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Charlesworth, Hilary --- "The United Nations Peacebuilding Commission" [2011] ALRS 3

Last Updated: 20 September 2011

The United Nations Peacebuilding Commission
Hilary Charlesworth


Following the end of the Cold War, United Nations (UN) engagement in post-conflict situations developed sporadically without any clear institutional or normative structure. Indeed, UN peacebuilding activities were largely unaccountable, leading to significant criticism. Some observers recommended that the UN Trusteeship Council be revitalised to become the focus of peacebuilding activities.[1] Eventually, however, the UN reform process initiated by Secretary-General Kofi Annan created a new body to oversee the increasing UN investment in peacebuilding. The Peacebuilding Commission (PBC) was established by concurrent resolutions of both the Security Council and the General Assembly on 30 December 2005.[2] It is the first such advisory subsidiary organ created within the United Nations and it has an intriguing hybrid structure with direct relationships with both the Security Council and the General Assembly. The resolutions style the PBC as a ‘dedicated institutional mechanism’, an ‘intergovernmental advisory body’ to provide advice on, and develop an ‘integrated approach’ to, post-conflict peacebuilding and to allow discussion between states that have an interest in and experience of peacebuilding. The ambitious primary aim of the PBC set out in the joint resolutions is the creation of ‘sustainable peace’.

Structure of the PBC

The procedural hub of the PBC is its Organisational Committee. This body has 31 members drawn from four categories, which inevitably overlap. They serve for two year, renewable, terms. Seven members are from the Security Council (Resolution 1646, adopted at the same time as the one already referred to, mandated that this means the P5 and two other members); seven members elected by the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), taking regional representation and experience in post-conflict situations into account; five of the top contributors to the UN budget; five members who are ‘top providers’ of military and police for UN missions; and seven additional UN members including those with experience of recovering from conflict. Countries can only be selected in one category. The concurrent resolutions invite international financial institutions to participate in all PBC meetings.

The PBC also has the capacity to meet in the format of ‘country-specific meetings’ in which participants can include members of the Organisational Committee, the country being considered, other countries that are involved in peacebuilding in that country, relevant international or regional institutions, UN representatives and representatives from relevant institutional donors such as the World Bank.

Situations may come onto the PBC’s agenda as requests for advice from four different quarters: from the Security Council; from ECOSOC or the General Assembly if the state concerned is ‘on the verge of lapsing or relapsing into conflict’ and has agreed to PBC involvement; from a member state who is in such a situation; and from the Secretary-General. The PBC does not, then, have the capacity to take independent action to place a country situation on its agenda.

The PBC is required to reach all decisions through consensus. It reports annually to the General Assembly, which makes that body the major forum for review of the progress of the PBC. The PBC’s constitutional resolutions also established a ‘Peacebuilding Fund’ to receive voluntary contributions from member states and other donors and foreshadowed a Peacebuilding Support Office within the UN Secretariat, which has been duly established. Although these two entities engage with the situations being dealt with by the PBC, they also have the capacity to interact with cases that are not on the PBC’s agenda.

· Political objectives for reform

The PBC emerged from a reform agenda initiated by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan partly as a response to the turmoil created by the Security Council’s failure to endorse the United States invasion of Iraq, and partly to create an ‘Annan legacy’. This project began with the Secretary-General establishing a ‘High-level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change’ in September 2003. A year later, the High-level Panel made a number of proposals, including the creation of a UN Peacebuilding Commission, which was to be established under the Security Council. The Panel noted a ‘key institutional gap’ within the UN: the lack of any mechanism devoting to preventing states collapsing into conflict, or supporting countries in the transition from conflict to peace.[3] Accordingly, the Panel described the PBC’s role as one of both conflict prevention and post-conflict peacebuilding:

to identify countries which are under stress and risk sliding towards State collapse; to organise, in partnership with the national Government, proactive assistance in preventing that process from developing further; to assist in the planning for transitions between conflict and post-conflict.[4]

