27 Jun 2016

UN Just Delivers More of the Same Old Same Old

Written by  Adekeye Adebajo

No. 368: UN Just Delivers More of the Same Old Same Old / Adekeye Adebajo / Business Day
27 June 2016

Going back a decade to assess how the recommendations contained in two UN reports on global security have been implemented yields shockingly poor results.

In 2005, then UN secretary-general Kofi Annan presented a progress report entitled In Larger Freedom, which was preceded in 2004 by the UN High-Level Panel on Threats, Challenges, and Change.

However, many of the same security challenges the world faced then continue to confront the international system today.

Authored in the shadow of the September 2001 terrorist attacks on the US and its controversial invasion of Iraq two years later, Annan and the high-level panel advocated security approaches in key areas: prioritising "hard" (terrorism, and nuclear and biological weapons) and "soft" (poverty, diseases such as HIV/AIDS, environmental degradation and international organised crime) security threats; reforming the UN Secretariat and increasing representation on the 15-member UN Security Council; reforming the now 193-strong UN General Assembly and 54-member Economic and Social Council (Ecosoc); strengthening the UN's peacekeeping and peace-enforcement capacity and fostering greater collaboration between the UN and regional organisations; halting human rights abuses; and establishing a UN Human Rights Council and Peacebuilding Commission.

As the UN enters its seventh decade, its legitimacy and credibility has continued to be widely questioned: its security council remains stubbornly untransformed; the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) continue to ignore the growing economic power of China, India and Brazil in its weighted voting; Ecosoc remains ineffectual; the general assembly continues to be a "talking shop" and the secretariat remains stagnant, full of careerists protecting perks and privileges.

The UN development system struggles to shake off a reputation for acting like "lords of poverty" committed to bureaucratic inertia and allergic to innovation. The UN human rights system was criticised scathingly in a 2015 report on the abuses of children by French peacekeepers in the Central African Republic, for continually passing the buck and failing woefully in its dual mandate of reporting abuses and protecting vulnerable groups.

Very few of the recommendations of a decade ago appear to have been implemented: there remains no prioritising of hard or soft security issues; the security council's members' cynical approach of "selective" rather than collective security continues to dominate; antiterrorism efforts have failed to tackle the root causes of terrorism; and the UN Human Rights Council remains as politicised as its discredited predecessor.

In other areas, the picture is equally gloomy: more than 1-billion people still live on less than $1.25 a day; few rich countries are contributing 0.7% of gross national income to development assistance; HIV and AIDS continue to ravage 35-million people globally even as the Ebola and Zika viruses have exposed the failure to build effective national health systems; environmental degradation continues unabated in the form of climate change and desertification; the nuclear "haves" have failed to undertake genuine steps to dismantle their stocks, with future proliferation appearing a certainty; biological weapons have been used in Syria's civil war; and terrorism and transnational crime continue across borders, with the Islamic State able to strike at the heart of Europe. In the past decade, Africa has become a major theatre for terrorist groups, from the Sahel to Somalia.

Former UN secretary-general Boutros Boutros-Ghali's 1992 An Agenda for Peace remains indispensable to the post-Cold War security architecture 24 years later. However, many of the tools it called for — prevention, peacemaking, peacekeeping and peacebuilding — remain blunt.

Acting like an experimental guinea-pig that often fails to learn lessons, the UN appears to have rediscovered conflict prevention and continues to mouth the empty mantra that "prevention is better than cure", without taking any concrete steps to either strengthen its prevention capacity or put in the development resources required to prevent conflicts from reoccurring. Today, as a decade ago, 85% of UN peacekeepers are deployed in Africa. No effective division of labour has been established with regional bodies, and the underfunded Peacebuilding Commission continues to struggle amid bureaucratic rivalries.

Albert Einstein is often credited with having defined insanity as someone doing the same thing over and over again, hoping the result would be different. He may as well have been referring to the UN.

Dr Adebajo is executive director of the Centre for Conflict Resolution, Cape Town, and visiting professor at the University of Johannesburg

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