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The UN's Peace and Security role: A view from the Coalface

Lecture to SPSS UN: Review and Reform Course, University of Melbourne, 22 August 2022

For nearly two decades of my professional life – as Foreign Minister from 1988-96, as President of the International Crisis Group from 2000-2009, and as chair or member over that period of a number of high-level panels and commissions addressing global security issues – I was very closely engaged with the United Nations in its peace and security role. And my experience in that respect was not, I think, unique: as I wrote in my published political memoir five years ago, in all my years of public life there is no single institution that I found more exhilarating at its best, yet more morale-sapping at its worst.

Among the issues in which I was most closely engaged, the highs were very high – among them the Cambodian peace settlement and Australian-led peacekeeping mission from 1989-93, the conclusion of the Chemical Weapons Convention in 1993, and the unanimous embrace by the UN General Assembly in 2005 of the principle of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P). I’ll say some more about a couple of these a little later, because I think they remain important case studies in the art of the possible.

But the lows were also very low – above all, witnessing the UN’s comprehensive failure to stop the Rwandan genocide in 1994, the massacre in Srebrenica in 2005 and, among more recent mass atrocity crimes – even after the embrace of R2P – the carnage in Sri Lanka in 2009, in Syria since 2011, and in Myanmar since 2017. There was also my dispiriting personal failure to achieve almost any of the reforms in the UN security system which I analysed and argued for in the my ‘Blue Book’, Cooperating for Peace, written with a lot of input from DFAT and think-tank colleagues, and launched at the UN headquarters in New York with great fanfare in 1993, and which seemed for a while – in the heady atmosphere of those early post Cold Wars – to be really striking a responsive chord, and to have the potential to be a blueprint for quite substantial change

But I and my like-minded colleagues from around the world drew a depressing series of blanks on some really key issues, including reform of Secretariat structures to reduce duplication, waste and irrelevance; reform of personnel practices to ensure that the best people were in the right jobs; and above all reform of the structure of the pinnacle of the whole system, the Security Council, to ensure that it began to reflect the world of the twenty-first century and not that of the middle of the last. Inertia prevails, then as now: thirty years later most of the problems wrestled with in that book, and the prescriptions offered for addressing them, remain for the most part as unhappily relevant now as they were then.

The UN’s potential roles directly related to peace and security cover a vast canvas - and sit alongside an extraordinary number of other roles, all very relevant to global safety and security, played – with varying degrees of effectiveness – by the multiple departments, programs, organs, and agencies within the UN system, relating among other things to human rights, health, education, poverty alleviation, disaster relief, refugee protection, people and drug trafficking, heritage protection, climate and the environment. The UN’s more specific security roles can be categorised in different ways, but in my 1993 ‘Blue Book’, I mapped them in terms of four distinct functions, which you might find a useful conceptual guide: building peace, maintaining peace, restoring peace, and enforcing peace.

Peace building covers both the creation of international regimes - treaty laws, norms and agreements, including arms control measures – designed to minimize security threats; and also in-country strategies, both before and after conflict, designed to strengthen internal institutions reduce or remove underlying internal sources of conflict.

Peace maintenance covers preventive diplomacy – including that of the kind conducted, or desirably conducted, by the Secretary-General himself and his multiple Special Representatives or envoys, designed to defuse crises before they explode; and also on occasion preventive deployments of military or police personnel to act as a disincentive to possible violence.

Peace restoration, in my typology, covers both diplomatic peace making – trying to find solutions to a dispute after it has crossed the threshold into armed conflict; and also peacekeeping – the deployment of military and other personnel to help ensure the effective implementation of peace agreements reached between warring states or parties, and avoid backsliding.

Peace enforcement, finally, refers to coercive strategies – ranging from sanctions to military intervention – which may be employed to try to bring to an end conflicts or crises where diplomatic peacemaking has failed.

