In Hindsight: The Evolving Security Council-PBC Relationship
Recent years have seen the emergence of a much more active Peacebuilding Commission (PBC), an intergovernmental advisory body to the UN’s main organs created in 2005 to maintain attention to post-conflict countries. This includes increased engagement with the Security Council, after years of what could be described as indifference to the PBC on the Council’s part, and relative passivity by the PBC. The changes reflect a proactive approach by PBC members, the efforts of some elected members of the Security Council advocating within the Council for the PBC, and greater openness among the permanent members, traditionally wary of other bodies’ involvement in tasks related to the maintenance of international peace and security.
The so-called UN peacebuilding architecture has undergone several reviews, with the third such review underway since November 2019 and results expected by the end of this year. The 2015-2016 review contributed to a broader understanding of peacebuilding, embodied by the concept of “sustaining peace” as a responsibility of the entire UN system. In resolution 2282 adopted at the review’s conclusion, the Council expressed its commitment to seeking the specific, strategic and targeted advice of the PBC, particularly during the creation, renewal and drawdown of missions.
Among the early signs of improved cooperation was the Council’s first-ever request that the Secretary-General prepare a peacebuilding plan ahead of the drawdown of the UN Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) when renewing the mission’s mandate for the last time in December 2016. The resolution emphasised the important convening role of the PBC in developing this plan. Similarly, a month later in a presidential statement on West Africa and the Sahel, the Security Council underlined the importance of PBC support to the UN Office for West Africa and the Sahel (UNOWAS) in implementing the UN Integrated Strategy for the Sahel. The last time the Council sought PBC engagement with a new situation had been in 2010, over Liberia. The PBC’s consideration of the Sahel came as some member states and the Secretariat sought to expand the PBC’s discussions beyond the six country-specific configurations (CSCs) on its agenda. The PBC has as well been moving away from organising its work around CSCs and towards conducting more of its activities through its 31-member state Organizational Committee, while addressing the needs of a broader range of fragile states besides those emerging from conflict.
In December 2018, the Security Council adopted a presidential statement on the PBC’s advisory role taking stock of recent changes. The statement acknowledged “progress that the Peacebuilding Commission has achieved”; recognised its “unique” convening platform to bring together member states, host governments, the UN system, international financial institutions, regional organisations, and civil society, and identified best practices.
Useful practices, according to the Council, included the PBC’s informal interactive dialogues with the Council, its role during transitions related to the withdrawal of UN peace operations, and its collaboration with regional and subregional organisations, including the AU. The presidential statement flagged as good practice the October 2018 “observations”— a letter to the president of the Security Council from the PBC’s Central African Republic (CAR) country configuration—ahead of the mandate renewal for the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the CAR. Until then, the PBC had conveyed its advice only during Council briefings or informal interactions. The presidential statement encouraged the PBC to continue to align its work with the Council’s calendar and engage with stakeholders well in advance of relevant Council meetings. Addressing a persistent criticism of the PBC, the statement encouraged it to provide advice “complementing and not duplicating the reports of the Secretary-General to the Council”.
The practise of sending letters of advice to the Council ahead of mandate renewals, which began with the CAR observations, may be the most visible sign of increasing PBC-Council engagement since the Council statement. The CAR configuration continued the practice in October 2019, as did the Guinea-Bissau configuration in February. In December 2019, the PBC for the first time submitted a similar letter ahead of a renewal that has no country configuration, namely of UNOWAS; it did so again in April on the thematic topic of youth, peace and security. PBC representatives have also more systematically sent the Council reports on their missions, most recently to Burundi, the CAR and Guinea-Bissau.
Another apparent trend has been the Council’s interest in seeing the PBC engage in fragile situations. The PBC has held three meetings since May 2019 on Burkina Faso, which the Council discusses during meetings on the G5 Sahel Joint Force and UNOWAS. Council members encouraged and welcomed this involvement in press statements last year on the Joint Force and requested that the Secretary-General keep the PBC informed of efforts to scale up the UN country team to address Burkina Faso’s humanitarian crisis and help stem the deteriorating security situation.
The increased interaction between the Council and the PBC has also included more, and perhaps more strategic, use of informal interactive dialogues (IID). In March 2019, Germany organised an IID between the PBC and Council members to consider peacebuilding needs and challenges in the Sahel ahead of a Council visiting mission to Mali and Burkina Faso. Côte d’Ivoire and Belgium, as co-penholders on UNOWAS, similarly organised an IID in November 2019 on a strategic review of the special political mission, inviting the PBC chair to participate. As the Council’s current informal coordinator with the PBC, Germany is responsible for organising “stocktaking” sessions between Council members that are members of the PBC, and the PBC and CSC chairs, a practice started in 2013. It has sought to make these meetings more forward-looking to identify opportunities where the PBC may offer useful advice to the Council. This recently resulted in coordination around the issue of youth, peace and security ahead of a Council videoconference on the issue.
Transitions continue to be identified as an important area for PBC-Council cooperation, and its continued convening role in respect of Liberia is cited as a positive example. The PBC has not yet become engaged with ongoing transitions in Darfur and Haiti, however. And despite the transition process set in place by the Council since February 2019 for the UN Integrated Peacebuilding Office in Guinea-Bissau (UNIOGBIS) to conclude by the end of 2020, the PBC has yet to undertake the same sort of exercises to consider UN country team capacities and gaps that it held on Liberia before UNMIL’s departure. Guinea-Bissau’s latest political impasse, however, has made it difficult for the UN and the PBC to engage with national authorities on their priorities and conduct post-mission planning.
Aligning its calendar with the Security Council’s programme of work, which the PBC committed itself to doing following the 2016 working methods review, is a practical way of enhancing its advisory role, although its practice remains inconsistent. The written advice of the PBC’s Guinea-Bissau configuration was sent to the Council on 24 February, only four days before UNIOGBIS’ mandate expiry. At times, a CSC chair may still largely duplicate the information shared by the heads of mission during a Council briefing.
Ultimately, the test of the relationship lies in the PBC’s substantive advice adding value to the Council, and its capacity for complementing the Council’s work. Providing useful advice turns on such factors as the capacities of respective PBC chairs, the level of Secretariat support, cooperation with national authorities and their interest in peacebuilding, and the extent of member state divisions. A recurring criticism is that since PBC documents are adopted by consensus, this enables the P5, who are all PBC members—and other member states—to reject recommendations before they reach the Council.
The PBC can play an important complementary role to that of the Council. PBC meetings that focus on structural challenges related to governance or development that are important to stabilise fragile states, for example, can contribute to a greater understanding of these issues and to more efficient donor assistance. Furthermore, the PBC has made progress towards playing the envisioned “bridging” role between the UN’s peace and security, development, and human rights pillars. Most recently, an 8 April meeting of the PBC on the COVID-19 pandemic provided a forum for considering the multi-faceted impacts that risk destabilising countries affected by conflicts such as food insecurity, employment and livelihoods and underlying tensions. A PBC press release on the session welcomed the Secretary-General’s global ceasefire appeal and, notably, recognised the efforts of the World Health Organisation (WHO), whereas arguments about referring to the WHO have hitherto blocked agreement on a Security Council resolution on the pandemic. The COVID-19 meeting again showed the emergence of a more active PBC and opportunities for it to play an active role.