This week the new Secretary General of the United Nations, António Guterres, made an unequivocal commitment to put peace first in his New Year’s day statement. This is of course warmly welcomed, and much needed. Conflict has been increasing while the UN’s ability to effectively deal with it is visibly declining.
The more globalisation has spread, the more we need a united global response to peace and security; the more we need a successful UN. Conflict and security cuts to the core of global migration and displacement, violent extremism has internationalised, crossing borders with unprecedented ease, while climate change is creating ever greater opportunities for conflict over resources. Peace and security has moved well beyond the inter-state wars envisaged by the UN’s founders.
Guterres’ New Year’s resolution will not be easy to achieve. At best it will more likely occur over the course of his term rather than in 2017. Nevertheless, there are immediate, important opportunities. The planned UN Security Council Ministerial Debate on conflict prevention and sustaining peace this month is a key starting point. This will provide the incoming Secretary General with the first opportunity to set out his approach on the issue of how to prevent conflict, though the real challenge will be how Guterres can translate member state rhetoric into concrete actions.
Aiding in this effort over the next two years will be a peace stalwart, Sweden, which takes its seat on the Security Council this month, where Sweden’s driven Foreign Minister Margot Wallström will lead the Ministerial Debate on sustaining peace. This will be followed in September by a special session on conflict prevention around the General Assembly.
Other issues are more immediate. Can Guterres and the Security Council make genuine progress on Syria? Can they successfully support a peaceful presidential transition in the Democratic Republic of Congo, whose security situation was on a knife-edge before Christmas? How will he face down the potential for genocide in South Sudan? What about the forgotten conflicts such as that over Nagorny Karabakh, where prevention efforts are needed more than ever? Can Guterres successfully bed-down a constructive relationship with the new US administration? And of course, there is the international community’s peace 'Everest', Palestine. These are just the country situations.
The UN, as its charter expresses, was set up to "save succeeding generations from the scourge of war". Getting back to basics in 2017 is fundamental to the continuing ability of the institution to fulfil its core mandate and, as such, to proving its continuing relevance. The global audience wants so badly to give a standing ovation: now the UN needs to pull off a class act.