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Editor’s Note: This piece was adapted from the Security Council Report’s September 2023 Monthly Forecast.
On July 20, UN Secretary-General António Guterres released “A New Agenda for Peace.” It is one of 11 policy briefs connected to his 2021 report, “Our Common Agenda,” which reflects his vision for the future of multilateralism. The policy briefs offer proposals for member states’ consideration in preparation for the UN’s Summit of the Future in September 2024. In keeping with UN General Assembly Resolution 76/307 of Sept. 8, 2022, the summit aspires to reinvigorate the multilateral system and to culminate in the adoption of “a concise, action-oriented outcome document entitled ‘A Pact for the Future’, agreed in advance by consensus through intergovernmental negotiations.”
“A New Agenda for Peace” represents the secretary-general’s ideas for member states to prevent conflict and advance peace. Its relevance to the UN Security Council is self-evident, given that the council is conferred by UN member states with “the primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security” and acts on their behalf in “carrying out its duties under this responsibility,” under Article 24 (1) of the UN Charter.
Below are five key takeaways from “A New Agenda for Peace” relevant to the Security Council’s work.
1. “A New Agenda for Peace” sets out the range and complexity of current, and coming, security challenges, with specific recommendations for the Security Council.
“A New Agenda for Peace” describes a much different world than its 1992 forerunner, “An Agenda for Peace,” which observed that the thaw in East-West relations had created “new possibilities … to meet successfully threats to common security.” Declaring that the “post-cold war period is over,” “A New Agenda for Peace” finds that promoting peace and preventing conflict will require “major changes” by member states. Member states’ unity has waned since the early 1990s and has been replaced by an emerging global order characterized by political and economic fragmentation; growing great power competition; and the rise of nontraditional security threats such as climate change, the use of uncrewed aerial vehicles, cyber threats, biorisks, and artificial intelligence. Institutions developed to manage risk, such as arms control agreements, are on the decline, and the growing distrust among nuclear powers has led to a resurgent threat of nuclear oblivion, according to the policy brief.
“A New Agenda for Peace” posits that a more secure world will be predicated on enhancing trust and solidarity among UN member states—as well as a more universal adherence to the norms enshrined in international law, including the UN Charter, such as respect for human rights and the territorial integrity of member states. It emphasizes the importance of women’s rights, with a call to “dismantle the patriarchy” focusing on “progress on gender equality or women’s full, equal and meaningful participation in political life.”
The disunity described in the policy brief is visible in the Security Council. In recent years, negotiations have rarely been smooth, and in 2022, one-third of all resolutions were adopted without unanimous agreement. “A New Agenda for Peace” proposes a range of actions for the Security Council, including a commitment to punitive measures in connection with the threat or use of nuclear weapons, improved use of sanctions, and “democratized” procedures.
2. Conflict prevention and mediation remain key to the secretary-general’s vision for the multilateral system.
When Guterres came into office in 2017, he called for a “surge in diplomacy for peace.” Consistent with this idea, “A New Agenda for Peace” calls for a “commitment to the pacific settlement of disputes.” It says that the “underutilization of the different tools referred to in article 33 of the Charter remains one of our greatest collective shortcomings.” The article, in Chapter VI of the charter, names these tools as “negotiation, enquiry, mediation, conciliation, arbitration, judicial settlement, resort to regional agencies or arrangements, or other peaceful means” that the parties may choose to pursue. Article 33 also says that the Security Council “shall, when it deems necessary, call upon the parties to settle their dispute by such means.”
The Security Council makes frequent reference to Article 33 in its work, with elements of this article found in the mandates of peace operations authorized and overseen by the council, as in Cyprus and South Sudan. While not mentioned in “A New Agenda for Peace,” the Security Council’s visiting missions draw on elements of Article 33, in that the council frequently meets with parties to disputes, encouraging them to resolve their differences peacefully. For example, when the council visited South Sudan in October 2019, it met with President Salva Kiir, followed by a separate meeting with other signatories of the 2018 peace agreement, including opposition leader Riek Machar, urging them to implement the peace agreement.
The council has undertaken only two visiting missions since late 2019, one to Mali and Niger in October 2021 and another to the Democratic Republic of the Congo in March. This is largely due to travel restrictions during the coronavirus pandemic, although difficult council dynamics have also played a role, as the destination of visiting missions needs to be agreed by council members by consensus. Despite these issues—and coronavirus safety measures permitting—members of the council could undertake more visiting missions to help reinvigorate its conflict prevention and mediation efforts.
The policy brief says that “states with the largest nuclear arsenals have a responsibility to negotiate further limits and reductions on strategic nuclear weapons” and advocates the development of “confidence-building and transparency measures with respect to nuclear arsenals.” The Security Council—whose five permanent members are the largest nuclear powers in the world—could be a useful forum for a discussion of and potential action on such measures.
3. Serious reflection is needed on the direction of peace operations in light of the complex and evolving security environment.
“A New Agenda for Peace” highlights the enormous challenges facing peace operations today and calls for the Security Council and the General Assembly to reflect on the “limits and future of peacekeeping in light of the evolving nature of conflict,” which is marked by “complex domestic, geopolitical and transnational factors.”
Council members are increasingly questioning whether peacekeeping is the right tool in hostile environments in places such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Mali, whose government in June called for the expeditious withdrawal of the UN peacekeeping operation there. The policy brief underlines the increased need for peace enforcement and recommends that the council authorize multinational forces where required. The council has a long history of authorizing such forces and may consider doing so again in the near future to restore order to Haiti, whose capital is largely controlled by violent gangs.
