are often made with people who have done much killing. But as the U.N. panel’s report on peace operations underlines, peace is all about getting the politics right. Resolving decades of conflict often requires the global and regional dynamics to change first. Only then are regional players and the representatives who exercise the secretary-general’s “good offices” able to negotiate peace agreements and plans of action, not only to resolve conflicts but also to deal with the massive displacement that often accompanies them. It becomes a team effort when the Secretariat and member states play on the same side.

Such behavior at the end of the Cold War made many believe again in the U.N.; some even saw the organization as an integral part of a New World Order. UNTAC ushered in a decade of active peace operations that ended with the U.N. and then-Secretary-General Kofi Annan being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2001. Not all were immediate success stories. But painstaking recoveries often followed even some of the worst bloodlettings.

Preventing conflict is a complex quest, one that, from the first word of the U.N. Charter, is the U.N. Secretariat’s main job. But just as we project our aspirations onto politicians, we are now doing the same for the next secretary-general. Banbury ends his op-ed with a call for the U.N. to be led by people for whom “doing the right thing” is normal. The “zwangsoptimists” in the system are looking for leadership.

But with the post-Cold War period now in the past, we are once again in an era when the intergovernmental organization is divided between East and West, North and South. The Secretariat, its missions and its internal governance are all proxy battlefields for interstate competition, not cooperation. In such a time, the 193 member states should take responsibility for fixing the U.N.’s dysfunction, rather than tasking one Secretary-General to do so. Managing the organization’s internal conflicts will be as much of a struggle for whoever seeks Ban Ki-moon’s job as resolving global crises. Only optimists need apply.

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Mogens Lykketoft: The Challenge Facing The in Peace and Security is How to be Seen as Truly Relevant


General Assembly President Mogens Lykketoft spoke with Syrian refugees when he visited the Zaatari Refugee Camp on the border during a visit to Jordan in January 2016.


H.E. Mr. Mogens Lykketoft is the President of the 70th session of the General. One of his key initiatives upon assuming office was to propose a collective reflection on the key pillars of the United Nations – development, peace and security and human rights – and how the United Nations and the next Secretary General in particular can confront new challenges and transform them into opportunities.

On 10 and 11 May 2016, he will host a high-level thematic debate on UN, Peace and Security in order to examine how to strengthen the role and the performance of the United Nations’ engagement in these matters. The Global Peace Operations Review’s Jim Della-Giacoma and Lesley Connolly recently interviewed Mr. Lykketoft about his initiative.

Jim Della-Giacoma (JDG): What motivated you to organize this High-level Thematic Debate?

Mogens Lykketoft (ML): Since taking office in September 2015, it has become clear to me that just as multilateralism is re-asserting itself in relation to sustainable development, regrettably, in the area of international peace and security, the opposite appears to be happening.

This is partly related to the perception that the Security Council is unable to deal with some of the most complicated and dangerous conflicts the world has witnessed in recent years, including in Syria. The result is a lack of credibility and a declining image of the UN.

The international community needs urgently to engage in a serious and dispassionate reflection on the role of the United Nations in today’s world across the three inter-related pillars of the organization: development, peace and security and respect for human rights. This reflection needs to inspire all members of this organisation as they start considering who – as the next Secretary-General – will lead the UN in all those equally vital tasks.

The high-level thematic debate on UN, peace and security of 10-11 May is an integral part of this process. I will host two other complementary high-level thematic debates on Achieving the Sustainable Development Goals on 21 April and on human rights on 12-13 July.

I hope that those debates will constitute adequate opportunities for the members of the United Nations to recommit to the purposes and principles of the Charter.

JDG: What do you hope to achieve from this debate?

ML: There is a good reason why the recent reviews – on UN peace operations, peacebuilding and on women, peace and security – were undertaken coincidentally: they are all inspired by the sense that the UN needs urgently to keep pace with evolving challenges and threats to international security, from climate change or violent extremism and terrorism which are now at the top of the global agenda.

They all seek to address weaknesses that undermine the efficiency and credibility of the UN, and its ability to meet the objectives outlined in the Charter. The three reviews coupled with the process for selecting and appointing the next UN Secretary General, constitute genuine opportunities to reassert the role of the UN in matters of peace and security.

I hope that my high-level thematic debate will contribute to this momentum and provide Member States with the right platform to engage in a strategic reflection about those challenges and the ways to enhance the efficiency and credibility of the UN.

Lesley Connolly (LC): What are the key issues from the three reviews of 2015 that will help keep the UN effective in the face of the changing nature of conflict?

