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Venezuela: dialogar requiere mucho más que dos
Venezuela: dialogar requiere mucho más que dos
Seven Opportunities for the UN in 2019-2020
Seven Opportunities for the UN in 2019-2020

Venezuela: dialogar requiere mucho más que dos

Originally published in Política Exterior

La violencia del enfrentamiento entre opositores y gobierno en Venezuela está erosionando la solidez del régimen bolivariano y la adhesión de las fuerzas armadas. El desenlace de la crisis tendrá consecuencias en toda la región, fundamentalmente en Cuba y Colombia.

El comienzo del diálogo entre el gobierno y la oposición en Venezuela abre una pequeña ventana de esperanza para resolver la aguda polarización política que se tornó violenta en febrero. Detrás están las demandas de la oposición y aquellas, más amplias, referidas a la preocupante situación de la economía y la seguridad ciudadana. Pero si bien el inicio de las conversaciones es positivo, hace falta mucho más para transformar una serie de discursos en un campo organizado de debate y acuerdo político. Con el objetivo de desactivar la confrontación que registra el país en el momento en que se escribe este artículo (a mediados de abril), con el resultado hasta la fecha de 41 personas muertas, las partes deberán convencerse mutuamente de que sus intenciones son serias y, especialmente, de que las alternativas siempre serán peores. Caso contrario, tanto el gobierno como la oposición se fragmentarán y aquellos sectores que favorecen la confrontación dominarán la escena.

El diálogo político no puede quedarse en la coyuntura. Para evitar que nuevos e inevitables conflictos se tornen violentos, es indispensable reconstruir la credibilidad perdida en las instituciones públicas, desarmar de inmediato a los “colectivos” e incorporar a la oposición y a la sociedad civil en las decisiones. Para alcanzar estas metas, Venezuela necesita además una comunidad internacional activa y honestamente comprometida en rescatarla de un colapso que tendría repercusiones nefastas en toda la región.

El diálogo comenzó con la presentación de los cuatro puntos que la Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (MUD) considera más apremiantes: una ley de amnistia, la formación de una comisión de la verdad, la restauración de la independencia de los poderes públicos y el desarme de los colectivos. El presidente, Nicolás Maduro, se presentó esta vez más dialogante. Fue sin duda una necesaria válvula de escape. Pero es aún frágil, no todos se sienten representados y los consensos internos de un lado y del otro todavía son precarios.

La estructura de las conversaciones es aún confusa o simplemente no existe. No se conoce hasta ahora cuál es la agenda que propone el gobierno, y en sus intentos previos ha sido aparente su intención de solo escuchar pero no arriesgar lo que considera que ganó en las elecciones. El problema de fondo es que mientras más ceda el gobierno en, por ejemplo, la independencia de poderes, más expuesto estará incluso dentro de su propia coalición.

Los liderazgos en la oposición y el movimiento estudiantil

Henrique Capriles se erigió con claridad como el líder de la oposición a través de primarias internas y durante las elecciones presidenciales de 2013. La MUD, por su parte, hizo un esfuerzo sin precedentes para presentar una plataforma programática sólida y llegar más allá de sus bastiones tradicionales. Sin embargo, la crisis iniciada el 12 de febrero ha afectado gravemente ese liderazgo y esa coherencia.

Las primeras manifestaciones callejeras emergieron tras la decisión de algunos sectores, aglutinados alrededor del liderazgo de Leopoldo López y María Corina Machado, que formaron un movimiento denominado “La Salida”, término que se prestó a equívocas interpretaciones sobre si lo que se buscaba era un cambio de política o un cambio de régimen político.

La reacción desproporcionada del gobierno terminó por fortalecer a los sectores más radicales de la oposición. Las ingentes violaciones de los derechos humanos y la intolerancia restaron credibilidad al discurso más moderado de Capriles. La crisis reveló además los límites de la MUD, creada como una coalición de diversos partidos y movimientos con fines esencialmente electorales, pero que no se había proyectado todavía como una alianza política para los tiempos, más duros, de hacer oposición.

La llama que prendió la protesta estuvo relacionada con los ataques contra estudiantes y la impunidad de dichos ataques. La inmensa mayoría de los manifestantes, o al menos los que han sido más constantes y activos, provienen de varias universidades. Su plataforma rechaza frontalmente, al menos por ahora, que en una mesa de diálogo se negocie la libertad de sus compañeros.

Los chavistas curiosamente tienen poca incidencia en el movimiento estudiantil, incluso en universidades públicas. Al mismo tiempo, los estudiantes han dejado claro que, si bien algunos de sus líderes militan en grupos opositores, su fuerza se deriva de una plataforma distinta. Sin embargo, lo que constituye su fuerza es quizá su principal debilidad, pues los somete a los rigores de la unanimidad.

¿Qué hubiera hecho el comandante?

Identificar cuál era la posición del gobierno de Hugo Chávez sobre cualquier asunto importante fue siempre complicado. La sucesión después de su muerte agudizó el secretismo. Chávez designó a Maduro como sucesor, dejando probablemente a otros aspirantes al cargo con la expectativa de retener tanto poder como fuera posible, al tener que aceptar la subordinación al exdirigente sindical y exministro de Relaciones Exteriores. Sin embargo, parece claro que Maduro es un primus inter pares, un coordinador con cierto poder sobre las distintas facciones e intereses que sostienen al gobierno. Su poder reside en el interés de los demás de mantenerlo como líder.

