What Happened to the UN’s Ability to Mediate?

People living in conflict-ridden countries are increasingly viewing the U.N. as promoting the interests of the West and the powerful, writes Jamal Benomar. This wasn’t always the case.

The war in Ukraine should have been an opportunity for the U.N. to play the major mediating role, the author writes. But it is nowhere to be seen. (Presidency of Ukraine/Twitter)

By Jamal Benomar

It is no secret that United Nations mediation is in a state of decline. The U.N. is no longer in the lead role in conflict countries where the secretary-general and his representatives or special envoys are mandated to provide mediation and good offices. In most of these conflicts, powerful members of the Security Council, regional and subregional organizations are taking the lead, pushing the U.N. to the sidelines.

The only two conflicts where the U.N. is still clearly in the lead are Cyprus and Western Sahara, and, in both countries, it has failed for decades to make any progress.

One needs only to look at how many U.N. envoys cannot enter the countries where they are supposed to be mediating or they have limited access to the actors they should be engaging with. The U.N. has been largely sidelined in many mediation processes by parties to, or backers of, these proxy conflicts, who are ironically taking the mediation lead (for example, in Syria and Yemen).

In recent years, powerful P5 countries [the five permanent members of the Security Council — China, France, Russia,  the United Kingdom and the United States] and others have routinely interfered with the appointment of the secretary-general’s envoys, effectively imposing candidates with little relevant experience. Many envoys have been appointed to countries they have never been and whose language they do not speak.

The U.N. has made a great deal of effort since former Secretary General Kofi Annan’s “In Larger Freedom” reform proposals in 2005 to professionalize its mediation processes and establish a series of guidelines that place inclusion at the forefront.

Kofi Annan in 2012. (U.S. Mission Geneva/Flickr, CC BY-ND 2.0)

However, the practice continues to lag behind the new standards. The establishment of the outstanding Mediation Unit, its very useful Standby Team of Senior Mediation Advisors, and High-Level Advisory Board have all been positive developments, but more needs to be done to ensure that the U.N. upholds its mediation standards of consent, impartiality and inclusivity, particularly in the conflicts that have come to define these past decades.

Earlier this year, the International Center for Dialogue Initiatives, which I chair, published a report titled “Libya: An Assessment of Twelve Years of UN Mediation.” It found that political dialogues facilitated by the U.N. lacked inclusivity and impartiality and were often undermined by the interests and interference of major powers, a pattern that analysts also see in Syria, Yemen and other political processes.

Declining Role 

The U.N. is no longer seen as an impartial body with a strong and respected voice globally. People living in conflict-ridden countries are increasingly viewing the U.N. as promoting the interests of the West and the powerful. But this wasn’t always the case.

May 21, 1960: U.N. Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld addresses a dedication ceremony for Evgeniy Vuchetich’s statue, “Let Us Beat Swords into Ploughshares,” a gift from the Soviet Union to the U.N. (UN Photo/JG)

In previous decades, the U.N. played a major role in facilitating peace processes in many countries and regions around the world (such as Cambodia, Namibia, Central America and Timor-Leste), and numerous dedicated U.N. officials have paid the ultimate price and lost their lives in the pursuit of peace.

The decline of U.N. mediation is taking place against a backdrop of the increased polarization of global politics that can be seen in the Security Council, where Russia and China are often pitted against the United States, the United Kingdom and France.

The continuing monopoly of these three countries — the U.S., the U.K. and France — over the drafting of Security Council resolutions and their undue influence in the Secretariat, where they continue to monopolize the leadership of the peace and security departments, has further eroded the U.N.’s credibility in mediation processes.

Ukraine Should Have Been an Opportunity

The tragic conflict in Ukraine should have presented an opportunity for the U.N. to play the major mediating role and to act as a bridge between Russia and NATO, in the same way that Dag Hammarskjold had carved space for the U.N. to act as a bridge between the East and West during the Cold War. Many countries, such as Saudi Arabia, Israel, Türkiye and South Africa, with other African states, are all vying to play this role, but the U.N. is nowhere to be seen.

In this month’s edition of our newsletter, “Diplomacy Now,” experts and academics, some of whom have worked with or inside the U.N. system, weigh in on the institution’s mediation record in Sudan, Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan, diagnosing what they see as serious flaws and providing recommendations for future engagement.

Keep in mind that the views of these authors do not necessarily reflect our own; however, we publish their essays because we believe that there must be greater reflection and open discussion on the quality of U.N. mediation, if it is to positively affect people whose lives have been or continue to be shaken by war. We strongly believe in a more effective U.N. that is fully able to address today’s global peace and security issues.

