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The Responsibility to Protect in Environmental Emergencies
The Responsibility to Protect in Environmental Emergencies
Three Troubling Trends at the UN Security Council
Three Troubling Trends at the UN Security Council
Speech / Global

The Responsibility to Protect in Environmental Emergencies

Presentation by Gareth Evans, President, International Crisis Group, to American Society of International Law (ASIL) 103rd Annual Meeting, Washington DC, 26 March 2009.

Why and How the Responsibility to Protect Norm Evolved

The responsibility to protect norm evolved in a very specific context, to meet a very specific need. And that was the absence of any international consensus as to how to respond to mass atrocity crimes occurring within the boundaries of a single state. The imperative driving its initiators and advocates was to ensure that whatever other problems the international community failed to resolve, we would never again have to look back - after a Cambodia, a Rwanda, or a Srebrenica - asking ourselves with a mix of anger, incomprehension and shame how we could possibly have let such catastrophes happen again. The hope was that a way could be found to ensure that whenever one of these kinds of situations again erupted, or looked like erupting, there would be a reflex international reaction: not that this was nobody's business, but that it was everybody's, with the only issue being not whether, but how, to respond.

Such a hope was pushing hard against history. For centuries what we would now call genocide, crimes against humanity or war crimes committed in a civil war context were, with only a handful of exceptions, greeted with profound indifference by all but their victims. Even after the Holocaust, the Universal Declaration, the Nuremberg Charter and the Genocide Convention, the norm that had most resonance in the Cold War years was that embodied in Article 2 (7) of the UN Charter, requiring 'non-interference' in 'matters essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state'. And even with the sequence of catastrophes that unfolded in Somalia, Rwanda and the Balkans throughout the 1990s, there was a huge continuing rhetorical and policy divide between advocates, mostly in the global North of Bernard Kouchner's 'droit d'ingerence', or 'right of humanitarian intervention' and those, mostly in the global South, who regarded the acceptance of any such general principle as a wholly unacceptable assault on state sovereignty.

The move to bridge that divide, to create a consensus where none previously existed, came with the 2001 report of the Canadian-government sponsored report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty. We proposed that 'right to intervene' language be reconceptualised as the 'responsibility to protect'; that this responsibility be exercised in the first instance by individual sovereign states in relation to their own peoples, with the wider international community's responsibility only arising if they were unable or unwilling to do so; that the responsibility should involve a whole continuum of responses  from prevention, through reaction, to post-crisis rebuilding; and that coercive military intervention be de-emphasised  --  as just one among many possible reactive responses, only to be used in extreme situations after multiple prudential criteria had been satisfied.

Within just four years, an extraordinarily short time frame given how long it usually takes new norms of international behaviour to move from initial articulation to formal institutional embrace, the responsibility to protect principle was embraced unanimously by more than 150 heads of state and government attending the 2005 World Summit and sitting as the UN General Assembly. The language of paras 138 and 139 is clear and compelling, and - although in some respects a little different from the original Commission - embraces all its key elements. The focus is on four specific categories of atrocity crime - genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity - and what have since been described as three 'pillars' of action: the first is the responsibility of individual sovereign states to protect their people from such crimes, the second it that of other states to assist them to do so, and the third is the responsibility of states to take appropriate collective action - including as necessary forcible action under Chapter VII of the Charter when a state is 'manifestly failing' to fulfil its own responsibility.

Since 2005, the new norm has been gradually gaining traction, most obviously, and effectively, in the strong and united international reaction - in marked contrast to the reaction to Rwanda in 1994 - in response to the explosion of ethnic violence in Kenya in the last days of 2007 and first days of 2008, which was very widely described as a responsibility to protect case, and which was defused by diplomatic mediation rather than coercive force, demonstrating that the norm was not just about 'sending in the Marines'. But in Darfur and other cases the international response has been manifestly inadequate, and much obviously remains to be done to meet the institutional and political challenges of ensuring that there is both capacity and will to respond appropriately at all stages to emerging situations of responsibility to protect concern.