La desmedida represión contra las marchas de los últimos tres meses va de hecho a contrapelo de las estrategias utilizadas por Chávez para lidiar con la oposición. El comandante prefería mecanismos más sutiles. El cercenamiento de las libertades civiles, en especial la invasión deliberada de los medios de comunicación, se llevó a cabo argumentando poderes legales. En algunas ocasiones, Chávez prefirió dejar que las marchas se produjeran para luego tomar represalias indirectas contra quienes las habían promovido. Los efectos de las muertes y la violencia en las calles han sido graves para la estabilidad del gobierno, aunque por ahora aparente ser un bloque sólido. De igual manera, es un misterio si la situación ha afectado la anteriormente firme adhesión de las fuerzas armadas al régimen bolivariano.

La cooptación de los mandos militares fue eficaz, y es dudoso que se produzca un golpe militar en el corto plazo. Sin embargo, cuando el propio Maduro anunció la detención de tres generales de la aviación argumentando que participaban en actividades de conspiración, abrió de nuevo los interrogantes sobre las bases de la unidad de los militares. Información no oficial ha revelado que el número de oficiales militares detenidos o que están escondidos como consecuencia de estos hechos sería mucho mayor.

Los actores internacionales

La crisis venezolana tiene consecuencias directas en la estabilidad de la región y podría reconfigurar, en un sentido o en el opuesto, el balance estratégico de América Latina y el Caribe. En tiempos en los que se respiran nuevos vientos de guerra fría en Europa y Asia, no hay que menospreciar la importancia de la crisis política más importante del hemisferio occidental.

La situación de Venezuela requiere del concurso de actores externos para facilitar una solución pacífica. La extrema polarización, y la consecuente falta de confianza mutua, inhabilita o hace muy difícil un proceso exclusivamente doméstico. Sin embargo, hasta el momento la respuesta de quienes podrían influir en los actores de este conflicto es tímida y se ve afectada por intereses coyunturales.

El primer país afectado por el desenlace de la crisis venezolana es Cuba. Su alianza política e ideológica con el régimen bolivariano es estrecha, expresada además en el petróleo entregado a La Habana. Esto ha permitido a los hermanos Castro solventar las necesidades energéticas de la isla. A cambio, Cuba ha ayudado al régimen con experiencia y recursos humanos, incluyendo doctores, ingenieros, profesores y asesores políticos y de inteligencia.

Es difícil, sin embargo, calibrar la solidez de la relación actual entre La Habana y Caracas, y una escalada en las turbulencias políticas abre interrogantes sobre su sostenibilidad. La dependencia de Cuba del petróleo venezolano es tan crítica, y traumática la experiencia de la isla en los tiempos de escasez que siguieron a la caída de la Unión Soviética, que probablemente Cuba desempeñe un papel paradójicamente estabilizador a largo plazo. Su modesta apertura económica, su participación activa facilitando las conversaciones de paz entre las Fuerzas Armadas Revolucinarias de Colombia (FARC) y el gobierno colombiano, y algunos tímidos pero eficaces acercamientos prácticos con el gobierno de Barack Obama son elementos a tener en cuenta en la futura posición de Cuba y su relación, y consejos, a Maduro.

En esta ecuación juega naturalmente Estados Unidos, pues una flexibilización, o mejor aún el término del embargo sobre Cuba, permitiría una actitud más positiva y menos defensiva de los cubanos con relación a lo que ocurra en Venezuela. Washington ha sido insistente en cuestionar el gobierno de Maduro, respuesta comprensible tras años de confrontación verbal con Caracas. Hasta ahora, EE UU había decidido ignorar a Venezuela y bajar el tono de la confrontación. Esta actitud podría no ser sostenible a medio plazo, al considerar la proximidad de Venezuela con Rusia y China y los efectos de este conflicto en los aliados de Washington. Por el momento, EE UU ha decidido incidir sobre otros países a través de una diplomacia silenciosa.

El otro actor importante es Brasil. Más allá de las afinidades, Brasilia podría estar más preocupado y ansioso de lo que aparenta. Las intenciones iniciales de bloquear cualquier debate en la Organización de Estados Americanos (OEA) en relación a Venezuela dieron paso a discretos pero intensos contactos bilaterales en los que la presidencia brasileña aparentemente tomó el liderazgo sobre la diplomacia profesional de Itama­raty, sede del ministerio de Asun­tos Exteriores de Brasil. El expresidente Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva ha llegado a proponer un gobier­no de unidad nacional, lo que es anatema para Maduro y sus partidarios.

Del contexto en el que se desarrolló la cumbre de la Unión de Naciones Suramericanas (Unasur) en Santiago de Chile el pasado marzo puede deducirse que Brasil presionó a Caracas para lograr una salida negociada, pero al mismo tiempo los brasileños han dejado claro que el gobierno de Maduro es legítimo y que en América Latina no se debe permitir un cambio de régimen desde la protesta callejera. Las enormes deudas acumuladas por Venezuela con importantes consorcios empresariales brasileños pueden ser también un factor a la hora de definir el mensaje que se quiere dejar en el palacio de Miraflores.

