#92 The G|O Briefing, March 31, 2022

Does a deadlocked Security Council mean a new role for the UN in Geneva? - A few notes on Gilbert Houngbo’s election at the ILO

This is an onsite, slightly edited republication of the complete G|O Briefing newsletter

Today in The Geneva Observer, an interview with Richard Gowan, UN director at the International Crisis Group. New York-based Gowan is one of the most astute and seasoned observers of the UN and multilateralism. In ‘The UN Is Another Casualty of Russia’s War: Why the Organization Might Never Bounce Back’, an op-ed piece in Foreign Affairs, Gowan writes that Putin’s war is severely testing the limits, possibly already at a breaking point, of diplomacy at the UN Security Council. “Russia and the US will find it very hard, or simply impossible, to cooperate on other crises through the Security Council,” he writes. In such a context, I wanted him to share his thoughts with The G|O about the role that the UN’s Geneva hub—multilateralism’s operational center—could play in providing a platform for continuous dialogue, despite Russia’s unprovoked attack on Ukraine being in clear violations of the UN Charter and international law. My interview with him and excerpts from his op-ed are below.

As is Katherine Hagen’s take on last week’s election of the former Togolese Prime Minister to the head of the ILO. International Geneva can be observed from a distance: a former deputy director of the ILO, Katherine Hagen has closely followed the entire election process from her outpost in Provence. We are happy to share her ‘election notes’, which help us better understand the organization’s role and priorities.

Thank you for reading us.



Philippe Mottaz: I’ll let the title of your piece (‘The UN Is Another Casualty of Russia’s War’) speak for itself. You clearly express some very serious concerns here about the future of the UN.

Richard Gowan: Yes, I do think that some very significant parts of the UN, most obviously the Security Council, could suffer some real long-term damage from this war. And in that sense, it may be different even to Iraq in 2003, when there was quite a conscious effort by countries like France—and indeed Russia—that opposed the Iraq invasion, to work with the US to get the UN back on track. And Kofi Annan delivered some fairly big changes, like the creation of the Human Rights Council. But today, I don’t see that sort of desire to rebuild bridges here. I think there is a sense that some profound elements of the post-Cold War UN order are broken.

PHM: Should your piece be read as an indictment of the UN?

RG: What the piece was actually meant to be was a warning, but also an appeal for some common sense. It was a warning in that I don’t think this toxin of the war in Ukraine can be confined solely to discussions of Ukraine. I think that when it comes to discussions of a mandate for cross-border aid to Syria, or the UN mandate for EU peacekeeping in Bosnia, I don’t believe that the West and Russia will be able to make compromises, and I think those mandates will fall apart.

But my piece is also an appeal to common sense, because while there are some obvious flashpoints, I think there are also scenarios where the P3 (France, UK, and the US) will recognize that they still need to try to work with Russia. In March, one example uppermost in my mind was Afghanistan. There are certain issues where the P5 (France, UK, US, China, and Russia) cooperation remains essential. Even during some of the most tense moments of the Cold War, where the council didn’t meet for months at a time, the P5 did occasionally come to the UN to do deals. People are saying there’s a new Cold War at the UN. That’s an easy shorthand for what’s going on, but you have to remember that even in the Cold War, the Security Council did some important things, and the UN agreed to things like the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).


PHM: You also say that the breakdown of the UN may not be inevitable. “The Western powers will need to invest in those parts of the UN system, such as its humanitarian agencies, that can mitigate conflicts without Security Council mandates.” Could Geneva, the operational center of the multilateral system, be the locus where dialogue could continue?

RG: As you know, there’s always competition between New York and Geneva, the two great UN centers—no disrespect to Vienna. And there are times, when New York is stuck, when elements of the UN family in Geneva have to compensate for the political problems in New York.

But they compensate in different ways. One of the most striking diplomatic initiatives in the first weeks of the war was the Human Rights Council (HRC) agreeing to a commission of inquiry for Ukraine. For all the critics of the Council, you can do things in Geneva that you can’t in New York. And I think that is probably going to be increasingly the case. If we enter a phase where the Security Council is even more frequently deadlocked, more issues will come to Geneva—even if it is only partially a displacement effect.

