Past, Present, and Future of the United Nations Peacebuilding Architecture

There is broad agreement that the United Nations Peacebuilding Architecture (the “PBA”), including the Peacebuilding Commission (PBC) and the Peacebuilding Support Office (PBSO), has failed to live up to the high hopes that existed when it was established at the 2005 World Summit.

This is quite a damning indictment – the PBA was the last major institutional innovation at the UN in New York.

The initial strategic concept for the PBA was to bring coherence to a divided international system in countries emerging from conflict. But parallel attempts to reform the Security Council’s permanent membership in 2005 had failed, and the PBC quickly became a safety valve for international discontent. The bargains upon the founding of the PBA reflected these tensions. While officially serving as an advisory body to the Security Council and General Assembly, it had no independent authority or decision-making powers. Regardless, some countries, especially the emerging powers, saw the PBC as an opportunity to influence the Security Council and to recalibrate inequities in global governance. Permanent members of the Security Council on the other hand were uncomfortable with this potential “encroachment” into global peace and security policy, at least in geopolitically charged contexts.

Under-resourced and hamstrung by its weighty UN procedures, the PBC has struggled to carve out a niche for itself alongside countries, UN missions, and donors on the ground.

In this short paper, we briefly explore the factors that shaped the architecture positively and negatively, and whether there is political capital among countries to breathe renewed energy into efforts to improve international coherence in peacebuilding.

Countries are planning a review of the PBA in 2015. This will be an opportunity to do two things. First, the Commission itself is unique because it involves countries emerging from conflict, the rising powers, the Security Council’s permanent members and the donors from the West. The review is an opportunity for the full range of PBC members to put on the table what they can do better to help countries exiting conflict. In this regard, there are high hopes that some rising powers can breathe international impetus and fresh perspectives into the UN’s peacebuilding efforts, especially Brazil, whose Permanent Representative (and former Minister of External Relations) is currently chairing the PBC.

Second, the review will be an opportunity for a cross-section of countries to think about the state of the UN system’s peacebuilding efforts, and how the UN needs to evolve into the future. The PBA is not the only challenged culprit in the UN’s peace and security architecture. A multiplicity of institutional mandates, functions, and departments have mushroomed over the last twenty years, across the UN’s Departments of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO), Political Affairs (DPA), Field Support (DFS), the UN Development Programme (UNDP) and beyond. There is a strong case for reviewing the sum total of the UN’s multiple peace and security institutions, mandates, funds, missions, and offices. Such a review can only be steered to conclusion and implementation by a UN Secretary-General, and the last two years of Ban Ki-moon’s term is unlikely to be the appropriate timing. But the 2015 review of the PBA does offer participants an opportunity to contribute to shaping the bigger debate about the future.

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May 08, 2014
Sarah Hearn