Una víctima indirecta de la crisis venezolana es su vecina Colombia, especialmente por el papel venezolano en las conversaciones de paz que se llevan a cabo en La Habana, cuestión clave para las intenciones reeleccionistas del presidente colombiano, Juan Manuel Santos. Las FARC y el Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN) podrían considerar que si el régimen de Maduro colapsa, no tendrían garantías para seguir adelante. De ahí la activa presencia de Colombia en la misión de Unasur y la extrema prudencia en sus declaraciones.

El reto más importante para Unasur

El fracaso de la OEA como garante de la Carta Democrática Interamericana acentúa el progresivo reemplazo del interamericanismo por un regionalismo más reducido. Unasur representa esa alternativa, aunque sus limitaciones son todavía grandes.

Un momento crítico, y que puso a prueba la eventual eficacia de su misión moderadora o facilitadora, se vivió con la inicial insistencia del gobierno de Venezuela para que la misión solo se reuniera con autoridades oficiales. Esto llevó a algunos países a cancelar su participacion en la visita y a la abierta solicitud de algunos otros de incluir a la oposición, los estudiantes y otros actores en las reuniones. Finalmente el gobierno cedió, lo que salvó la misión del desastre.

Pero lo más complejo está por llegar. Por ahora, tres cancilleres (los de Brasil, Ecuador y Colombia) representan a los demás como testigos de los diálogos. Pero esta estructura no es sostenible en el medio plazo y no está claro si podrán hacer algo más que escuchar los innumerables y largos discursos de las partes, y ser mudos acompañantes de cualquier desenlance. Unasur tiene una presidencia rotatoria y una secretaría que depende, ahora, de un connotado representante del chavismo. Carece además de procedimientos y mecanismos que, como los de las Naciones Unidas o incluso los de la OEA, puedan monitorear y verificar el cumplimiento de los acuerdos o ayudar a la formulación de alternativas para las partes.

La participación de El Vaticano es importante en este contexto. Surgió de una petición expresa del gobierno y la aceptación de la MUD. Pero el propio Vaticano ha sido claro al señalar que primero hay que definir qué se quiere buscar con el diálogo, y luego precisar qué tipo de ayuda pueden brindar. Esta demanda sensata choca con una realidad difícil, pues el gobierno venezolano no parece tener mayor interés en definir los objetivos del diálogo, y la oposición tiene dificultad para ponerse de acuerdo en cómo interpretar su propia participación.

Una cuestión fundamental, mientras tanto, es que Venezuela extienda una invitación abierta a los relatores y grupos de trabajo del Consejo de Derechos Humanos, hasta ahora impedidos a pisar Caracas. Luego será conveniente pensar en un asesor especial de la ONU que haga patente el peso de la organización y que permita, por ejemplo, las consultas y el diálogo con actores distantes pero importantes, como China.

Mirando hacia adelante

La buena noticia es que las partes han iniciado un proceso de conversaciones y que, ese mero hecho, los fuerza a moderar sus discursos. Sin embargo, la falta de estructura y las debilidades internas de cada lado auguran un proceso lento y complejo. Ante estas dificultades, la comunidad internacional –especialmente los países con incidencia sobre el proceso– deben ir más allá del simple y mudo testimonio. Es necesario presionar a ambas partes para adoptar una agenda, ofrecer sus servicios como facilitadores y mediadores y supervisar los avances de las conversaciones.

Al prefigurar el tipo de transición política que deberá afrontar Venezuela, primero hay que resolver el conflicto y evitar la reiteración de la violencia de estos últimos meses. Sería un error pensar que la crisis cesará solo con el transcurrir del tiempo.

A U.N. peacekeeper serving in the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) attends a special parade for six slain colleagues who were killed in clashes with militias, 17 November 2018. REUTERS/Samuel Mambo
Special Briefing 2 / Global

Seven Opportunities for the UN in 2019-2020

The UN General Assembly kicks off on 17 September amid general scepticism about the world body’s effectiveness in an era of rising great-power competition. But the UN is far from paralysed. Here are seven crisis spots where it can make a positive difference for peace.

What’s new? World leaders meet for the new UN General Assembly session this month after a year in which the UN has responded ineffectually to crises from Venezuela to Myanmar.

Why does it matter? A divided Security Council and disruptive regional powers place significant constraints on the UN’s mediators and peacekeepers in countries like Libya and the Sudans.

What should be done? States can still look to the UN to de-escalate crises where they have common interests. This briefing identifies seven such opportunities for creative diplomacy at the UN.

I. Overview

In a period of increasing international tensions, the role of the UN in resolving major crises is shrinking. World leaders attending the UN General Assembly this month will talk about conflicts from Latin America to Asia. The chances of diplomatic breakthroughs have appeared low, even if this week’s departure of Iran hawk John Bolton from the Trump administration increased speculation about the possibility of a meeting in New York between U.S. President Donald Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Looking beyond the General Assembly, opportunities for the Security Council to resolve pressing conflicts – or for Secretary-General António Guterres and other UN officials to do so without Council mandates – seem few. But some nevertheless exist. In cases where the permanent five members of the council (P5) have a shared interest in de-escalating crises, or regional powers collaborate with UN agencies to address conflicts, the organisation can still provide a framework for successful peacemaking.

