The UN Needs to Stand Up to Power

The 2030 Agenda calls for an ethical shift

When the United Nations General Assembly adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development in September of 2015, this represented a unique opportunity to make a leap forward toward a more prosperous, sustainable, just and peaceful world.

The 2030 Agenda is unprecedented in a number of ways. One of them is its explicit aim to contribute to peace building by addressing the root causes of conflict, including poverty, inequality and exclusion. Indeed, one of the Sustainable Development Goals – number 16 – is to ‘Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.’

The 2030 Agenda embodies a clear ethical shift in how we see development. It demands that the powerful share more of their power with the powerless and the wealthy to share more of their wealth with the poor. It also calls for humans to cede some of their hegemony over the earth so that we may preserve the planet we share with other forms of life.

The United Nations can and should play an important role in shepherding these – in its own words — ‘transformational changes’ required to build the kind of world that the 2030 Agenda envisions. And that requires the UN to fully engage in the task of coaxing and at times pressuring nations to muster the collective political will to take difficult decisions and actions that will often threaten the interests of those in power and earn their ire.

The UN must use its moral autority

In particular, the UN Country Teams (UNCTs) must be at the frontlines of this crucial endeavor — the United Nations has country teams, led by UN Resident Coordinators (UNRCs), in 131 countries, covering 165 countries where there are United Nations programmes. However, in order for this to happen, the UN System as a whole must change the culture of risk averseness and deference to power that is keeping UNCTs from consistently fulfilling this responsibility.

The United Nations, among the many and diverse multilateral organizations, enjoys a special kind of legitimacy based on representing virtually all countries in the world and the universal principles, goals and values agreed upon by them and enshrined in international treaties and agreements. But this legitimacy, in order to have an impact on people’s lives, requires that it be consistently applied in the UN’s work on the ground.

The UN System has on many occasions exercised its moral and political authority to influence political and policy decisions by countries, even when it is providing minimal financial or material assistance for that purpose. I have personally had the privilege of taking part in some of these efforts, for example, advocating for governments to invest more resources in basic services to benefit the poorest and most vulnerable populations, or urging and facilitating peaceful and democratic dialogue to resolve political conflicts. Yet too many times, the UN has also squandered its moral and political capital by not exercising it when it should.

In large part, this failing is the product of a culture of avoidance of conflict and complaisance of member states that has prevailed in the United Nations System. This culture has in turn led to self-censorship when it comes to calling out wrongs or omissions committed by governments and other powerful political actors. This is of course understandable in an institution whose highest authority is exercised by the governments of member states, many of which are wary of the UN System interfering, and particularly speaking out publicly on issues which they consider to be the exclusive purview of national governments.

But it is not okay to accept these limitations as inevitable when the inability of UN Country Teams to transcend them can have grievous consequences, especially for the most vulnerable among us.

A tragic example was the inaction of the UN when faced with attacks against civilians by the Sri Lankan government which led to the deaths of thousands during the civil war. More recently, there has been a great deal of criticism against the UN System for not being more firm and vocal in defending the Rohingya population against genocidal violence by the Burmese military.

In the report commissioned by the UN Secretary General on the Sri Lankan case, the authors point out: ‘Throughout the conflict, some UNCT and UNHQ actors sought to separate the humanitarian response from what they termed “political” issues. While it can be helpful to distinguish between humanitarian, political and other matters, in Sri Lanka, the UN’s reference to what was “political” seemed to encompass everything related to the root causes of the crisis and aspects of the conduct of the war. Issues appear to have been defined as political not because they had a political aspect but rather because UN action to address them would have provoked criticism from the Government.’

Change the risk-averse culture

Yet achieving the kind of ethical transformation called for by the 2030 Agenda requires engaging precisely with the kind of development issues that are ‘political.’ The specific issues may vary over a wide range of matters, but at the heart of all such issues is the distribution of power and resources, which is, again, by definition ‘political.’ If the UN System, and particularly the UNCTs, are to play a truly consequential role in advancing the SDGs in such a way as to also build and sustain peace, they will need to tackle those issues. In simple terms, the UN needs to get better at helping countries to ‘do the right thing.’ And that in turn means that sometimes, the UN needs to get involved in ‘political’ issues even at the risk of provoking the displeasure of the government or other powerful actors.