The policy brief recommends that the Security Council and the General Assembly reflect “on the limits and future of peacekeeping … with a view to enabling more nimble, adaptable and effective mission models,” leveraging the full range of civilian capacities and expertise across the UN system and beyond, with appropriate transition and exit strategies.
Topically, the policy brief recommends that the African Union (AU) and subregional peace support operations authorized under Chapter VII (coercive measures) and Chapter VIII (regional arrangements) of the UN Charter “have the required resources to succeed, including assessed contributions where required.” African members of the UN Security Council have long called for enhanced UN resources for AU peace support operations, and they may be making some progress. Elected member Ghana may pursue a resolution authorizing support for AU peace support operations from UN-assessed contributions before the end of 2023. Our early observations indicate that council members, including the United States, may be amenable to some form of financial backing for these operations, although it is too early to tell.
4. A strong endorsement of the Security Council’s work on climate change, peace, and security.
The council has grappled with climate change since 2007, with heightened engagement since 2017. The secretary-general discusses this issue under a section entitled “Preventing Conflict and Sustaining Peace.” This heading is consistent with a view many Security Council members share of climate action as a conflict prevention tool and an opportunity to build peace.
The brief recommends that the council “systematically address the peace and security implications of climate change in the mandates of peace operations and other country or regional situations on its agenda.” Notwithstanding political divisions among its members, the council has been considering the effects of climate change in mandates for several years—including in Iraq, Somalia, and South Sudan, among other locations. The climate crisis is likely to deepen in the coming years, bringing linkages between climate-related factors and conflict into sharp relief. This may necessitate the council’s ongoing and enhanced engagement on the adverse effects of climate change in multiple contexts. (For more background on the Security Council and climate change, see our research reports “The UN Security Council and Climate Change: Tracking the Agenda after the 2021 Veto” and “The UN Security Council and Climate Change.”)
5. There is an urgent need to reform the Security Council and make its working methods more democratic.
“A New Agenda for Peace” emphasizes the urgent need for a Security Council that is “more representative of the geopolitical realities of today, and of the contributions that different parts of the world make to global peace,” as well as a “genuine democratization of its working methods.” This reflects long-standing concerns about the need to enhance the legitimacy and effectiveness of the council, which have become more pronounced in recent years, at least in part due to the council’s ineffectiveness in responding to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
With regard to structural reform, the policy brief recommends that “urgent progress” be made in the General Assembly’s intergovernmental negotiations (IGN) on council reform. The IGN process began in 2008 but has yet to make clear progress, with member states unable to agree to hold text-based negotiations. To complicate matters, various groups of member states have for many years pursued different and often competing reform plans, and any reform would require a two-thirds vote of the General Assembly membership—as well as ratification by two-thirds of UN member states, including all the permanent members, through “their respective constitutional processes”—in accordance with Article 108 of the UN Charter. What’s clearer are the recommendations for the council to “democratize its procedures,” including through “more burden-sharing among Council members on resolutions, in particular in situations in their region to which they are not a party.” This echoes some UN members’ concern that the P3 (permanent members France, the United Kingdom, and the United States) hold the pen on the majority of situations on the council’s agenda.
There have been significant developments on this front, with a surge in co-penholding (in other words, drafting and leading the negotiations on council decisions) among permanent and elected members in 2022. Although the council has not been able to stop the bloodshed in Ukraine, the war entailed new penholding needs with regard to different aspects of the conflict, which led to the U.S. and Albania co-penholding on its political aspects, and France and Mexico on humanitarian developments. Also in 2022, Mexico shared the pen with the U.S. on Haiti and the U.K. on Colombia. Mexico chaired the 2374 Mali Sanctions Committee in 2021 and 2022 and served as co-penholder with France on the resolution renewing the Mali sanctions regime. This trend has continued into 2023, with Ecuador co-penholding on Haiti with the U.S. and on Ukrainian humanitarian issues with France.
The policy brief also recommends promoting “greater accountability of permanent members for the use of the veto.” The 2022 “veto initiative” led by Liechtenstein, prompted by the council gridlock on Ukraine, is a modest effort in this direction in the General Assembly. Resolution 76/262 from April 2022 requires the president of the General Assembly to convene a meeting “within 10 working days of the casting of a veto by one or more permanent members of the Security Council, to hold a debate on the situation as to which the veto was cast, provided that the Assembly does not meet in an emergency special session on the same situation.” It also invites the council, in accordance with Article 24(3) of the UN Charter, to submit a special report on the use of the veto at least 72 hours before the relevant discussion in the General Assembly. Since the adoption of this General Assembly resolution (“the veto initiative”), vetoes have been cast in the council on North Korea sanctions, the renewal of the cross-border aid mechanism in Syria, the referendum in four provinces in Ukraine, and the renewal of the Mali sanctions regime.
It is still unclear what impact this new initiative will have on the use of the veto, if any. But it is a mechanism that lets the General Assembly hold permanent members accountable for the use of the veto, and it has revitalized talk of council reform.
The contentious dynamics in the Security Council are in many ways symptomatic of broader changes in an increasingly fragmented global system. Some analysts warn that the multipolar world order that is taking shape is particularly dangerous because it increases the possibility of misjudgment. As “A New Agenda for Peace” argues, the “engagement of the [permanent members] in the day-to-day business of the Council—in close cooperation with the elected members—can be a powerful incentive for dialogue and compromise, which in turn can help rebuild trust.”