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Interview with Louise Arbour and Jim Della-Giacoma
Interview with Louise Arbour and Jim Della-Giacoma
Explaining the UN Secretary-General’s Cautious Crisis Diplomacy
Explaining the UN Secretary-General’s Cautious Crisis Diplomacy
Interview / Global

Interview with Louise Arbour and Jim Della-Giacoma

Louise Arbour and Jim Della-Giacoma from the International Crisis Group (ICG) tell ODE Talks (Office of Development Effectiveness, Australian Governement) what donors need to know about their latest analysis from Libya, Burma and East Timor. The former UN High Commissioner, Louise Arbour also talks about the Responsibility to Protect doctrine, building institutions in post-conflict environments and the role of women in peacebuilding.

John Davidson from the Office of Development Effectiveness: The International Crisis Group has field officers in dozens of countries throughout the Middle East, Asia and Africa. We thought we would take this opportunity to ask you about some of the big issues that donors like Australia should be aware of in the countries where we work. Louise, can we start with North Africa and perhaps Libya in particular? Australia remains deeply concerned about the plight of the citizens of Libya and as a result we are currently the third largest provider of humanitarian assistance there. What does ICG analysis tell us about the interactions between crisis, aid and recovery?

Louise Arbour: I think what we do and the work that we have started to do already in Libya is a good example of that is that we provide I think a sophisticated understanding of context - you spoke about that earlier. They are mechanisms of intervention including deployment of humanitarian assistance that in fact are seen as quite mechanical and devoid of political consequences. If there was any doubt about that you just have to look at the President Al-Bashir in Sudan's reaction to his own indictment, where his first reaction was to throw out all the humanitarians. So I think there is a very, very clear connection between sort of political processes and humanitarian assistance.

I think what Crisis Group provides is an understanding, if I could put it bluntly, that Libya is not Tunisia. That what's going to happen to this country if and when the all necessary measures have produced their intended results, will have to be very well anchored in the particular reality of that country, in its history, in its I think extremely impoverished institutional framework, virtually has no sort of traditional institutions of governance as we know them elsewhere. So I think the humanitarian actors have to be able to sustain what's going to be I think a pretty lengthy transition before you see a country going in a full sort of self standing recovery mode.

Louise while we're talking about Libya, earlier this year ICG expressed reservations about the NATO no-fly zone and advocated for a negotiated cease fire and peace process. What are the implications of the Security Council invoking the responsibility to protect in this case?

Louise Arbour: Well I think we may need to come back to the origin of the doctrine of responsibility to protect which in my view is probably one of the most imaginative, promising emerging doctrines on the international scene, transforming what originally had been called the kind of right to intervene into a concept of responsibility. The promoters of the doctrine I think made a very smart, strategically smart decision early on, to promote first what I would call the soft aspect of the doctrine which is each state's own responsibility to protect its own citizens. And in a sense that I think has now become very widely accepted that state sovereignty is not a shield against external scrutiny it is a series of responsibilities, vis-a-vis civilian protection in particular.

I think it's going to be difficult to assess what are the short term, medium term and long term consequences of that particular political initiative. If I could make some predictions I think in the shorter term there will be a backlash. We hear already I think Russia and China who abstained rather than veto this initiative claimed that they may have been misled about what the true intention of the intervention was. It's expressed in terms of protection of civilians but the political objectives are certainly regime change and the toppling of Gaddafi. So I think in the short term you may see a backlash against the doctrine. If I had to predict in the longer term any precedent tends to be positive. The ice is broken, there is more possibility of these kinds of initiatives been taken again but I don't see that as a likely outcome in the very short term.

Turning to our own region, Jim, in a recent briefing on Burma ICG called on the international community to lift restrictions on development assistance and increased levels of aid. Why does the ICG think it's time to change the approach to Burma?

Jim Della-Giacoma: Crisis Group has held the position since 2004 that sanctions and restrictions that have been posed by a number of western countries should be lifted. We believe they don't work as a tool to bring about political change. They isolate the country's leadership from international norms and standards and the benefits of those standards, and they help poor people because there are many programs that the citizens of Burma could benefit from that they are locked out of, for example through the cooperation of the World Bank.