A good deal also remains to be done, not least in the corridors and chambers of the United Nations itself, to ensure that the norm itself continues to enjoy the kind of unanimous support its articulation received in 2005. A number of states have subsequently expressed what has been described as 'buyers' remorse' for their earlier vote, and there has been some anxiety that, in the context of a forthcoming debate in the General Assembly on the subject - around the Secretary General's report drafted by his Special Adviser Edward Luck - there would be a move to reopen and dilute the language of 2005, rather than focusing on practical measures to ensure the more effective implementation of the principle in the future.

I believe these concerns are somewhat overstated, but they nonetheless point to the very real necessity for advocates and supporters of the responsibility to protect to be very clear about the scope and limits of the norm, and not to take positions in relation to it which would have the effect of significantly reducing either its attractiveness in principle or its capacity to be operationalised.

The Responsibility to Protect and Environmental Emergencies

It is from this perspective that I would strongly argue that we need to be very careful indeed about even floating the idea of extending the reach of the responsibility to protect to environmental emergencies. Of course one can can argue, as a matter of ordinary English language useage, and as a matter of good public policy, that the international community has a responsibility to protect people from natural disasters and environmental catastrophes as much as any other kind of actual or potential catastrophe. And one might mention as well, in this context, protection from the ravages of HIV/AIDS worldwide; the proliferation of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction; the ready availability of small arms and the use of land mines and cluster bombs. But if one is looking for umbrella language to bring these issues and themes together, it is much more appropriate to use a concept like "human security" than to say these are proper applications of the new international norm of "the responsibility to protect."

It is not just a matter here of making the formal point that these cases are clearly not intended to be subsumed under the various descriptions of mass atrocity crimes that appear in the World Summit outcome document and the relevant lead-up reports. The argument is a more practical one: if R2P is to be about protecting, as the former Canadian Foreign Minister not so long ago suggested, the Inuit people of the Arctic Circle from the ravages of climate change  --  if it is be about protecting everybody from everything -- it will end up protecting nobody from anything. The whole point of embracing the new language of "the responsibility to protect" is that it is capable of generating an effective, consensual response to extreme, conscience-shocking cases in a way that "right to intervene" language simply could not. We need to preserve the focus and bite of "the responsibility to protect" as a rallying cry in the face of mass atrocities.

A further problem with stretching the R2P concept to embrace what might be described as the whole human security agenda is that this immediately raises the hackles of those who see it as the thin end of a totally interventionist wedge-as giving an open invitation for the countries of the North to engage to their hearts' content in the missions civilisatrices that so understandably anger those in the global South, who have experienced it all before. That trouble is compounded when it is remembered that coercive military intervention, while absolutely not at the heart of the R2P concept, is nonetheless a reactive response that cannot be excluded in really extreme cases. So any understanding of R2P as a very broad-based doctrine, which would open up at least the possibility of military action in a whole variety of policy contexts, is bound to give the concept a bad name.

This issue was thrown into stark relief by the dilemma facing the international community when, in May 2008, the ruling military regime of Burma/Myanmar dragged its feet badly in responding to offers of international aid following the catastrophic Cyclone Nargis with its tidal surge that devastated the Irrawaddy delta, directly killing over 130,000 people and putting scores of thousands more at risk from disease, starvation and exposure. Was this, or was it not, an R2P case of a kind that would conceivably justify coercive military intervention for the explicit purpose of delivering the necessary aid? The short answer is that natural disasters, as such, are not R2P situations, but they can be if mass atrocity crimes are also involved, and while this could have been the case here - and the issue certainly deserved close scrutiny - in the event it was not.

The Myanmar case is worth teasing out in a little more detail. When French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner made an initial statement arguing that the generals' dilatory response justified coercive intervention under the "responsibility to protect" principle, and proposed that the Security Council pass a resolution which "authorises the delivery and imposes this on the Burmese government", he generated a storm of controversy. This was partly because of a fear that this threat would be counterproductive in winning any still-possible cooperation from the generals, but more because it was seen as realising the worst anxieties of R2P opponents, opening up the spectre of military intervention on a human security issue - here  natural disaster relief --  not related to mass atrocity crimes.

