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Explaining the UN Secretary-General’s Cautious Crisis Diplomacy
Explaining the UN Secretary-General’s Cautious Crisis Diplomacy
Interview / Global

Kosovo and Pakistan

Originally published in Lateline, ABC

Tony Jones, Lateline: Now to our interview with the President of the International Crisis Group, former Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans. I spoke to him just a short time ago from his headquarters in Brussels. Gareth Evans, thanks for joining us.

Gareth Evans: Not at all, Tony.

Let's start with Kosovo. Do you think the Australian Government was right, or did they jump on the bandwagon too soon in saying that they will recognise Kosovo as an independent State?

The Australian Government is doing exactly the right thing. There is no alternative but to recognise that this is the way things had to go and, in fact, the way they should have gone some years ago, although Europe and others have been dragging their feet. The truth of the matter was that this was a bloody and murderous assault on the Kosovo Albanians by Milosevic's Serbia back in '99 and it was just intolerable to contemplate the Kosovo Albanians being able to live under continued Serbian sovereignty. It was a unique situation demanding a unique solution of the kind that we now have.

Also in that bandwagon at least seven western States, including the UK and the United States, but significantly Germany has not signed on to recognition at this point, why are they being so cautious?

I think it's only a matter of time before they do. In the finest German tradition in these European matters they're having a Deutschmark  - or rather Euro -  each way. But I'm sure they will be there when the crunch comes. There are countries like Cyprus, like Slovakia, like Spain at least until after its election in March, which are going to be dragging their feet for some considerable time and we knew that. But the truth of the matter is that the overwhelming majority of the European countries will move fairly quickly to recognition. So, of course, will the United States, and many other Western countries and many other Islamic countries, too, I think, over the next few weeks and months, so the momentum will be there. Really the only continuing serious opposition will be from Russia which we'll continue to see, of course, in the Security Council and that is going to make life difficult for Kosovo in terms of things like UN membership. But the trend, the momentum is there.

There was obviously a period in the 1990s, the early part of this century, where seeing new States formed was not so surprising. It's a little surprising to see one happen this year. Do you take the view that the Declaration of Independence did not require a new UN resolution?

Yes, do I. This is a contested argument and I well understand the line that the Russians and the Serbs have been taking on this. But resolution 1244 of the UN doesn't guarantee Serbians sovereignty in perpetuity. It's only until a political process works itself out of a kind which leads to a final status resolution: that's the language of the resolution. Of course it was anticipated that that political process would be some kind of negotiation culminating in a new Security Council resolution. But that has not proved possible. Instead we have an alternative political process involving a rather time-honoured way of new States being recognised, namely by a lot of bilateral declarations of recognition. So the process is working itself out in a way that's acceptable as a matter of international law and it's simply not the show stopper that UN Security Council resolution that it's being claimed to be by those who would resist this.

Indeed, still being the deal that's in here is still the one hammered out by the UN envoy Martii Ahtisaari, is it not? That does come with strings attached when it comes to the ethnic Serbians in Kosovo?

Absolutely crucial strings,  and it was crucial that Hashim Thaci yesterday in his declaration statement made absolutely clear that Kosovo would honour and respect those Serbian minority rights. If there'd been any hint of a suggestion that that was not going to happen and that the Ahtisaari Peace Plan was not going to be fully embraced in that way then I don't think you would have seen any enthusiasm at all from anyone in the international community to move to recognise them. And, of course, there's going to be a continued European monitoring presence there along with a lot of European and other police and justice officials. So the Kosovo Albanians are going to have to be very much on their best behaviour in the months and years ahead to continue to persuade the world that this has been the right course.

Hashim Thaci and other Albanian leaders must have got a little bit of a shock when the Serbian radical party, the ultra nationalists, nearly managed to pull off an electoral victory and come to power in Serbia. Are they looking at a small window of opportunity in history which they literally have to take?

Well, I think whoever had come to power, this course of action would have been taken but it certainly smoothes things a little to have in Serbia now a President like Tadic who is a committed European and, I'm sure deep down inside whatever he says publicly, who is really rather relieved that history has moved on and that Serbia, in fact, can put the Kosovo thing behind it and move to a genuinely full blown European commitment. It's going to be a messy business within Serbia, it's going to be a messy business internationally, for some time, because the emotion will linger on, the sentiment will linger on and the political imperative to continue to complain about Kosovo independence will be there. But this is really the best course for everyone. This is the last twitch of the old Yugoslav dinosaur. This is the last part of the piece of the puzzle that needed to be fixed. It was just intolerable for Kosovo to be sitting there as an appendage in the light of everything that happened. And I'm sure that this is the way to go, and that it won't be a serious precedent elsewhere around the region or internationally, whatever may be now being claimed to the contrary.

That's, of course, what the Russians are saying and they're even threatening to recognise Russian minorities in other caucus States, for example.

But they're not threatening very noisily or very compellingly. They're suggesting that it's something that might happen in due course, but it's a double edged sword for the Russians, because if they start recognising  South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia  as breakaway states they've got all sorts of problems why places such as Chechnya and Dagestan in its own obstreperous northern caucuses, members of the larger Russian federation, should not themselves be recognised as independent by the wider international community. So there's been awful lot of huff and puff going on about this issue but I don't think any of it should concern us too much. There's no sign that the Russians are going to translate their enthusiasm for the Serbian position into any kind of support for military action or violence. I think this will just be a bit of protracted political warfare, but nothing more than we could reasonably have expected and nothing that should turn anyone's minds away from consummating this recognition and getting on with welcoming Kosovo to the community of nations.