For this to become regular practice among UNCTS, there needs to be clarity within the UN System that standing up for the ethical principles the UN is meant to represent, and particularly for the rights of the most excluded and marginalized, even at the risk of entering into conflict with the host government, is part of the job of the UNCTs. And this message needs to come from the Secretary General himself as well as all heads of UN agencies and entities – clearly, consistently and continually.  

During the many years I spent within the UN System, 7 of them as a UNRC and 8 as a UNICEF country rep and 2 as a UN Population Fund Regional Director, this was not the case. With some notable exceptions, the predominant message from senior management to country level staff was, whether explicitly or implicitly, to play it safe and keep away from ‘sensitive’ issues. Another familiar refrain was a variant of the discourse of the Sri Lanka UNCT cited above — that the job of the UNRC and the Country Teams was ‘development’ and not ‘political’ matters like human rights or conflict prevention. The implication was that these issues needed to be kept separate despite the integrated and holistic vision being called for by the 2030 Agenda.

The Human Rights Up Front (HRuF) initiative, launched by the Secretary General after the Sri Lanka tragedy, tends to be touted as a demonstration of a definitive shift by the UN toward a more proactive role in the defense and promotion of human rights, particularly in the prevention of massive human rights violations. Yet there are so far no clear signs that HRuF has actually led to the UNCTs taking firmer stands in defense of human rights when this has meant risking good relations with host governments, and how much this initiative has changed the culture of risk averseness within the UN System as a whole.

The Independent International Fact Finding Mission on Myanmar, commissioned by the UN Human Rights Council to investigate human rights violations against the Rohingya and other ethnic minorities in Myanmar, points out in its final report that the ethnic cleansing operations against the Rohingya were being carried out at the same time that the HRuF Action Plan was being rolled out. It also notes: ‘Throughout the period under review, Myanmar was repeatedly identified as a situation that required the “whole of UN”, human rights driven, response to crises set out in the Action Plan. This approach was rarely, if ever, pursued. Rather, it was largely “business as usual”, with development goals and humanitarian access prioritised only.’

These same criticisms are echoed in media reports about the UN’s role in the Rohingya crisis, and they also coincide with my impressions from my time as UNFPA Regional Director for Asia and the Pacific. Looking back on my own experience at that time, I realize I did not do enough to change this approach. Among other failings, I was too respectful of bureaucratic boundaries within the UN System, and hence was not as loud and insistent as I could have been in calling for the organization as a whole to do much more to prevent and halt the atrocities against the Rohingya people.

Engage in ‘the political’

The ‘political issues’ that need to be resolved to advance sustainable development and further peace normally do not take such extreme or clear-cut forms. The great injustices and deprivations humanity faces today are often the result of numerous, often mundane seeming political decisions large and small taken in various spheres. These may have to do with policies or legislation that undermine equitable distribution of wealth or gender equality or universal access to health and education without discrimination based on ethnicity or religion.

UNCTs should not necessarily attempt to intervene in all such decisions, nor, when they do, always speak out publicly. It seems to me that what is important is for the UN System to have clarity that it has a responsibility to do everything possible to help governments and societies at large to make ethical decisions and act accordingly, guided by the universal principles and values that the UN represents and that also underpin the 2030 Agenda. That clarity must include the awareness that UNCTs must at times engage with sensitive or controversial political issues at the risk of antagonizing the government or other powerful actors. It also means, when necessary, calling out abuses, violations of rights or simply misguided or unjust policy decisions.

In my time at the UN, colleagues would often equate this with ‘criticizing’ the government, and hence also implying that this was inappropriate. But I think that this is a mistake. Respectfully pointing out a wrong and calling for it to be corrected, while at the same time offering support to make this happen, is not the same as criticizing the government. And It does not necessarily have to mean speaking out publicly. This can sometimes be done through private, face-to-face conversations with authorities or other actors concerned, or simply standing by national human rights defenders and activists working for change. Sometimes, merely making it clear to those involved that the UN is concerned can have a positive effect. What seems to me unacceptable, yet happens too often, is simply to assume that the UN cannot touch an issue because it is ‘too sensitive.’ The Myanmar study makes this same point, quoting a study by I. Mahoney on the Rohingya crisis: ‘In situations like this, international actors tend to bemoan how little political space and manoeuvrability they believe they have, and paradoxically use this as an excuse for not trying to expand it. But political space is often self-constrained.’

