The world faces extremely complex, multidimensional challenges, overwhelming in intensity and spread. By 2030 we will be 9 billion people inhabiting a crowded and tired Planet. Assuming that somehow a sublime power converts human beings from insensitive and rapacious hogs into Earth loving creatures of Planet Earth, we would still need to extract ever from the exhausted Mother Earth the very basics for our survival - water, vegetables, fruits, fish etc. But there is not going to be a benign power that will rescue us from our propensity for self-destruction. It looks like we will continue to behave as we always did for centuries causing more environmental havoc, further depleting forests, fish stock, poisoning rivers and lakes.

The magnificent corals of the “Coral Triangle” in Southeast Asia and the Great Barrier Reef in Australia are dying; with it over 100 million in our region may lose sustenance from the seas and join the ranks of the poor and job seekers in the mega cities.

As human beings provided with intelligence we enjoy being herded into international summits to speak, to be spoken to, on sustainable development and climate change; the rich pompously pledge billions of dollars into combating climate change which they recycle from the now paltry Overseas Development Assistance.

Weapons manufacturers continue to profit from the business of death that devastates entire countries, maims and kills millions of innocent, creates deep scars and anger in the young who surviving the catastrophe will grow angry and thirsty to avenge beloved ones.

We are facing implosions of fragile States with attendant mass atrocities against civilian populations perpetrated by the many sides in the conflicts; in trying to prop up a fragile Member State from being overrun by extremist Islamic bands, the UN has had to confront insurgencies and inevitably is perceived as partial in the conflict and is target of unprecedented attacks.

The UN Peace and Security Architecture is under severe stress with more than 100,000 armed personnel deployed in 14 Peace-Keeping Missions most of which in Africa. This accounts to less than 0.5% of the world military expenditures.

From the very first mediations, shuttle diplomacy, cease-fires and observer missions undertaken by Folke Bernadotte and Dag Hammarskjold in the 60’s to our times, Peacekeeping has evolved into peace enforcement and robust protection of civilian in armed conflicts; from being mere unarmed or non-combatant forces, the UN and/or regional organisations, authorised by the SC, at times are mandated to use robust force to challenge armed groups, as in Congo and Mali.

Western leaders protest over the core costs of the UN and its Peace Operations as “excessive”, but gingerly find hundreds of billions of dollars to rescue mismanaged Banks, insurance and housing companies, failed auto industries.

The US$8 billion UN Peace-Keeping budget, ridiculously minute, pale against the hundreds of billions of dollars in weapons transactions from Western democracies to totalitarian Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states waging a merciless war in Yemen. And all the impoverished UN tries to do is secure a tiny safe area in a bombed out port to ensure that humanitarian supplies reaching the country.

2015 was a year of promises, hopes and transformations to the UN and the World. We started the year with the Sendai Framework on Disaster Risk Reduction, the Addis Ababa Conference on Financing for Development and closed it with the ground breaking 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Paris Agreement.

While these did not cover peace and security directly, it was clear that a narrative on the emerging global risks and the need to adapt to address them in an integrated manner was emerging across all UN pillars.

In 2014 I was invited by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to chair the High Level Independent Panel on UN Peace Operations (HIPPO), comprising some of the best and brightest in the field. We were tasked to review and propose reforms and new thinking in UN Peace Operations fit for XXI Century challenges.

In June 2015, after months of intense listening to stake-holders, Member States, UN Dept and Agencies, UN Envoys, Force Commanders serving in the field, regional organisations, academics, civil society advocates, community leaders, and after reading through the more than 80 written submissions, we delivered to the then UN Secretary-General our Report entitled Uniting Our Strengths For Peace: Politics, Partnership And People.

It was our collective hope that the report would contribute to a new generation of Peace Operations designed to meet today’s and tomorrow’s challenges.

The Advisory Group of Experts on the 2015 Review of the United Nations Peacebuilding Architecture also issued its report, calling for shift for the UN’s peacebuilding engagement, towards a new vision of sustaining peace, which echoed many of the HIPPO’s findings. The twin resolutions of the General Assembly and the Security Council endorsed the concept and paved the way for a renewed engagement on prevention of conflict.

In the course of 40 years, starting as an innocent and romantic believer in the promises and possibilities of the United Nations, I was witness to failures and betrayals when realpolitik and narrowly defined national interests paralysed the Organization because the powers that be did not summon courage to set aside their narrow national interests and pride.

I engaged with UN personnel, junior and senior, in my own country and in remote outposts where dedicated field staff did their very best to serve the people they were deployed to help. But the UN, an organisation of human beings with virtues and flaws, even when individually equipped with exceptional qualifications and wisdom, was not always capable to anticipate, prevent, mediate and end conflicts.

Afghanistan, Somalia, South Sudan, Syria, Yemen are crying examples, among others, of our utter failure, but likewise these failures have their roots in national leaderships whose excessive ambitions and pride blind them from climbing down and meet halfway their adversaries.

