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‘Physician Heal Thyself!’: a New Agenda for Peace must look inwards first, to address institutional obstacles to building and preventing peace

Written by Matthew Foley, Sara Pantuliano, Kathryn Nwajiaku-Dahou, Ed Laws

Image credit:UN Secretary-General António Guterres arrives for a meeting at the EU Council. Alexandros Michailidis/Shutterstock

António Guterres’ New Agenda for Peace sets out both a comprehensive diagnosis of the challenges we face and an extensive set of recommendations to address them.

The argument for a new approach to peace and conflict is self-evident: ODI's research over multiple years in a wide range of conflict contexts, from Afghanistan to Uganda, has shown in granular detail the profound impacts conflict, fragility and violence are having on the lives of families, communities and nations across the world. A quarter of the world’s population – one person in every four – was living in conflict-affected countries at the end of 2020. In 2021, there were an estimated 150,000 conflict-related deaths, the vast majority of them civilians. Some 90 million people are forcibly displaced by conflict, violence or human rights abuse.

The nature of conflict, now more complex and more intractable, has also changed. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine notwithstanding, most of today’s wars are internal to the states in which they occur – but they increasingly involve a growing number and range of regional and global powers, and are having impacts far beyond themselves, for instance on commodity markets and the volume and pattern of migrant and refugee flows. The compounding effects of climate risk and technological change add further layers of complexity.

The New Agenda for Peace provides an excellent diagnosis of the scale and scope of the challenge: geopolitical competition, converging and interlocking threats, the weaponization of new technologies, rising inequalities within and between nations, the climate crisis, political and economic marginalisation and, for the UN in particular, a growing disregard for the normative framework underpinning inter-state relations. A reference to the backlash against women’s rights and sexual and reproductive health – and a call to ‘dismantle patriarchal power structures, biases, violence and discrimination’ – is notable – as is the emphasis on climate as one driver of inequality and instability. There is also mention of states’ ‘undue restrictions on the human rights of their citizens’ and limits on ‘avenues for participation and protest’. It’s not hard to think of a few member states who might have preferred silence on issues of domestic governance. So, this is a bold and necessary step.

And Guterres’ new Agenda for Peace is indeed new, because of course there was already an old one, formulated by one of his predecessors: Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, in 1992 at a time when the UN was desperately in need of renewal and reinvigoration, after having been more-or-less paralysed during the long decades of the Cold War. Boutros-Ghali’s Agenda for Peace laid out some bold ideas around conflict prevention and peacebuilding that paved the way for a new peacebuilding architecture within the UN, even if its high level ambitions for renewed, sustained collective action on peace and security at Security Council level were never realised, as is glaringly obvious today from the parlous state of the Security Council, crippled by the same rivalry and self-interest as it was during the Cold War period.

The political challenges facing Guterres’ New Agenda for Peace are clearly just if not more intractable than those that defeated the broader aspirations of his predecessor. The frank, bleak assessment of where we are comes through clearly in the New Agenda for Peace and is a far cry from the (false?) optimism of 1992, when Boutros-Ghali’s Agenda for Peace was launched. Then, the UN saw what appeared to be the end of the Cold War as an opportunity to ‘achieve the great objectives of the UN Charter – a United Nations capable of maintaining international peace and security, of securing justice and human rights and of promoting … “social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom”’. Where Boutros-Ghali spoke of the ‘manifest desire of the membership to work together as a new source of strength in our common endeavour’, Guterres sees a world of discord and mistrust, where ‘power dynamics have become increasingly fragmented as new poles of influence emerge, new economic blocs form and axes of contestation are redefined’.

In a context where ‘the unity of purpose expressed by Member States in the early 1990s has waned’, the New Agenda for Peace argues the UN can no longer aspire to play the same role. As a result, it spends less time reflecting on how to reform the UN as an institution and instead focuses mainly on the member states, and their role in maintaining peace and security ‘in their own actions and in their commitment to uphold and strengthen the multilateral system’. This is the broader strategic context against which the New Agenda’s specific actions and recommendations need to be read.

But are they a cop out? Should this be what the New Agenda for Peace by the UN Secretary-General focuses on? The serious political schisms and stalemates at the Security Council level, whilst very real, do not make the need to revisit the UN’s role in preventing conflict and building peace as an institution any less urgent and worthy of attention, nor do they absolve us of the need to consider how to open up political space to regional bodies or civil society in line with their important role in peacebuilding and prevention.

Admittedly on peacebuilding, the Agenda does argue for shared responsibility, for stronger national leadership, ownership and enhanced support for the African Union and sub-regional peace support operations. This is positive. It calls for increased funding for peacebuilding and a stronger role for the Peacebuilding Commission. It also calls for a reappraisal of the limits of peacekeeping, ‘with a view to moving towards nimble adaptable models with appropriate, forward-looking transition and exit strategies’, all of which are important thematic areas.

On the deeper structural, institutional and political challenges facing the UN as a whole, however, the New Agenda is silent. Whilst there are calls for reform of the Security Council and a revitalized General Assembly, these feel half-hearted at best, and as recommendations, they end up fighting for attention in a document that seems much happier discussing the use of data to track conflict trends or deal with AI and cyberspace and recommending actions covering strategic risks and geopolitics, conflict prevention, peace operations and peace enforcement, technology and innovation and the collective security architecture.

It may be that this low level of ambition is a realistic reflection of the likelihood of reform, or a pragmatic response to Guterres’ own analysis of the limited role of the UN as a peace and security actor in its own right, as opposed to being a convenor and a facilitator of the efforts of others. But the resounding silence on institutional matters may also be a missed opportunity, 30 years after the first Agenda for Peace, to ask some tough questions about the UN as an institution, plagued by inertia, that finds itself so frequently unable to act effectively in the face of conflict or abuse, and for which credibility is in short supply.

Any New Agenda for Peace put forward by the office of the most senior civil servant of the UN needs to be bolder, and consider how to make the UN as an organisation fit for the purpose of building peace and preventing conflict in the difficult years that lie ahead. The next 12 months ahead of the Summit of the Future must be used to set out a clear trajectory for a new peace deal that can be truly transformational inside and out.