Considerable restructuring of the peacekeeping, political affairs and peace-building departments of the United Nations is being proposed by Secretary-General António Guterres as he continues to embark on reforming the world body, which contends with increasingly complex crises and conflicts each year.
In a 16-page document obtained by PassBlue and to be submitted soon to the UN’s 193 member states for review, Guterres, who is less than a year into his five-year term, proposes to redo what he calls the “peace and security pillar” of the UN Secretariat, the heart and soul of the institution, taking a finance-neutral approach.
His plan was firmed up just as he traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet with Donald Trump on Oct. 20. Guterres’s spokesman said the discussions at the White House would center on UN reform, with no readout provided when this article was published.
Trump’s brief comments to the press with Guterres at the White House at noontime, however, couldn’t have been more soothing to a secretary-general who is under huge pressure to please the businessman-cum-president.
“You have done a very, very spectacular job at the United Nations,” Trump opened. “And I can tell you, speaking for the United States, we appreciate it.”
To which Guterres responded: “I must say that I’m extremely grateful, first of all, for the support that you have given us in relation to our reform process, coming to the General Assembly.”
It is a timely visit for Guterres to seek America’s approval of his reform package as the White House and Congress decide on budgets that encompass dues paid to the UN. Guterres has also asked the UN Security Council this week to approve 900 more peacekeeping troops to send to the Central African Republic mission, so that topic may have surfaced, too, with the president.
The current United States administration has been hell-bent on cutting UN peace operations to reduce America’s contributions to 25 percent of the UN peacekeeping budget, down from 28 percent.
Guterres’s reform plan involves the most important bodies in the UN: the Department of Political Affairs and the Department of Peacekeeping Operations, as well as a lesser body, the Peacebuilding Support Office. In Guterres’s vision, two new entities would combine the work of the three offices. One would be called the Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs and the other, the Department of Peace Operations.
The Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs would combine the “strategic, political and operational responsibilities” of the current Department of Political Affairs, which is run by Jeffrey Feltman, an American; and the Peacebuilding Support Office, led by Oscar Fernandez-Taranco of Argentina. The new entity would concentrate on conflict prevention, mediation, conflict resolution and peace-building, in addition to directing regional offices, Guterres’s envoys and other advisers involved in political processes, among other work.
The new Department of Peace Operations is slated to combine the responsibility of the current Department of Peacekeeping Operations, run by Jean-Pierre Lacroix, a Frenchman, and aspects of the Department of Political Affairs to concentrate on peacekeeping and political missions “outside the purview” of the new Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs. It is unclear who will run each office. Both Lacroix and Feltman are working under one-year terms.
The Guterres proposal says that the under secretary-general for the new Political and Peacebuilding Affairs office would have the responsibilities carried out by the current “USG,” as they are called, leading the Department of Political Affairs, though he doesn’t mention a name.
In keeping with Guterres’s goal to enhance the involvement of regional offices in the UN, he suggests that a single structure comprised of assistant secretaries-general report to both new entities, creating a closer link to the daily management of all political and peace and security activities of the UN.
He also suggests that a “standing principals’ group,” composed of the two under secretaries-general running the new proposed departments, report to Guterres, providing a “whole-of-pillar” approach to headquarters in New York and to the field.
On paper, the new Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs appears to acquire more stature than the Department of Peace Operations, with its role extensively outlined in the proposal. It will engage in such specific avenues as “early upstream monitoring, early warning and response, envoys, regional political offices” and other conflict-prevention methods and tools that are already available but not always carried out because of bureaucratic — or, more important — political barriers imposed by any number of players, including powerful countries like the US, Russia or China.
The new political and peace-building department would be required to coordinate its work with the Department of Peace Operations and other systemwide partners, including the human rights and development agencies — the remaining “pillars” of the UN. Regional coordinators, who work for the UN Development Program, would play bigger roles in conflict analysis and preventive diplomacy, a move that Guterres has deemed essential to start breaking down the entrenched silo mentality of the UN.
The merging of the Peacebuilding Support Office into the new entity is meant to make it more integrated in peace work, but its role in policymaking and financing programs in post-conflict societies seems to be unchanged, and it will continue to be run by an assistant secretary-general.
The peacebuilding component, the plan says, would act as a “hinge” between the peace and security pillar and the UN development system and humanitarian players of the world body, revitalizing the somewhat-invisible office. Guterres also emphasizes that the new Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs would include “intensified collaboration” with such institutions as the World Bank, as well as civil society, women’s groups and corporations.
The Department of Peace Operations — which if it materializes could be nicknamed DPO — would focus singly on peacekeeping operations and field-based political missions, although the latter would be those “outside the purview” of the other new department, leaving interpretation for such phrasing wide open.
The department, the proposal says, would aim to be more nimble and strive for an integrated “centre of excellence” for UN peace operations, which have been functioning under a cloud of sex-abuse scandals that are slowly being handled more openly, thanks to consistent media coverage of the problems in the last few years. Carrying out peace agreements would remain a primary role of the office.
In addition, an Office of Military Affairs, led by an assistant secretary-general, would be located in the department, carrying out such tasks as deployment of troops and technical advice. An Office of Rule of Law and Security Institutions, also led by an assistant secretary-general, would oversee legal and security institutions that the UN sets up in the field. It would also manage disarmament and mine action programs in peacekeeping settings.
Guterres wants the current regional divisions of the Department of Political Affairs and those in the Department of Peacekeeping Operations to merge into one entity to be shared by the two new departments. This merger, he writes, would ensure that offices in the field “have one point of entry for political and operational requirements” from New York.
The dual reporting arrangement, he added, “represents a new and innovative way of working” that improves coherence between the two current peace and security departments. It requires “significant leadership and management investment and highly collaborative working relationships,” he notes, well aware that the UN system has far to go to institute coherence in its ranks.
Change and innovation in management reform, “must be encouraged” Guterres sums up, and greater use of technology be “vigorously pursued.” A performance management and evaluation system is to be integral to creating a sharper UN, he adds.
Yet what Guterres does not acknowledge is that even his best intentions to improve the UN’s most valuable asset — peace and security work — is also its most politically sensitive endeavor. Positive goals can go astray at the least provocation by member states who pull strings behind and in front of the curtain for their own gain, and when things go wrong, they let the UN take the blame.
The bonhomie conveyed by Trump to Guterres at the White House on Oct. 20, however, never hinted at such traps, with Trump saying about the UN’s “potential”:
“. . . the United Nations has this great, great — it’s almost a power to bring people together like nothing else. It hasn’t been used. You are starting to really get your arms around it, and I have a feeling that things are going to happen with the United Nations like you haven’t seen before.”
He took away the good will a second later, saying about the reform work ahead for Guterres: “Now we’ll see what happens. I’ll report back to you in about seven years what I think.”
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Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, she has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.
Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and near Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working in New York at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.