II. A Lacklustre Year

It has been a lacklustre year for the Security Council, which has debated events from Venezuela and Sudan to Kashmir in 2019, but accomplished little.[fn]It has managed to produce mild statements of concern in some cases, and remained divided and silent in others. The Council’s discussion of the year’s most dangerous situation – the U.S.-Iranian standoff in the Persian Gulf – has been sporadic and unproductive, reflecting splits between the U.S. and other members over Washington’s 2018 withdrawal from the Iranian nuclear deal and its effect on Iran’s behaviour.[fn]For more on tensions in the Persian Gulf, see Crisis Group Middle East Report N°205, Averting the Middle East’s 1914 Moment, 1 August 2019.Hide Footnote

UN peacemakers and peacekeepers working in many crisis spots have also struggled through much of the year. Apparently promising efforts for a UN-led process to reunify Libya – with strong personal backing from Secretary-General Guterres – fell apart in the face of General Khalifa Haftar’s assault on Tripoli this April.[fn]See Crisis Group North Africa Briefing N°69, Stopping the War for Tripoli, 23 May 2019.Hide Footnote UN mediation in Yemen, which appeared to have a little momentum in late 2018, so far appears to have faltered.[fn]See Crisis Group Middle East Report N°203, Saving the Stockholm Agreement and Averting a Regional Conflagration in Yemen, 18 July 2019.Hide Footnote The organisation’s stabilisation force in Mali is unable to contain jihadist and inter-ethnic violence, especially in the centre of the country.[fn]See Crisis Group Africa Report N°276, Speaking with the “Bad Guys”: Toward Dialogue with Central Mali’s Jihadists, 28 May 2019.Hide Footnote

While the problems facing the UN vary crisis by crisis, the main challenges it confronts are clear enough. The most obvious is the way in which competition for influence among the P5 – and particularly the U.S., China and Russia – has manifested itself in New York. China has ensured that the Security Council does not penalise Myanmar for its military’s atrocities against the Rohingya, for example, leaving it to focus on easing the plight of refugees in Bangladesh.[fn]For more see Crisis Group Asia Briefing N°155, Building a Better Future for Rohingya Refugees in Bangladesh, 25 April 2019.Hide Footnote Russia has largely ignored other Council members’ criticisms of its military operations in Syria.[fn]See Crisis Group Middle East Report N°197, The Best of Bad Options for Syria’s Idlib, 14 March 2019.Hide Footnote The U.S. blocked British efforts to table a call for a ceasefire in Libya, apparently because some members of the Trump administration see General Haftar as the best available ally against jihadists in the region. France has tried to keep the Security Council out of crisis management in two Francophone African countries – Cameroon and Burkina Faso – despite serious violence in both.

The current deterioration in P5 relations has created opportunities for regional powers to sideline UN envoys and peace processes that a more unified Council might have stuck by.

The P5 members’ manipulation of the Council to protect partners and clients, and to keep the UN out of situations where they wish to have freedom of action, is not new. The UN has always been, in the words of two experts on multilateralism, a “selective security” body that big powers use and ignore depending on their interests.[fn]Adam Roberts and Dominik Zaum, Selective Security: War and the United Nations Security Council since 1945 (London, 2014).Hide Footnote But the current deterioration in P5 relations has created opportunities for regional powers to sideline UN envoys and peace processes that a more unified Council might have stuck by. Egypt appears to have misled Secretary-General Guterres about the prospects for peace in Libya before the Haftar offensive. Saudi Arabia has pressed its Security Council allies to ensure that the body’s statements on Yemen create no legal or political obstacles to its campaign against the Huthis.

Reforms [...] could make the organisation better at analysing and responding to future conflicts.

The UN is far from paralysed, however. The Security Council continues to oversee nearly 100,000 peacekeepers worldwide and collaborates on counter-terrorism issues – including sanctions against terrorist groups – fairly smoothly. In the last nine months, Secretary-General Guterres has overseen the implementation of a series of reforms – including freeing up senior development officials to play more political roles in countries at risk of conflict and partially merging the UN secretariat’s political and peacekeeping departments – that he negotiated over the last two years. These reforms are a work in progress. They have made no dramatic difference in the UN’s effectiveness so far, but could make the organisation better at analysing and responding to future conflicts, provided that the Council lends it sufficient support.

III. Seven Opportunities

In the same spirit, and in advance of the 2019 General Assembly session, a number of opportunities for UN action are apparent. Crisis Group has identified a mix of seven crisis-specific and regional opportunities. These generally involve highly sensitive issues for P5 members, and in most cases there are major obstacles to successful multilateral engagement. But they also tend to involve situations in which it is becoming clear that the P5 have more to gain by compromising on national political settlements than bulldozing ahead in pursuit of maximalist objectives. If the P5 themselves start to believe this, the year ahead at the UN could be a little more productive than the one gone by.

1. Developing new ways to stabilise the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and its neighbourhood. It is nearly twenty years since the Security Council dispatched observers to monitor the end of the Congolese civil war. There is now an opportunity to draw down the large and expensive peace operation in the DRC (the UN Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, known by its French acronym MONUSCO) and look for less military-focused, primarily political, mechanisms to promote stability in central Africa.

