Guéhenno: “Much Better for the UN to Take Risks”

Jean-Marie Guéhenno, President and CEO of the International Crisis Group and the former Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations, offered a bold observation to an IPI audience about the United Nations. “The UN, sadly, is a very risk averse organization,” he declared. “It’s much better not to take risks for a career at the UN. But it’s much better for the UN to take risks.”

Drawing upon his own tenure as Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations from 2000-2008, a period of unprecedented growth for peacekeeping, he lamented the difficulty for UN leadership to “take some calculated risks,” because of an organizational culture which discourages them from doing so.

“I do believe it is very important for leaders in the UN to encourage risk-taking up to a point,” he said. “Intelligent risk-taking. Often it’s not the case if the staff feel that if they do something wrong, they will be hanged. It is not good. They have to be encouraged to take that risk.”

Discussing his new memoir, The Fog of Peace, on July 14th, Mr. Guéhenno explained the book’s title. “It was important in a book to convey the fog of action, the confusion, and uncertainty,” he said. The title also served as a metaphor for the haze of decision-making in peacekeeping operations. “That is at the heart of peacekeeping,” he said. “It’s all about tradeoffs. It’s about taking some risks, measuring them. But you only know in hindsight whether you have been right or wrong.”

Mr. Guéhenno’s reflection on his time in office remains pertinent, and he identified and offered solutions for key challenges facing peacekeeping operations. While recognizing that peacekeeping inherently involves the use of force, he said force itself should not be overdone.

“Force could never achieve by itself any political result,” he said. “It can be one element in a much broader strategy. If it is anything more than that, it is bound to disappoint.”

He also noted the need to set realistic goals at the outset of a peacekeeping operation, declaring, “The idea that through force you are going to stabilize a country is an illusion.”

Developing his thoughts on force and intervention, Mr. Guéhenno emphasized the importance of his having left Europe for New York. Here he interacted with a diverse group of leaders at the UN that changed his perspective on the concept of sovereignty.

“We have to understand the position of weaker countries,” he said. “The only thing that they have to assert themselves, to protect themselves from the enormous imbalance of power, is this concept of sovereignty, and that should be acknowledged.”

Continuing with the theme of sovereignty, he commented on calls for the UN to return to a focus on prevention, instead of continually addressing conflict after it breaks out. But, he conceded it would be have to be done with care.

“Countries are like human beings,” he said. “They don’t like checkups. They don’t like being told they are not doing well, that they need a treatment.”

He went on to praise UN regional offices as one means of doing so, “provided the person in charge of the office is the right person. This is a way for the UN to go to a country without flagging too much the country is in a state of crisis.”

Looking ahead, Mr. Guéhenno identified a key challenge for the next UN Secretary-General, to be elected in 2016. As the nature of conflicts is changing, he said, the UN must adjust as an organization to enable taking a more holistic view of the challenges before it.

“You need to look at all the levers you have, the troops, the political, the development, and see how you orchestrate them in a way that will maximize the influence of the UN,” he said. “I think the UN presently is not very well organized to do that.”

He concluded by recommending “having some kind of a planning capacity that is independent of any particular department, that looks at those issues in a comprehensive way, without thinking ‘Oh, it’s peacekeeping, it has to be peacekeepers,’ ‘it’s political, it has to be a political mission.’”

He argued that an independent planning commission could enable the UN to overcome the “silo” mentality of its various departments, to instead act as one by looking “at a situation on its merit, and not on its bureaucratic merit.”

As the UN is being examined by various high-level reviews for its 70th anniversary, Mr. Guéhenno reminded the audience that though a humanitarian organization, the UN should not shy away from politics.

“If we do not have a good understanding of the political dynamics of the situation in which we are getting engaged, we are unlikely to make headway,” he said. “And the biggest weakness of any UN deployment, or any deployment for that matter, whether it is the US or the UN, any deployment, is the fact that there is not a serious understanding of the dynamics of the country.”

Further, he questioned the nature of the relationship between the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the UN Security Council, where the latter can politicize justice by threatening referral to the Court.

“When you see justice as a pressure point, not justice for justice sake, you are in trouble because justice cannot be turned on and off. It should not be. Justice is about justice, it is not a pressure point.”

As the nature of conflict has changed to become both more transnational and involve more non-state actors, Mr. Guéhenno’s final piece of advice for the UN was to remember its origins as a forum for dialogue. “I think, for the United Nations, one essential is to be prepared to talk to anybody who is prepared to talk to the United Nations,” he explained. “And that means sadly that a number of interlocutors will not be reachable because at the moment they would not accept to talk to the United Nations, they would kill whoever wants to talk to them. But this has to be, in my view, the posture.”

He added that to foster constructive dialogue, it is essential to talk to everyone on all sides of an issue, “and I think Western governments, in that respect, have not had the right policy. Because if you have a policy that you talk to anybody that is willing to talk, then talking does not become legitimization.”

IPI Senior Adviser for External Relations Warren Hoge moderated the conversation.

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