Conflict resolution: re-inventing the role of UN

| Updated: October 23, 2022 21:26:52

Delegations stand for a moment of silence during an emergency session of the United Nations General Assembly on February 28, 2022, at UN Headquarters in New York	—VoA Photo Delegations stand for a moment of silence during an emergency session of the United Nations General Assembly on February 28, 2022, at UN Headquarters in New York —VoA Photo

For the umpteenth time, the United Nations (UN) passed a resolution condemning Russian invasion of Ukraine last week. It was not unanimous, with 45 countries abstaining and five casting their votes against the resolution. Even if it was unanimous the resolution would have meant nothing in so far as the war was concerned. According to the UN charter, resolutions passed by the General Assembly (GA) are not binding. Only the Security Council (SC), the most powerful among five organs of the UN, has that power. But unanimity among the members of the Council is hard to come by. It is hamstrung by the veto power exercised by the five permanent  members -- America, United Kingdom, China, Russia and France -- the five victors in the second world  war. They have been involved, singly or in a group, in almost all major conflicts leading to war since the Great war in Europe and as such have felt it necessary to use their veto power to deny cessation of hostility. The plethora of veto cast by the five permanent members (P5) at various times has made it impossible for the UN to achieve its pre-eminent goal of maintaining global peace and security. Between 2011 and 2020 alone, a total of 29 vetos have been cast by the P5. America, Russia and China having used the veto power more frequently than the other two, indicating their greater involvement in geopolitics of conflicting interests.

Among proposals for reform of the UN, changing the structure of the Security Council through increase in number by inclusion of newly emerging global powers has been one. While this will reflect the changed reality, the structural change will not make the Security Council more effective in respect of the primary goal of the UN viz. the maintenance of peace and security because of continuing veto power. One possible reform, which will not require any change in the UN Charter is to enforce the accountability of the SC to the GA which is already envisaged in the Charter but observed mostly by default. In this context, the 2020 'veto initiative' proposed by Lichtenstein  raising the political cost of exercising the veto power through accountability to the GA holds some promise of restraining this power of P5. But this reform does not make the UN's role in conflict resolution effective enough to maintain peace and security. At best, the reform, if adopted, will entail a moral obligation to a veto wielding member to explain the why and wherefores of exercising the veto power every time it is resorted to.

In view of the limitation on the power of the UN vis-a-vis its role in conflict resolution and the practical problem of effecting functional changes, aside from structural ones the focus should be on   quiet diplomacy undertaken by UN functionaries, including the Secretary General. At present this tool is being used very infrequently and that too, almost casually. What is more disappointing, diplomatic initiative by the UN, in the few cases where it has made, has been  a posteriori  rather than a priori. Conflict resolution, to be successful, has to be pro- active rather than re- active.

Conflicts between two or among more nations have taken place since time immemorial. In most cases these have been over ownership of land or natural resource like water. More recently, territorial maritime boundary has also been a bone of contention   between two or more countries. Besides international conflicts there can be International conflicts within a country between communities on the basis of religion, race  and politics, which may, in some cases, draw in neighbouring  countries enlarging   the ambit of their incidence. All these conflicts are within the remit of the UN.

Conflicts, whatever may be their nature and provenance, do not become incendiary and full-blown overnight. They have an incubation period and subsequent incipient growth. When recognised early on and addressed by the parties involved without delay, they do not flare up as bloody clashes or wars. In most cases, major conflicts are not amenable to bi-lateral settlement. They require third party intervention as neutral broker. While a neutral country can play this role of mediator, the UN appears as the most acceptable and trustworthy in this role. In fact, the UN has been doing this since long, sporadically and regrettably, half- heartedly. What is more disappointing, the UN takes up the role as a mediator only after a conflict breaks out as armed conflict rather than try to nip it in the bud. The war in Ukraine is the most recent instance of this failure in conflict resolution. This is elaborated below.

The dispute between Russia and Ukraine had been brewing over a long time, particularly after President Putin came to power in the Russian Republic. Alarmed at the enlargement of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), through admission of the former east European countries that were within Soviet Russia, President Putin drew a red line. He wanted to have a pro-Russian regime in Ukraine because it has the longest border with Russia. At first, he managed to install a pro-Russian Ukrainian as President through a stage- managed election. But he was ousted in the 'Orange Revolution' engineered by America. About the same time, the new pro- American regime applied for NATO membership, in all probability nudged by America. President Putin and the hawks in his administration became alarmed, feeling 'encircled' by unfriendly countries in the east. This led to the annexation of Crimea in 2014 by Russia which has its naval headquarters in Sevastopol in the southern tip of the peninsula. This hardened the attitude of the pro- western regime in Ukraine and gave fillip to its desire to become a full member of NATO military alliance. Meanwhile, Ukraine received military hardware and training for its army personnel from the western alliance. The goal was to take on Russia with a view to recovering occupied Ukrainian territory and to repulse its intensified assault in the eastern region of Ukraine in support of the secessionist Russian population.

The tense situation along the border of Ukraine came to a tipping point when Russia mobilised armoured divisions along the eastern border in January this year, giving ultimatum to the regime in Ukraine to renounce its intent to become a member of NATO and to grant autonomy to the Russian majority eastern region of Donbas and Lohansk. Russia conducted military manoeuvres along the border for over a month, brandishing the ultimatum. Bolstered by unstinted support from America and its allies, the regime in Ukraine remained adamant over its decision to  become a NATO member, exercising its sovereign right, a point stressed by America on its behalf. All the tell-tale signs of the inclement weather morphing into a perfect storm became evident and an armed clash appeared imminent.

