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Five things UNGA should discuss

Here are some issues that we hope will be raised during UNGA.

1. Rakhine state

One third of the Rohingya ethnic community have been driven out of Rakhine state in northern Myanmar and the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has heard “consistent accounts of extrajudicial killings, including shooting fleeing civilians”. Both the High Commissioner and the Secretary-General have described the actions of the government in Myanmar as tantamount to ethnic cleansing. Several government officials, reportedly including Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, have used dehumanising language about the Rohingya in a manner which is traditionally a precursor to atrocity crimes.

After catastrophic failures to protect civilian lives in Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur, UN member states established the doctrine of “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) in 2005 to ensure that such atrocities would never happen again. But they did, in Sri Lanka in 2009 and in Syria and Yemen to the present day. In response to Sri Lanka the UN established the Human Rights Up Front (HRUF) initiative. Yet while some reforms have been instituted as a result, and actions taken, the international community now once again appears powerless in the face of significant atrocities.

The UN itself certainly still has room for improvement. In the run up to the Rakhine crisis there was controversy surrounding the UN’s “Resident coordinator”, the top official in the country, which indicates that there is still some way to travel in overcoming the challenges in delivering both a development and human rights agenda on the ground. The Secretary-General’s reluctance to refer to the doctrine of the “responsibility to protect” in relation to Myanmar also shows that despite unanimous backing by UN member states in 2005, R2P remains challenging to implement in practice.

But processes and policies can only go so far. As ever, it is political will that is needed. States should have acted earlier and more strongly in response to violations against the Rohingya and targeted development assistance more precisely to prevent matters from getting to this point. States also failed to hold Sri Lanka to account in very similar circumstances perhaps leading the government of Myanmar to believe that they could act with impunity. States now need to act firmly and decisively through the Security Council, deploying whichever tools (mediation, sanctions, travel bans, criminal prosecutions, arms embargos, diplomatic pressure, intervention, peacekeeping and forced demilitarisation) are most appropriate to the situation, and deploying immediate humanitarian and refugee assistance to the region.

2. Reform of the development system

The Secretary-General has announced that overhauling the UN’s development system as one of his most pressing priorities. The need is clear: the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the UN’s vision for the world we want in 2030, will require a formidable effort to achieve, and we are currently about halfway through the crucial first thousand days of the ambitious fifteen year agenda. The UN cannot and should not do all the work itself. Instead, it should support and coordinate activity.

The Secretary-General’s proposals, which may form part of his reform package that he discusses at his event with President Trump on September 18, involve aligning the work of the UN with these Goals and ensuring that the work of the UN’s development arm (UNDP) and its emergency response and humanitarian assistance arm (OCHA) are reconciled without their different functions (short term needs and long term solutions respectively) being compromised.

Most importantly the Secretary-General wants to take the long overdue step of de-linking the functions of UN Resident Coordinators (the most senior UN official in the country) from UNDP Resident Representatives (the most senior development official in the country). As was seen in Myanmar, the fact that a Resident Coordinator is also responsible for development programmes can cause difficulties as they attempt to balance the good relations required to pursue an effective development agenda, with the moral imperative to raise human rights concerns.

We hope that these positive steps form a basis for yet deeper reforms. We would like to see the UN moving away from direct delivery on the ground, where it is no longer always the best-placed actor, and instead focus on encouraging, advising and monitoring states and other implementers.

3. Disaster management

War-driven famine grips Yemen, South Sudan, Nigeria and Somalia. Mudslides killed hundreds in Sierra Leone, 41 million people were affected by floods in Bangladesh and India, 2.5 million Mexicans are in need of aid after an earthquake and typhoons threaten China and Japan. Meanwhile, the US and Caribbean were recently hit by two of the largest hurricanes in recent memory: Harvey and Irma. Climate change means that this new state of affairs may represent a new normal.

Overstretched and underfunded, how is the UN expected to respond to increased demands in a climate where short-sighted populist nationalism increasingly sees politicians pretend that such problems can be stopped at a nation’s border? At a UNA-UK hosted event in May 2017 Secretary-General Guterres outlined some of the answers, but we will be looking to UNGA to come up with others.

4. Peace and security architecture reforms

Secretary-General Guterres has sent a paper to staff and member states for consultation outlining his plans to part merge two UN departments: the Department for Political Affairs (DPA) and the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO). Depending on how consultations go he may make a public announcement shortly, or use the event on 18 September with President Trump or the Security Council’s discussions about peacekeeping on 20 September to discuss them further.

Under the proposals the roles previously held by DPA and DPKO will be shuffled into two new but still separate departments: the Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs (DPPA) and the Department of Peace Operations (DPO). These two departments would then co-manage three regional Assistant Secretary Generals (ASGs) and their teams, each of which would have combined responsibility for political and peacekeeping missions in their area.

The idea is to have the ‘best of both worlds’ combining the strengths of having two separate departments in New York with the strengths of having one united focal point for work on the ground.

The idea has considerable merit, but will require careful implementation. In particular, the new structure could create many overlapping lines of accountability and authority. It also remains to be seen what substance the new departments are tasked with delivering. This is an issue UNA-UK has written about previously.

UN peacekeeping could certainly be done in a different, and cheaper, way. A smaller mission staffed by highly trained and disciplined troops could be as effective as a much larger mission. But the transition to this new kind of peacekeeping must be handled with care, or else civilians in some of the worlds’ most at-risk regions will pay the price for a failed transition.

5. The Sustainable Development Goals

The SDGs provide a 15-year global blueprint to “promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom” in the memorable words of the UN Charter. As we argued in our publication in May, in these crucial first 1,000 days states must not prioritise low-hanging fruit, as many did with the Millennium Development Goals, the SDGs’ predecessors. They must target those groups most at risk of being left behind, such as refugees and migrants, and concentrate on the most transformational interventions, which may relate to Goal 16 on just, peaceful and inclusive societies, rather than more traditional development areas. UNGA will represent a clear opportunity for states to demonstrate a willingness to do that.

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