The Secretary-General included the idea of a PBC in his March 2005 report, which set out an agenda for the September World Summit of Heads of State and Government. He spoke of a ‘gaping hole’ in the UN because of the lack of an institution that assisted countries in transition from war to lasting peace.[5] There was, however, a significant amendment to the proposal made by the High-level Panel, because the Secretary-General omitted any reference to an ‘early warning’ function for the PBC[6] and any role in conflict-prevention. Instead, the PBC would deal only with countries that had gone through a period of conflict and its focus would be advice and coordination. It is likely that this change was designed to mollify members of the Security Council who may have read the High-level Panel proposal as usurping their Chapter VII powers.[7] The High-level Panel proposal was changed also in its translation into the Summit’s Outcome document from being a small, expert body funded by new resources to being an intergovernmental body dependent on existing resources or voluntary contributions and through the introduction of links to the General Assembly as well as the Security Council. The insertion of the General Assembly into peacebuilding activities was the result of lobbying by Asian and African countries which were keen to displace the Security Council’s monopoly over this area. The PBC, then, started its life with limited responsibilities in the area of peacebuilding, and, as an advisory and coordinating body, without a mandate to set the direction of UN peacebuilding missions.

The formal creation of the PBC was a product of the World Summit in September 2005. The Summit Outcome document, adopted on 24 October 2005 set a very tight timetable (just over two months) for the establishment of the PBC.[8] The PBC offered a sense of immediate and practical reform on an issue that had consumed much international energy, but its design as an advisory body did not threaten state sovereignty.

· Actualising reform

The PBC was inaugurated on 23 June 2006 with Angola elected as chair. The chair of the PBC has changed annually, with Japan, Chile and Germany having now taken on this role and Rwanda serving as chair in 2011. The objects of PBC deliberations have all been from Africa. The Security Council requested that the PBC place Burundi and Sierra Leone on its agenda in its first year, both countries having agreed to this process. Since then, Guinea-Bissau, the Central African Republic and Liberia have been added to the PBC’s agenda. The PBC has adopted workplans and organised field missions to all these countries and it has supported consultations with major local players about consolidating peace. The Peacebuilding Fund has allocated funding to the PBC cases. The PBC also set up a Working Group on Lessons Learned to identify ‘best practice’ in peacebuilding, which reported in 2010.[9] In February 2011, the PBC added Guinea to its agenda, the first time it has acted without a Security Council referral.

· Appraising reform

Some observers regard the establishment of the PBC as one of the few 2005 Summit reform success stories.[10] The use of ‘Integrated peacebuilding strategies’ has promoted coordination of consultative and collaborative plans for peace that go beyond security and economic issues. The PBC has also placed a spotlight on countries recovering from conflict that receive little international attention. More critical views emphasise the PBC’s slow start and its possible redundancy, pointing out that the UN already has extensive capacity and expertise in peacebuilding and that all that is required is better coordination. Others query the value of institutionalising peacebuilding and support ad hoc country-specific approaches.[11] Still others argue that NGOs, rather than intergovernmental institutions, are best-placed to monitor peacebuilding.[12] A review of the UN’s peacebuilding architecture in 2010 was unusually trenchant in criticising the operations of the PBC.[13] It noted the limited range of countries on the PBC’s agenda and expressed concern that so few countries had sought the PBC’s advice. The review did not find clear evidence that the PBC had made a difference on the ground. It also criticised the weakness of the relationships the PBC had forged with the Security Council, the General Assembly and ECOSOC. A major concern identified by the review was the PBC’s lack of practical attention to national ownership of peacebuilding. The review found that national perspectives did not play a major role in the planning process, or in the implementation phase.[14]

To some extent, the PBC is caught up in North-South politics. The developed North tends to favour an active and interventionist PBC, while the South is wary of an institution that could morph into a new system of trusteeship.[15] There is also evidence that some countries fear that being listed on the PBC’s agenda will not only label them as dysfunctional, but also reduce the amount of attention they receive from the Security Council.[16]