With the new government now in power they are setting an agenda in place for economic change. It might not be the political change that everybody wants or many activists around the world who have been supporting democratic change would wish for. But there's an opportunity there to engage for donors and to bring about the changes to the life and the benefits to many people through more programs in areas such as health and education, but also to bring those programs out to regional governments that are now in place for the first time particularly in the ethnic areas.

ODE Talks recently spoke with Nigel Roberts, co-director of this year's World Development Report on Conflict, Security and Development. And Louise I know you are on the advisory board for that report. Nigel argued that institutional legitimacy is the key to stability in post conflict states. But in your opinion, can outsiders in the international community ever really get a handle on who has legitimacy?

Louise Arbour: Well I think what the report highlights is that donors have to adjust I think their efforts in institution building beyond simply trying to put in place structures which I think has been the case in the past, such as supporting the creation of a human rights commission or an anti-corruption commission. And actually looking at developing a capacity to deliver results not just to create structures and bureaucracies, and that this is actually a very long term exercise. It's particularly critical I think in the justice and rule of law sector but it's true I think across the board.

The World Development Report emphasises the need to deliver early results in post conflict situations, especially related to citizen security and justice. In your long experience is there such a thing as a quick result when it comes to re-establishing the rule of law and justice?

Louise Arbour: I am actually somewhat concerned that this kind of rule of law framework will be quickly reduced to some of its tangible but very narrow features such as law enforcement. There is a lot more to rule of law than even policing, courts and corrections. And in a sense I think we've made the same mistake and efforts to in a sense export democracy by reducing it to electoral processes. There is a lot more to democracy than a series of reasonably free and fair elections every four years. There is that and god knows that doesn't always produce a trustworthy democratic process. It very often is reduced to validating very strong executives or kind of strong man culture.

I think in the rule of law there is exactly the same danger that in fact will pour a lot of money into supporting what I would call the repressive arm of the law, that is law enforcement, when in fact properly understood the rule of law is a fundamental guiding principle that asserts that all are equal under and before the law and all are entitled to equal protection and equal benefit of the law. Now that is a lot more difficult - one to produce quick results and two to unpack in terms of a donor strategy for assistance to governments. And it seems to me it's critical that this kind of doctrinal work be done first and then be elaborated into a series of initiatives, rather than do the simple thing which is train more police officers and possibly train more judges. Training judges who are not rooted in a culture of professional independent non-corrupt adjudication I think is very problematic.

So again long term initiatives but that it seems to me should not be limited to emphasising repressive initiatives but should look at the rule of law as an entire framework for the promotion of equality.

ODE is currently conducting an evaluation of Australia's support in the law and justice sector, and one of the issues that we're really interested to examine are the gender dimensions of that support. What are some of the best ways you've seen to work with women in post conflict recovery?

Louise Arbour: Well I can't help but express some concern I think of the existing sort of framework within which the questions of gender and conflicts have been approach. You may be familiar with the now ten year old Security Council Resolution 1325 which became the blueprint for approaching gender issues in conflict, and it essentially has two pillars. One is the identification of the particular victimisation of women in conflict, and we know that this has paid some dividends. I think the prominence of international concern over for instance sexual violence, rape in the Democratic Republic of Congo I think is in a sense a by-product of that pillar of the doctrine.

The second one is the empowerment of women as peacemakers so bringing more women around the table to peace deals and so on. Ten years after this framework has been put in place I don't think frankly there is a huge amount to show for in terms of a genuine empowerment of women in relation to conflict resolution environments. It may be that this concept of empowerment through peacemaking does not actually reflect the reality of peacemaking which is that the parties around the table have to have something to deliver. They have to deliver, surrender their weapons or deliver their political constituencies. And I'm not sure that the actual empowerment of women has... giving them a seat at the table they don't have either weapons or constituencies to deliver may be a very artificial exercise.