Alright, let's take you away from that southern edge of Europe all the way down to South Asia where the Pakistan elections are now under way. Do you regard this and should it be regarded as a virtual referendum on the legitimacy of President Musharraf?

Well, it would be a better referendum if we could be confident that the votes were going to be counted accurately and that there hadn't been a very significant fix in even before the election started:here is no way this is going to be a free and fair election. If it was, all the signs are from the surveys that have been done by international bodies that the vote for the anti- Musharraf democratic parties  would be order of 65 per cent or more, reflecting the very, very low popularity that Musharraf now has, with Musharraf's own party probably getting no more than around14 per cent or so of the vote and the mullahs parties, the religious parties getting no more than perhaps another five per cent. The results when they come out, I suspect,are going to be rather different from that. But equally, it's going to be very hard for the fix to be in as much as Musharraf would like, because there's an awful lot of scrutiny going on. I suspect what we'll see is the democratic parties together forming something like a majority -I don't think they'll be able to stop that – but not a big enough majority to be able to reverse, unhappily, Musharraf's constitutional misadventures of the past few months.

You think despite the scrutiny some form of vote rigging is inevitable in this election?

Absolutely inevitable. Musharraf's supporters are very much in charge at all relevant levels of government, including now in the Electoral Commission which has been thoroughly discredited by recent events and also, of course, he's put to arrest - or to house arrest  - a number of key members of the judiciary and generally intimidated all the judicial apparatus of the country which oversees the electoral mechanism. When you put all those pieces together you can't possibly have anything that could be described as a free and fair election. We knew that before it started. But whatever happens today with the final count happening, what you can still have however – and it's not contradictory  -  is a credible election, if it produces a majority for Benazir Bhutto's party and Nawaz Sharif's party together to form a majority. It's very difficult to be confident about any prediction in this environment,  but I think it's likely they'll have so many votes that it will be impossible to deny them at least that. The problem is that they won't have enough votes probably for the two thirds majority they need,  as it's counted anyway, to be able to reverse the constitutional amendments that Musharraf forced upon Pakistan a few months ago to preserve his own position at the expense of the judiciary and to generally embed the sort of authoritarianism which so many people have come to detest in the way that Pakistan is now run.

And indeed beyond that they needed two thirds majority, the Opposition parties that is, to impeach him?

I don't think anyone's too interested in impeaching Musharraf, despite a lot of newspaper speculation to that effect. What they are interested in doing is putting together the two thirds majority in the Parliament needed to reverse those constitutional amendments which Musharraf put through in a very self serving way a few months ago to guarantee his own continuance in the role as President and to force out , effectively, the judiciary, and to reserve to him the capacity to  dissolve the Parliament and overturn the Government. It would be highly desirable, and quite likely if the votes were accurately counted, for there to be a two thirds majority to enable those constitutional outrages to be reversed. But, I for one, doubt very much that's going to happen. We've had people on the ground going around the polling booths today from our own International Crisis Group and they've reported that although  things are pretty calm, there's no sign of any domestic independent monitors, or international monitors,  in the booths in the Punjab they have visited. That's going to make it easy for there to be significant manipulation to get those numbers down.

How dangerous an election is this for countries like the United States and Australia, both of whom regarded Musharraf in a key ally in the war on terrorism, both of whom rely to a large degree of his control of the military or his previous control of the military to stop the flow of the Taliban from Pakistan into Afghanistan?

Supporting Musharraf on the principle of hanging onto nurse for fear of something worse has never been a very smart idea, and Musharraf's track record has been abominable in dealing with domestic extremism and cross border adventurismism, by the Taliban, the jihadis. He's not been effective on any of those fronts despite the attempts to shore him up by various Western supporters and, of course, he's been absolutely lamentable in his conduct of domestic politics in any way that's been respectful of democratic process. It is time for Musharraf to go. What we can simply hope for is that sufficient pressure will mount with the result of these elections, and with now a guy in charge of the army who does at least look to be a genuine professional, who would ideally like to keep the military out of politics. One must hope this combination of pressures, together with more objectivity and sanity on the part of his Western supporters, will create an environment over the next few months where it's simply impossible for Musharraf to hang on.

A final quick question, I can't let you go without asking, have you any interest at all now there's a Labor Government in place in returning to the service of the Australian Government?

No, not at all. I'm absolutely up to my eyeballs in Europe with the International Crisis Group. Sure, I'm talking to the Australian Government about a variety of issues and there may be things on which they had be interested in getting my advice or support. But let's just leave it at that. I've been around politics for 21 years, I was in government for 13 years. I have absolutely no intention or desire to foist myself again on the Australian public. There is a life after politics and I'm enjoying it.

We rather thought the life after politics in your case might include some ambassadorial role, maybe at the UN, you're well qualified for it at this point?

That's frankly no part of my thinking. I'm committed to sticking around the International Crisis Group for the foreseeable future and I think in that role there's lots of rather useful things I can hopefully do, with what is a very, very effective conflict prevention organisation. That doesn't mean that I don't have an enormous affection for this new Labor Government, which I think is going to make really quite extraordinarily useful waves again on the international scene in a positive way, including I hope in the particular area of nuclear disarmament and non proliferation where we really do have some value to add. But no, it's not part of my repertoire at the moment to think in those terms and I don't think it's part of anybody else's.

Gareth Evans, you may or may not be right about that last part. As always, good to talk to you. We thank you very much for joining us.

Thanks, Tony.

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.