The UN has 18,000 troops and police in the DRC, mostly deployed to counter armed groups in the east. Despite continued episodes of local violence – and an Ebola outbreak – UN officials and Security Council members broadly agree that it is time to rethink the UN presence. National elections in 2018 did not lead to large-scale conflict, as many observers had feared, though serious irregularities and security problems marred the process.[fn]See Crisis Group Statement, “DR Congo: A Recount and Talks to Find a Way Out of the Crisis”, 19 January 2019.Hide Footnote Moreover, the controversially elected new president, Félix Tshisekedi, has made it a priority to improve security in the east by ameliorating relations with neighbours – including Rwanda and Uganda – that have supported some of the militias in the region, and pursued long-running feuds with others, turning it into a theatre for proxy conflicts.

If Tshisekedi’s initiative, which has included leader-to-leader contacts with his neighbours and discussions among their intelligence services on the eastern DRC, succeeds, it may lay the groundwork for regional security cooperation, in turn reducing the need for MONUSCO.

Tshisekedi’s domestic political position is fragile.[fn]For more, see Nelleke van de Walle, “Moïse Katumbi’s Return Portends Shifting Alliances in Congolese Politics”, Crisis Group Commentary, 23 May 2019.Hide Footnote His predecessor Joseph Kabila, whose relations with the UN worsened significantly over time and who threatened to expel MONUSCO more than once, still wields considerable power. Though conscious that tensions between the two leaders could complicate the president’s regional agenda, the Security Council – which rarely suffers major splits on the DRC – asked the Secretary-General for an independent review of the UN’s role in the DRC this spring. The review will be ready in October. Diplomats in New York foresee a gradual drawdown of MONUSCO, lasting perhaps three years. To maximise the chances of sustaining stability in the DRC, the UN should pursue three priorities.

To stop such local flare-ups creating wider instability, the UN should maintain a civilian political presence to advise and support local peacemaking initiatives.

First, the UN should offer political – and possibly financial – assistance to regional reconciliation efforts involving the DRC, Rwanda, Uganda and other neighbours. Earlier this year, Guterres appointed a new special envoy for the Great Lakes, Huang Xia of China, who may be able to help Tshisekedi and his fellow leaders work together on stabilising the eastern DRC. In order to build trust among the regional players, it may be necessary to link agreements on ending external assistance to armed groups to new cross-border security arrangements and steps toward economic integration.

Secondly, while incrementally reducing the overall UN presence, the Security Council should ensure that a small but credible force remains in the east to deal with new threats from armed groups, at least for the duration of the drawdown and possibly longer. While the Council has maintained a 3,000-strong Force Intervention Brigade in the area since 2013, some units have lacked the capabilities and intelligence to be effective. The Council should bolster this brigade as the rest of the UN force shrinks. Longer-term, the UN and international donors will need to collaborate to turn the Congolese armed forces into an effective military.

Finally, the UN should invest more in local mediation efforts in the eastern DRC to address the grievances that often motivate armed groups and their supporters. In addition to the role that regional powers play in fuelling conflict, clan and communal tensions often spark outbursts of fighting that MONUSCO has struggled to understand, let alone halt. To stop such local flare-ups creating wider instability, the UN should maintain a civilian political presence to advise and support local peacemaking initiatives, even as most peacekeepers depart.

2. Reinforcing and expanding peacemaking efforts in Yemen. There was a brief moment of optimism over the conflict in Yemen at the end of 2018, when the country’s warring factions agreed on steps to prevent a battle for the port city of Hodeida that would have cut off desperately needed aid. This agreement has not lived up to its full promise to date, but the UN may still be able to play a key role in striking a peace deal among Yemeni factions, if regional powers give it space to do so.[fn]See Crisis Group Report, Saving the Stockholm Agreement and Averting a Regional Conflagration in Yemen, op. cit.Hide Footnote

While diplomacy has averted the worst [...] neither side has implemented the [UN-led peace] agreement in full and fighting continues on other fronts.

It will be a daunting task. UN-led efforts to resolve the conflict between the internationally recognised government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi and the Huthi rebels who drove him out of Sanaa in 2015 have been constrained from the start by Security Council Resolution 2216 (2015). This resolution effectively demands a Huthi surrender to the government and has been widely interpreted to limit negotiations to the two opposing groups. Some progress was made during UN-led talks in Kuwait in 2016, but these faltered. The current UN envoy, Martin Griffiths, hoped to revive the peace process in 2018 but needed first to help ward off a battle for Hodeida. Last December, the Houthis and Hadi government agreed to demilitarise the city to prevent stoppages of humanitarian supplies into Yemen. But while diplomacy has averted the worst – a battle for the port that could have triggered a famine – neither side has implemented the agreement in full and fighting continues on other fronts. There has been little progress toward broader peace talks.

To complicate matters further, this August, the anti-Huthi coalition openly splintered. The Southern Transitional Council (STC), a self-styled southern government-in-waiting that is closely tied to the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and nominally part of Hadi’s coalition, seized control of Aden from forces aligned with the president. The takeover raised the spectre of a war within a war and placed the Emiratis and Saudis – leaders of the Arab coalition supporting Hadi on the battlefield – on opposing sides of an intra-Yemeni conflict.[fn]See Crisis Group Middle East Briefing N°71, After Aden: Navigating Yemen’s New Political Landscape, 30 August 2019.Hide Footnote

The current crisis [in south Yemen] could open up a path to more inclusive national peace negotiations.