The Security Council and General Assembly resolutions that establish the PBC illustrate some of the problems it faces. The role of the PBC is expressed in general terms, for example bringing together ‘all relevant actors to marshal resources and to advise on and propose integrated strategies for post-conflict peacebuilding and recovery’;[17] ‘to focus attention on the reconstruction and institution-building efforts necessary for recovery from conflict’;[18] ‘to provide recommendations and information to improve the coordination of all relevant actors within and outside the United Nations to develop best practices...’.[19] This broad canvas does not provide a clear direction for the fledgling institution. The PBC has a mandate only in the context of post-conflict peacebuilding. It will however often be difficult to determine whether a country has attained a ‘post-conflict’ status; and this status may well be only temporary. The redefinition of the role of the PBC to remove the early warning function envisaged by the High-level Panel has also reduced its potential impact.

The PBC is an advisory body, operating on the basis of consensus. The effect of this is that any member state has a de facto veto. The fact that the permanent members of the Security Council all have a seat on the PBC may lessen potential friction between the two bodies, but it has caused tensions with the General Assembly and has imported Security Council politics directly into the PBC. On the other hand, the General Assembly has the important function of debating the PBC’s annual reports.

The PBC’s budget is dependent on a voluntary fund and contributions from UN member states have been uneven. It took some time for the Fund to get close to the aim of US $250 million (at the end of 2010 it had got to $342 million), and less than a quarter of UN members have made contributions, ranging from Sweden ($US 72 million) to Peru ($US 5000). Given that peacebuilding in a single country such as Afghanistan has cost many billions of dollars, the Fund may well be inadequate. Moreover, most donors made one off commitments to the Fund. This is an uncertain financial foundation for the PBC and a major challenge is securing a viable long-term funding base. There are also concerns that countries may seek to be placed on the PBC’s agenda simply to attract an injection of money. In both Burundi and Sierra Leone, funds were provided before a peacebuilding framework had been agreed and monitoring and accountability mechanisms were weak.[20]

The resolutions establishing the PBC envisaged a role for civil society. The preambular paragraphs refer to ‘the important contribution of civil society and non-governmental organisations, including women’s organisations, to peacebuilding efforts.’[21] This contribution has been undermined in practice. The PBC adopted provisional guidelines on the participation of civil society, which create complex procedures and restrict access to the PBC. The 2010 review of the UN’s peacebuilding architecture noted civil society’s disengagement and isolation from the PBC.[22] On the other hand, the role defined for international monetary institutions in the resolutions has been expanded in practice, with the IMF, the World Bank, the European Community and the Organisation of Islamic Conference allowed to participate as full members in PBC meetings.

Another area where the PBC has become engulfed by UN traditions is in the area of attention to women and issues of gender. The Security Council and General Assembly resolutions made a number of references to women and gender; indeed the PBC is the first UN institution to have gender incorporated in its constitutional resolutions. The resolutions reaffirm ‘the important role of women in the prevention and resolution of conflicts and in peacebuilding’ and call for women’s ‘equal participation and full involvement in all efforts for the maintenance and promotion of peace and security.’ The resolutions also call upon the PBC ‘to integrate a gender perspective into all its work.’[23]

In the PBC’s work in both Sierra Leone and Burundi gender equality was designated as a ‘cross-cutting issue’. Reviews of the workings of the PBC, however, suggest that these commitments have been given low priority. Women are routinely left out of policy development with respect to peace, and the PBC has operated with narrow understandings of security. Women’s organisations have argued for recognition that gender-related violence and discrimination can undermine peacebuilding efforts and thus are integrally connected to security.[24] The 2010 review of the PBC argued that the PBC had not ensured that women’s voices were adequately heard in peacebuilding activities.[25] This concern is not peculiar to the PBC: a ten year review of the implementation of the historic Security Council resolution 1325 of 2000, which called for greater engagement of women in peacebuilding, found that it had had limited impact on post-conflict practice.[26]

Overall, the first five years of the PBC’s work suggest that it has not yet developed a secure identity. As an intergovernmental body, it cannot readily operate as a technical, or an implementing body. It is above all a political institution, but one that so far has been wary of operating politically, of bridging the gap between post-conflict countries and the UN system.[27]