Jamal Benomar is the chair of the International Center for Dialogue Initiatives, based in New York City. He is a pro-democracy activist, human rights defender, diplomat and international mediator. His international career spans across 35 years, including 25 years at the United Nations, where he rose to the rank of under-secretary general in recognition of his achievements.

This article is from PassBlue

The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.


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15 comments for “What Happened to the UN’s Ability to Mediate?

  1. Riva Enteen
    September 4, 2023 at 21:09

    hxxps://covertactionmagazine.com/2023/08/11/on-the-brink-of-world-war-does-the-un-still-have-a-raison-detre/ i

    The UN is impotent to resolve conflict because it is a tool of the US/West and to pretend it has a positive function is almost collaboration with the enemy.

  2. peter mcloughlin
    September 4, 2023 at 07:10

    The role of the P5 is primarily to serve their own national interests – each with its veto. The League of Nations was similarly structured: unanimity was required, meaning that the main imperial powers could operate without sanction. It met the same fate as the Concert of Europe. The UN appears to be going in the same direction. Today, the big nuclear states (the five UN veto members) are blind to the pattern of history, blind to the logic of history. It comes down to a simple syllogism: everyone eventually faces the war it is trying to avoid; everyone wants to avoid WW III; therefore, that is the fate that awaits humanity. Paradoxically, the only way to avoid that fate is to accept it.

  3. September 3, 2023 at 20:59

    Thanks for writing what must be written- over and over again, until some of the UN’s bureaucratic inertia, and political paralysis are overcome. Perhaps the UN’s time is over. While it may have lasted a bit longer than the League of Nations, it has accomplished little towards its stated mission; and the current framework – a Security Council dominated by the U.S. Empire and therefore unable and unwilling to pursue peaceful coexistence much less collaboration – is bound to fail.

    The U.S. and its vassal states are largely responsible for this state of affairs. it didn’t have to be this way, but neither did the U.S. have to choose the path of Empire and global hegemony, either. They were the choices of those who represented concentrated private capital instead of the broader public interests and the wellbeing of the planet’s life.

  4. Observer
    September 3, 2023 at 09:12

    This corruption of the UN began internally in the early Eighties, when the righ-wing governments of the USA and UK (represented by Reagan and Thatcher) used their financial influence to force UN agencies to comply with their wishes.
    Nowadays, it has reached the level of the open and shameless scandal at the OPCW (accepted/supported by almost all member states).

    Note that even most of the countries that are not friends of allies of the “collective West” are complicit in this excessive influence, because they don’t want to update the financing of the UN to reflect the current financial strength of the members, and pay more themselves, which would reduce the share contributed by NATO states, and therefore their control.

    The Security Council would already have been revealed as an Anglo-American puppet by endorsing the invasion of Iraq, because several non-permanent members had been pressured and blackmailed by the US into supporting their resolution (and Russia and China were not strong enough to veto it) — if it were not for the international peace movement! The governments of some of those countries took fright when masses of people poured into the streets of their cities, and instructed their delegations at the last minute to vote No. (I have this information almost straight from the horse’s mouth …)

  5. Dr. Hujjatullah M.H.Babu Sahib
    September 3, 2023 at 08:36

    The UN is a thoroughly discredited so-called “supranational” institution that managed to survive this long as a useful international talkshop after having morphed itself out of the mere Victors’ Club that it was at its founding. Its failures to achieve peace did not have to wait till the arrival of the Ukrainian crisis; in fact, it was already visible in how it handled the Palestinian and Kashmiri crises. It failed to make hay even after seemingly upholding its high standards of consent, impartiality and inclusiveness because it could not resist its temptations to suck up to the well endowed of the imperialist powers. Over the decades it has succeeded only to beat the ploughshares back into atomic swords after having well abused its tenure pretending to do otherwise. What a shame, humanity is totally disappointed with the UN. Would the BRICS or others shape up any better ? Only time holds the answer !