The fighting in the south has also made clear the importance of moving beyond the current approach of narrowly defining the peace process as between Hadi and the Huthis. The fragmentation of Hadi’s coalition underscores that the war cannot be resolved through Hadi-Huthi bargaining alone. The STC and other groups have interests and grievances that need to be addressed, including the STC’s claim to govern the south. In this sense, and despite the language in Resolution 2216 that could be read to limit the UN’s ability to involve actors other than Hadi and the Huthis, the current crisis could open up a path to more inclusive national peace negotiations.

There are signs that Saudi Arabia and the UAE are prepared to resolve splits in the anti-Huthi camp, which they see as distracting its members from the main struggle and therefore weakening their hand. That would entail prodding Hadi and the STC to form a new, broader government that includes the STC, among others, and then to name a delegation to UN-led peace talks with representation from all parties in the reconfigured government. To facilitate this development, UN officials and Security Council members could affirm to the parties that they read Resolution 2216 flexibly enough to permit the UN to pursue negotiations in this format.

If the P5 do not want to see their cooperation over Yemen end in failure – reinforcing already-present scepticism about the UN’s relevance in the Middle East – they will need to persuade the Hadi government and Huthis, as well as their respective regional allies, to accept less than comprehensive implementation of the Hodeida deal, and then quickly pivot from the focus on that port city to negotiations over a nationwide settlement.

3. Facilitating reconciliation in Venezuela. The struggle for control of Venezuela created drama in the Security Council in the first half of this year, as U.S. officials including Vice President Mike Pence came to New York to press for President Nicolás Maduro’s ouster. Maduro’s allies, notably Russia, responded with strident statements in his defence. Yet the UN could still have a role in helping both sides find a way out of an impasse that is contributing to a humanitarian catastrophe and massive refugee flows and could have regional spillover effects.

By the middle of the year – with neither Maduro nor his rival for the presidency, Juan Guaidó, able to secure victory – UN debates over the crisis lost energy. The foreign backers of both sides appear to have concluded that there was little to gain from public disputes in New York. Some Guaidó supporters, including European governments, also hope that Secretary-General Guterres could play a more impartial role in resolving the crisis if the Security Council can avoid further fights on the issue.

So far, Guterres and UN officials in Venezuela have been wary about engaging in the crisis too publicly. The Secretary-General has held back from any effort to assist in Caracas until both sides clearly want him to do so, and has taken a back seat to the on-again, off-again negotiations between the government and opposition currently being facilitated by Norway; the Trump administration’s view that the UN should not be involved certainly has played a role.[fn]On the Norwegian initiative, see Crisis Group Latin America and Caribbean Report N°75, A Glimmer of Light in Venezuela’s Gloom, 15 July 2019.Hide Footnote

While some commentators and human rights organisations have called for the Secretary-General to approach the situation less cautiously, the UN has not been entirely silent or absent.[fn]See, for example, Andres Oppenheimer, “UN Secretary-General has finally found his voice on Venezuela. Now he must find the backbone to get aid to its suffering people”, The Miami Herald, 12 April 2019.Hide Footnote After her visit to Caracas in June, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet released a damning report listing major violations by the Maduro government. UN agencies in Venezuela have also prepared a plan for greatly increased humanitarian aid to the country, with the aim of supporting 2.6 million people in urgent need.

If the two sides [in Venezuela] reach a compromise along the lines under discussion, the UN may be well placed to observe elections and assist in building the institutions required for good governance.

The conditions for further substantive UN engagement in Venezuela could at some point ripen. Though a counterproductive round of new U.S. sanctions soured the mood in August, Crisis Group discussions with elements in both the Maduro and Guaidó camps suggest a compromise around early, credible, internationally monitored elections could be possible – with the caveat that the pro-government electoral commission will need to be changed, National Assembly powers restored, some U.S. sanctions lifted and institutional guarantees introduced to escape the winner-take-all dynamic of past polls.

If the two sides reach a compromise along the lines under discussion, the UN may be well placed to observe elections and assist in building the institutions required for good governance. It may also be able to help make a political settlement stick. A special representative of the Secretary-General, backed by a political mission, could manage these roles. Either the Security Council or UN General Assembly could give a mandate for this work, though a Security Council resolution backed by all the P5 would carry the most weight. Coming together behind a Security Council resolution would also be an elegant way for the U.S. and Russia, in particular, to step back from their earlier clashes over Venezuela, lest the situation hurt their relations further.

4. Supporting the next stage of peace talks in Afghanistan. For much of the year, diplomats and UN officials in New York and Kabul have been waiting for news on the outcome of talks between the U.S. and the Taliban that could lead to withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan.[fn]Laurel Miller, “The U.S. Shouldn’t Stumble Out of Afghanistan”, Foreign Policy, 16 August 2019. See also Borhan Osman, “Afghanistan Diplomacy Gathers Steam Even as Attacks Increase”, Crisis Group Commentary, 9 July 2019.Hide Footnote Hopes for an agreement were at least temporarily dashed when President Trump announced this month that he had cancelled secret talks with the Taliban and President Ghani at Camp David that purportedly were designed to seal the deal. Despite this apparently significant setback, the conditions that led the U.S. and Taliban to the brink of a deal still exist, and some sort of bargain may yet emerge.

