A United Nations Security Council debate can feel like traveling in an airplane at cruising altitude: a quick continental overflight in a rarefied atmosphere, far above the dirty reality of the conflict below. The debate can be driven by factors that may have little to do with what may be happening on the ground.
But from time to time, council members come back to earth and get dust on their shoes when they engage in road-trip diplomacy. In January members went to Burundi; this month they were in West Africa.
Peace and the United Nations go together; at least that’s what its founders intended. But in the meeting rooms of the organization’s New York headquarters, diplomats often argue over the buzzword vocabulary of compound words and phrases for advancing the U.N.’s peace mandate. They parse whether an operation is a special political mission or a peacekeeping mission. They worry that calling something a “peace operation” is too imprecise. When they cannot agree whether something should be peace building or “sustaining the peace,” they compromise by using both terms.
Prevention has long been a dirty word at the United Nations: Some member states equate it with interference, and the need for early warning that accompanies it with spying. But in a time of crisis, some think the time has come to reconsider what role the world body should play in stopping conflict before it happens.
The first time I heard the German word “zwangsoptimist” was in a meeting to discuss ways to improve how the international system functions. Meaning “someone who feels compelled to be an optimist,” the word not only succinctly sums up my work for and alongside the U.N. over the past 27 years, but could also be a one-word job description for the organization’s next secretary-general.
International conflict management is not necessarily a rewarding occupation for people who have neat and orderly minds. Well-made plans tend to fall apart in fast-moving crises. As I noted in a chapter in a book on the Security Council published earlier this year, the recent history of United Nations peace operations is basically a story of “one damn thing after another.” U.N.
Policy papers from the U.N. rarely make for scintillating reading. Last week, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon released “Uniting Our Strengths for Peace,” a new report by an expert panel on the future of peace operations.
Do peacekeepers do more harm than good? An appalling abuse scandal has come to overshadow the two parallel peace operations, led by France and the United Nations, currently based in the Central African Republic (CAR).