International Order & Conflict

Picking Up the Peaces: The UN’s Evolving Postconflict Roles

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This article, which uses Iraq to illustrate UN capabilities in post-conflict settings, was sent to press one month before the truck-bombing of UN headquarters in Baghdad. It is dedicated to the memory of Sergio Vieira de Mello, Nadia Younes, and the other members of the UN team who lost their lives trying to help Iraqis build a peaceful life under civilized governance.

Published in The Washington Quarterly, Vol. 26, No. 4, Autumn 2003

The recent war against Saddam Hussein neither destroyed nor discredited the United Nations. Although French efforts failed to dissuade the Bush administration from its chosen course of action, the role of the UN’s humanitarian agencies in Iraq was not affected. Since the end of major combat, they have carried much of the load in caring for and feeding the Iraqi people and restoring public services. The UN has a political role to play there as well, drawing on years of experience in devising democratic education campaigns, giving electoral advice, and conducting elections in war-torn developing countries. A decade of sanctions may have left the UN less than popular among some Iraqis as a political interlocutor, but could the main enforcers of the sanctions—the United States and United Kingdom— be any more popular? They are, at the moment, the occupying forces; by comparison, the UN is a reasonably disinterested third party that can more easily listen to local opinions and adapt to the aspirations of Iraq’s citizens.

Beyond Iraq, it is a big and hurting world. Conflicts in Sudan and Sri Lanka are coming to an end; conflicts in Liberia and Côte d’Ivoire threaten to upend the peace from Guinea to Ghana; parts of the Democratic Republic of the Congo remain in bloody anarchy despite peace accords; third-generation narco-guerrillas control a substantial part of Colombia, while democracy is fragile in several other Andean states; and thuggish regimes in Zimbabwe, Myanmar, and North Korea continue to repress their citizens, crushing their countries’ economies in the process. In addition, the droughts and food crises in eastern and southern Africa owe their origins to a combination of climate and politics. The United States cannot and probably will not give its full attention to these other crisis zones, whether the need is forpeacekeepers or aid providers. The world’s other powers have even more limited capabilities than Washington, and regional organizations outside Europe have as yet little operational capacity. So, short of writing off millions of people in the poorest and worst-governed parts of the world … who you gonna call?

As often as not, governments call the UN. When President George W. Bush speaks of the UN, even when addressing the General Assembly and all 190 other UN members, he means the Security Council, that is, the 15 member states that can define threats to international peace and security and obligate member states to act against these threats. The UN is, however, much more than the Security Council or the General Assembly, especially in postconflict settings. It is also a loosely structured, increasingly well-coordinated system of operating agencies that protect refugees, distribute emergency food, immunize children, promote human rights, and organize peacekeepers as well as political and electoral advisers for states in distress or in transition from war to peace.

The UN is uniquely equipped with the legitimacy, experience, coordinating ability, and logistics mechanisms to work in postconflict settings, potentially as a partner with regional organizations as their operational capacities evolve. This assumes that developed states—the UN’s principal source of cash and operational backup—remain politically engaged and operationally supportive of UN postconflict activities.

UN humanitarian agencies such as the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) or the World Food Program (WFP) have standing mandates to help in humanitarian emergencies. With the acquiescence of governing authorities and a sufficiently permissive security environment, they can act quickly during a crisis. Several agencies have emergency procedures designed to dispatch rapid response teams within 24 hours of a crisis. More than 90 percent of UN humanitarian agencies’ funding takes the form of voluntary contributions from governments, however, so although humanitarian agencies have the authority to act quickly, they may only have the reserve funds to act briefly, unless sustaining funds materialize.

UN political, security, and development entities, on the other hand, from the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) to the World Bank, need a Security Council resolution that specifically mandates action (in the case of DPKO) or otherwise gives a signal that it is legally permissible for them to engage. Their funding, on the other hand, comes largely from the “assessed” contributions of member states, which those states are obligated to pay under the terms of their membership in the UN or the World Bank.

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