But what if man-made mass atrocity crimes were also involved, and Kouchner had put the argument expressly in these terms (as he and others in fact later did)? What if the Burmese military regime's inaction, and resistance to any external help notwithstanding its immediate availability in large quantities, had - instead of giving way to eventual significant cooperation - continued to the point that large numbers of people were actually suffering and beginning to die in significant numbers? Would it not be possible to argue in these circumstances that, by omission if not by act, the regime was in fact committing crimes against humanity?

The definition of crimes against humanity (in the Rome Statute establishing the International Criminal Court , as well as in customary international law) embraces, along with widespread or systematic murder, torture, persecution and the like, "other inhumane acts of a similar character intentionally causing great suffering, or serious injury to body or to mental or physical health." Also potentially applicable in the Myanmar case was the international crime of "extermination", defined in the Rome Statute as including "intentional infliction of conditions of life, inter alia the deprivation of access to food and medicine, calculated to bring about the destruction of part of a population".

The most problematic aspect of applying all this language to the Myanmar case might appear to be the "intentionality" requirement - given that what would most likely have been in issue here was not so much direct intention to cause suffering and death, but reckless indifference as to whether such harm occurred. But in fact the Rome Statute defines a person has having intent where "in relation to a consequence, the person means to cause that consequence, or is aware that it will occur in the ordinary course of events" - a formulation apparently broad enough to encompass common law notions of recklessness, eg, Glanville Williams ("the state of mind of one who knows that a consequence is likely to follow from his conduct but follows his course notwithstanding") or to similar effect in the U.S. Model Penal Code.

Of course, even if a prima facie case could have been made for the commission by the regime of one or other mass atrocity crime, that would not have been, in itself, enough to justify a coercive military intervention under responsibility to protect principles: the UN language contemplates the use of coercive military force only with Security Council endorsement, and all the R2P traveaux preparatoires, from the ICISS report to the High Level Panel and Secretary-General's Reports, insist that such force should only be applied as a last resort, after prevention has failed, when it is clear that no less extreme form of reaction could possibly halt or avert the harm in question, that the response is proportional to that harm, and that on balance more good than damage will be done by the intervention. Even if the military intervention here had taken the form only of helicopter air drops and boat landings of supplies, it may have been practically ineffective, in the absence of a supporting relief operation on the ground, and - by generating a response from the Burmese military - may have ignited a full-blown conflict that, quite apart from its other impacts, could only have added further to the misery of the cyclone victims.

In the event the feared post-cyclone disaster was avoided: enough assistance was delivered by local nongovernmental organizations, foreign relief organizations with personnel already in-country, the military itself, and external relief organizations it finally allowed - mainly through Asian intermediaries - to deliver substantial supplies. While the affair overall was not very helpful in the short term in consolidating support for the responsibility to protect norm, at least it generated a serious international debate about R2P that appears to have advanced, if only a little, international understanding of the scope and limits of the norm along the lines here suggested.  And it is fair to say that if an environmental emergency in the future raised the same sorts of concerns about the inadequacy of a government response being on such a scale that it could be characterised as involving the reckless infliction of great suffering, the R2P argument would be very relevant indeed.

Of course, it remains always very tempting to broaden R2P's application beyond the actual or feared commission of mass atrocity crimes: it is the case that issues of civilian protection (from loss of life, injury, economic loss, and assaults on human dignity) are always involved in any deadly conflict, whatever its cause and whatever its scale, and in any significant human rights violation. And, of course, it is true that some full-fledged R2P mass atrocity situations evolve out of less extreme human rights violations, or out of general conflict environments.

At a more general level, it has recently been argued, with some persuasiveness, by Lloyd Axworthy and Alan Rock that when R2P is 'unbundled' into its 'foundational principles' then these "can be applied to other problems that engage humanity as a whole." The principles in question are "the continued recognition of the primacy of the sovereign state as the 'first responder'; the duty of the international community to support the state in meeting that responsibility; and the refusal of the international community in areas of global priority to accept the single state's failure or refusal to act as the last word". The authors acknowledge in a footnote that "R2P itself" is uniquely applicable to mass atrocity crimes, not such a wider array of problems, and that it would in fact be "damaging to R2P itself" to so apply it - but this message is rather diluted by the overall thrust of their article, reflected in its title R2P: A New and Unfinished Agenda, and by the devotion of several pages of argument to climate change as a key exemplar of that new agenda.