  6. jamie
    September 3, 2023 at 08:30

    UN has always been a tool of western countries, more of EU than US; just how it failed in stopping US (NATO) war in Vietnam, US (NATO) in Iraq, NATO in Libya wars based on lies. Today we know EU has always been behind every war US has waged; we know because we have seen the position that EU countries take when a country invade another country, how they sanctioned Russia but never US; there no going back or try to hide their century closed cooperation and UN has enabled every single war through what we call today “UN”s failures” which are in fact just “covert support”.
    EU’s agenda and UN’s are basically the same thing; UN works today like the church and missionaries worked for kings; very active during colonization using religion as a tool to destabilize cultures, to make them unable to adapt and so reliant to the western culture. Once was in the name of Christ, now it is in the name of Human rights and none of those words meant anything other than to gain the power necessary to rule the world because we have declared ourselves ” the chosen ones”.
    Rwanda was an amazing tragedy, the result of failure from both UN and Belgium/France (EU) which have exploited that country by empowering who served better; to these days, I believe, no UN official and European are held responsible and punished for letting the genocide tale place.
    If an organization fails to delivers what it is supposed to, it must be replaced with another organization. UN can’t be saved. We don’t have to fear changes or being excessively romantic, no God has declared that UN should be the one dealing with human problems. Unfortunately, UN has the same DNA of European culture and it can no longer adapt to the new world.
    The next “world council”, should have weak, small and culturally diverse nations at the decision-making table, perhaps even communities, like the native American tribes; they should decide for the world destiny, if US war is legal and justified; those nations don’t have hegemonic interest in ruling the world or to build the biggest army in the world… but of course they could be “bribed” or influenced, but that’s something we will deal with later. In the meantime UN must go, and if UN is truly about humanity it will itself declare “no longer fit to serve the world” and turn into a western organization (which is what is already is).

  7. WillD
    September 2, 2023 at 23:56

    The UN has lost its relevance. It should be devoting its efforts to mediating between the US/Ukraine and Russia, and should be directly addressing Russia’s security needs, as requested by Russia on numerous occasions.

    By failing to do any of these things, it abrogates its authority, and becomes just another collective west tool.

    • September 3, 2023 at 20:51

      As there is no “Like” reaction possible, I’ll just say thanks.

  8. Robert
    September 2, 2023 at 19:29

    The U.N. turned bureaucratic decades ago. Inertia rules the day. No independence from US pressure.

    Proof: The current Russia/Ukraine war was one of the most avoidable wars in history. But the U.N. was nowhere in sight or sound during the crucial 3 months preceding the start of the war. The security council knew that the United States wanted Russia in a war with Ukraine and no bureaucrats were going to risk their appointments by attempting to prevent the war.

    Among the many reasons that BRICS is growing and will grow further, is that all aspects of the United Nations lean heavily towards whatever the United States wants. BRICS will eventually form some organization to at least partially bypass the U.N., and with better results. The U.N. is the type of organization that should vacate New York City. Somewhere, anywhere other than NYC.

  9. C. Parker
    September 2, 2023 at 19:11

    The February 2022 United Nation Security Council’s hearing regarding the Russia-Ukraine increasing deadly situation since 2014, one would easily notice the United Nations’s indifference towards Russia. Is it not the purpose of the UN to provide peaceful solutions among member countries? The Russian minister made an eloquent plea to the UN as he spoke of the “collective west’s” hostile use of Ukraine’s prospective membership into NATO—as an existential threat towards Russia. It would be difficult for most statesman to respect the United Nation following the apathy it demonstrated towards Russia’s legitimate concern.

  10. Lois Gagnon
    September 2, 2023 at 15:44

    The US and its vassals have worked diligently to undermine the purpose of the UN, at this point feeling arrogant enough to supplant International Law with the meaningless “rules based international order.”

    As the multipolar world continues to take shape, I believe there should be a push to relocate the UN to a country in the global south. It is also time to eliminate permanent member status. The Security Council should be making decisions without the threat of the veto. These changes should go a long way in making the UN more effective in mediating conflict.

  11. Susan Leslie
    September 2, 2023 at 11:52

    As long as the UN is directly under the influence of the wealthy western world, it can never be truly independent.

  12. Vera Gottlieb
    September 2, 2023 at 10:46

    How can you mediate when it has come down to West vs East? Rich vs poor?

    • Valerie
      September 2, 2023 at 16:14

      Very astute point Vera.

  13. D.G. Elcock
    September 2, 2023 at 10:02

    Great article. From the late ’80s until today, there have been continued erosion of the UN’s authority on issues in which the organization should have played leading roles. However, it is the dominance of the western powers (or bloc) that has functioned to undermine its otherwise possible effectiveness. Today it is much distanced from the lofty ideals that were enunciated in its founding. Hopefully, in the face of growing appeals for return to multipolarity, some change can come about. The alternative to this would be perception of it as an organization that has now outlived its uselessness.

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