How do you see donors using the kind of analysis that ICG prepares?

Jim Della-Giacoma: I think in our work we often highlight or see it as parts of our role to highlight areas that are neglected or forgotten particularly in relation to conflicts that have been going on for some years. And I think too areas come to mind where we can be useful to donors in identifying problematic areas that need some more attention or perhaps a country specific example.

In Indonesia there has been a lot of focus on dealing with the issue of terrorism and radicalism by providing assistance to the police and the courts but not the prisons. And all these radicals, hundreds of terrorists who were convicted and captured and investigated and prosecuted do end up in prisons, and I think this is one area where Crisis Group work spotlighted that there is a problem with the management of these population of criminals, and a country like Australia was able to help in that.

The other example that I would use from South East Asia is the issue of the Timorese in West Timor or Nusa Tenggara Timur province. Twelve years ago hundreds of thousands of people fled into this province and there is still somewhere in the vicinity of thirty thousand Timorese who are there. In 2004 they were magically declared to be no longer refugees and they all became new citizens of Indonesia, but the problem didn't go away. There is a displaced population there and we have been able to highlight that, and the fact that many of them do want to go home and that donors can play a role in facilitating that through the lowering the barriers such as the political barriers, but also providing the funds necessary to get these people back to where they want to belong.

Contributors

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Former Project Director, South East Asia
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres removes his facemask upon arriving at a press conference on 29 April 2021 at the end of a 5+1 Meeting on Cyprus in Geneva. Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP

Explaining the UN Secretary-General’s Cautious Crisis Diplomacy

Facing intractable conflicts and great-power frictions, UN Secretary-General António Guterres has found it hard to deliver on his promised “surge in diplomacy for peace”. As he applies for a second term, it is worth contemplating why and how he can still leave his mark.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres will make his case for a second five-year term to the UN General Assembly on 7 May. It will largely be a formality. Guterres faces no serious rival for the post, and he is on good terms with all the UN Security Council’s permanent members, although Russia says it is still thinking over his renewal. It is a good moment to reflect on his approach to UN conflict management to date and the challenges he will face in the future.

When Guterres became Secretary-General in 2017, he promised a “surge in diplomacy for peace”. He has found it difficult to deliver, as the UN has been at the centre of few successful peacemaking endeavours during his term to date. Guterres is not entirely empty-handed: after numerous false starts, UN officials have engineered a surprisingly productive ceasefire and political process in Libya. UN envoys have also scored some lower-profile successes, like brokering an end to the 2019-2020 electoral crisis in Bolivia. Nonetheless, as Guterres admitted in a vision statement outlining his plans for a second term starting in 2022, he has found addressing most conflicts on the UN agenda to be “a Sisyphean task”.

Officials working on long-running UN mediation processes elsewhere... say the Secretary-General engages with their work only sporadically and is wary of risking political capital on them.

Although Guterres came into office emphasising the importance of crisis diplomacy, he has generally taken a cautious approach to it. He has, for example, faced criticism inside and outside the UN for refusing to push for a mediating role in Venezuela. In dealing with crises in Africa, such as the war in Ethiopia’s Tigray, he has argued that other actors – such as the African Union (AU) – should take the diplomatic lead. Officials working on long-running UN mediation processes elsewhere, including the Middle East, say the Secretary-General engages with their work only sporadically and is wary of risking political capital on them.

There is hardly reason to suggest that Guterres lacks interest in these topics or the aptitude for engaging them. Indeed, diplomats and UN officials regularly comment on the Secretary-General’s capacity to analyse crises with great acuity even in cases, like last year's war over Nagorno-Karabakh, where the UN has little purchase. They also note that he frequently works the phone with leaders at the centre of emerging crises, although this approach has not always yielded good results. For instance, following conversations with Ethiopian leader Abiy Ahmed over the Tigray war, Guterres appears to have painted far too rosy a picture of what is an appalling humanitarian situation and been too trusting of Abiy to take the right steps to ameliorate it. 