On quite a few of these fronts, some progress was made in the post-Cold War years. When I made a checklist five years ago in my memoir, Incorrigible Optimist I was able to cite a dramatic increase in the engagement of the Security Council on peace and security issues, with over sixty resolutions being passed annually, as compared with an average of just twenty in the 1980s, and a great many of them focused on conflict prevention rather than just resolution. I was also able to count then a dramatic increase in the number of UN-mandated peacekeeping operations, with some 120,000 military and civilian peacekeepers on the ground as compared with an average annually of less than 20,000 in the 1980s, in many more places, and in much more complex conflict situations, than ever before.

There was a significant strengthening of the protection of civilians mandates (POC) now regularly given to those peacekeeping operations, to enable them - at least in theory - to deal much more effectively with violent spoilers than was the case in the past. There was a serious commitment to improving the quality and training of UN special representatives and envoys engaged in peace negotiation and mediation, with a by no means coincidental major increase over the last two decades in the number of conflicts being ended by diplomatic negotiation. And there was a serious institutional commitment, including through the creation of the Peacebuilding Commission, to post-conflict engagement designed to stop its recurrence.

But there have also been some terrible failures during the two decades I was actively engaged, and subsequently. Too often the Security Council has gone missing on some of the world’s most serious security and human rights problems. Not only was it impotent through the 1990s horrors of Somalia, Bosnia, Rwanda and Kosovo, but it has since then been close to paralysis in some of the most alarming crises of them all, in Gaza, Syria, and Iraq. Peacekeepers are not getting anything like the resources they need, and the whole system hovers perpetually on the brink of breakdown. The United Nations too often continues to flounder when it comes to navigating between what Ramesh Thakur has described as the ‘trilemma’ of needs, mandates and reality – ‘the needs of the people or situation; the normative and operational mandates approved by the Security Council and General Assembly; and the political realities of demands and expectations of member states and peoples and the availability of human, financial and material resources’.

The cynicism and self-interest of the five veto-wielding powers (the United States, United Kingdom, France, China and Russia) has proved very hard to beat, as has been evident over the decades not only in particular cases where their self-interest has been in play – as with Russia over Kosovo and Syria and now Ukraine – but in the way in which most of them have worked to defeat any proposal to reform the structure of the Security Council in a way which might in any way dilute their authority. (I once joshed James Baker, Secretary of State under the Bush Senior administration – in fact more multilateral-friendly than its Republican successors) that ‘The trouble with you Americans, Jim, is that you have a reflexive prejudice against the UN’. His reply was ‘No, Gareth, it’s not a reflexive prejudice. It’s a considered prejudice.’) And things have only got worse in recent times, with China becoming increasingly more disruptive, and now with Russia’s legally and morally indefensible invasion of its sovereign neighbour Ukraine – an extraordinary assault, coming from a P5 member itself, on the most fundamental of all UN Charter principles.

One obvious defence of the UN, as an organisation, that can be mounted in all of this is that ultimately (and especially on peace and security issues) the UN is no more and no less than its member states, and that if those states have taken a position making clear they don't want to act, or act responsibly, they cannot be made to, and officials cannot be held to a higher standard than those whom they serve. As the US diplomat Richard Holbrooke once put it, ‘Blaming the United Nations when things go wrong is like blaming Madison Square Garden when the Knicks play badly.’

That said, there is much that UN officials can and should do that has, too often, been done much less well than it should have been. A recurring problem has been the failure of resident missions on the ground to call out deteriorating situations, and major human rights violations for what they are, consumed by a desire not to rock the boat, to maintain access to the governments in question, and rationalised by the need to keep humanitarian assistance lines open. One of the worst such examples – documented in an excoriating UN internal review panel two years later (and in the Australian Gordon Weiss’s book The Cage) was Sri Lanka in 2009 where the UN ground team failed to pass on, as ‘unverified’, a mass of credible evidence coming to it that that the Rajapaksa Government was engaged in a full-scale massacre of Tamil civilians rather than acting reasonably, as it claimed, to bring to an end a terrorist insurrection.