[1] See Ralph Wilde, International Territorial Administration - How Trusteeship and the civilizing mission never went away (Oxford University Press, 2008) 424-428. See also Matthias Ruffert, ‘The administration of Kosovo and East Timor by the International Community’ (2001) 50 International and Comparative Law Quaterly 613, 631; Carsten Stahn, ‘Institutionalizing Brahimi’s “light footprint” – A comment on the role and mandate of the Peacebuilding Commission’ (2005) 2 International Organizations Law Review 403, 404; and generally Tom Parker, The Ultimate Intervention: Revitalising the UN Trusteeship Council for the 21st Century (Norwegian School of Management, 2003).
[2] Security Council Resolution on Operationalising the Peacebuilding Commission, SC Res 1645, UN SC, 5335th mtng, [2(a)], UN Doc S/Res/1645 (2005); General Assembly Resolution on Operationalising the Peacebuilding Commission, GA Res 60/180, UN GAOR, 60th sess, [2(a)], UN Doc A/Res/60/180 (2005).
[3] United Nations Report of the High-level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change, A more secure world: Our shared responsibility (2004) paras 261-262.
[4] Ibid, para. 264.
[5] Report of the United Nations Secretary-General, In larger freedom: towards development, security and human rights for all, UN GAOR, 59th sess, [114], UN Doc A/59/2005 (2005).
[6] Ibid, para. 115.
[7] See Gerhard Thallinger, ‘The UN Peacebuilding Commission and Transitional Justice’ (2007) 8 German Law Journal 681, 683-4.
[8] 2005 World Summit Outcome, GA Res 60/1, UN GAOR, 60th sess, [97-105], UN Doc A/Res/60/1 (2005).
[9] Emerging Lessons and Practices in Peacebuilding 2007-2009, Report of the Working Group on Lessons Learned of the Peacebuilding Commission (2010).
[10] Eg CSR Murthy, ‘New Phase in UN Reforms: Establishment of the Peacebuilding Commission and Human Rights Council’ (2007) 44 International Studies 39, 39-40.
[11] Above n 7, 707.
[12] Hugh Miall, ‘The United Nations and peacebuilding: prospects and perils in international regime (trans)formation. The EU and the Peacebuilding Commission’ (2007) 20 Cambridge Review of International Affairs 29, 30.
[13] Review of the United Nations Peacebuilding Architecture, UN GAOR, 64th sess, UN SC, 65th year, UN Doc A/64/868-S/2020/393 (2010).
[14] Ibid, paras 17-19, 49-53.
[15] Jeremy Farrall, Interviews with United Nations officials (New York, April 2007).
[16] Above n 13, para. 46.
[17] Above n 2.
[18] Ibid, para. 2(b).
[19] Ibid, para. 2(c).
[20] ActionAid, CAFOD & Care International, Consolidating the Peace? Views from Sierra Leone and Burundi on the United Nations Peacebuilding Commission (2007). The Peacebuilding Fund has been reviewed twice: see Report of the Office of Internal Oversight Services on the Independent Evaluation of the Peacebuilding Fund (2008); Nicole Ball and Mariska van Beijnum, Review of the Peacebuilding Fund (2009).
[21] Above n 2.
[22] Above n 13.
[23] Above n 2, para. 20. See also SC Res 1325, UN Security Council, 4213th mtg, [5, 8, 15, 16, 17] UN Doc S/Res/1325 (2000).
[24] See NGO Working Group on Women, Peace and Security & International Alert, Enhancing Security and the Rule of Law: How can Gender be better integrated into the Priorities of the UN Peacebuilding Commission? (2007).
[25] Above n 13, paras 29-30, 53.
[26] Ten Year Impact Study on Implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 (2000) on Women, Peace and Security in Peacekeeping, Final Report to the United Nations Department of Peacekeeping Operations, Department of Field Support (2010).
[27] Above n 13, paras 168-169.

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