My bottom line, again, is simply that any widening of the application of R2P terminology, expressly or by implication, beyond its core business of addressing mass atrocity crimes is dangerous from the perspective of undermining R2P's utility as a rallying cry. If anything else is bundled under the R2P banner - be it conflict generally, human rights generally, human security generally, environmental emergencies specifically, or anything else -- we run a serious risk of diluting its capacity to mobilize international consensus in the cases where it is really needed. And that would be very bad news.

New U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Kelly Craft casts a vote during her first U.N. Security Council meeting at U.N. headquarters in New York, U.S., 12 September 2019. REUTERS/Mike Segar
Commentary / Global

Three Troubling Trends at the UN Security Council

China and the West are increasingly at loggerheads in Turtle Bay. So are European capitals and Washington. The handling of African crises is contentious as well. Amid these frictions, it is the job of UN diplomats to keep channels for quiet communication up and running.

Security Council diplomats have a chance to engage in some self-criticism this week. On Thursday and Friday, representatives of the Council’s current members will attend a workshop with their counterparts from the five elected members joining it in 2020 (Estonia, Niger, Tunisia, Vietnam, and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines). This event, convened by Finland, is one of two annual opportunities for Council insiders to discuss their collective efforts – the other, a retreat with the Secretary-General, took place in May – and their talks can be quite frank.

According to a detailed summary of last year’s workshop, “a participant lamented that there was a prevailing image of the Security Council as an organ that was becoming less effective and less influential over time”.

Similar laments are likely to be heard this year. As Crisis Group noted in a late April briefing – published on the eve of the Secretary-General’s retreat – the Council stumbled badly in the first months of 2019. Its members “sparred bitterly over Venezuela, struggled to sustain the Yemeni peace process, and failed to come to common positions on events in Sudan and Libya”. A good six months later, this diagnosis largely holds. The Council has not discussed Venezuela at all since May (even members that want it to do more think the crisis is too polarising) and found it hard to respond to fresh outbreaks of violence in Yemen. It has done little to stop the ongoing fighting in Libya and – other than agreeing to keep UN peacekeepers in Darfur – made a scant contribution to Sudan’s political transition. It has responded indecisively to other challenges, including the Kashmir crisis and Turkey’s incursion into Syria.

Many commentators only notice the Council when diplomacy breaks down and one or more permanent members resort to a veto.

Many commentators only notice the Council when diplomacy breaks down and one or more permanent members resort to a veto. By this metric, 2019 has not been especially dramatic so far. China and Russia jointly vetoed two Western-backed resolutions – one in February calling for new elections in Venezuela and another in September demanding a ceasefire in north-western Syria – which is roughly in line with the numbers from recent years. But it is a mistake to focus on vetoes as the sole, or even the most telling, indicator of Council dysfunction.

Analysing the UN at close quarters, three subtle but troubling trends are noticeable since April. The first is a gradual but significant souring of relations between China and the Council’s Western members. The second is the deepening of divisions between the U.S. and its European allies about the forum’s role in responding to trouble spots such as Syria and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). The third is the growth of disputes over how the Council deals with crises in Africa – which have created divisions both between African and non-African diplomats and also among African officials themselves – which Crisis Group covered in a report in June. As senior diplomats gather for this week’s workshop, it is worth assessing these three trends.

Worsening Western Tensions with China

The potentially most significant of these shifts concerns the West’s relationship with China. While Beijing has been gaining influence across the UN system in recent years, causing concern in U.S. policy circles, China has usually been more cautious in the Security Council than in other multilateral forums. Western members have generally reciprocated by steering clear of friction with the Chinese in all but a handful of matters. Even on a divisive Asian issue such as the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar, the Europeans and U.S. have refrained from forcing China into vetoing resolutions attacking the government in Naypyidaw, in contrast to their recurrent public fights with Russia over Syria. In our April briefing we characterised Western diplomats’ attitude toward China in the Council as “mutual accommodation”.

While Beijing has been gaining influence across the UN system in recent years, [...] China has usually been more cautious in the Security Council than in other multilateral forums.