ML: The reviews contain a remarkable set of converging recommendations – for example, regarding the need to recognize the primacy of politics; to increase investment in prevention; to strengthen the protection and participation of women in any conflict situations; to advance a people centred approach to peace and security and to strengthen partnerships in this area, particularly with regional organizations.

But I would like to encourage the General Assembly to look also at other global challenges.

Look at the refugee crises in Eastern Mediterranean and in Eastern Africa and the dramatic consequences of an international response which was not immediately commensurate with the magnitude of the needs. Failure to prevent conflicts and to address their effects at an early stage has also a cost – a cost that is becoming unbearable. As the report on humanitarian financing shows, $15 billion are needed for a decent effort to deal with refugees. It will require the right system of financing and better interaction between all parts of the UN.

In matters of peace and security also, there is no alternative to the establishment of a more predictable and sustainable financing mechanism for international action – be it for peace operations carried out by the UN or the Africa Union for example.

Another crucial dimension of any reflection on those matters is the interconnectedness between development, peace and security and human rights. We need to consider peace and security coupled with development. Genuine commitment to the implementation of Goal 16 is the best way to prevent conflict and put human dignity at the heart of governance. The two go hand-in-hand.

JDG: Ahead of the debate, you have been encouraging a number of consultations around the world with civil society organizations in Brussels, Geneva, Brasilia, Addis Ababa, Cairo, Shanghai and other places. What has been the most valuable outcome of these consultations and how do they relate to the even in New York?

ML: When I announced my intention to convene a high-level thematic debate on UN, peace and security, I was approached by a number of prominent research institutions, civil society organizations, think tanks with global and regional reach – all of them with a genuine wish to contribute to this reflection and inform the debate.

I encouraged them to work together, organize regional debates and meetings that would be open also to experts from Member States, regional and sub-regional organizations and the private sector.

The task was to bring the perspective of Europe, Asia, Africa, America and the Arab world, to go beyond abstract terms and identify the concrete implications of the primacy of politics, conflict prevention and mitigation. During the high-level thematic debate, they will be given an opportunity to outline their conclusions and recommendations, to inspire our action and the next UN leadership.

LC: It is vital for the Member States, civil society and other stakeholders to form a consensus on the role of the UN in the field of peace and security. How will the thematic debate approach this?

ML: The high-level thematic debate will combine a high-level plenary segment with interactive sessions to discuss today’s threats, challenges for sustainable peace, and how the UN system can support Member States as the primary actors.

Member States will be invited to participate at the highest possible level. Observers, UN entities, civil society, media, and other stakeholders will be invited to attend and some of them will have a special role to play.

I believe sincerely that civil society has a very important role to play in the field of peace and security. The contributions of civil society organizations are very diverse. They have field experience and ideas about what kind of system will be needed in the future. They are able to offer perspectives that are unique and important for us to hear.

Finally, it is also my intention to invite all declared candidates for the position of UN Secretary General to be present so that they are fully aware of what lies ahead of them, if selected.

JDG: This is the year that the new Secretary-General will be selected. How do you see the high-level debate contributing to their future agenda?

ML: Clearly, the challenge is not only the reform of the Security Council, which is a core issue, but its interaction with the Secretary-General and General Assembly.

It is very important that those who want to hold this office understand that the role of the UN Secretary General is very much to be the right moral authority towards the principle organs. The Secretary General needs to call the Security Council at the right time and challenge it if necessary while making all efforts to ensure that it takes action in the face of a crisis.

LC: How effective will a UNGA debate be in unlocking the entrenched positions of the P5 or G77 on these issues and challenges?

ML: You mentioned only two of many constituencies within the General Assembly and two constituencies that are also deeply divided on important issues such as the link between SDGs and sustainable peace.

I hope that a transparent and inclusive debate in a format that is carefully designed to be adequate to a particular discussion on the role of the UN in matters of peace and security can make a difference, go beyond the usual recognition of an ‘ill defined’ need for change to focus instead on concrete steps to make that change happen.

Only the search for a common ground on key threats and appropriate international responses to them will strengthen the will and ability of the Security Council to act in a more timely and efficient manner. Take terrorism and violent extremism, for example. Even the most powerful State on earth cannot address this threat alone. It has to be a concerted action from all the major world and regional powers. And it is not possible to deal with such threat with military might only.

JDG: One of the themes from the HIPPO report is that the UN should not work alone; it has to work with others and it should be conceived more as a facilitator rather than an implementer. What is your vision for the role of regional organizations in these peace and security challenges and how do you think the debate will bring these out?

ML: The nature of conflict has changed. It is widely recognized that the nature of conflicts has changed and that the vast majority of conflicts do not take place any more among States but within States and involving non-state actors – but at the same time with increasingly regional consequences, from a political, humanitarian, security point of view.

