Research Report

Posted 22 November 2017
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The Peacebuilding Commission and the Security Council: From Cynicism to Synergy?


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For much of its existence, the Peacebuilding Commission (PBC)—which was created as an advisory body to the Council and the General Assembly—has been looked at cynically by some members of the Security Council, as not providing much-added value to the Council’s work. Council members, but also the UN general membership and many among the staff in the UN Secretariat, have viewed the PBC as something of a disappointment. They have questioned its ability to advise about 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.

Reviews in 2010 and 2015 of the UN’s peacebuilding architecture—comprising the PBC, the Peacebuilding Fund (PBF) and the Peacebuilding Support Office (PBSO)—found that the PBC had not fulfilled the expectations envisioned when it was created to fill what then Secretary-General Kofi Annan called a “gaping hole” at the UN in its support to post-conflict countries.

Since the 2015 review, however, there has been new momentum towards strengthening the PBC and improving its relationship with the Council. The review culminated with the adoption in April 2016 by the Security Council and the General Assembly of substantively identical resolutions. To the surprise of many at the UN, the resolutions incorporated most of the ideas of the Advisory Group of Experts (AGE), which had prepared a report as part of the review process. The eight-page resolutions (S/RES/2282 and A/RES/70/262), the UN’s most comprehensive on peacebuilding, expanded the understanding of peacebuilding as activities to be undertaken not only in post-conflict situations but also in order to prevent conflict in the first place, as well as during peacemaking and peacekeeping. The same sort of interventions often required in countries after armed conflict—rebuilding government institutions, promoting reconciliation between different communities, restarting economic development—are similar to the challenges many countries face before they fall into conflict: institutions are often already weak, groups of people are marginalised, and economic opportunities are limited. This broader notion of peacebuilding was reflected in the definition of “sustaining peace” in the two resolutions, which has since become central to the UN reform agenda of Secretary-General António Guterres.

Changes in the PBC in recent years have included expanding the country situations it considers beyond the six countries that made up its agenda over the first decade of its existence, while increasing its focus on the regional dimensions of peacebuilding and enhancing cooperation with regional and sub-regional organisations. According to diplomats, PBC meetings have become more interesting and substantive compared to just a few years ago. Among the P5, there have also been signs of increasing interest in and openness to the PBC’s supporting the Council’s work.

Moreover, under the Secretary-General’s proposed reform of the peace and security pillar of the Secretariat, the PBSO would be “bolstered” and assume a stronger cross-pillar bridging role in the future as part of a new Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs. The PBC seems poised to see its role enhanced as part of these reforms, which seek to increase UN attention to conflict prevention and “sustaining peace” by addressing the fragmentation of the UN departments, agencies, and intergovernmental bodies.

The reason for creating the PBC made great sense conceptually: to ensure sustained attention to post-conflict countries—which would often wane following the withdrawal of a peacekeeping operation or reaching benchmarks such as the holding of elections—and prevent their relapse into conflict. Likewise, the concept of “sustaining peace” and the PBC’s potential role as outlined by the AGE are generally viewed as well considered. However, these ideas and the envisioned role for the PBC have not been easy to apply in practice, for both practical and political reasons. While there is new momentum that has not existed for some time to enhance the PBC, the challenge remains to translate this energy and vision into a more effective UN body.

This is Security Council Report’s sixth report on the PBC and the first following the 2015 review. This report will look at developments in the PBC and its relationship with the Security Council since our last report published in April 2013. It covers not only the 2015 peacebuilding architecture review but also initiatives to advance key ideas regarding the PBC in the Security Council and General Assembly resolutions. The report also seeks to consider challenges in fulfilling the objectives of the PBC while setting out ideas, 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.

The following are some of the main areas of promise for the PBC to improve its relationship with the Security Council and support to conflict-affected or fragile countries:

  • The PBC’s convening role and ability to bring together diverse actors, including member states, host governments, the UN system, international financial institutions, regional organisations, and civil society, is probably the PBC’s greatest strength and advantage compared to the Security Council. It has the potential to better package the views of these actors for consideration by the Security Council. Its convening role is also a strength that provides the PBC the opportunity to play the bridging function, as envisioned by the AGE, to bring together the UN’s main intergovernmental organs and contribute to addressing the fragmentation of the UN system, which has been identified as having hampered UN peacebuilding.
  • To carry out its role of advising the Council, the PBC should fulfil its intention to ensure that its activities, whether through the Organizational Committee or existing country-specific configurations, are aligned with the Security Council’s calendar and relevant meetings. This would entail the PBC’s using its convening role to organise meetings with relevant actors during the months preceding Council sessions to gather diverse perspectives and develop its recommendations. It would also be important that, to the extent possible, country visits by PBC representatives occur prior to Council meetings on that situation.
  • The type of advice and context that the PBC can focus on providing to the Council includes socio-economic and longer-term development issues, as well as regional dimensions that may impact countries’ stability.
  • The PBC has the potential to play a particularly important role during and following peace operation transitions, especially in the transition from a peace operation to a UN country team in a non-mission setting.
  • Related to this, the PBC continues to have an important role in sustaining attention to situations that otherwise get overlooked because of multiple parallel crises or do not necessarily require Council attention.
  • The PBC’s convening ability and advisory role does not only entail organising meetings or providing the Council with information. The engagement of PBC members in more informal activities geared towards supporting countries’ stability, such as connecting countries with partners that can fill needs, is another way to fulfill the advisory function that can complement the Council’s work. This includes supporting countries not on the Council’s agenda, potentially preventing them from becoming situations before the Council.
  • Advocating for and raising awareness of countries’ needs, whether in meetings or informally, is a way that the PBC may generate resources for peacebuilding.
  • Informal engagement with Council penholders and its members in general remains a useful means for the PBC to support the Security Council’s consideration of issues. This may include organising informal interactive dialogues on country situations ahead of relevant Council meetings, in particular before mission mandate renewals.

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