The UN could have an important role to play in following up on such a putative bargain. UN officials have had contacts with the Taliban since the 1990s, and the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan maintains political, humanitarian and human rights dialogues with the group. It has had no substantive part in the U.S.-Taliban talks to date, however, though it has facilitated interaction between U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and ambassadors in Kabul.

The UN could play a lead role, in coordination with other external actors, in managing the process [toward peace in Afghanistan].

But if the U.S. and Taliban eventually reach an agreement, it will be necessary for a wider range of Afghan parties – including the Taliban, government representatives, other political factions and civil society – to engage among themselves on a political settlement. That stage, if it materialises, will be the real peace process, aimed at producing a political settlement that all significant power brokers can buy into. Given the number of actors and variety of interests involved, the peace process is likely to be chaotic. The U.S., as a party to the conflict, would not be well placed to manage this next stage impartially. Instead, the UN could play a lead role, in coordination with other external actors, in managing the process. The UN also should be prepared, if asked by the conflict parties, to name a facilitator for the talks.

Issues for discussion in the intra-Afghan talks would include brokering a general ceasefire, shaping a modified system of governance, devising forms of political and security power sharing, amending the constitution, reforming the security forces, specifying the role of Islam in the state and crafting protections for the rights of women, girls and minorities. If the Taliban and other Afghan actors accept the UN as a facilitator, members of the P5 – including China and Russia – that have security concerns about Afghanistan’s future might also feel more confident that any final settlement will meet their basic interests.

5. Backstopping African Union (AU) support for Sudan’s transition. The Security Council’s response to President Omar al-Bashir’s fall in April and ensuing debates over Sudan’s future has been confused. Security Council members with ties to the Sudanese military, including China and Russia, have opposed even mild joint statements of support for a transition to civilian rule. African members of the council – Côte d’Ivoire, Equatorial Guinea and South Africa – were frustrated by the body’s failure to back AU-Ethiopian efforts to resolve the crisis this summer.[fn]For more see Crisis Group Africa Report N°279, A Tale of Two Councils: Strengthening AU-UN Cooperation, 24 June 2019.Hide Footnote Security Council diplomacy was further complicated by arguments over what developments in Khartoum meant for the future of the UN-AU Hybrid Operation in Darfur (UNAMID), which is drawing down. The Council agreed to pause the drawdown process in June, but only until October.

By contrast, Secretary-General Guterres has strongly supported the AU’s crisis management efforts, appointing an envoy with an explicit mandate to assist the AU rather than lead an independent UN initiative. The AU-Ethiopian effort eventually led to a transitional military-civilian power-sharing agreement this August.[fn]See Crisis Group Statement, “Nurturing Sudan’s Fledgling Power-sharing Accord”, 20 August 2019.Hide Footnote Though the Security Council may still struggle to find consensus, and the envoy has played a limited role to date, there is more both he and the UN agencies can do now that an agreement is in place.

[A UN] mandate could cover files including mediation between authorities in Khartoum and rebel groups in Sudan’s peripheries, preparation for elections and help to the government in shoring up an economy in dire shape.

While the AU will be the new Khartoum authority’s main institutional partner, the UN can offer technical support to the AU’s liaison office in Khartoum, in place since 2008, to facilitate the transition. This mandate could cover files including mediation between authorities in Khartoum and rebel groups in Sudan’s peripheries, preparation for elections and help to the government in shoring up an economy in dire shape.

The economic challenge arguably is the most daunting. An urgent and carefully directed injection of external financial support, including debt forgiveness, will be critical. Donors need to pool their resources to revive economic activity and ensure that the country’s power brokers do not simply funnel assistance into the patronage networks that Bashir developed to buy loyalty. Speed is of the essence. The new prime minister, Abdalla Hamdok, and his cabinet have to show quick results in stabilising the economy if they wish to consolidate public support. The cabinet is riding a wave of public good-will but if they do not swiftly ease Sudan’s deep economic crisis, this backing could ebb, a development that likely would favour the generals seeking to thwart progress toward full civilian rule. The UN Development Programme (UNDP), possibly in conjunction with the World Bank or African Development Bank, could help this effort by acting as coordinator of new funding efforts. As the UNDP does not answer to the Security Council, P5 divisions would not affect its work.

In the meantime, Council members should proceed cautiously with the drawdown of UNAMID, keeping an eye out for circumstances that might cause them to reconsider the timetable. Some rebels in Sudan refused to sign onto the transitional agreement, saying the opposition and junta ignored their demands for a formal role in transitional institutions. These groups may cause trouble. Elements of the Sudanese security forces (including former perpetrators of atrocities in Darfur) may hope that the new government can persuade the UN to expedite UNAMID’s exit, giving them a free hand to mount new operations in the area.