The hostility, degenerating into shooting war, could be averted had there been an attempt at mediating between the two antagonists. The United Nation could step in, offering its good offices, to settle the dispute through negotiation. But there was no such attempt  by UN and it stood as a bystander, witnessing the unfolding of a rapidly deteriorating situation in the heart of Europe where two world wars had been fought in the past. Long after the invasion by Russia took place, wreaking death and destruction, the UN Secretary General visited Moscow and Kyiv, declaring that he had gone there as a messenger of peace. It sounded like the joke of the century. He had no proposal to halt the war on the basis of negotiated settlement. Neither did he want to hear from the combatants what could be their minimum demands to cease hostility at that stage. To all appearances, his visit was a public relations gesture, complete with photo pops. The hollowness and superficiality of his pro forma visit was responded to by Russian artillery barrage even as he visited sights of Russian massacre near Kyiv. It was a pathetic sight to see the head of the most important international organisation  entrusted with the responsibility of maintaining peace and security, walking near bombed out buildings and freshly dug graves of the dead as a curious  tourist. His utterance about ' war crime' only intensified the futility of his visit as ' a messenger of peace', because by dint of those words he was sitting in judgement, a role not expected of an honest broker mediating between two adversaries. His performance on the occasion was of a piece with the past failures of the UN in maintaining peace in other instances of armed hostilities and wars. In this respect, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Syria are its proud  'red badges of courage' in recent times.

Granted, the UN is powerless in the face of veto- wielding countries to stop a war in which they are a major player, either singly or in a group. But nothing prevents it from its attempt at mediating between two adversaries about going into war. It is not debarred either by the Charter or by potential veto from taking on the role of a mediator working for negotiated settlement. In the case of Ukraine, the Secretary General or his envoy High Commissioner)  could embark on shuttle diplomacy, going back and forth between the two capitals, Moscow and Kyiv, trying to find a common ground for mutual agreement. A possible (perhaps not probable)  outline of negotiated  settlement could have   the following planks:  (a) assurance about a neutral Ukraine, outside NATO, (b) granting of autonomous status to  the eastern region and Crimea, (c) demilitarisation of these disputed areas overseen by  UN Peacekeeping Force and (d) signing of a security treaty between Russia and Ukraine. There is no guarantee that such a proposal for peace would be probable, perhaps not with the same terms. But it could provide a basis for a peaceful settlement of the conflict between the two countries. Unfortunately, the habitual inertia of the world body and its penchant for closing the barn door after the horse has bolted, kept it silent and inactive as the drum beat of war became deafening over Europe. The only proposal for peace through negotiation to appear in public so far has come from an unexpected quarters, put forth by the richest man in the world, the owner of Tesla, Elon Musk, which is so skewed in favour of Russia (ceding Crimea to Russia, holding referendum by the UN in eastern Ukraine to ascertain the opinion of the population in the region about their political future) that it will not be given any consideration by Ukraine at all. But he deserves commendation for thinking in terms of negotiated settlement rather than escalating the war dangerously, as the Western alliance is doing.

Given past experience it is evident that holding  meetings of the GA or SC  of the UN to discuss and pass resolutions  (or to fail  to do so in case of the SC because of veto) after convening  their meetings at the behest of a member  or members  is like shadow boxing, a pretence. This is because resolutions  passed  for cessation of hostility and condemnation  of actions by the GA  are not binding , while an unanimous resolution in the SC is a  mirage if one of the countries involved in  war , directly  or indirectly,  has  veto power. The flurry of activities in the UN, at the GA and SC, that has been seen  after the Russian invasion are pathetic cases of exercise in futility, to say the least. What purpose have these verbose and highfalutin deliberations in the august body  served with  reference to the urgent need to restore peace in  Europe? Perhaps the Secretary General who fond of shooting from the hip, feels vindicated about his role in organising such meetings in a routine manner. Perhaps he and his highly paid colleagues think that they have gone the whole nine yard and can do nothing more. They are both deluding themselves and fooling the member countries about the limits to the power (potential and actual) of the world body to ensure the achievement of the primary goal  of maintaining global peace and security.

It is high time that member countries come down hard on the Secretary General and his colleagues to give trenchant dressing down for their failure to achieve the primary goal of the UN. To acquit themselves of the indictment for dereliction of duty in every instance of war breaking out, they have to prove that they have  tried their best for negotiated settlement  of the conflict. Nothing short of this litmus test should grant them reprieve from condemnation.

To be effective as a forum and agency for conflict resolution the UN needs to strengthen the institutional capacity. Unlike peace keeping in various hotspots with armed forces drawn from neutral countries, the 'peacemaking' mechanism is weak and almost ad hoc. The Secretary General appoints high commissioners or special envoys for conflict- ridden countries from retired persons of his choice almost as a patronage rather than on the basis of professional competence. He (they are invariably male) is accountable to him alone and the General Assembly or the SC hardly knows anything about their success or failure. What is the record so far of Tony Blair, the former British prime minister, appointed as a member of the Quartet for resolution of the Palestine issue? No one knows but judged by developments on the ground, dismal, if any. And so is the case with other less high profile mediators appointed by the Secretary General as trouble shooters and mediators from time to time. This arbitrary, ad hoc and casual approach to 'peacemaking' through   mediators chosen on personal grounds has to give way to an institutional arrangement backed up by professionals with diplomatic aplomb. This change should be the core of the reform for both structural and functional effectiveness of the UN to achieve its pre-eminent goal of maintaining global peace and security.

Is anyone listening? Or are thoughts like above just cry in the wilderness?

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