Priorities for the UN’s New Agenda for Peace
Priorities for the UN’s New Agenda for Peace
Soldiers of Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) take part in a joint multinational U.N. peacekeeping military exercise with troops from Pakistan, Mongolia and Thailand, on the outskirts of Zhumadian, Henan province, China September 15, 2021. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins
Speech / Global 5 minutes

Priorities for the UN’s New Agenda for Peace

At a 4 August event in New York on implementation of the UN secretary-general’s report “Our Common Agenda”, Crisis Group’s Richard Gowan spoke about proposals for a “New Agenda for Peace” to guide the UN system’s work on peace and security.

These are the Crisis Group talking points prepared for the event. A full recording is available here

My focus today will be on Our Common Agenda’s call for a “New Agenda for Peace”. Crisis Group supports the secretary-general’s call for “a new effort to agree on more collective security responses and a meaningful set of steps to manage emerging risks”. Let me set out five reasons why Crisis Group supports this initiative, and six things that we would like to see included in the New Agenda for Peace.


Reasons for a New Agenda for Peace

  • We live in a dangerous world. As the Uppsala Conflict Data Program reports, 119,000 people were killed in organised violence in 2021 – 46 per cent more than in 2020. This rise in fatalities was driven by the wars in Afghanistan, Ethiopia and Yemen. Now we are seeing the return of “industrial-scale” warfare in Ukraine, claiming tens of thousands of lives and displacing millions.
  • The sources of instability are ever more complex and interdependent. In an increasingly interdependent world, unexpected shocks in one region can cause cascades of crises far away. Russia’s assault on Ukraine has caused food and energy price shocks that – combined with the effects of COVID-19 – threaten to create social and political unrest in parts of the world far beyond Eastern Europe. We need to think about how we can work together to manage such chains of shocks, and how to draw lessons from efforts like the recent Black Sea Initiative to facilitate Ukraine’s grain exports, which aims to mitigate the global impact of Russia’s war.
  • The climate crisis is a security crisis. Although it remains a topic of debate at the UN, Crisis Group is convinced that climate change is exacerbating conflicts in many regions and at many levels. Worsening phenomena such as unpredictable weather patterns and droughts are increasing human suffering in regions such as the Sahel, the Horn of Africa and the Pacific. Climate change is making the UN’s day-to-day work harder in countries like South Sudan, where UN peacekeepers have to deal with climate-induced displacement.
  • Our existing collective security mechanisms are under strain: Many of the agreements and crisis management tools that the UN and other organisations developed over decades are facing severe challenges. The agreements built up to stem the spread and use of nuclear weapons – rooted in the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons – are looking increasingly weak, with potentially catastrophic consequences in regions including Europe, the Middle East and Asia. But if we switch focus from the global level to local conflicts in countries such as Mali and the Democratic Republic of Congo, we also see that UN peacekeeping – historically a successful conflict management tool – is struggling.
  • New domains of conflict are opening up, and new tools emerging, and we do not have strong sets of rules to govern them. The international information space – including social media – is now routinely weaponised by actors in large and small conflicts alike. Drones, which seemed to be the preserve of a few big states just a decade or so ago, are now ubiquitous in conflicts from the Horn of Africa to the Caucasus. We do not have the “rules of the road” we need to govern the uses of artificial intelligence, killer robots and other new technologies.


What should the New Agenda for Peace prioritise?

The New Agenda for Peace obviously faces a daunting range of issues to cover. Here are six ideas that my colleagues and I at Crisis Group believe should be priorities – obviously, these are only a selection of potential issues to focus on.

  • A clear reckoning of today’s “strategic risks”: The General Assembly has indicated that the Agenda should highlight ways to limit “strategic risks”. The Agenda should set out a clear reckoning of both “traditional” strategic risks (especially the threats associated with nuclear weapons) but also a broader category of risks – many of which disproportionately threaten many countries and people in the Global South – including the effects of climate change and severe economic disruption.
  • An ambitious statement for the UN’s role in arms control and disarmament: As an example of the need to address all types of risks, we would suggest that the New Agenda 1) address how the UN can help revitalise strategic arms control diplomacy, by using its convening and norm-shaping powers; 2) offer a related vision for the UN’s role in addressing the role of new technology in conflict; but also 3) put forward ideas about how to stem the proliferation of small arms – and their use by gangs and militias – that has a particularly high cost in terms of lives in regions such as Central and South America.
  • A particular focus on the security implications of climate change: In 2021, 113 UN member states backed Niger and Ireland’s Security Council resolution calling for better data and analysis from the UN on the security implications of climate change. That resolution failed, but the New Agenda is an opportunity for the secretary-general to lay out how the UN system can respond to the overall demand for more information and action on this threat.
  • A restatement of the value of – and limitations to – the UN’s preventive, peacekeeping and peacebuilding capacities. The secretary-general should use the New Agenda to discuss how the UN can use its diplomatic tools to address evolving threats – and to innovate on issues like the Black Sea grain deal – while also being frank about challenges to UN peace operations, mediation and other tools.
  • A rebooted push for all UN work to account for gender vulnerabilities in conflict: The General Assembly recognised that the New Agenda for Peace must address the mounting threats to the well-being and security of women and girls. This is crucial but complicated. Threats to women and girls in conflict-affected areas are rising – from increased maternal mortality in Afghanistan to sexual violence and exploitation in Ukraine’s displacement crisis – while populist and authoritarian political movements are explicitly hostile to gender equality. We need to identify new approaches to addressing gender in conflict that include both longstanding priorities, such as involving women in peace processes, but also these new challenges.
  • A strong UN agenda for boosting “regional prevention”: The General Assembly has encouraged the UN to focus on regional prevention in the New Agenda. The UN has developed strong relationships with regional partners, most obviously the African Union (AU). But in some regions, such credible institutional partners are lacking, and we should think creatively about what regional prevention means in such cases. We believe that this is an opportunity to propose 1) new ideas for boosting the UN-AU relationship (especially around funding for AU operations) but also to lay out ideas for 2) how the UN can support basic security and other confidence-building measures in regions like the Middle East.

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