It requires obviously a change in the international approach, taking into consideration the regional dimensions of conflicts and the risk of spill-over. Designing and implementing regional strategies constitute only one of the responses to this phenomenon.

Another one if enhanced partnership with regional organisations. But it requires also from regional organisations to be ready for it. What has enabled the African Union to become an effective actor in the field of peace and security is firstly a political consensus on key values and key approaches, such as the principle of ‘non-indifference’ – sometimes opposed to the principle of non-interference – but also, very importantly, its concrete capacity to act. Building requisite administrative and military capacity has paid off. Today, the partnership between the AU and the UN is a concrete reality and it will only be further strengthened in the future.

LC: What will be the greatest challenge for the UN in peace and security moving forward?

ML: The challenge facing the UN in matters of peace and security is how to be and be seen as truly relevant.

In all my interaction with the General Assembly and its committees over the last few months – as the reviews and the way forward were being discussed –, I have urged member states to translate recommendations into action within a reasonable time frame.

There is a need to define both the division of labour between the UN and the regional organizations and ensure that policies, practices and funding mechanisms are adequate to the challenges linked with the objective to build sustainable peace. But a number of recommendations outlined in the reviews require more than a decision – it takes a change in mind-set to recognize the primacy of politics and put conflict prevention at the forefront of the international approach.

There is a need for a new vision, a new agenda that the next UN leadership will need to formulate and translate into action.

This interview was first published on the Global Peace Operations Review on 23 March 2016.

Mogens Lykketoft is the President of the 70th session of the UN General Assembly. | Twitter: @UN_PGA

Jim Della-Giacoma is the Deputy Director of the Center on International Cooperation. | Twitter: @jimdella

Lesley Connolly is a research assistant at the Center on International Cooperation | Twitter: @LesleyConnolly3

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U.N. Security Council Should Make Better Use of ‘Road-Trip Diplomacy’


Burundi President Pierre Nkurunziza and U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power, Gitega, Burundi, Jan. 22, 2016 (AP photo).

Jim Della-Giacoma Monday, March 21, 2016


Editor’s note: Guest columnist Jim Della-Giacoma is filling in for Richard Gowan, who is on leave until early April. This piece was originally published in the World Politics Review.

A United Nations Security Council debate can feel like traveling in an airplane at cruising altitude: a quick continental overflight in a rarefied atmosphere, far above the dirty reality of the conflict below. The debate can be driven by factors that may have little to do with what may be happening on the ground.

But from time to time, council members come back to earth and get dust on their shoes when they engage in road-trip diplomacy. In January members went to Burundi; this month they were in West Africa.

Firsthand fact-finding has not always been the body’s first instinct. As the Security Council Report (SCR) noted in its March monthly forecast, the council’s first visit to the field was to Vietnam and Cambodia in 1964. But only after the Cold War ended did Security Council missions take off, with some 51 visits to 45 countries and territories in the period since. Through January 2016, the Democratic Republic of the Congo held the record with 12 visits; Burundi was second with nine.

Some think this is a habit that should be encouraged. Last year’s reports on U.N. peace operations and peacebuilding urged the council to change its ways. The High-Level Independent Panel on Peace Operations lamented that the council was too aloof, leaving early engagement to the Secretariat. It urged its members to visit “turbulent areas” and consult regional stakeholders on emerging conflicts.

While talk of Security Council “reform” often focuses on who sits at the top table in its meetings and the use of the veto by its five permanent members, altering its working methods are what Liechtenstein’s U.N. Ambassador Christian Wenaweser has called the “ugly duckling of Security Council reform.” Support for such incremental adjustments is a realist argument for behavioral and not institutional change.

But if improving council initiatives like field visits is a near-term objective, it is worth looking more closely at how such visits work. Dispatches from the field by SCR’s correspondents describe crowded agendas full of meetings with local political leaders past and present, U.N. envoys, mission chiefs, regional offices heads and country teams. The schedule includes checking in with opposition figures and NGO representatives.

In Burundi in January, the delegation traveled to a presidential facility in the town of Gitega to meet with President Pierre Nkurunziza. Nkurunziza’s decision to run for a disputed third term last year in an election he went on to win had triggered a constitutional crisis and subsequent violence, leading the African Union to mandate the African Prevention and Protection Mission in Burundi.

If improving council initiatives like field visits is a near-term objective, it is worth looking more closely at how such visits work.

Nkurunziza’s reaction was to shoot the messenger: He told council members the situation in Burundi was much better than reported in the media. Standing next to the president, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power looked forlorn. The Financial Times reported her as saying that “we did not achieve as much, frankly, as I think we would have liked.”