Over the years past SG’s and the current one launched ground breaking initiatives at reform, improve and perfect doctrines and operational capabilities but too often the UN is undercut by realpolitik, super powers and regional powers relationships. Are we to blame the the Senior UN Leadership for these failures?

In the HIPPO report, we stressed:

Peace processes do not end with a ceasefire, a peace agreement or an election. Such events constitute merely a phase, rather than the conclusion, of a peace process. In fact, they may be times of great vulnerability, when belligerents face the uncertainty of making the transition to peaceful politics and when spoilers mobilize. Yet it is at that time that international stakeholders often turn their attention elsewhere.

With the adoption of the 2030 Agenda and its recognition that there is no sustainable development without peace nor peace without sustainable development, HIPPO and the Sustaining Peace agenda were important pieces of the puzzle to enable the UN to be fit for purpose in contexts where missions transition and different UN footprints may be required.

In early 2016 the Secretary-General noted in his report to the World Humanitarian Summit that the commitment to end and prevent conflict was at the center of his Agenda for Humanity under core responsibility 1.

“Saving Humanity from the scourge of war” - prevention, is among the most fundamental charter obligations. It resides in the raison d’être of the organization.

The UN has many tools at its disposal to contribute to transform prevention in reality. None as symbolic as the blue helmets.

Peacekeeping has fundamentally evolved since its first deployment in 1948, from peacekeeping and peace observers to peacebuilding and in some instances, peace enforcement, as well as the experience with transitional administrations in Kosovo and my own home country, Timor Leste.

With increasingly complex and multidimensional mandates created by the Security Council, UN peace operations saw themselves with ever more ambitious mandates, including protection of civilians, security sector reform, rule of law but they are often spread too thin and lack the robust capacity to deliver robust mandates when force enforcement is needed.

The Panel that I shared outlined an ambitious agenda for change in peace operations and proposed four essential shifts:

  • Primacy of politics – to ensure that peace operations are deployed in support of active diplomatic efforts
  • Spectrum of peace operations - the shift from “template missions” to “right fit” missions, adapted to context. This also resonates with the modularity approach being advanced in the context of the UN Development System reform by the Deputy Secretary-General
  • Global and regional partnership for peace and security – a new era of “partnership peacekeeping” recognizing the role of new actors and new coalitions to deliver peace dividends collectively
  • More field-focused United Nations Secretariat and more people-centred United Nations peace operations – Delegations of authority and systems that are designed to improve field effectiveness

As we move towards implementation of the UN’s peace and security as well as management reforms today, it is clear that the Secretary-General is approaching the three streams of reform, peace and security/ management and development in an integrated manner.

An example of how HIPPO impacted the reforms is the recent creation of the new departments of Peace Operations and the new Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs, supported by a new joint structure with a single Assistant Secretary-General responsible for country analysis regardless if it has a special political mission or a peacekeeping operation. This is already helping ensure greater connectivity of analysis and strategy.

With the new Department of Operational Support, support operations have a one stop shop, simplifying the supply chain and increasing effectiveness. The Department of Operational Support has the clear goal of enabling all operational requirements for, whether they be peace operations or Secretariat departments and offices in New York or elsewhere.

Under-Secretary-General Atul Khare recently told a meeting of the C34 delegates in New York covering Peace Operations:

The reforms are about delivering on three fundamental principles:
1) simplification of policy frameworks
2) decentralization of decision-making authority to the point of delivery, and, most importantly…
3) enhanced effectiveness, accountability, efficiency and transparency

Antonio Guterres is one of the most qualified and field tested Secretary-Generals ever elected to the job. With his habitual eloquence he shares with us his vision of a world at peace based on active international partnership and solidarity. But Antonio Guterres and Donald Trump came into office in the same year, two men with very different visions of the world. Antonio Guterres, presides over multilateral institution of equals, small and large, poor and rich, of principles and promises but materially impoverished. The other, Donald Trump, presides over the mightiest economic and military power in the world, whose beliefs and policies are aimed at deconstructing the UN and other multilateral regimes.

To make matters worse, Europe, anchor of multilateralism, is in disarray; its best leader in decades, Angela Merkel, is on the way out, a victim of the refugee crisis; the UK is deeply divided and distracted by a colossal mess of its own making; President Macron of France is confronted with serious domestic political challenges. Racism, anti-semitism and fascism are on the rise across Europe.

The so-called BRICS - Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa - once viewed as a counterweight to the old US-dominated Western alliance has had to scale down its global ambitions. Only China continues to forge forward even if at a slower pace.

In these circumstances, while the UN is sidelined, either on purpose or by unforeseen circumstances, it remains indispensable. It may not have been able to prevent and resolve man-made catastrophes - Syria, South Sudan, Yemen, Congo, Somalia - but in some situations it saved hundreds of thousands of lives; and it still saving lives in these war torn countries. It is the only refuge and hope for many.