6. Boosting AU-UN institutional cooperation. Though the Security Council devotes half its time to African issues, the AU and other regional and sub-regional groups have increasingly taken the lead in mediating crises on the continent. There is plenty of room for New York and Addis Ababa to cooperate productively, even as the latter takes a greater role on regional peace and security issues, but the two institutions are still working to figure out the particulars.[fn]For more see Crisis Group Report, A Tale of Two Councils: Strengthening AU-UN Cooperation, op. cit.Hide Footnote

For example, the AU has called for creation of a mechanism that would allow the UN to use assessed contributions to fund African-led operations as an alternative to UN forces. Tempers flared in the Security Council in late 2018 when the U.S. threatened to veto an AU-backed resolution endorsing this concept. Unless friction around this issue is resolved it has the potential to complicate future AU and UN-led conflict prevention and peacemaking efforts on the continent.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote

South Africa, in its first of two years as an elected member of the Council, hopes to make progress on the funding issue this year. In addition to cost concerns, some Council members are also uncertain that African-led missions – which typically have mandates for peace enforcement, often involving operations in high-risk theatres and against jihadist groups, rather than peacekeeping – measure up to UN standards of discipline and accountability, and financial management.[fn]Similar arguments were made during Council discussions on the G5 Sahel Joint Force – a regionally led effort aimed at tackling jihadist groups in the Sahel – in 2017. For more, see Crisis Group Africa Report N°258, Finding the Right Role for the G5 Sahel Joint Force, 12 December 2017.Hide Footnote AU officials and African diplomats should take these charges seriously and build up a clear case for UN funding, tied to demonstrable qualitative improvements to operations.

The Security Council should also prioritise upgrading cooperation with the AU Peace and Security Council (PSC). [Both] councils could usefully work on easing the tensions in their relationship through procedural innovations.

The Security Council should also prioritise upgrading cooperation with the AU Peace and Security Council (PSC). Even though the two bodies hold annual consultations, the relationship between them is not well developed, and PSC members complain that their Security Council counterparts frequently ignore their positions, as in the Sudan case. (By contrast, Secretary-General Guterres has close ties to many African leaders and senior AU officials, and has encouraged the UN secretariat to support the AU’s efforts to expand its conflict management role as a strategic priority.)

As Crisis Group has previously recommended, the two councils could usefully work on easing the tensions in their relationship through procedural innovations. These could include joint visits by members of the Security Council and PSC to crisis-affected areas – an option that they have considered before but have not pursued due to disputes over protocol. AU PSC members could also improve their engagement with the Security Council by expanding the organisation’s under-resourced liaison office in New York and easing information flow between the PSC and the three rotating African members of the Council.[fn]Crisis Group Report, A Tale of Two Councils: Strengthening AU-UN Cooperation, op. cit.Hide Footnote

7. Rethinking multilateral security arrangements in the Middle East. In parallel with efforts to reframe their engagement with African affairs, the Security Council and UN secretariat need to address recurrent flaws in the organisation’s approach to the Middle East. It is clear that regional competitions for power – including the Saudi-Iranian standoff and tensions between Qatar and its neighbours – have cross-cutting implications for the individual conflicts on which UN mediators are working. Yet coordination among UN envoys in the region is often limited.

Secretary-General Guterres, who has altered the UN secretariat structure in New York to promote a more regional (and less country-specific) approach to conflict resolution strategies, should push his representatives in the Middle East to work more closely as a team, especially vis-à-vis their individual diplomacy with the principal capitals in the region, as well as Europe, Russia and the U.S.

Looking beyond UN coordination issues, the crisis in the Gulf has encouraged some UN members to think more broadly about regional security arrangements.[fn]For more, see Joost Hiltermann, “Tackling the MENA Region’s Intersecting Conflicts”, Crisis Group Commentary, 13 February 2018.Hide Footnote Iran has encouraged Guterres to launch discussions of a new regional confidence-building architecture and Russia has tabled “proposals for collective security for the Persian Gulf region” echoing the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) process, through which the Western and Soviet blocs negotiated a package of agreements on borders, security confidence-building measures and humanitarian issues in the 1970s.[fn]See Michael Cotey Morgan, The Final Act: The Helsinki Accords and the Transformation of the Cold War (Princeton, 2019).Hide Footnote This summer, Iraq called for a regional security conference as tensions worsened in the Gulf. The EU endorsed the Iraqi proposal, and a number of European governments are pursuing similar ideas.

Outside powers cannot impose a new security architecture on the Middle East. But if a number of Arab states seen as relatively neutral in regional disputes – such as Jordan, Kuwait and Oman – were willing to initiate discussions on security issues, external actors might support the process. At least in the first instance, such a discussion could focus on hard security confidence-building measures – such as channels for communication among capitals during periods of crisis or arrangements to bolster maritime security – in addition to concerns such as water scarcity.

The UN is probably not the right place to generate momentum behind these ideas. The Security Council is too bitterly divided over too many Middle Eastern issues. Secretary-General Guterres, having to navigate tensions among the P5 on a day-to-day basis, is bound to face difficulties if he champions a “CSCE for the Middle East” too loudly.

Nonetheless, the UN system would have something to contribute to the conversation. It contains built-in expertise on multilateral mechanisms – and UN officials have Middle Eastern networks – that could help Guterres contribute practical advice on security arrangements. The Secretary-General could appoint a personal envoy for general Middle Eastern security issues to liaise among various governments concerned. To the extent that discussions touch on technical matters – such as water issues – the UN can also make its experts available. At a moment when the UN’s approach to peacemaking in the Middle East is in severe trouble, its leaders should be willing to experiment with new ideas for conflict resolution.

New York/Brussels, 12 September 2019