But there are also counter-examples: the Secretary-General has taken an unusually outspoken stance in condemning the 1 February coup in Myanmar. He previously took a firm public line regarding the Rohingya crisis earlier in his term, angering the generals in Naypyitaw.

Guterres’ Caution Explained

In general, though, Guterres’ approach to conflict diplomacy is low-key. Based on conversations with UN officials and Turtle Bay diplomats, there are five broad reasons why.

One is that, on those occasions when the Secretary-General has attempted to take a more prominent role, it has sometimes backfired. In 2017, he made a personal push to bring talks on the reunification of Cyprus to a successful conclusion, but the process failed, leaving him “visibly despondent”. In 2019, he travelled to Libya to promote new peace plans only to find himself in the middle of an escalating war, as rebels launched an assault on Tripoli. These experiences left Guterres wary of making similar personal interventions elsewhere.

The second reason for his approach is his reading of the geopolitical scene. Guterres appears sceptical that he can persuade the Security Council to act in a more unified way – and conscious that its division limits his influence. He may well be right. The permanent members of the Security Council, split over conflicts such as those in Ukraine and Syria, have rarely offered him strong and concerted backing for peace efforts. The Trump administration’s disdain for UN diplomacy made that unity that much more elusive. U.S. officials, for example, cautioned against the organisation taking a greater role in Venezuela as it tried to ratchet up pressure on President Nicolás Maduro. The Security Council was slow to support the Secretary-General’s otherwise widely praised call for a global ceasefire in response to the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020, due to bickering between China and the U.S. over the origins of the virus.

Guterres has lamented the “dysfunctional” state of great-power relations but does not seem to think he can do much to bring them together.

Guterres has lamented the “dysfunctional” state of great-power relations but does not seem to think he can do much to bring them together. In this belief he is probably justified, as few Secretaries-General have managed to emulate Dag Hammarskjöld’s success in managing great-power tensions during the 1956 Suez crisis.

The third explanation for Guterres’ caution is that he genuinely believes that other actors can and should have a more prominent role in peacemaking. This idea is partly a matter of pragmatism. Faced with the recent post-electoral crisis in Bolivia, for example, the UN combined forces with the Catholic Church and European Union to maximise international leverage in calling for new polls.

Yet in dealing with Africa in particular, Guterres also frames empowering regional players as a matter of principle. He has a deep personal network among leaders in Africa, nurtured as UN High Commissioner for Refugees from 2005 and 2015, and has prioritised both improving UN ties with the AU and encouraging the latter to play the more prominent role in regional diplomacy. In a number of situations, such as talks on the future of Sudan after the ouster of President Omar al-Bashir in 2019, he has argued that the AU or other African organisations should take the political lead, with the UN deliberately in a supporting role. This stance irritates some UN officials, who believe he is downgrading his own organisation, but Guterres has also called for the UN to provide more funding to AU and other African stabilisation operations.

This focus on building up African capacities appears to be linked to a fourth factor affecting Guterres’ thinking, which is a lack of faith in the strengths of some of the UN’s own crisis management tools, in particular blue helmet peacekeeping. In contrast to some earlier Secretaries-General, such as Kofi Annan, Guterres has not been a keen advocate for sending large-scale UN missions to manage crises. He has frequently signalled doubts about the effectiveness of these deployments – a disposition that helped keep him on the right side of the Trump administration, which wanted to cut down peacekeeping costs. In 2018, he warned the Security Council that these missions were insufficiently resourced and weighed down by “Christmas tree” mandates (long lists of tasks and priorities beyond their capabilities). Having rejigged UN headquarters structures to improve planning and oversight of security matters, Guterres launched an initiative, “Action for Peacekeeping”, to address the flaws in these operations. This effort has resulted in incremental improvements to UN missions but failed to assuage the Secretary-General’s deeper frustrations with them.

