15 March 2006

The new head of the U.N. Department of Political Affairs spoke at the Statesmen Forum of Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies outlining his vision of reform in his area of work. Following are the main highlights:

This is my first visit to Washington since being appointed in July 2005 as the Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs and head of the Department of Political Affairs, or DPA. Sometimes referred to, with some exaggeration as the "foreign ministry" of the United Nations, DPA is the lead U.N. department for political analysis, preventive diplomacy and peacemaking.

We play a low-profile but strategic role within the U.N. Secretariat: monitoring global political developments, working to detect crises before they erupt, as well as to spot opportunities for diplomatic interventions that could help prevent and resolve conflicts. We provide political guidance and support to a large number of U.N. envoys in the field, and are currently managing political missions in the Middle East, Iraq, Lebanon, Tajikistan, Somalia, Guinea-Bissau and the Central African Republic, as well one regional office working on the whole of West Africa.

DPA is also the lead U.N. body for electoral assistance. This is a fast-growing and increasingly important area of work, as elections have come to play such a critical role in democratic transitions and peace processes all around the world. We've been especially gratified to be able to provide assistance in major elections over the past year in countries including Afghanistan and Iraq.

I am here in Washington today and tomorrow primarily to exchange views with counterparts in the U.S. administration about a broad range of issues on which the U.N. and the United States are working together very closely, among them the Middle East Peace Process.

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I intend to focus my remarks this afternoon on U.N. Reform - but not the part you've been reading about in the newspapers.

Briefly, as all of you know, the United Nations is in the midst of a vitally important process of change - probably the most sweeping effort since the founding of the Organization.

It has been a convulsive and painful period. But out of crisis comes opportunity for renewal. It is in that spirit that Secretary-General Kofi Annan has put forth a comprehensive program for retooling our Organization to meet the threats and challenges of today.

The fate of most of the big-ticket proposals will be determined in the days ahead:

  • A new and improved Human Rights Council, to replace the discredited Human Rights Commission.
  • A Peacebuilding Commission, to ensure that the international community stays the course in providing needed aid to countries recovering from conflict.
  • Management reform, to increase transparency, efficiency and accountability throughout the Organization. The Secretary-General will be revealing a new package of proposals this week.
  • Important steps are also being undertaken to confront the problems of misconduct that have tainted our vitally important peacekeeping operations.

At the same time, comparably little attention has been paid to lesser-known part of the reform. I am referring to U.N. peacemaking capacity, where efforts are underway to better equip our Organization to act as an impartial third party in brokering peace settlements around the globe - and more generally in providing "good offices" over a broad range of situations where it can help to defuse and contain tensions.

These efforts are taking place largely under the radar of the public debate. But with deadly armed conflicts festering in many corners of the globe, they are potentially no less important.

Making U.N. good offices better, can be a cost-effective way to help save lives and to stabilize conflict-ridden regions the world over. And not only, I might add, where conflict has already broken out. Diplomatic good offices have a role to play all along the conflict spectrum: before political disputes erupt into violence, during the fighting, during peace-keeping operations and also during the phase of post-conflict peace-building.

So why has there been so little talk about this aspect? One reason, I would venture, is that unlike some of the other critical areas of U.N. reform, U.N. peacemaking is not generally seen as damaged or in need of repair.

Despite the widely noted U.N. failures in Rwanda and Bosnia, the 1990s began a largely a successful decade of peacemaking by the United Nations. Liberated by the end of the Cold War, many more conflicts ended through negotiation than ever before. The U.N. played an important third-party role in many cases - for example in Namibia, Sierra Leone, El Salvador and Guatemala, Cambodia, Mozambique, Tajikistan, Bougainville, and East Timor.

Recent research confirms the trend. The Human Security Report - a major academic study of armed conflict released late last year -- found a dramatic 40% drop in armed conflicts since 1992, attributable in part to an increased in U.N. prevention, peacekeeping and peacebuilding activities.

The same report on conflict warned against complacence. Too many conflicts continue to kill around the world. And for all of the successful examples in which the U.N. has played a part, there are also a number of cases where even the most exhaustive diplomatic efforts have yet to bear the desired result - such as in Cyprus or the case of Western Sahara.

Through the frustrations as well as the accomplishments, what seems inevitable is that the United Nations will continue to be called on to play this kind of honest broker role in resolving conflicts. Even in an increasingly crowded field - in which regional organizations, governments, NGOs and a number of prominent individuals are getting involved -- the U.N. will remain an important player in global peacemaking. The question is whether we will remain up to the task.

The 2004 report of the Secretary-General's High-Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change was the first to point to the need for enhancements. It noted skyrocketing demand for U.N. "good offices" but found there is only "minimal" capacity in the Organization to support this. So we have been fortunate, in a sense, to have done as well as we have, absent any systematic attempt to professionalize our mediation functions, or any strong support system for our envoys in the field.

The 2005 World Summit picked up on these observations and moved the discussion forward. The final "outcome document" approved by world leaders specifically endorsed efforts by the Secretary-General to strengthen his capacity to bring good offices to bear in preventing and resolving conflicts.