This year, however, Western diplomats have edged toward a harder line with China in the Council – and the Chinese have in turn become more assertive. This trend is symptomatic of a broader deterioration in relations between China, on the one hand, and the U.S. and most Europeans, on the other, driven by differences over trade, technological competition and the balance of power in the Asia-Pacific. The Security Council is, at most, tangentially relevant to most of these tensions. But it is a platform for each side to take relatively low-risk potshots at the other’s policies.

The situations in China’s Xinjiang region and Kashmir have been the main points of Sino-Western friction in the Council. From early in the year, senior Western diplomats in New York have worried about how to broach the subject of Beijing’s incarceration of one million Uighurs in Xinjiang. In July, the U.S. and Germany raised the issue in a “heated” closed Council session. Shortly afterward, 22 nations – including all the Western European members of the Security Council – signed a letter to the president of the Geneva-based Human Rights Council delineating their concerns. The U.S., having pulled out of the Human Rights Council in 2018, was not a signatory, but it backed a similar declaration at the General Assembly last month. This campaign of criticism through the UN has inevitably riled the Chinese, who mustered 37 supporters to sign a counter-letter to the Human Rights Council endorsing China’s response to “the grave challenges of terrorism and extremism” in Xinjiang.

Talks on Afghanistan have also highlighted Western tensions with China, which threatened to veto a routine resolution renewing the mandate of the long-running UN Assistance Mission (UNAMA) in Kabul this September. The immediate reason was that the text did not include positive language on the regional impact of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative. Earlier UNAMA mandates included such language, but the U.S. insisted that it be removed during negotiations in March of this year. While China stepped back from using its veto – accepting a compromise formula praising “connectivity” in Central Asia – many diplomats were surprised that Beijing would engage in such a public spat over a textual issue like this.

It now seems possible that growing geopolitical rifts with Beijing could severely complicate relations at the UN in the future, independent of Russia.

China showed its assertive side again in the Council in August by demanding a closed meeting on India’s decision to strip Kashmir of statehood and launch a major security operation there. This discussion – the Council’s first on Kashmir since 1971 – set the Chinese, who strongly backed Pakistani criticisms of Indian policy, against both the U.S. and Russia, which staunchly supported New Delhi. That the meeting took place at all was widely interpreted as a win for Pakistan, but it did India no real harm, as most participants including the Europeans and U.S. signalled opposition to pursuing the topic. Perhaps of more lasting significance was China’s willingness to push for the meeting, signalling that it may be willing to risk more public fights at the UN in the future, in contrast to its previous cautious posture.

Limited diplomatic sparring is hardly unusual in UN diplomacy. But this year’s frictions could well foreshadow more fundamental clashes to come. Some Western diplomats have long nurtured a hope that they can persuade China to establish a closer partnership in the Security Council, and in particular to break with Russia in UN debates on crises like Syria. It now seems possible that growing geopolitical rifts with Beijing could severely complicate relations at the UN in the future, independent of Russia.

Diverging American and European Strategies

If U.S. and European diplomats may be broadly united in their growing suspicion of China, their UN strategies have diverged markedly on other major challenges. In our April briefing, we warned that “the Western group is splintering in the Security Council”, citing examples including Washington’s refusal to back a British resolution calling for a ceasefire in Libya in April and Franco-American differences over whether the UN should fund African-led counter-terrorist operations in the Sahel. U.S. and European diplomats managed to limit the fallout – Washington and Paris have buried their differences over the Sahel in a series of delicately worded resolutions – but their attitudes to the Council continue to drift apart.

One indicator of this trend has been a tendency of European Security Council members, and in particular the E3 of Britain, France and two-year member Germany (which will be on the Council until the end of 2020), to take strong public stances in cases where the U.S. is unconvinced of the value of UN action.

This trend has been most notable with regard to the Korean peninsula, a trouble spot where the E3 have generally deferred to the Americans and Chinese. That changed this summer, however, after Pyongyang launched a series of missile tests breaching UN resolutions. The U.S., hoping to keep bilateral diplomacy with the DPRK alive despite the failure of the Hanoi summit between President Donald Trump and Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un, has refrained from calling Council meetings on these provocations. By contrast, the E3 have insisted on calling meetings after missile launches in both August and October as a way of reiterating the UN’s relevance. The U.S. has not tried to block these discussions, but has signalled its lack of enthusiasm for them. The new U.S. Permanent Representative Kelly Craft, who has won credit for attending an unusually high number of routine meetings for a U.S. ambassador, skipped October’s closed consultations on the DPRK.

