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A review of Michael von der Schulenburg’s 'On Building Peace: Rescuing the Nation State and Saving the United Nations.' Amsterdam University Press, 2017; 276 pages.
JC McIlwaine

Schulenburg has provided a blueprint that is both original and far more attractive and coherent than any of the recommendations of the many reviews of peacekeeping authorised by the UN Secretariat for the past 15 to 20 years.

Debates on reforming the United Nations almost always focus on the Security Council, whose permanent membership, it is generally agreed, no longer reflects global geopolitical realities, and should therefore be expanded to include more representation, including from Africa and Latin America. In this provocative book, Michael von der Schulenburg, a UN veteran, argues, somewhat counter-intuitively, that this approach should be abandoned, because it is unrealistic to expect that the Council’s unrepresentative members with their prized veto power will accept a dilution of their privilege, which would be the result of greater diversity. He instead advocates two deceptively simple but very thoughtful (and possibly controversial) approaches: expand the UN Charter to include an explicit mandate to intervene in intrastate conflicts; and transform the currently ineffective and sidelined UN Peacebuilding Commission, set up in 2005, to be the “governing council for all UN peace operations” involving intrastate conflicts. His reasoning, rooted in decades of experience leading or helping to manage complex UN missions in Afghanistan, Haiti, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Somalia and Sierra Leone, is unassailable.

The UN, Schulenburg writes, remains vital for global peace and development, but it is currently marginalized by powerful nations to the detriment of smaller and weaker nations, whose very existence as sovereign states is under threat. Intrastate conflicts, which have spurned destructive non-state actors getting support from foreign states, have become the bane of nation-states around the globe, generating massive refugee flows and extremist violence that cause great global anxiety about security.

In fact, though the world may not have grown wiser over the decades, it has in many ways become decidedly gentler and kinder. This may not be obvious in an age of instant media, television, terrorist bombing and demagoguery, but it is demonstrably true. Wars between powerful nations have all but disappeared and smaller wars, though frequent and often atrocious, are less deadly. The Uppsala Conflict Data Program estimates the total death toll from all wars around the world from 2005-2015, a period of 10 years, at 567,000, far fewer than that from a single battle during the WWI (Battle of Verdun in 1916 killed 714,000 men), and a mere fraction of 1.3 to 1.7 million estimated to have been killed during the battle for Stalingrad in 1942/1943.

Indeed, as Steven Pinker has shown in The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011), there has been such decline in the incidence of violence over long stretches of time that today we live in the most peaceful era in human existence. Large wars between powerful nations that produce massive casualties have become rare. One can perhaps think of several markers towards this happy development, but where large casualty interstate wars are concerned, it might be useful to begin with the creation of the United Nations.

Since its famous charter came into effect on 24 October 1945, the occurrence of major wars and the absolute numbers of battle-related deaths have drastically declined. Today, the risk of getting killed in a war or armed conflict is only about 2 per cent compared to the years before the UN came into existence. Correlation should not be confused with cause, and there may be multiple reasons for this important development. However, the UN has surely been influential in the disappearance of wars between large powerful states, which, because of their imperial reach, tend to spread widely and produce far more casualties than intrastate wars. The organisation has had little impact on the occurrence of intrastate wars in smaller and weak states, however. These wars, which were not at all the focus of its founding Charter, have become more frequent. Though they produce fewer casualties, they create massive refugee flows, tend to invite mostly furtive (and therefore difficult-to-end) external interventions, and threaten the very existence states. In short, though often the result of local disputes or power struggles, such wars quickly become threats to international peace and security, warranting the intervention of the UN Security Council.

Over the past decades, weak African states have been particularly affected by such wars: seeming to be intrastate or local, they are often profoundly shaped by external actors, including foreign states. In What Rebels Want (2013), the academic Jennifer Hazen examined seven ‘rebel’ groups in three West African countries. Her research undermined the view among some policy makers that those conflicts were purely civil or intrastate wars. She demonstrates that, though those wars were started by poorly-organised groups, they nonetheless had immense impacts due largely to the support they got from outside, noting that such external supports alter the nature of civil wars and prolongs them “by changing the resources available to warring factions.”

The danger of such intrastate wars growing to threaten the existence of nation states become more acute in regions of great geopolitical interests to the major world powers, as is evident in Ukraine, Syria, Libya, and Yemen. In Ukraine, both Russia and the United States support what in truth amounts to rival factions, but covertly. Russia has sent thousands of ‘volunteers’ to help its allies in East Ukraine, and the US is funding about 20,000 “private security” personnel ostensibly to help train the Ukrainian army. These efforts cost billions of dollars, and have ensured that the crisis will probably not end without Ukraine breaking up. External intervention in Syria is even more blatant; ditto Yemen. It is important to note that these interventions violate the United Nations Charter – they are illegal under international law.