As the report of the Brahimi Panel on United Nations Peace Operations in 2000 put it, it is the responsibility of the UN Secretariat to tell the UN Security Council what it needs to hear, not what it wants to hear. And that responsibility falls above all else on the shoulders of the Secretary-General. It is a responsibility that has been discharged with varying degrees of enthusiasm and effectiveness by the Secretaries-General I have known. The most feisty of them was Boutros Boutros-Ghali (1992-96), who didn’t hesitate to tell truth to power and paid the price for it with the US vetoing his second term. The most charismatic and diplomatically skilful of them was Kofi Annan (1997-2006) who probably achieved as much as anyone reasonably could in that role. Ban Ki Moon (2007-16) was more in the ‘Secretary’ rather than ‘General’ tradition of earlier occupants like Perez de Cuellar (1982-91), and pretty much a charisma-free zone, but a decent man who did speak out strongly on matters of principle, including in support of the Responsibility to Protect principle.

The present S-G Antonio Guterres (2017-) has not so far lived up to the high expectations that I and many others had of him, given his very distinguished previous credentials as High Commissioner for Refugees – often looking more concerned with guaranteeing a second term for himself than telling the Security Council titans what they needed to hear. But it has to be acknowledged that the deteriorating global situation, and dramatically increased tensions between the major powers, have made the S-G’s task as difficult as it has ever been, and he does deserve much of the credit for the recent Black Sea deal enabling a corridor for the desperately needed export of Ukrainian grain.

While the reality is that no organisation in the world embodies as many dreams, yet delivers as many frustrations, as the United Nations, one has to keep a realistic sense of the art of the possible, remembering always the words of perhaps the most famous and respected of all its Secretaries-General, Dag Hammarskjold, that ‘The UN was created not to bring us to heaven, but to save us from hell’. For all its faults the UN system is overwhelmingly a force for good, and if it ceased to exist would certainly have to be reinvented.

Part of the reason for my affection for the UN is that, as I said at the outset, it has been central to some of the greatest highs of my professional life. I don’t want to conclude this talk without giving you a sense of what can be positively achieved when the organization is working as it should. Let me do that by briefly recounting the stories of the Cambodian peace settlement, and the birth of R2P.

Cambodia, for more than two decades before the Paris Peace Accords of 1991, had been ravaged successively by massive US bombing during the Vietnam war, by civil war, by the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror, by invasion by the Vietnamese, and then by civil war again – above all the horrific Khmer Rouge genocide, causing as it the deaths of some two million Cambodians by murder, starvation, disease and overwork, and effectively destroying the lives of a great many more.

A series of diplomatic efforts, led by France and Indonesia, had been made through the 1980s to end the ongoing civil war still being driven, with Chinese backing, by the Khmer Rouge, but had been stymied by irreconcilable differences between the warring internal factions, their regional backers, and the major global powers – with the US and ASEAN as then constituted supporting the non-communist royalists, Russia supporting Vietnam and the governing Hun Sen regime, and China supporting the communist Khmer Rouge. No-one could agree to any kind of power-sharing with anyone else.

The Australian initiative which broke the deadlock was built on an idea put to me in New York by a US Congressman friend Stephen Solarz, who had been unable to sell it in Washington, or anywhere else. In essence it was to give China a face-saving way of withdrawing its support for the Khmer Rouge by giving the United Nations an unprecedentedly central role, not just in election monitoring or peacekeeping, but actually governing the country through a transitional phase.

That idea was fleshed out and sold by us in late 1989-early 1990 in an extraordinarily intensive series of diplomatic consultations (with Deputy Secretary Michael Costello conducting, over a period of just twenty-one days, thirty major meetings with key players in thirteen countries); the preparation of our 155-page ‘Red Book’ working papers outlining the whole transitional process – including its likely cost – in formidable detail; and in working as a support delegation for Indonesia as co-chair of a revitalised Indonesia-France peace process. Although the P5 subsequently took over the lead negotiating role, the peace plan finally adopted at the 1991 Paris Peace Conference in all its essentials followed the Australian model.

