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The UN Secretary-General Pushes Ahead on Peacekeeping Reform


The UN secretary-general, António Guterres, participating in “Sebasi,” a TV show in South Korea, during his trip to Seoul for the 2018 Winter Olympics. His latest plan for peacekeeping reform has been detailed with charts on budgetary and administrative changes. MARK GARTEN/UN PHOTO

Responding to a December request from the General Assembly for details on how he proposes to staff and pay for sweeping changes in political affairs and peacekeeping at the United Nations, Secretary-General António Guterres has drafted a 50-page explanation for member states to consider. The General Assembly had agreed in principle to his original 16-page reform plan submitted last fall, but inevitable administrative and budgetary questions have followed.

The new, unedited draft, obtained by PassBlue, does not change the outlines of the original proposal for restructuring the peace and security operations of the UN, all based at the headquarters in New York. The main changes that were proposed in October by Guterres merged the current UN political and peace-building functions into a Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs (DPPA) and the creation — or rebranding — of the peacekeeping department as the Department of Peace Operations, or DPO. The restructuring is to take effect as of Jan. 1, 2019.

“A single political-operational structure to be shared by the two departments would be responsible for the day-to-day management of all political and an operational peace and security activities” the draft says, creating a new horizontal layer of bureaucracy to consolidate the regional divisions of both departments. Under secretaries-general will head the two overarching departments, with three regional assistant secretaries-general — for Africa, the Americas and the Middle East and Asia — reporting to the under secretary-general for political and peacebuilding affairs.

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The UN’s political missions in Afghanistan and Iraq will be moved to the Department of Peace Operations from their current home in the Department of Political Affairs. The Department of Field Support, known as DFS and the nuts and bolts of peacekeeping, will be unattached from the Department of Peace Operations and be its own entity. It will have a new name: the Department of Operational Support.

Jeffrey Feltman, an American who runs the Department of Political Affairs, is leaving on March 31. The United States State Department is recommending candidates to replace him, as the post will most likely remain in American hands. Guterres has apparently insisted that a woman be given the job.

At the regional and seven subregional levels, the under secretaries-general heading the two overarching departments will be encouraged to interact with national and regional players and “integrate regional capacities” while also working with international organizations like the World Bank and others to bolster humanitarian and development work. Special envoys, who are appointed by Guterres, would also fall under the purview of the Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs.

The department would “manage a spectrum of tools and engagements across the conflict continuum to ensure a more holistic approach to conflict prevention and resolution, electoral assistance, peacebuilding and sustaining peace,” the draft report says.

The broad reform proposals constitute a significant response to the UN’s fragmentation, duplication of efforts and frequent failures to cross bureaucratic lines to deal with urgent issues. That includes policing and prosecuting cases of abuse involving peacekeeping missions and nongovernmental organizations working with them.

“The Gender, Peace and Security Team would remain responsible for the development of policy and the provision of substantive and technical support . . . in close coordination with the Gender Team in DPO [Department of Peace Operations] to ensure a holistic approach to these issues through their distinct mandates,” the draft says, reflecting little change in the gender approach.

Guterres is seeking to assure the UN’s 193 member nations that the restructuring can, in human-resources terms, be carried out through transfers of UN staff or the seconding of officials from other parts of the UN system. Budgetary rejiggering should limit large cost increases; for some programs, especially in the peace-building area, contributions from governments will be counted on to support projects.

Charts accompanying the draft document show numerically how administrative and budgetary moves would be made — surely of keen interest to member states and UN staff members.

Separately, but to be integrated with political and humanitarian work in the regional centers of the Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs, a new development strategy for the organization had also been proposed by Guterres in two reports in 2017. His new plans were blessed — if not overseen — by the US through Nikki Haley, the American ambassador to the UN, who has encouraged Guterres to move quickly to make the UN more “flexible and efficient.”

One major change in the development work of the UN will be the splitting off of resident coordinators from the UN Development Program, who will report directly to the secretary-general. One UN official described the resident coordinators’ enhanced role as UN “embassies” in a given country. How the new set-ups will be financed is unresolved.

On March 13, the secretary-general announced the appointment of Elliott Harris of Trinidad and Tobago as the new assistant secretary-general for economic development and chief economist in the Department of Economic and Social Affairs. Harris, who worked in the International Monetary Fund for more than a decade, has most recently been a UN assistant secretary-general and head of the New York office of the UN Environment Program.

In a letter to member nations a day earlier, Guterres said that the appointment was being made “in the context of the repositioning of the United Nations Development system.” He added that the appointment “reflects the reprioritization of economics and finance for development as the world transitions to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.”

Harris will be responsible for “spearheading cutting-edge analysis and policy innovation, feeding into strategic integrated planning within the United Nations development system to support Member States, and will be serving as a strong technical interlocutor with international financial and economic institutions,” Guterres said.

This article was updated to clarify the proposed status of the Department of Field Support.


We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.

Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”

Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.

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