The "The Knotted Gun" by Swedish artist Carl Fredrik Reutersward sits outside of the United Nations in New York City. The scultpure was a gift from Luxembourg to the UN in 1988. Photo: Tim Brakemeier/PA Images. All rights reserved.
The United Nations’ charter, the global body’s founding document, defines its purpose ambitiously: “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.” Symbols of this mission abound at its headquarters in New York City. Outside the visitor center, an iconic blue helmet rests on a pedestal. The entrance to the general assembly hall is marked by a sculpture of a giant revolver, its barrel knotted and pointed upwards.
But the UN is a product of its member states, which insist that they are always, ultimately in charge within their own borders. This means that UN peacekeeping efforts have focused primarily on responding to “acute conflicts”, where violence is imminent. French delegates to the UN confirmed to me last week that this remains their priority as permanent members of the security council.
Critics say UN responses to conflicts do not come fast enough when they come at all. Some have called on the body to embrace its "responsibility to protect"; others have argued that preventing conflict is more effective and cost efficient than providing peacekeepers as actors of last resort.
Secretary general António Guterres agrees; even before he took over at the organisation in early 2017, the Portugeuse politician and former head of the UN's refugee agency was advocating for a shift towards preventing conflicts, emphasising education and development. Guterres also wants to address gender inequalities within the UN itself.
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in September 2017. Photo: Albin Lohr-Jones/PA Images. All rights reserved.
On Monday US President Donald Trump will host a meeting of world leaders in New York to discuss UN reforms alongside the 72nd general assembly. Guterres is scheduled to speak on behalf of reforms which would bring the body closer to its original aims and would help achieve the daunting goals of the UN’s 2030 agenda for sustainable development and resolutions on sustaining peace passed in 2016.
But the shift that Guterres is calling for, towards more work on conflict prevention, is not a simple policy change. It would require a fundamental break with the UN’s current approach, not to mention sizeable reforms to address the body's its sluggish response time to conflicts, its burgeoning bureaucracy, and how its different teams often work in parallel "silos", collaborating rarely.
Former UN under-secretary general, and former president of the security council, Anwarul Chowdhury told me that reforms are needed to improve coherence and achieve gender parity at all levels of the organisation. “Reform is a nice word" he said, but “reforms should be taken soberly, without hype, and based on their merit.”
UN peacekeepers in Somalia, 2017. Photo: Maurizio Gambarini/PA Images. All rights reserved.
The track record the UN does have on peacekeeping and conflict resolution also raises concerns. It includes cases of some success, for example in Guatemala and El Salvador, and others including Rwanda, where under-resourced peacekeepers failed to protect lives during the 1994 genocide.
“There is real political momentum to reform the UN now in practical ways,” said Gillian Bird, Australia’s permanent UN representative, at a side panel during the 6th annual high-level forum on the culture of peace.
But she emphasised that change will require a new mindset, and “a shift towards longer-term planning, joint analysis and improved capacity to recognise and seize the sometimes-narrow windows for prevention.”
During the forum, diplomats from states including Bangladesh, Myanmar, Lebanon and Kuwait made similar statements about the necessity of instilling values of equality, cooperation and mutual respect and understanding in their citizens from an early age.
Oscar Fernandez-Taranco, UN assistant secretary general for peacebuilding support, spoke about a UN-funded program in Bosnia-Herzegovina in 2014-2016 to encourage youth engagement in state politics and address ethnic divisions. He said it “has reached more than 30% of the population, and has reduced youth dissatisfaction and supported intercultural education.”
For peacebuilding and post-conflict aid workers in Bosnia, however, this example is loaded. More often, Bosnia is seen as an example of mismanaged intervention and reconstruction.
Bosnia has been a testing ground for different UN peacekeeping and peacebuilding policies for 25 years, from the United Nations Protection Force and Mission in Bosnia, to the Peace Implementation Council and Office of the High Representative. But insufficient peacekeeping troops in 1995 allowed the safe zone outside Srebrenica to be overrun and the civilians they had promised to protect were massacred. For many, war still rages in parliament halls, news studios and school textbooks.
Kemal Pervanić, who has been running youth programs around the northwest Bosnian town of Prijedor for more than 10 years, told me earlier this year that while they live in relative peace, it’s a “negative peace,” and the children “carry so much trauma.”
Children at their first day of school in Sarajevo, Bosnia, September 2017. Photo: Haris Memija/PA Images. All rights reserved.
Many peacebuilding programs like that mentioned by Fernandez-Taranco, it seems, are not mirrored in state policy, limiting their impact.
In Bosnia, Pervanić said that children often aren’t even taught the history of the wars of the 1990s. When they are, schools’ history curriculums vary widely depending on the ethnic majority in the area, and students often hear “stories” of hate and blame from parents or community and religious leaders.
Refik Hodžić, at the International Center for Transitional Justice and formerly the International Tribunal for former Yugoslavia, said that because of the constant flow of biased information, some young people “are worse nationalists than their parents.”
Half-baked institution building in Bosnia – including the fact that all ministries exist in triplicate – appears largely to blame for stalled peacebuilding efforts.
In his April 2016 vision statement, written while a candidate for the UN secretary general position, Guterres noted that bolstering state institutions (such as education ministries and judiciaries) and building their capacity is vital for sustainable development, conflict prevention and human rights.
Hodžić described the paralysis of the Bosnian state as a tactic of the ruling class. “They use the past very deliberately to constantly stoke this feeling of tension and the possibility of the conflict, to keep the country paralysed so that there is no oversight, there are no strong institutions,” he said.
Today Bosnia is just one example of division and uncertainty internationally. At last week’s high-level forum, Bangladesh’s UN ambassador Masud Bin Momen described an “alarming rise of sectarianism, xenophobia, religious intolerance as well as terrorism and violent extremism worldwide. Conflicts continue to rage; refugees stream in across various parts of the world; asymmetric warfare by non-state actors is becoming endemic; spectre of nuclear-warfare looms large; inequality and injustice still persists.”
As the UN prepares to debate these issues during general assembly, will it return to its roots and focus more on conflict prevention? In his vision statement last year, Guterres said the “future of the UN will be determined by its readiness to change and adapt.” This is putting it mildly; nothing less than the future of global stability is at stake.