The centrality of our role was recognised in us being given command, in the person of Lt Gen John Sanderson, of the military dimension of UNTAC, the UN transitional governing and peacekeeping mission that saw the process through to the successful election in 1993. With its 15 900 military personnel, 3600 civilian police and 1020 administrative personnel, and 34 nations contributing to the military operation and 45 to the peace keeping exercise overall, this was a breathtakingly large commitment from the international community in terms of anything that had gone before.

In terms of the operation itself, it was by no means all plain sailing. The Khmer Rouge refused to canton and disarm its troops. There were attacks directed at UNTAC civilian and military personnel. And the UN Civil Administration component was deployed far too slowly, and never in fact became the confident monitoring and neutrality-guaranteeing body that it had been intended to be.

But the whole UN-supervised settlement did achieve its principal aims. It succeeded in removing the Cambodian conflict as a source of regional tension; it enabled Vietnam to enter into much more productive relations regionally and internationally; external patrons, not least China with the Khmer Rouge, withdrew material support for the various political groupings, sucking away the oxygen that had sustained civil war for so long; the more than 365, 000 displaced Cambodians from the Thai border were successfully repatriated; the path was cleared for Cambodia to assume its rightful place in the community of nations; and reconstruction could at last begin.

The subsequent Cambodian story has not been so great. We succeeded in bringing peace to the country, but not in embedding respect for democracy and human rights, which were very much also core elements of the UN mandate. Cambodia has descended under Hun Send into corrupt autocracy, suppressing political dissent with periodic resort to murderous violence. How and why that happened is a whole other story, but I suspect the die was cast with the too ready acceptance by the international community of the aftermath of the 1993 election – which Hun Sen’s party unexpectedly lost, but which he insisted be followed by his installation as joint Prime Minister, from which position of power he continued to set the country’s course.

All that said, I will never forget how moved and elated I was during that morning in May 1993, when I saw the first television satellite pictures of Cambodian men, women and children, not just the adult voters, but whole families lined up at the UN polling stations in their scores of thousands, dressed in their best clothes, pure joy on their faces – knowing that there was a very real risk of Khmer Rouge bomb attacks, but thrilled at the prospect of peace at last, and the chance to have some say at last in how they lived their lives.

R2P. I felt a similar sense of exhilaration in September 2005, when the UN General Assembly, sitting as the UN’s 60th Anniversary World Summit with some 150 countries represented at head of state or government level, unanimously adopted the principle of the Responsibility to Protect populations at risk of genocide, ethnic cleansing, other crimes against humanity and major war crimes, in what has been described by the British political and Holocaust historian Martin Gilbert – perhaps excessively, but I’ll take it – as ‘the most significant adjustment to national sovereignty in 360 years.’ ‘R2P’ remains one of, if not the most, clear and important examples of the UN playing its global norm-setting role.

This initiative was a long time coming. Slaughtering people not for anything they do, but simply for who they are – their national, ethnic, racial, religious, or political identity – is morally as bad as it gets. Yet in the twentieth century that was the fate of at least 80 million men, women and children, including Armenians in Turkey, Jews in Europe, suspect classes in the Soviet Union and China, communists in Indonesia, non-communists in Cambodia, Bengalis in former East Pakistan, Asians in Uganda, Tutsis in Rwanda, and Muslims in the former Yugoslavia.

With a new explosion of genocidal violence in the Balkans and Central Africa in the 1990s, it became apparent that, even after the horrors of the Holocaust and all the many developments in international human rights and humanitarian law that followed World War II, the international community was still a completely consensus free zone when it came to ‘humanitarian intervention’ or the ‘right to intervene’ to halt or avert mass atrocity crimes. Kofi Annan as S-G put the challenge in stark terms to the General Assembly in 2000: ‘If humanitarian intervention is indeed an unacceptable assault on sovereignty, how should we respond to a Rwanda, to a Srebrenica – to gross and systematic violations of human rights that offend every precept of our common humanity?’