Despite the frustrations and modest return, Congo Research Group’s director, Jason Stearns, who follows the region closely, told me he believed such visits are important, even if only for symbolic reasons. They refocus the international spotlight on forgotten countries and conflicts; they put pressure on reluctant authorities to move toward some sort of peace process.

“To have the author of ‘A Problem from Hell’ in your country makes news,” he said, referring to Power’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book about America’s response to genocides, written while she was still a professor at Harvard University.

But Stearns admits that local analysts find it hard to discern any lasting impact once the wheels have gone up on the council’s plane. In Burundi, South Africa is still disengaged, and the permanent members of the Security Council remain divided on a common approach; the African Union leadership is still reluctant to make a forced intervention.

One criticism of council visits is that they take too long to arrange. They become bound in protocol, and less effective as a result. They are also getting shorter. The U.N. Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) is as complex as its name suggests, but the council visitors only spent two days in Mali.

The council has not always been so hesitant. In September 1999, proxies for the Indonesian military in East Timor went on a violent rampage after voters in a U.N.-sponsored referendum rejected an offer of autonomy in favor of independence. The council made the decision to go to Jakarta, and then departed on the same day.

The field mission, and in particular the delegation’s willingness to challenge the Indonesian military’s narrative of events on East Timor, was an integral part of a broad international effort to address the crisis. Importantly, the five permanent members were on the same page. So was then-U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who, while the delegation met with the head of the Indonesian military, declared, “The time has clearly come for Indonesia to seek help from the international community in fulfilling its responsibility to bring order and security to the people of East Timor.”

The visiting mission cabled back their analysis before the Security Council met in open session. Member states then lined up to condemn Indonesia for failing to keep the peace and called on Jakarta to accept an international mission. The country was caught by surprise.

“Nobody, including myself, had ever imagined that the problem of East Timor would eventually develop in such a way so as to become part of a global issue and portrayed to the international community as a tragic humanitarian drama,” the head of the Indonesian military at the time, Wiranto, wrote in his autobiography “Witness in the Storm.” “And as such, it was necessary to bring in some kind of multinational force in order to stop it.”

The Security Council’s mission played a pivotal role in bearing witness to the tragedy. Its members were back in New York on Sept. 15, where they mandated and deployed a multinational force to restore order. Five days later it had deployed, in record time.

Wiranto now has to be careful where he flies. His 2003 indictment for crimes against humanity by a U.N.-backed tribunal for his role in the East Timor violence in 1999 still stands, as does a warrant for his arrest.

Security Council members have no such travel restrictions. They are free to roam. And when they visit trouble spots like Burundi, they should remember the 1999 mission to East Timor and the dramatic diplomatic impact it had. They should be encouraged to fly more frequently, so that their traveler’s tales can improve the quality and weight of their deliberations.

Jim Della-Giacoma is the deputy director at the Center on International Cooperation at New York University, the editor-in-chief of the Global Peace Operations Review, and a visiting fellow in the department of social and political change at the Australian National University’s College of Asia and the Pacific.

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Putting Prevention Back in the U.N.’s Vocabulary


Putting Prevention Back in the U.N.’s Vocabulary

Jim Della-Giacoma Monday, March 14, 2016

Editor’s note: Guest columnist Jim Della-Giacoma is filling in for Richard Gowan, who is on leave until early April.

Prevention has long been a dirty word at the United Nations: Some member states equate it with interference, and the need for early warning that accompanies it with spying. But in a time of crisis, some think the time has come to reconsider what role the world body should play in stopping conflict before it happens.

It is hard to argue against the idea that preventing conflicts from breaking out is better than dealing with their tragic consequences. Take those currently enveloping the Middle East in Libya, Syria and Yemen, where the counterfactual is strong, if hard to prove. If they had been prevented, hundreds of thousands of deaths could have been avoided. And the international system would not now be paying such a high and unsustainable price to address the plight of the millions that have been displaced.

Prevention would require more interference, as some member states fear. It would force states to trespass on each other’s sovereignty, often held as sacred, or have the U.N. to do it on their behalf. But being more intrusive should not be equated with the increased use of internationally sanctioned violence. Prevention does not necessarily mean bombing more often, just paying attention sooner. As former U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros Ghali put it almost 25 years ago, in his landmark 1992 document “Agenda for Peace,” the U.N. must aim “to identify at the earliest possible stage situations that could produce conflict, and to try through diplomacy to remove the sources of danger before violence results.”

