Top Five Issues Facing the United Nations in 2009

2009 will be a busy year for the United Nations. Conflicts in central and eastern Africa will likely dominate the Security Council agenda. Meanwhile, new peacekeeping missions have stretched the United Nations peacekeeping apparatus beyond its breaking point, and unless remunerative actions are taken these missions may fail. Finally, this will be a make-or-break year for a post-Kyoto international climate change agreement.

Here are the top five issues facing the UN in 2009.

1. Containing The Bloodshed in Eastern Congo
Some 4 million people have died in the Congo as a result of civil war since. The United Nations has overseen a peace process that has brought stability (and democratic governance) much of the Congo. Still, Congo’s resource rich eastern region is persistently restive. Remnants of Rwanda’s Hutu genocidares, Rwandan backed Tutsi militias, freelance insurgents, and undisciplined government troops are terrorizing the civilian population of Eastern Congo. In October, fighting intensified as a rebel militia lead by a former Congolese military general named Laurent Nkunda threatened to sack east Congo’s regional capital city, Goma.

The United Nations peacekeeping force in the Congo is the largest in the world. Yet even at 17,000 it is unable to exert control over a territory the size of Western Europe. In November, the Security Council authorized a surge of 3,000 peacekeepers. This will help, but a durable solution will require the skillful diplomatic engagement of the region. This includes pressing neighboring countries and the Kabilla government to reign in their support of various militia elements. Peace also requires judicial initiatives, like ICC indictments, to bring to justice those most responsible terrible atrocities visited upon civilians.

2. Bringing a Durable Peace to Darfur/Sudan
Incoming United States Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice once aptly described American policy toward Sudan as “bluster and retreat.” Four long years after former Secretary of State Colin Powell called the conflict a genocide, key UN member states have still not acted in ways commensurate with the rhetorical attention to which they pay Darfur. The joint African Union-United Nations peacekeeping mission, UNAMID, is undermanned and under resourced. Only 10,000 of its authorized 20,000 peacekeepers have been deployed. It still lacks critical equipment like armored personnel carries and helicopters. Amid a security vacuum, humanitarian organizations like the World Food Program have been forced to scale back their operations, further imperiling the estimated 400,000 internally displaced people. Meanwhile, a proxy war along the Chad/Darfur border threatens to intensify and the Security Council is faced with the question of whether and how to bolster a small peacekeeping mission on the Chad side of the border.

As Darfur festers, a tenuous 2005 peace agreement between the federal government and southern Sudanese rebels threatens to unravel. The agreement mandates national elections be held in July 2009 and a referendum on Southern independence in 2010. Absent heavy international pressure, experts predict that the peace agreement will fall apart as the Sudanese government tries to prevent the secession of its southern region. Further complicating matters is that the International Criminal Court is likely to issue an arrest warrant for Sudanese President Omar el Bashir. Unless key member states back their rhetoric with action, 2009 looks to be a gloomy year for the people of Sudan.

3. Stabilizing Somalia
The recent spate of high profile high-seas hijackings has once again thrust Somalia into the international spotlight. Concerted Security Council action to combat piracy, however, has not yet translated into a focused attention to the root of the problem, which is lawlessness in Somalia.

Somalia has been without a central government for 14 years. In December 2006, Ethiopian troops supported by American airpower intervened overthrew the Union of Islamic Courts, a political and militant group that exerted effective control over most of Somalia. Since then, the weak transitional government has been unable to maintain control and lay the foundations of governance.

Without international intervention it is doubtful that the Somali groups will find a political solution on their own. As is often the case, the Security Council has periodically considered approving a peacekeeping mission to Somalia. However, the Department of Peacekeeping Operations has warned that without an underlying peace to keep, it will be exceedingly difficult to find a country willing to contribute troops to such a mission. There is very little appetite for any multi-national force to spearhead a stability operation in Somalia. A key challenge for the Security Council will be to stay focused on Somalia beyond matters relating to combating in the Indian Ocean.

4. Supporting UN Peacekeeping
The United Nations Department of Peacekeeping Operations is fielding more missions around the world as ever before. In all, there are some 111,000 peacekeeping personnel deployed to 19 missions at a cost of $7 billion. (By comparison, this is roughly what the United States spends in Iraq in one month). It deploys these missions all over the world while maintaining a skeleton staff at headquarters.

This is an unsustainable situation for UN peacekeeping. To make matters worse, as the developed world reels from a global recession, national budgets will naturally be stretched thin. Should governments decide to reduce what they contribute to UN peacekeeping the entire edifice can collapse, imperiling existing missions and stunting new ones before they can get off the ground. Still, the answer is not “less peacekeeping.” In fact, in places where peacekeepers are effectively deployed these operations are racking up a record of success; after long and bloody conflicts, democracy and good governance are taking hold in places like Liberia, Sierra Leone and East Timor, to name a few. Rather, as the Security Council approves new missions it is incumbent on member states to renew and reinvigorate their support for UN peacekeeping. In the long run, it costs us more to let conflicts fester than it does to send in peacekeepers.

5. Securing an International Climate Change Accord
In December 2009 the final round of international climate change negotiations will take place in Copenhagen Denmark. The Kyoto Protocols are set to expire in 2012, and negotiations must be finalized a few years before then so as to give countries enough time to ratify the accord. So far, though, negotiations leading up to Copenhagen have gotten off to a sluggish start. This was to be expected. The world’s largest emitter of carbon is the United States–and negotiators decided to leave the hardest negotiations for after President Bush’s term in office ends.

This strategy has its drawbacks. The Obama administration is coming late to the negotiating table and one year may not be enough time to hammer out a comprehensive global deal on carbon emissions, technology transfer, and helping climate affected countries adapt to new climate realities. An international climate change meeting in Poznan, Poland in December 2008 yielded few results suggesting that the December 2009 timetable would be met. Expect 2009 to be a very busy year on the climate change front.