Kofi Annan’s plea stimulated Canadian Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy to initiate the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty – which he asked me to co-chair, with the Algerian diplomat Mohammed Sahnoun, leading an extraordinarily distinguished cast of characters including, among others, Cyril Ramaphosa, now President of South Africa and former Philippines President Fidel Ramos. And we came up in our 2001 report with a whole new way of approaching the problem of mass atrocity crimes committed behind sovereign state borders which at last made it politically possible for the global North and South to find common ground.

Four major factors contributed to our report’s favourable reception, which led to its core concepts being embraced – after a long and complicated diplomatic process which I won’t try to describe here -- in the 2005 World Summit resolution. First, the language we used – the ‘responsibility to protect’ being much less inherently abrasive than the ‘right to intervene’. Second was our emphasis on multiple actors sharing that responsibility, not just the big military players. Third was was our strong emphasis on preventive strategies, not just reactive ones. And fourth was our identification and support for a whole continuum of reaction measures, not just military ones but including diplomatic isolation, and sanctions and embargoes, and threats of International Criminal Court prosecution.

Our objective in crafting our report and recommendations concept was not to create new international legal rules nor undermine old ones. Our intended contribution was not to international relations theory but political practice. We wanted to create new standards of international behaviour which states would feel ashamed to violate, compelled to observe, or at least embarrassed to ignore. Above all, we simply wanted to ensure that when genocide, ethnic cleansing or other crimes against humanity or major war crimes were being threatened or committed behind sovereign state borders, the rest of the world would regard this as everyone’s business, not nobody’s business.

And that was the view which eventually prevailed five years later. The 2005 World Summit resolution identified three distinctive ‘pillars’ of responsibility: that of a state to its own people not to either commit such mass atrocity crimes or allow them to occur (‘Pillar One’); that of other states to assist those lacking the capacity to so protect (‘Pillar Two’); and that of the wider international community to respond with ‘timely and decisive action’ if a state is ‘manifestly failing’ to meet its protection responsibilities – including ultimately with coercive military force if that is authorised by the Security Council (‘Pillar Three’).

Seventeen years later, I have to acknowledge that plenty of cynical voices can be heard to say that the whole R2P enterprise has been a complete waste of time, or worse. And looking at the mass atrocity crimes that have continued to occur in places like Sudan, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Yemen, Syria, and now Ukraine, and that’s not an easy argument to contest. But, as I have argued in detail elsewhere, I do contest it, making the point that there are four big things that R2P was designed to be – a normative force; a catalyst for institutional change; a framework for preventive action; and a framework for effective reactive action when prevention has failed – and that against these benchmarks, while there is zero room for complacency, if we take hard, objective stock of what has, and has not, been accomplished over those seventeen years, there is much to celebrate, and much still to be reasonably optimistic about on each of these four fronts, including even the last, although obviously in the present fraught global security environment achieving consensus in the Security Council as to how to react to the hardest of cases will be a labour of Hercules.

I see little visible stomach anywhere for a return to the bad old days when genocide and other appalling crimes against humanity committed behind sovereign state walls were of no concern to anyone but their victims – when a Henry Kissinger could say to his Thai counterpart six months after the Khmer Rouge had marched into Phnom Penh, “You can tell the Cambodians we’ll be their friends. They’re murderous thugs, but we won’t let that stand in the way”. While “Never Again” has too often in the past been a hollow cry, with the advent of R2P I think we can say it has at least recovered its power to shame. And that’s a tribute to the role the United Nations can and must continue to play, and why – for all its many failings in relation to peace and security, as elsewhere – it is critical that we continue to support it.