Of the twenty-two members of the Arab League, no less than nine have been assigned a Special Advisor, Special Coordinator, Special Envoy, or Special Representative by the Secretary-General of the United Nations. Their purpose, broadly speaking, is to promote conflict resolution in their respective area of operations. None have succeeded, and where peace has been achieved their contribution has generally been marginal. As unprecedented levels of death, destruction, and displacement are visited upon the region and its peoples, the world body needs to find ways to make such appointments effective, or significantly curtail them.
There is of course no single explanation for this inefficacy, and its reasons reside outside the UN at least as much as within it. Yet what should concern the world body is not the culpability of others but rather its own responsibilities. In this respect. a recent senior posting with the Office of the UN Special Envoy for Syria provided valuable insights into the limitations of such missions.
When the previous envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, resigned in May 2014, expectations that the United Nations could resolve or mitigate the Syria conflict were effectively nil. Under such circumstances it would have made more sense to keep the post vacant, emphasizing the reality of a diplomatic vacuum, than to pretend the void was being filled. In its fear to be seen as abandoning Syria, the United Nations became part of the problem. Promoting the illusion of purposeful mediation, its new envoy, Staffan de Mistura, advocated a process widely recognized as stillborn. Futhermore, the process was quickly reduced to promoting gimmicks such as a ceasefire in a single neighborhood of one Syrian city—and more recently a “stress test” consisting of nothing more than the routine consultations on Syria’s political future his predecessors engaged in from the date of their appointment.
The more sensible alternative would have been to refuse to appoint an envoy until there was a role for one. Not only would this course of action have done no harm, but it arguably would have compelled others to think more seriously about a credible framework to address this catastrophic conflict. Such an approach would not have negatively affected the valuable humanitarian functions UN agencies continue to perform, and would probably have helped to de-politicize them.
A critical reason UN envoys are often paralyzed is polarization within its Security Council. All too often this translates into a tendency by the UN Secretariat and its appointees to accommodate powerful political pressures rather than act independently of them or insist upon unified backing as a condition for service. Some candidates campaign for such high-profile positions by seeking to ingratiate themselves with key governments. In other instances the UN Secretariat selects the lowest common denominator. In such cases the fate of the mission is effectively sealed before it begins. Experience demonstrates that where UN envoys represent the agenda of key member states rather than of the international community as a whole, the interests of the region’s peoples tend to come last. In other words, we would be better off without them.
A related point concerns the quality of appointees. Some are genuinely outstanding, yet too often mediocrity and careerism triumph. An envoy lacking sufficient experience and expertise in the region and its politics, or in the arts of mediation and conflict resolution, is unlikely to achieve much headway or have what it takes to formulate a credible Plan B. It seems eminently reasonable to insist that if the United Nations is unable to deploy a member of its A Team, it should send nobody. Credulous envoys played like violins by seasoned politicians serve no purpose other than obscuring the goalposts, and do more harm than good.
Although I served in an office that was exceptionally dysfunctional, my experience raises the broader question of adult supervision. The cronyism, dodgy personnel decisions, and resultant amateurism I witnessed were simply breathtaking, yet were almost never challenged by a UN Secretariat institutionally responsible for such missions. Unwilling to play puerile office games while Syria burns, a growing number of colleagues–myself included–chose an early exit, to the extent that not one political officer remains in the envoy’s Damascus office. To be sure, the United Nations is teeming with dedicated professionals and first-rate expertise. Yet all too often such competence is gleefully thrown overboard by sharp-elbowed and well-connected climbers.
The office of the UN envoy for Syria is only an extreme case of a broader problem with such missions. Elsewhere in the region, the United Nations has just appointed a new coordinator for a Middle East peace process that no longer exists, and more ludicrously retains a second envoy for Lebanon–based in New York–charged both with overseeing the departure of foreign forces that left the country a decade ago, and disarming a guerilla movement that could only be neutralized by a massive foreign invasion.
The United Nations has a valuable and arguably indispensable role to play in resolving the region’s conflicts and serving the rights and interests of its peoples. Yet the available evidence suggests the serial appointment of special envoys contributes little to this laudable mandate.
The review of UN peace operations currently being conducted under the leadership of José Ramos-Horta is examining not only the organization’s peace and security activities but also special political missions such as those littering the Middle East. Unless the latter are reconfigured to make them genuinely effective, they should be reconsidered and if necessary abandoned.