Events in Syria have more acutely highlighted the Trump administration’s differences with its European allies on when and how to harness the Council.

European diplomats posit that their perseverance with such meetings may help Washington, as the U.S. can tell Pyongyang that it is protecting it from Security Council pressure, and in return ask for more cooperation in bilateral diplomacy. From a U.S. perspective, however, these discussions appear largely superfluous as China and Russia are firmly opposed to any new UN sanctions or even firmly worded statements on the topic. The E3 and U.S. differences in approach are in some respects largely tactical in nature. Both agree on the continued importance of UN sanctions on the DPRK (although some E3 diplomats fret that Washington could trade these away for limited North Korean nuclear concessions in the year ahead). Yet they also reflect a more basic divide over the value – or inutility – of high-profile Security Council engagement in crisis diplomacy.

Events in Syria have more acutely highlighted the Trump administration’s differences with its European allies on when and how to harness the Council. Although the U.S. and European allies jointly backed a resolution calling for a ceasefire in the rebel-held enclave of Idlib this September – leading to the second joint Sino-Russian veto of the year – Turkey’s incursion into the Kurdish-held north east left them divided. When the E3, Belgium and Poland jointly tabled a statement in mid-October calling for a ceasefire, the U.S. struggled over how to respond – likely reflecting policy confusion in Washington, which shifted from greenlighting the incursion to applying sanctions in protest. Unusually, the U.S. joined Russia in refusing to back the European text. (Security Council statements, unlike resolutions, require consensus support.) Although the Council managed to put out a two-line statement expressing concern over the situation – and Ambassador Craft unilaterally called for a ceasefire after public criticism for apparently siding with Moscow against U.S. allies – the lack of Western unity was striking.

While European officials continue to see the Council as the premier global forum for resolving peace and security issues, senior Trump administration officials [...] take a far more jaundiced view.

While European officials continue to see the Council as the premier global forum for resolving peace and security issues, senior Trump administration officials, including President Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, take a far more jaundiced view. That scepticism has not diminished even after the departure of former National Security Advisor and long-time UN critic John Bolton. Although the U.S. has used the Council as a forum for calling out Iran –Pompeo visited Turtle Bay in August to protest Tehran’s behaviour in the Gulf – this tends to come off chiefly as posturing and ultimately accentuates the divide between Washington and Europe over the Iran nuclear deal. Indeed, European ambassadors responded to Pompeo’s August presentation by unanimously asserting the need to save the accord.

The current E3 will not necessarily remain a united front at the UN. Many European diplomats suspect that Britain will drift away from France and Germany if and when Brexit eventually happens. And Berlin’s voice in New York will shrink once its Council term ends. But even so, the differences that separate European Council members will likely remain minor compared to those that separate Europe from the U.S. As such, Washington and its European allies’ diverging views on how to use the Council are liable to be a recurring source of frustration at least as long as the Trump administration is in office, as the Europeans insist on the continuing relevance of the UN and the U.S. goes its own way.

Tensions over African Crises and UN-AU Relations

While the European members of the Security Council have coordinated closely in 2019, the three African members of the body (Côte d’Ivoire, Equatorial Guinea and South Africa, or the A3) have also seemed keen to stake out stronger common positions on behalf of their continent. South Africa, in particular, has worked hard to ensure A3 unity and promote positions of the African Union’s (AU) Peace and Security Council (PSC) in New York. As we noted in a report in June, however, this has created complications in both the UN and AU, as the Security Council has resisted the A3’s efforts to assert itself with respect to crisis management on the continent, and the A3 have struggled to coordinate with the PSC in Addis Ababa.

The limits of A3 influence were especially obvious over Sudan.