Prevention has now come back onto the agenda thanks to three big reports that U.N. expert panels prepared in 2015 on U.N. peace operations and peacebuilding, as well as on women, peace and security. Published between June and October last year, the reports are now coming up for sustained debate in various U.N. fora, including resolutions before the U.N. Security Council and General Assembly, and a High-Level Thematic Debate on Peace and Security in the General Assembly on May 10-11. The way they are discussed will tell us if the big shifts the expert panels argued for are finding constituents among the U.N.’s membership.

Prevention does not necessarily mean bombing more often, just paying attention sooner.

Few busy diplomats have thoroughly read all three reports, but there is help in understanding them. A global process of civil society groups is digesting them ahead of the upcoming high-level debate. Eli Stamnes and Kari Osland from the Norwegian Institute for International Affairs (NUPI) have also provided a great service with their very readable synthesis. All three reports make the same point: We cannot have peace without prevention.

There is some hope that a new agenda for prevention might be emerging. The world of high policy is not as static as a cynic might suggest, and one hopeful development is the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which were adopted last year after a lengthy negotiation process in New York. Though more generally focused on development, the SDGs are an important fulcrum for change on conflict prevention, as well. Their universal commitments include, as part of SDG 16, the goal to achieve peaceful societies. Prevention is not a new idea. The first lines of the U.N. Charter invoke it. The body was founded to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war. But the SDGs now make prevention everyone’s responsibility. It is a small, but important step in the right direction.

But what exactly might prevention look like? What might the U.N. do differently to pursue it? There are some old elements, as well as some new ones still emerging, that are worth noting.

First, Boutros Boutros Ghali’s “Agenda for Peace” would be a good place to start. It recognized the primacy of peacemaking, and underlined the importance of understanding conflict, or fact-finding; getting into the habit of looking ahead, or early warning; acting sooner, or preventative deployment; using existing tribunals, such as the World Court; and using development assistance to avoid fragility, or amelioration through assistance, before resorting to sanctions or the use of military force.

Second, the U.N. General Assembly high-level debate on peace and security should include frank discussions of why we have failed to prevent today’s headline-grabbing conflicts. That will require member states to reflect on their own failings. Last year’s three reports, for instance, noted the changing nature of conflict. While interstate conflict is still with us, the reports highlight how in this century international bodies are increasingly grappling with conflict between different groups within a society or between the society and the state itself.

It is no mystery why some groups are often going to war against their own states: The dirty secret is that those states’ governments—that is, U.N. member states—are often the problem, through their abusive practices. Open conflict is often the visible proof that they have failed at prevention. But rather than write the U.N. off as rotten from the inside, because it is composed of imperfect states, this is a moment to acknowledge its strengths. While far from perfect, the Security Council and General Assembly are still good places to put pressure on underperforming governments.

Third, member states need to see the component parts of the U.N., with its many different departments, agencies and funds, as primary tools of prevention. In the forthcoming debates, they should tone down their opposition to using the good offices of the secretary-general to head off conflict, and instead task and resource the Secretariat to do a better job of it. They should support the principle that the U.N.’s peacemakers should be allowed to speak to all sides. This is what political solutions require.

Fourth, member states need to recommit to multilateral and regional diplomacy. Conflicts are spilling across borders and bedeviling whole regions. As the displaced people from these conflicts travel the globe, the stakeholders in any one conflict are increasingly numerous and dispersed. U.N. diplomacy is better able to intervene in such settings due to its reach across borders, and it should be encouraged and better-resourced.

Finally, drawing on the universality of the SDGs, member states should recognize the global challenge that prevention presents. Working with regional organizations is not the solution to every problem, but having a presence in each region is a start. In the field of peace and security, the U.N. has struggled to see all regions as needing attention. Its peace operations are overwhelmingly focused on Africa, and it only has regional centers from which to conduct preventative diplomacy in Central Asia, Central Africa and West Africa. The pushback from stronger sovereign states maintains the fiction that there is no need for these tools in Asia or Latin America. This blinkered vision on prevention needs to be lifted.

In an era when war has proved to be a poor option for achieving end goals and coercive tools have been shown not to be working, the time may have come to more firmly embrace prevention. Listen closely to the coming debates. If member states reflect thoughtfully more than they rant reflexively, it may be a subtle sign that last year’s reports are shifting the debate. A change of tone may be the first indication that prevention is back in the everyday vocabulary of international diplomacy.

Jim Della-Giacoma is the deputy director at the Center on International Cooperation at New York University, the editor-in-chief of the Global Peace Operations Review, and a visiting fellow in the department of social and political change at the Australian National University’s College of Asia and the Pacific.

This article was originally published by World Politics Review on March 14, 2016.