In Hindsight: The Peacebuilding Commission
For much of its existence, the Peacebuilding Commission (PBC)—created as an advisory body to the Security Council, the General Assembly and the Economic and Social Council—has been looked at cynically by some members of the Security Council as not providing much added value to the Council’s work. The UN general membership and staff in the UN Secretariat have also often viewed the PBC as something of a disappointment. Council members, particularly the P5, have questioned its ability to advise on conflict-affected situations and have found its meetings redundant, duplicating discussion and information provided by the Secretariat during Council sessions. The PBC’s supporters, in turn, have criticised the Council for not being receptive to working with the PBC, thus limiting its ability over the years to demonstrate its value. Tensions have existed since the PBC’s creation in 2005, which occurred as Security Council reform stalled, with the P5 seeing the PBC as a forum created by member states to discuss peace and security issues, encroaching on the prerogatives of the Security Council.
However, there has been renewed commitment in recent years to strengthening the PBC, which had been created to fill what then-Secretary-General Kofi Annan called a “gaping hole” at the UN in its support for post-conflict situations. Much of this newfound interest was triggered by the 2015 review of the UN’s peacebuilding architecture (consisting of the PBC, Peacebuilding Support Office [PBSO] and the Peacebuilding Fund [PBF]). The review culminated in the UN’s most comprehensive resolutions ever on peacebuilding and established the notion of “sustaining peace”, which expanded the understanding of peacebuilding as activities to be undertaken not only in post-conflict situations but also to prevent conflict in the first place, as well as during peacemaking and peacekeeping.
As the end of 2017 approaches, there have been significant changes within the PBC. Security Council Report’s research report The Peacebuilding Commission and the Security Council: From Cynicism to Synergy? documents these developments since SCR’s last report on the PBC in April 2013. The report considers challenges in fulfilling the objectives of the PBC while setting out options, many of which are currently being developed among member states and by the Secretariat, to enhance the PBC’s contribution to the Security Council and make a more meaningful impact on the countries it considers.
Notable changes at the PBC have included invigorating the work of the PBC’s Organizational Committee (where all 31 members of the PBC are represented), and expanding the country situations that the PBC considers beyond the six countries that have traditionally made up its agenda. In fact, the PBC is seeking to move away from having formal agenda countries and country-specific configurations: the former for some countries carries a stigma to engaging with the PBC, while the latter has structural limitations because of the configurations’ dependency on the commitment of the individual ambassadors that chair them and the resources available to these ambassadors.
While the PBC began in 2015 to hold meetings on countries that are not on its agenda, this past year has seen it sustain engagement on new country and regional situations, notably The Gambia and the UN Integrated Strategy for the Sahel. Its involvement with the Sahel strategy represented the first time that the Council sought PBC support on a new issue since 2010. The PBC is also seen as facing a crucial test with the transition in Liberia as the UN Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) withdraws in early 2018. It has committed itself to supporting implementation of a peacebuilding plan that the Council requested for Liberia, which faces significant technical, operational and financial gaps.
The PBC has further sought to improve cooperation with regional and subregional organisations, notably the AU Peace and Security Council. It has developed practices to increase synergies with the PBF to address what has long been considered a disconnect between the two. During PBC meetings, the PBSO now provides regular updates on PBF-supported programmes. Countries declared eligible for the PBF are also being encouraged to brief the PBC on their peacebuilding strategies. The first such meetings happened in November on Colombia and Sri Lanka.
Despite the changes and signs of increasing Council engagement and openness, scepticism remains, including among the P5, about whether the PBC will have a greater impact. There appears, however, to be broad agreement among PBC and Council members on the importance and potential for the PBC to make greater use of its convening role. The PBC’s greatest strength and comparative advantage over the Council is its convening power—its ability to bring together and meet with a diverse array of actors, including the country concerned, member states, international financial institutions, UN agencies, regional and subregional organisations, and civil society. In doing so, it might be able to collect and better package these views to present to the Council. To develop its input for the Council, the PBC is trying to align its activities with the Council’s programme of work. It can organise meetings with relevant actors during the months preceding Council sessions so as to gather these diverse perspectives and develop its recommendations. This also involves timing country visits by PBC representatives ahead of relevant Council meetings.
Every country situation will vary, but generally the type of advice and context that the PBC can focus on providing to the Council includes socio-economic and longer-term development issues and regional dimensions, issues the Council tends to overlook. As already indicated, the PBC has the potential to play a particularly important role during transitions, especially from a peace operation to a UN country team.
Beyond organising meetings and providing information to the Council, PBC members might further develop its use of informal activities geared towards supporting countries’ stability, such as connecting countries with partners that can fill needs. Doing so would be another way to fulfil its advisory function that complements the Council’s work. This includes supporting countries not on the Council’s agenda, potentially preventing them from becoming situations before the Council.
While mobilising resources has been the PBC’s greatest draw, it has also been one its greatest disappointments. The PBC should continue to advocate for and raise awareness of countries’ needs, whether in meetings or informally. It has continued to try to increase its collaboration with the World Bank, including reaching an agreement earlier this year to hold an annual dialogue.
The reason for creating the PBC has always made sense conceptually. But its envisioned role has not been easy to implement, for both practical and political reasons. The PBC over the last few years has begun to make significant improvements that are very much procedural—broadening the country situations it discusses, invigorating the Organizational Committee—and, perhaps aided by the “sustaining peace” concept, its meetings have become more interesting and structured, according to diplomats. These are important steps in order for the PBC to become more effective. The challenge now is translating these internal improvements and focus into a greater perceived value for the Council and more tangible benefits for the countries that it seeks to support.