“Alarm bells are still ringing. We face a world of trouble.” This was the distressing warning given by António Guterres, the United Nations (U.N.) Secretary-General, during his remarks to the U.N. General Assembly at the start of the year.
2018 was indeed a harsh year. The U.N. is always expected to play an appeasing role wherever peace and security are under threat. But the organization does not always have enough clout to silence the guns. As a result, last year the U.N. was unable to help bring stability in places like Afghanistan, Myanmar’s Rakhine State, Eastern Ukraine or between Israel and Palestine, to name just a few trouble spots. In the last two cases, disagreements in the Security Council help perpetuate current deadlocks.
On top of this, last year the U.N. refugee agency in the Occupied Palestine Territories (known as UNRWA) faced an unprecedented financial crisis after the U.S. cut its $300 million contribution. (The Agency was able to make up for the shortfall through additional donations from other countries and institutions). Yet the financial footing of the Agency remains so precarious that its chief has just requested US$ 1.2 billion to fund aid programs for 5.4 million Palestine refugees across the Middle East.
But 2018 was not all gloomy for the multilateral organization. Last year saw the adoption of the U.N.-led Global Compact for Migration. This non-binding pact, signed by 164 countries (out of 193 U.N. member states) in December, aims at strengthening regional and international collaboration in the management of migration flows. Claiming that it would obstruct efforts to control migration, the U.S., Israel, several E.U. countries and Australia did not join the accord. In early January, Brazil announced that it will abandon the accord.
The U.N. can also take some credit for forcing North Korea into the negotiating table. Last June’s summit in Singapore between the country’s leader Kim Jong-un and U.S. President Donald Trump came at the back of the harshest sanctions the U.N. Security Council has ever imposed on the Asian country. Moreover, an unusual visit in December 2017 by the then U.N. political chief to North Korea paved the way for the easing of tensions. Yet as Washington and Pyongyang gear up for a second summit in late February, a recent U.N. report claims that North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs “remain intact” and its leaders are dispersing missile assembly and testing facilities to prevent “decapitation” strikes.
On a housekeeping note, a recent important highlight has been the reform of the organization’s Resident Coordinator system. In January 1st U.N. country-offices gained more autonomy from headquarters, so that decision-making in development assistance, among other crucial work, can be done closer to the people that need it. This is part of a major restructuring of the U.N. system, which in addition to its international development area encompasses U.N. management and the organization’s peace and security pillar.
All while the U.N. Secretariat achieves, for the very first time, gender parity in its senior management positions – although the same cannot yet be said of other levels and departments.
The 2019 menu: frictions, priorities and conflicts
The year 2019 kicked off with the opening a major area of friction among key U.N. member states. In mid-January Palestine (a U.N. non-member observer state) took the 2019 chair of the G77 group of developing countries plus China. The U.S. and Israel objected to the move, which they saw as allowing the Palestinians to act more like a full U.N. member state this year. The G77 is currently comprised of 134 states and was established to sharpen the negotiating capacity of its members on economic matters.
In late January, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, António Guterres outlined his three priorities: 1) to prove to those reluctant to multilateralism that the U.N. is a vital actor to solve global problems; 2) to simplify and make the U.N. administration more transparent; and, 3) to show the added value of the organization.
These priorities represent just the tip of the U.N. iceberg. During 2019, the UN will have to accelerate efforts to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). As Guterres himself put it, “we need a sharper focus on what works in reducing poverty and inequality, and in delivering strong and inclusive economies while safeguarding the environment.” On this topic, a key date will be September 23rd, as Guterres will convene a Climate Action Summit in New York to mobilize public and private action to, among other objectives, increase financing to combat climate change: “the defining issue of our time,” as Guterres likes to describe it.
But it is Syria, where one the most lethal conflicts after the II World War is still being waged, that poses one of the greatest immediate challenges for the organization. The Norwegian Geir O. Pedersen, Guterres’ new Special Envoy for Syria, will try to mediate a political solution to a conflict in which the regime of Bashar al-Assad, with the support of Russia and Iran, has prevailed after a civil war that has already claimed more than 500,000 lives.
Further south, in Yemen, where the world’s worst humanitarian crisis has been unfolding since 2015, a U.N.-brokered ceasefire (last month’s Stockholm Agreement) has so far avoided a devastating full-fledged military confrontation in the key port city of Hodeida.
Although it is Africa where most of the U.N. peace and security work focuses. With volatility reigning in countries like Libya, Mali, South Sudan, Somalia, the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the continent hosts seven of the current fourteen U.N. peacekeeping missions.
And if all this were not enough, the current presidential crisis in Venezuela has again reopened the same fractures at the Security Council (i.e. Russia and China opposed to any type of foreign interference) that prevented the organ from taking action in places like Syria and Ukraine.
Somehow naively, the U.N. is always expected to resolve the most pressing crises that erupt around the world. As we have seen, the reality is very different. And 2019 will not be an exception.