With political and financial support of Member States since the Summit, we are now working on several fronts to institute tangible improvements in U.N. peacemaking capacity.

First, through general strengthening of Department of Political Affairs, so that it can more adequately support peacemaking initiatives. We need more and better regional expertise, as well as greater mobility. We need to get officials away from their desks in New York and out in the field so they can expand their contacts, take the pulse more frequently and deepen their understanding of the complex dynamics of conflicts. We are currently stretched amazingly thin. With fewer country desk officers than even one well-known NGO we are currently trying to support nearly three-dozen good offices efforts around the world. We have recently received some modest budgetary increases, but will need to continue along that trend for a number of years to be able to effectively respond to peacemaking and preventive opportunities.

Second, through the creation of a professional Mediation Support Unit serving U.N. envoys in the field, as well as others engaged in conflict mediation. We have recently been granted seed funding for such a unit, and are appealing to donors for additional support. Staffing will begin shortly and we expect the unit will be up and running by mid-year. The Mediation Support unit will fill an important gap at the United Nations. It will serve as a repository of lessons learned on peacemaking - which is particularly important as so many tough issues arise repeatedly in peace negotiations. The new unit will also carry out training for envoys and maintain a roster of suitable candidates - including women, who are vastly underrepresented in the field. It will be staffed by people with real-world experience in conflict mediation, who can provide envoys with advice on tactics and substantive issues, or connect with resources within and outside the U.N. system. It is simply not enough to appoint a well-regarded person and wish them the best of luck. We need to be constantly improving our base of knowledge. Without in any way undervaluing the political skills required, we need to move in the direction of professionalizing our mediation efforts in peace processes in the same way that mediation is taken to be a professional endeavor in other arenas.

A third initiative, soon to be launched, is a specialized website on peacemaking designed for U.N. envoys and the broader peacemaking community. The site, www.peacemaker.org, will contain a comprehensive, indexed and annotated collection of every modern peace agreement. It will also include an online forum for envoys and their staff to interact, to exchange experiences with one another, as well as with mediation experts outside the U.N. A little technology can go along way. With a laptop and satellite phone, an envoy meeting with insurgents in some jungle will now be only a mouse-click away from a wealth of information that can help to further his or her discussions.

These are a few modest, but I believe important steps to gradually build our own capacity. Taken together, they should help ensure that we have the right people, the right knowledge and the right resources to do the job. U.N. envoys consulted in the development of these proposals have been enthusiastically supportive.

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Of course, preparedness alone will not bring peace to the world.

Even the most skilled of envoys with the best team and the best knowledge will never succeed if conditions on the ground are not conductive to peace. So many factors affect the prospects for peace. Talks will lead nowhere in the absence of political will by the warring parties. If we go back to some of the cases mentioned earlier, such as Cyprus and Western Sahara, past disappointments can hardly be laid on the doorstep of the envoys.

Fortune can be as powerful a factor as any -- as I learned personally when serving as U.N. peace envoy to Angola, as that country's conflict finally came to a close in 2002. As hard as many of us were working to try and persuade the parties to end the conflict, the decisive factor in propelling Angola toward peace was not really diplomacy. It was the unexpected death of Jonas Savimbi.

Finally, enhanced U.N. capacity will have little impact in isolation. As we seek to bolster our own capabilities, we need to also forge closer ties with others working in peacemaking internationally and related research - governments, regional and non-governmental organizations, and think tanks. We are already relying increasingly on regional and sub-regional organizations as leading partners in peacemaking and conflict prevention efforts in Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas.

Any successful U.N. peacemaking effort in the future, either directly or in support of other third parties, will have to also enjoy the active support of the key states and regional and global level - many of whom have contributed to previous efforts, either from the Security Council or through Groups of Friends and Contact Groups in support of peace processes.

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Let me conclude by connecting our efforts to strengthen U.N. peacemaking capacity to a broader ideal.

By sharpening our tools for diplomacy in this way, by giving ourselves a better chance to succeed, I believe we are - in a larger sense - helping to reinforce the very case for diplomacy as a means to prevent and resolve conflict.

We should never lose sight of the political nature of most of the conflicts we face. In the end, most will have to be settled through some kind of political process involving negotiations and compromise. Impartial outsides will be needed to help build trust between adversaries.

Take the case of Darfur, for example, which I know is on so many people's minds both here in Washington and at the United Nations. Without a political settlement, there will be no lasting end to the bloodshed. So, even as we move aggressively to save lives today through the deployment of a more robust peacekeeping force, we should not lose sight of the political process. The international community needs to marshal an equivalent effort to press for successful peace negotiations leading to a settlement that addresses the causes and consequences of the conflict.

As Secretary-General Kofi Annan reminded us last year, in his report entitled In Larger Freedom: Without peace there can be no development. Without sustainable development there can be no durable peace. And without respect for human rights and democracy, there can be neither peace nor development.

Thank you very much.