Engagement with the United Nations: Civil Wars, Violence, and International Order

Civil wars, international responsibilities, and UN tools

In Fall 2017, the Civil Wars project convened a series of four events in collaboration with the United Nations in New York.

On Wednesday, September 13, a select group of authors involved in the Academy’s project on Civil Wars, Violence and International Responses met with high level representatives of the United Nations for a day-long series of discussions on the project and its preliminary findings. The morning session featured the Assistant Secretary General for Peacekeeping Operations, the Assistant Secretary General for Political Affairs and the Undersecretary General for Disarmament Affairs alongside Academy project authors Stephen Stedman, Stephen Krasner and Jean-Marie Guéhenno. More than 110 United Nations staff from various agencies attended this event.

Daedalus contributors Stephen Stedman, James Fearon and Sarah Kenyon Lischer presented at a practitioner workshop attended by over 80 mid-level staff. The dialogue centered on how civil wars destabilize global order and how to better employ the UN’s existing tools and strategies to effectively mitigate civil violence and the associated security spillover effects.

The policy memos shared during the workshop are available here:

  • Stephen J. Stedman (Stanford University) on civil wars, international order, and treatment regimes
  • James D. Fearon (Stanford University) on civil war and the current international system
  • Sarah Kenyon Lischer (Wake Forest University) on the global refugee crisis, regional destabilization, and humanitarian protection

Download all three memos from September 13, 2017 (PDF)

In October and November 2017, the project convened two additional workshops with UN staff on institution building and on the evolution of armed groups.

Select contributors to the Academy’s Civil Wars, Violence, and International Responses project participated in a workshop on “Institution-building and Governance in Areas of Limited Statehood.” This event, organized in cooperation with the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations and Department of Political Affairs, was attended by approximately 58 practitioners from multiple UN departments. The discussion featured Daedalus authors Susanna Campbell, Steven Heydemann, Richard Gowan, and Eric Stollenwerk, who shared their articles and the policy implications for the UN. They were joined by three experienced UN practitioners working on these issues, who served as discussants for the workshop and shared their perspectives and insights from the field.

Several themes emerged from the discussion, often echoing ideas that also emerged during the events on September 13th:

There is a need for modesty and humility when determining approaches to institution-building. Participants reflected on UN engagement – as well as other recent international efforts on institution-building – and shared their impressions that there are limits on what the UN can do effectively, and some argued that this means the UN should focus on its strengths. Participants observed that the UN’s real value in many cases as its ability to work nationally and locally. This can be helpful where there is popular demand for institutional change among people who have less influence than national leaders. In order to operate most effectively, the UN may need to work more on engaging with informal processes (despite its bureaucratic aversion to doing so), and allowing for innovative, risk-taking behavior in approaches to peacebuilding and conflict prevention.

The role of the state – and state-driven approaches to institution building and governance – may need to be rethought. The UN system is based on member-states, which necessarily shapes its approaches and leads to a focus on the state. Participants argued that the state-based international system makes restoring the state necessary, but still leaves space to focus on institution-building that will make states more inclusive, participatory, and accountable. However, participants argued that the importance of specific local and regional factors are important in governance building, and this complicates the role of the state. The fact that there is often a fair amount of continuity between pre-war institutions and forms of governance within areas of conflict means that conflict may not actually provide as much space for governance reform as commonly assumed, making creative and well-prioritized approaches all the more important.

There is a need to more effectively assess and use the knowledge that the UN has available.Participants described a shift toward an increasingly learning-based approach to institution-building over the last several years, but emphasized areas in which this needs to continue to evolve. Rather than merely relying on lessons from other places, which may or may not apply in a given scenario, the UN needs to be able to better use the information it has available in the specific location where it is working, and to do more to take lessons about what is working well in peaceful areas, as well as what has gone wrong in violent areas. The discussion questioned whether the UN can do more to involve people affected by civil wars in conversations around its institution-building objectives, perhaps by off-shoring some of its knowledge bases and carrying out more policymaking outside New York.