Both these problems were clearly illustrated in the last six months. The limits of A3 influence were especially obvious over Sudan. After Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir’s ouster in the spring, the A3 urged the Security Council to back firm AU calls for a transition to civilian rule. Russia and China, which have close ties to the Sudanese armed forces, objected. Angered by this posture, and seemingly surprised by China’s lack of deference to the continent’s views, the A3 issued joint statements backing the AU position and implicitly criticising the Security Council’s inaction. These are an innovation, and a step toward more coordinated African diplomacy in the Council, even though they have not changed China’s and Russia’s stances.

South Africa has also found itself in an unexpected dispute with the AU PSC, ironically over an initiative to strengthen AU peace operations. For over a decade, AU members have argued that the UN should fund African-led military operations in addition to UN-led forces. Ethiopia, South Africa’s predecessor in the A3, attempted to push through a resolution affirming this goal in late 2018, but the U.S. objected for a mix of financial and technical reasons. This episode led to widespread ill-feeling among American and A3 officials. South Africa sought to resolve the problem this summer by holding quiet A3-U.S. talks on how to find a way forward.

Both sides felt that, although far from decisive, these discussions were constructive and held in good faith. South Africa tabled a new resolution on the topic in early September. Yet while Western diplomats felt that the draft was a fair basis for negotiations, PSC members complained that they had not been sufficiently consulted on the text, and warned that it could place unacceptable constraints on AU decision-making in future peace operations. On 19 September, to the extreme frustration of the South Africans, the PSC sent a letter to the A3 demanding that negotiations on the text cease. (Crisis Group will publish a fuller briefing on the practical and political obstacles to UN financing for AU operations in the near future.)

While it is hard for the AU to launch any large-scale peace operations without direct or indirect UN support, African leaders and mediators are increasingly liable to find ways to work around the Security Council.

These have not been the only sources of AU-UN tensions in the last six months. The Security Council has, for example, rejected PSC calls for the appointment of a joint AU-UN envoy to Libya. In many crisis situations, such frictions raise the day-to-day transaction costs of crisis management in Africa, as the two organisations bicker over their mandates and strategies in the absence of top-level coherence. And, while it is hard for the AU to launch any large-scale peace operations without direct or indirect UN support, African leaders and mediators are increasingly liable to find ways to work around the Security Council in situations – like the political transition in Khartoum – where there is no need for peacekeepers to create stability.

Quiet Diplomacy to De-escalate Council Tensions?

The evolving tensions described above have contributed to an overall decline in the quality of Security Council diplomacy. As Council members increasingly struggle to find common ground on how to handle crises, they resort to public statements and symbolic meetings to publicise their differences. Diplomats who have returned to Turtle Bay after serving in the Council earlier in the post-Cold War period frequently comment on how there are fewer substantive negotiations than in their prior postings. Even representatives of countries outside the Council – who have traditionally argued that the body should be more transparent – fret that the Council is devoting too much time to public meetings and too little to genuine exchanges of views in closed consultations.

The sheer number of disputes that continue to emerge around the Council underline [...] a broader downward trend in international cooperation.

At the Council’s May retreat with the Secretary-General, British Permanent Representative Karen Pierce suggested that she and her fellow ambassadors hold more informal meetings – without set agendas or records – to discuss how to manage their differences. This proposal was well received, and there have been at least three “Pierce formula” meetings over the last six months.

But even if these off-the-record conversations are doing some good – and it seems too soon to tell – the sheer number of disputes that continue to emerge around the Council underline that its problems are not merely a matter of diplomatic process or craft. They are more fundamentally, as we argued in April, symptoms of a broader downward trend in international cooperation. Western diplomats’ confrontations with their Chinese counterparts in New York are products of deeper frictions with Beijing, European-American differences reflect widening transatlantic differences over the worth of multilateralism, and AU-UN tensions reflect African powers’ longstanding desire to gain a greater say over their regional security.

If Council members can consult and solve problems quietly, they may mitigate some of the consequences of these overarching tensions. They cannot, however, remove the sources of those tensions from Turtle Bay. The incoming members of the Security Council should prepare for a rough ride. As we have argued elsewhere, there are still occasional opportunities for the UN to help resolve conflicts despite its strategic torpor. It is the job of New York-based diplomats to keep channels for communication on those opportunities alive during long periods of diplomatic frustration.