The first step toward changing this culture of self-censorship is for the leaders of the UN System, particularly the Secretary General and the Deputy Secretary General who is tasked with leading the UN Development System, to call for that change, starting with squarely recognizing that the issue exists, and simply talking about it. The reports on Myanmar and Sri Lanka can serve as useful references for such a discussion. The Myanmar report in fact chides the UN for not making an effort to learn from the failings of the UN System in addressing the Rohingya crisis. It is not too late to try. But the learning exercise cannot be just a one-off activity, a one-hour item on an agenda covering a dozen different topics, that is then forgotten in the usual barrage of day-to-day demands – both bureaucratic and substantive – that UNCTs face in their work. The discussion needs to be a permanent one that is incorporated formally into the current process of reform based on the Secretary-General’s proposal, ‘Repositioning the UN Development System.’

The two reports setting out the Secretary-General’s proposal do not include any explicit reference to the need for UNCTs to play a more proactive role in upholding human rights other than a call to continue to give priority to HRuF. This is understandable given the reluctance of many member states to have UNCTs play what they consider to be a political role that may infringe on their sovereignty. But even with this limitation, there is a lot that can be done to pursue cultural change within the UN System if the top leaders of the organization adopt a consistent discourse toward their own staff urging them to be bolder and more determined in helping, encouraging, and at times pushing governments and other important national actors to do the right thing. A key part of this discourse also needs to be assurance that if RCs or other members of UNCTs get into difficulties in the course of discharging this duty – receiving criticism from the host government or even being declared persona non grata – they will be supported and not hung out to dry.

Change is possible

I believe that if the top leadership of the UN can consistently maintain these messages and act accordingly, change can indeed be achieved. I have personally lived through a significant cultural shift while working in UNICEF – one UN entity that has maintained a somewhat more activist bent than others, specifically on child rights issues which can be sensitive and controversial. With the adoption of the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1989, and as a result of its leadership embracing it as the organization’s guiding instrument, UNICEF transformed itself from a development and humanitarian aid organization focused on delivering basic needs of children to one more oriented toward advocacy and policy advice on child rights.

It could be that I have an overly optimistic view, in part because of my experience with UNICEF – an agency with an advantage over other parts of the UN because of its child-focused mandate. My optimism also stems in part from having spent most of my career in Latin America, a region, despite some recent worrying signs of backtracking, where democracy and respect for fundamental human rights and freedoms have established relatively firm roots, and where the UN is largely well liked and respected. It is also a region where there is a growing recognition of the rights of indigenous peoples, LGBT people and other communities that have traditionally been excluded and marginalized. And indeed, in my own experience with the UN in Latin America, we were able to push to expand the space to engage with, and raise our voice on sensitive political issues, such as indigenous rights, the need to reform regressive fiscal policies and the politicization of the judicial system. This was not always welcomed by the governments concerned, and we at times faced criticism and complaints. But ultimately, to their credit, they accepted this role as a legitimate one for the UNCT.

This is of course not the case in all regions or countries. There will be contexts where the UNCT speaking out on certain issues will mean almost certain expulsion. But the point is, there is always something that can be done —however limited — to defend and promote policies and measures that are more ethical and more humane out of all the possible alternatives. Again, the important thing is that UNCTs and RCs engage in a conscious and deliberate analysis to determine what is indeed possible and what is not, to make the best possible decision – and not to assume that they cannot engage in or address certain issues simply because they are ‘sensitive’ or ‘political.

The 2030 Agenda demands this. And the people whom the UN has the duty to serve – particularly the most vulnerable, marginalized and excluded – deserve this effort.

                                                                                                                           Yoriko Yasukawa

                                                                                                                           January 2019