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10 February 2020
The Future of Multilateral Peacebuilding:A Conversation with U.N. Undersecretary-General Rosemary DiCarlo

By Kathie Bolognese, Sustainable Development Committee


How well is the global community committed to peace and security tackling today’s unprecedented challenges of conflict and violence? What global action can be taken to resolve the world’s most intractable conflicts in this era of rapid technological change and fraying traditional alliances? 

To answer these questions, the United Nations Association of the National Capital Area and the Stimson Center, Alliance for Peacebuilding partnered together with the U.S. Institute of Peace on the morning of January 29,2020 to host a timely discussion on the future of the multilateral system. The program featured an in-depth conversation with keynote speaker U.N. Undersecretary-General for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs Rosemary DiCarlo, the highest-ranking American currently serving at the United Nations and the first woman to hold the position.

The panel discussion event, the UNA-NCA’s third in a series on global issues, was held at the U.S. Institute of Peace. Other distinguished speakers included Ms. Victoria Holt, Vice President, Stimson Center; Ambassador Jonathan Moore, Acting Assistant Secretary, Bureau of International Organization Affairs, U.S. Department of State; Ambassador Lynn Pascoe, Board Member, UNA-NCA; former UN Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs Ms. Uzra Zeya, President & CEO, Alliance for Peacebuilding; and Ambassador George Moose, moderator, Vice Chairman of the Board, U.S. Institute of Peace; Advisory Council Member, UNA-NCA.

Ms. Nancy Lindberg, President and CEO, U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP,) made introductory remarks noting the extraordinary interest in the event, for which they had to close registration, and that it wasn’t surprising given the news and headlines dominated by conflict, violence and war. She additionally expressed confidence that the audience shares USIP’s vision that, “Peace is possible, peace is practical, but it takes all of us.” 

USIP’s recently launched 2020 Strategic Plan considers the threat of fragile states, mass migration, pandemics, civil wars, and violent extremism, all of which are further complicated by increasing major competition between powers, enormous strain and fewer resources for the institutions responsible for international conflict resolution. The additional rise of global challenges such as climate change, new technological weaponry and cyberthreats further stress a greater imperative for collective action to help resolve global conflicts, while the institutions responsible for delivering this outcome for last 75 years are under greater strain than ever. 

Ms. Lindberg concluded by observing that the critical challenges we face offer an extraordinary opportunity to seize the disruptions of today to push our multilateral institutions to be more agile and adaptive to better face the complexities ahead and remain vital. Lastly, she commended UN Secretary-General António Guterres for his leadership in elevating conflict prevention and peacebuilding, and for introducing reforms that enable the UN to become nimbler and more effective in conflict settings. As the Secretary-General previously stated, “It’s not enough to extoll the virtues of multilateralism, we must show results.”

In her keynote remarks, Undersecretary-General for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs Rosemary DiCarlo provided an overview of the many sensitive political and diplomatic activities her department undertakes while operating within a complex global and security environment. She emphasized that the international communities’ military, political and humanitarian conflict management capabilities are overstretched, and the multilateral system is struggling to respond. Yet, the world today is a safer more prosperous place thanks, in part, to an effective collective security system which has seen a significant reduction in armed and interstate conflicts.

Undersecretary-General DiCarlo went on to stress three major reasons for concern: 

  • Despite a decline in the number of conflicts, those that do occur tend to last longer and cause more suffering, especially among civilians

  • Conflicts that begin small and locally are increasingly internationalized due to the involvement of regional and global powers as supporters, enablers and conflict parties (e.g., Yemen)

  • There is a greater fragmentation of conflict actors at local levels, including nonstate armed groups that operate in loose and rapidly shifting coalitions with widely different agendas (e.g. Syria, Libya).

What is the UN’s response to these challenges? Work harder to make its tools better suited to tackle complex conflict, engage earlier and proactively, and to not only focus on high level political engagement, but to build anticipatory relations and address stress factors in a more effective way.

Improving the UN’s ability to prevent and resolve conflict was the impetus for the UN Secretary-General’s 2019 Interrelated Reforms which created a single regional political and operational structure focused on prevention and on increasing collaboration within and among the three UN pillars (development, human rights, peace and security).

While reporting on the ways in which the UN has strengthened its capacity to prevent and resolve conflicts and sustain peace, Undersecretary-General DiCarlo underscored seven important areas: Expanding its analytical lens to look at a wider range of stressors that trigger conflicts (e.g., climate change, social technologies); putting inclusion front and center with women’s participation in peace processes a major priority; providing electoral assistance to Member States; establishing UN sanctions regimes (14) that focus on individuals, entities and groups rather than blunt economic instruments; providing mediation process support within 72 hours; and increasing the UN’s focus on regional dynamics rather than country-specific approaches.

In concluding her introductory remarks on the UN’s efforts to improve  its effectiveness, Undersecretary-General DiCarlo emphasized that the UN really needs the U.S. as a strong partner whose leadership and diplomacy can play a vital role and support collective efforts to prevent crises and make peace.  

The Moderator, George Moose, then introduced the panel members and invited them to respond to  Undersecretary-General DiCarlo’s remarks, specifically, “What did you hear that you liked and what are the things you would like to hear more about?”

Ambassador Jonathan Moore stated that he liked everything we’ve heard and pointed out that the U.S. meets regularly with Under-Secretary DiCarlo, doesn’t always agree on every detail, has a perspective grounded in the policy of this administration and has had varying levels of engagement with the multilateral system. Mr. Moore concluded by noting that, “We completely agree from the perspective of the United States that the UN is essential, we are committed to its success and we are still the number one contributor to the UN system.” 

The Moderator acknowledged Ambassador Pascoe’s involvement in many of the building steps that have led to the reforms the UN Secretary-General Guterres is putting in place and asked, “What do you see that’s been important and where we go from here?”

Ambassador Pascoe was pleased the U.N.’s professionalization effort was mentioned noting that it was incoherent, unresolved and had limited resources when he left and so would be pleased to hear more about that area. He further stated that, “My love was preventive diplomacy and working to resolve issues. If you have examples of some successes, I would love to hear it.”

Ms. Holt next noted that when there is a crisis the UN is an invaluable partner for U.S. interests and U.S. values. She further elaborated on the shifting nature of conflict since World War II and asked, “How do you marry up the new conflict environment, the rise of authoritarianism and your own ability to deploy around the world for both high-level and quiet-level mediation? Also, second, what could the U.S. do to support that role? There’s always a resource question, there’s also human capital and marrying up U.S. bilateral muscle with some of the goals placed out in the multilateral environment.

Ms. Uzra Zeya commended the resolve and commitment to transformation and integration in the UN’s approach to multilateral peacebuilding, and remarked that, “When considering the future of multilateral peace building, it’s important to recognize the future is multi-stakeholder.” The really difficult question is how do we come together outside the state-to-state system to support better outcomes? She went on to share the Alliance for Peacebuilding’s willingness to step up its collaboration efforts and cited the example of the successful adoption of the Global Fragility Act as evidence of growing bipartisan consensus efforts. 

These comments set the agenda for the remaining panel discussion on the successes, challenges, and innovations taking place in multilateral conflict prevention, mediation, and peacebuilding and were followed by a substantive audience question and answer session. To learn more, please listen to the event recording  at: https://www.usip.org/events/future-multilateral-peacebuilding.