UN officials note that Guterres has stimulated the organisation’s thinking about alternatives to peacekeeping. He has pressed UN development officials, often rather oblivious to conflict risks, to focus more attention on crisis prevention, and promoted closer cooperation with the World Bank on conflicted-affected countries (picking up an initiative launched by his predecessor Ban Ki-moon). These new priorities are evident in Sudan, where the UN has established a political mission in Khartoum with a primary focus on assisting the transitional authorities as they deal with economic challenges on the pathway to civilian rule.

The last explanation that tends to be offered for Guterres’ restrained approach to crisis management is that he is investing his political capital in other areas. He has increasingly focused on climate change and, against the backdrop of the pandemic, both COVID-19 and its social and economic consequences. While his statements on these themes sometimes put him at odds with the Trump administration, they chime nicely with the new team in the White House, and it may be appealing for the Secretary-General to keep his focus on these issues.

Another area that the Secretary-General has prioritised has been technology policy, and he has taken useful steps to push the UN to think more about how artificial intelligence, robotics and other innovations will change the future of both war and peacemaking. Some of his interventions in this sphere to date have been declaratory – he has, for example, called for a ban on lethal autonomous weapons systems – and the UN system has a lot of work to do to think how to respond operationally to these challenges. Nonetheless, he has helped stir discussion.

While Guterres has faced criticisms for his caution in dealing with many conflicts, it is arguable that he is simply reflecting the realities of global politics.

While Guterres has faced criticisms for his caution in dealing with many conflicts, it is arguable that he is simply reflecting the realities of global politics. The short post-Cold War moment in which the U.S. and other powers frequently turned to the UN to manage security problems has been fading into memory for some time.

Whether or not one is sympathetic to the above explanations for the Secretary-General’s restrained approach, his second term is still likely to bring peacemaking and peacebuilding challenges, and more pressure on Guterres to be visibly engaged in addressing them. The Biden administration has already prodded the UN to be more active, throwing its weight behind UN mediation in Yemen and asking it to organise a regional conference on the future of Afghanistan. The new U.S. permanent representative in New York, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, has pushed for more UN action on the Tigray crisis and the Myanmar coup. If the Trump administration placed constraints on the Secretary-General, its successor may create incentives for him to be more active, sometimes in ways that could create frictions with China and Russia, which generally prefer the UN to keep out of what they consider to be internal affairs.

Five More Years of the Grind

Looking ahead, it is easy to identify some crisis areas that are likely to remain headaches for Guterres. One is Afghanistan, where the imminent U.S. troop withdrawal will leave the UN’s civilian mission in the country to work with the beleaguered Afghan government in an increasingly insecure environment. The UN will also have to consider how to wind up some of its remaining large-scale peace operations, including its largest one, in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The Security Council has signalled that it would like to see the Congo mission, which has been in place for two decades and still involves 17,000 personnel, end in the next few years. But managing this process will be a mammoth task in both technical and political terms, with a risk of new violence disrupting it. The transition will involve coordination between the peacekeepers and the UN agencies that will stay on in DRC, as well as a good deal of politicking with the country’s neighbours – such as Rwanda and Uganda – to manage regional security concerns.

In the Middle East, Guterres will continue to face a divided Security Council over Syria, with Russia wanting the UN to wrap up some of its humanitarian operations (which have involved delivering aid to rebel-held areas without government consent) and focus on reconstruction instead. The U.S. and its allies are still unwilling to endorse such as shift while President Bashar al-Assad remains in office. Western powers were furious when UN development officials recently put together a plan for assisting Syria in the years ahead that, in their view, was far too conciliatory to the authorities in Damascus. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told the Security Council in March that the U.S. will advocate a new expansion of the aid deliveries Russia hopes to shut down. Guterres will have to walk a fine line to find ways to alleviate suffering in Syria without hitting roadblocks thrown up by big powers aligned with different sides of the conflict.

These challenges and other crises – especially those that involve knocking heads together within the UN and placating permanent Security Council members – will require the Secretary-General’s personal attention. In the end, UN crisis management is sometimes less about surges of diplomacy than tending to long, gruelling political processes. When António Guterres secures his second term, he can look forward to five more years of that grind.