The UN, in other words, has been effectively marginalised with respect to some of the world’s most destructive conflicts today. How can the UN be made more relevant? What needs to be done?

The UN Charter, as noted above, envisaged threats to international peace to come primarily from powerful aggressive states, but for the past 30 years it has had to deal with situations where states become threats to international peace not because they are strong and capable of external aggression, but precisely because they are weak. Threats come from non-state actors, often with the support of foreign states. The UN has had to constantly improvise ways of dealing with the situation, and now almost all of its missions do not merit the term peacekeeping – which evoke the tidy deployment separating enemy state armies on the Sinai Peninsula in the 1950s called ‘Sheriff’s posse’ – and are now invariably called peace operations. They are interventions in messy situations where UN forces are prepared for aggressive action to defend themselves, and protect civilians and the recognised government against non-state actors; or – as in the case of the ‘intervention brigade’ deployed in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2013 – as a more or less aggression force sent to defeat violent non-state groups. This has become normative even though the UN Charter does not provide a legal framework for intervening in member states sucked into interstate wars.

Schulenburg deplores the undermining of the United Nations by powerful countries violating international law through interventions, overt and covert, to support client factions in weaker states, often leading to long drawn out conflicts in which the existence of such weak states could no longer be assured. Non-state actors in such situations become more and more powerful, in some cases taking the form of extremist groups (Schulenburg avoids the emotive term ‘terrorist’) that then pose a grave threat to innocent civilians around the world. The increasing activities of such groups in turn fuel such anxiety in powerful countries that they resort to further militarisation and more interventions: a vicious cycle.

Certainly, Schulenburg writes, in such a situation the UN Charter is no longer a guarantor of peace, for its core principles are being trampled upon by powerful states that drafted the Charter. An unapologetic internationalist and a true believer in the continuing relevance of the UN for global peace, security and development, Schulenburg suggests expansion of the Charter so that the UN can deal with these new threats more effectively. The immediate task is to “rescue the nation-state” and maintain its integrity, because in an age of globalization neutering the nation-state merely means giving lease of life to nihilistic non-state actors who cannot be held to any norm, and who do not recognise any borders.

This is obviously a threat to international peace and security, but absent an aggressive power that can be held to account. In this situation, Schulenburg says that the Security Council could remain as currently constituted but since a revised UN Charter would in effect involve making decisions over national and state sovereignties, a more representative body must be tasked with that grave decision. The Security Council in any case is often too paralysed, as in the case of Syria, by the geopolitical rivalries of its permanent members. Therefore, the Peace Building Commission (PBC) – which has 31 members, including the members of the Security Council, all of them elected because of their investments in UN peace missions, and none with a veto power – should be transformed into a new council that would help decide and entirely govern all UN operations involved with intrastate conflicts.

This is more than a formal transformation or iteration of the Group of Friends. The PBC was created by concurrent resolutions of the Security Council and the General Assembly to coordinate and reinforce the UN peace building architecture, and to advance peace, security, human rights, and development around the world. The Security Council has never felt entirely comfortable with the PBC, its own creation, and Schulenburg is aware of this. He therefore suggests redefining the mandate of the PBC so that it will not compete but “complement the work of the Security Council.”

The Security Council would continue to be the body with the responsibility of maintaining global peace and security, and mandating peace operations. But the PBC would be responsible for overseeing the missions as mandated by the Security Council, becoming active only after the Security Council has placed a member state with an intrastate conflict on its watch-list. The PBC would then review the case/s on the watch-list and recommend Security Council action. All such agreed interventions must be carefully planned and resourced to in effect rescue nation states and make them viable as sovereign authorities.

Will this arrangement rescue the Security Council from its proneness to paralysis in the face of conflicts like Syria, and the UN from being marginalised? For this to happen, the new Peace Building Council ought, one supposes, to be empowered to authorise such interventions by a majority vote in case of Security Council paralysis. This is not without precedent: major peace operations during the Cold War were authorised by the General Assembly canvassed, of course, by a major power. The new Peace Building Council could make such a decision and its implementation a lot more tidy and effective. It might be objected that such an arrangement would provide the framework and incentive for unnecessary interventions and place awkward regimes at risk. But the very diversity of the Peace Building Council guarantees that this risk will remain low.

Schulenburg has provided a blueprint that is both original and far more attractive and coherent than any of the recommendations of the many reviews of peacekeeping authorised by the UN Secretariat for the past 15 to 20 years.



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