Participants from the project contributed policy memos for discussion during the workshop:

  • Susanna Campbell (American University), “Is Prevention the Answer?”
  • Steven Heydemann (Smith College; Brookings Institution), “Civil War, Economic Governance, and State Reconstruction in the Arab Middle East”
  • Richard Gowan (New York University; European Council on Foreign Relations), “Can the ‘Standard Treatment’ for Civil Wars Survive?”
  • Eric Stollenwerk (Freie Universität Berlin), “Limited Statehood Does Not Equal Civil War”

Download all four memos from October 18, 2017 (PDF)

The Academy’s Civil Wars, Violence, and International Responses project co-convened a third workshop with the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations and Department of Political Affairs. Martha Crenshaw (Stanford University), Tanisha Fazal (University of Minnesota), and Stathis Kalyvas (Yale University) presented their Dædalus contributions, while Richard Atwood (International Crisis Group) and high-level UN staff members served as discussants. Approximately 45 practitioners from several UN departments attended the workshop. The discussion coalesced around a series of key issues, including:

Understanding how various types of armed groups will continue to evolve in the future remains a challenge, and there are few easy policy solutions. Because different types of armed groups have different motives and objectives, understanding how a given group fits into larger trends can help us understand what types of approaches might be helpful. Looking closely at groups’ political aims can help the UN understand why and how they fight. But participants also noted that seeking to typologize armed groups can sometimes complicate efforts to respond because groups are fluid and often move from category to category over time. Since such categorization is often associated with specific policy prescriptions, formal labeling can potentially end up constraining responses as a group’s objectives evolve over time, particularly when it comes to firmly demarcating terrorist and non-terrorist groups. Additionally, the scholars noted that although their research reveals some potential avenues for response, these policies would not necessarily be straightforward to implement. Similarly, UN-based participants shared examples of how policy responses to armed groups can be extraordinarily difficult to execute in practice.

Practical constraints can make it difficult for the UN to implement creative new responses to armed groups. UN participants made it clear that they see responding to armed group as absolutely central to their overall work, but lack of time and information can make it difficult to develop new and more effective approaches to this work. As in two previous practitioner workshops, UN participants emphasized the need for the UN to frankly consider what it can really do effectively. Participants argued that the UN needs to think beyond the standard options of mediation (currently a major focus at the UN) and military action, including how the UN can support host governments to fill spaces where armed groups may be seeking to gain legitimacy. One participant noted that the UN may need to look at tailored strategies, moving away from the assumption that you can use force or mediation. Additionally, a new focus on local dynamics and the factors that motivate individuals to join armed groups may allow the UN to recognize opportunities for meaningful intervention.

The nature of the state-based international system complicates the range of options available to the UN in responding to armed groups, especially those with trans-national connections.The state-based system offers opportunities to engage with separatist groups who aspire to join that system, but also makes it particularly difficult for the UN to respond to groups who do not see states as part of the solution, and who may see the UN itself as an enemy. Meanwhile, international geopolitical competition can lead states and the international community to shift their focus away from responding effectively to armed groups. Participants also discussed why the international community would find it difficult to consider simply standing by and letting armed groups self-destruct. Leaders may feel morally compelled to do something, or may worry that inaction will create a need for a bigger intervention later. The group also discussed how the willingness of member states – and especially of host governments – imposes limits on the types of action the UN can take. While secessionist groups may be more willing to work with the UN, a UN discussant noted that there is often immediate resistance to UN engagement with secessionists, but that there may be a need to think more carefully about how the UN could shift towards more local engagement, potentially using all UN partners. Another discussant argued that the UN needs to start from somewhere, and supporting small, local investigations, especially to develop communities to the conflict.

The policy memos discussed during the workshop are available below:

  • Martha Crenshaw (Stanford University), “Transnational Jihadism & Civil War”
  • Tanisha Fazal (University of Minnesota), “Religious vs. Religionist Rebels”
  • Stathis Kalyvas (Yale University), “Jihadi Rebels in Civil War”

Download all three memos from November 17, 2017 (PDF)

Read an interview with Crenshaw, Fazal, and Kalyvas

The impressive level of attendance and enthusiasm from the UN staff clearly demonstrates the timeliness and relevance of this Academy project.

Based on the success of the high-level meeting, some UN staff have suggested that a direct briefing from the Academy to the UN security council could be very important to facilitate a strategic dialogue addressing how the UN should position itself vis a vis the new civil wars of the 21st century and the unprecedented challenges we will face going forward.