posted on Fri 20 Apr 2018 4:04 PM
Security Council’s Retreat with the Secretary-General

The annual Security Council retreat with the Secretary-General will take place on 21 and 22 April. Unlike previous years, when members have generally met at the Greentree Estate on Long Island, this year they will meet in Backåkra, the private estate of Dag Hammarskjöld, the UN’s second Secretary-General, at the initiative of Sweden and Peru, Council president for April.

This retreat, which is into its 17th year, has always been a unique opportunity for Council members to reflect on larger themes relevant to the work of the Council and the UN system with the Secretary-General and senior members of the Secretariat. While peacekeeping issues appear to have been a recurring theme, issues covered over the years have included climate change, transnational crime, human rights, and peace and development in the Arab world.

This year the retreat is expected to focus largely on a new narrative for peace operations in the context of partnerships with regional and sub-regional organisations. This is expected to be discussed within the broader context of the peace continuum from conflict prevention through building sustainable peace. Shortly after one of the most divisive weeks in the Council in years, following the alleged chemical weapons attack in Douma, Syria, the situation in Syria was added to the agenda of the retreat in the hopes that Council members can explore avenues of cooperation on this issue.

There are three main areas related to peace operations that will be covered during the discussions. The first aspect is peaceful resolution of conflict through prevention, the Secretary-General’s good offices, and peacebuilding. Encouraged by the Secretary-General’s interest in prevention, Council members have also focused on this issue, including Sweden in January 2017, Kazakhstan last January, and Kuwait in February. Among the areas that may be covered is how changes in the Secretariat may allow it to more effectively use the prevention tools at its disposal. This session is also likely to focus on the importance, as well as the challenges, of working with regional and sub-regional organisations on prevention. While many of these ideas have been covered in recent Council debates, the retreat may offer an opportunity to discuss practical steps that can be taken when there are clear signals of potential conflict. Members may also want to explore how best to use the tools in the UN Charter related to the peaceful resolution of conflict (Chapter VI) and relations with regional organisations (Chapter VIII).

The discussion on peace operations will also cover the difficulties faced by peace operations deployed in the absence of a clear political strategy, a major theme of the 2015 report of the High-Level Independent Panel on Peace Operations (HIPPO), which emphasised the “primacy of politics”.

A key conclusion of the HIPPO report (as well as the 2000 Brahimi Report), which is expected to be a topic of discussion this weekend, is the need for realistic and achievable mandates in order for peace operations to be successful. This theme was recently raised at a Council open debate during the Dutch presidency on collective action to improve UN peacekeeping operations. During the debate, Guterres announced a new initiative, ‘Action for Peacekeeping’, aimed at mobilising all stakeholders to create peacekeeping operations fit for the future. He warned against mandate inflation and the impossible implementation of many mandated tasks and called on the Council to sharpen and streamline mandates. Council members may be asked to consider the steps needed to achieve this goal, including appropriate resources, realistic expectations, prioritising tasks, aligning resources and mandates more closely, and having coordinated and coherent political strategies. Among the issues that may be raised is the need for the Secretariat to provide honest analysis and reporting, which in turn could lead to more effective decision-making by the Council.

A second potential area of conversation is the impact of Council discussions of the strategic reviews of peacekeeping operations that are currently being conducted at the initiative of the Secretariat. These reviews are intended to examine the conditions for success in each operation and offer bold options and proposals on restructuring and on alignment between mission resources and mandate implementation. Other questions that may be raised include how to create the political and security space for peacekeeping operations, how to devise realistic mandates and expectations while ensuring alignment with resources, and how to enhance the performance of peacekeeping operations.

The final area to be discussed under the overall heading of peace operations that is expected to be covered is peace enforcement and counter-terrorism and cooperation with regional organisations in this context. Among the issues likely to be raised in this discussion is to what extent UN peace operations should engage or support the parallel operations of regional organisations, particularly if they are carrying out parallel peace enforcement or counter-terrorism operations.

The current support provided by the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali to the joint force of the G5 Sahel deployed in Malian territory is the latest example of this trend. A related question is how the Council can ensure that regional actors receiving UN assistance are held accountable for mandate implementation and how the Council can mitigate risks in supporting these operations.

In this context, a long-standing issue that may be covered is the lack of predictable and sustainable funding for regional peace operations. Connected to this are questions around whether Council authorisation or endorsement of regional action should be accompanied by financial support and what degree of oversight, both operationally and strategically, should the Council maintain for regional missions that receive UN financial support.

In the session on Syria, the Secretary-General is expected to focus on how the Council can come together, in spite of its clear differences on this issue. This will be a rare opportunity for the Secretary-General to provide Council members with a frank assessment of how he sees the way forward on possibly the most divisive issue the Council has faced since the end of the Cold War. The Secretary-General has indicated that he is willing to support efforts to establish a new mechanism to attribute responsibility for the use of chemical weapons in Syria. A Swedish draft resolution that asks the Secretary-General to submit a proposal on a new mechanism, as well as to dispatch a high-level disarmament mission to Syria to address “all outstanding issues on the use of chemical weapons once and for all on its territory”, is still on the table. A wide-ranging discussion of possible options to break the current impasse in the Council could cover the possibility of the Secretary-General, on his own, appointing a team of investigators to identify those responsible for the use of chemical weapons in Syria. While there is little likelihood that this discussion would change firmly entrenched positions on Syria, the informal setting may allow the discussion to go beyond the recent charged public rhetoric.

While many of the topics that are expected to be covered over the two days are not new, the distance from New York and the closed, informal nature of the retreat may allow ambassadors to put aside prepared statements and engage in a more open and frank discussion. By holding the retreat at the private estate of Hammarskjöld, the hosts Peru and Sweden hope that members will be inspired to find a way to move forward on some of the more intractable issues in the Council.