Then you have the humanitarians. There has been a trend over the last decade for the humanitarian agencies—including the Rome-based agencies such as the World Food Programme (WFP)—to play a more central role in international crisis management. Why? Because the tools at the disposal of the council, like peacekeeping and mediation, have been less effective. The humanitarians have been at the forefront in Ethiopia. They’ve been at the forefront in Afghanistan. And what we have in Afghanistan is the UN basically providing a political framework for humanitarian aid to hold the country together. So I think that, in different ways, the Human Rights Council and the humanitarian agencies are gaining traction at this moment in time. Now, is the broader world of Geneva diplomacy up for that? That’s up for debate. Because, right now, a lot of Western countries are primarily focused on marginalizing Russia, in a lot of the technical agencies and technical discussions. That could create some tensions, and complicate dialogue. That obviously doesn’t just make diplomacy with Russia harder, but worries other UN member states who do not want to be part of this fight.


PHM: So, you are saying that the West’s efforts at excluding, or at least isolating Russia might end-up being counterproductive?

RG: I think it will need to be decided on a case-by-case basis. What I am saying is that at some point, in a year or two, or five, you’re going to have to start bringing Russia back into the UN family. I see three reasons why: Firstly, cutting out a major country, for all its errors and flaws, is likely to turn it into an even more serious spoiler, with incentives to undermine UN activities it cannot influence. Secondly, I don’t think China is really going to want to see its Russian friends excluded. And thirdly, there are a lot of African states that have economic relations with the Russians and are uncomfortable with the way that they see Russia being marginalized, even if instinctively they have a lot of sympathy for Ukraine.

PHM: How do you see the US and EU relationship going forward? Do you see more unity as the crisis continues, or rifts appearing?

RG: Over the last six weeks, the US and the EU have been enormously professional and enormously effective in keeping their coalition together in New York. Whatever the long-term future of the UN might be, that has been really impressive tactical diplomacy. This has been one of the most impressive bits of US-EU cooperation we’ve seen at the UN for a while. What has struck me though, is less the transatlantic relationship than the internal EU dynamic. Because right now, Poland and the Baltic states, in close coordination with Ukraine, are really sort of pushing the EU into some pretty hardline positions here. They’ve got the political space to do so, because the way the Russians are behaving is just so awful. But it upends some of the normal balance of power in the EU group, because France and Germany instinctively would probably be more cautious. The big question, I think, is will there be a moment where Macron or Scholz say, “It’s time for a deal and we have to limit the pressure on Russia”? At that point, you might see a breakdown in the EU group.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


The UN Is Another Casualty of Russia’s War
Why the Organization Might Never Bounce Back
By Richard Gowan
March 10, 2022

"Multilateralism lies on its deathbed tonight,” Kenya’s ambassador to the United Nations, Martin Kimani, warned the Security Council in a debate on the looming war in Ukraine in late February. Since then, UN diplomacy has remained in critical condition. Russia has blocked the council from taking any action in response to its “special military operation.” On March 2, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution deploring Russia’s actions by 141 votes to five. Moscow won only the support of Belarus, North Korea, Eritrea, and Syria. But Russian forces pushed on with their assault regardless.
This war threatens to do long-term damage to the UN. If hostilities drag on in Ukraine, or Moscow ends up occupying part or all of the country by force indefinitely, Russia and the United States will find it very hard, or simply impossible, to cooperate on other crises through the Security Council. Policymakers in Washington and its allies in Paris and London–who represent three of the five veto-wielding permanent seats on the UN Security Council–will have to explore whether there are some issues, such as containing Iran’s and North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, on which they can continue to work with the Russians, regardless of events in Ukraine. And the Western powers will need to invest in those parts of the UN system, such as its humanitarian agencies, that can mitigate conflicts without Security Council mandates.
The spectacle of Moscow flagrantly violating the UN Charter’s core principles, including respecting sovereignty and refraining from the use of force, has caused profound disquiet in New York and beyond. There has been talk in UN and academic circles of reforming the charter to stop Russia or other permanent members of the Security Council from using their veto to shield their own aggressive acts in future. Ukraine has suggested stripping Moscow of its Security Council seat altogether.

The full article can be read on Foreign Affairs' website.


By Katherine Hagen, former deputy director-general of the ILO

Congratulations to Gilbert Houngbo. His is an historic accomplishment: the first African to be elected to this position at the ILO—an organization that was established over 100 years ago without the participation of any African government, as he himself pointed out in his acceptance speech. This is undeniably a significant landmark for the organization.

As I observed in a commentary that I wrote about all five candidates for the position before the election (available here), all were credibly qualified candidates, each in their different ways. It is the combination of Mr. Houngbo’s credentials (experience both within the ILO and in other international and domestic settings) that took him over the top in just two rounds of voting.

Four issues were of particular interest to me: informality (the informal economy), gender equality, multilateralism, and, without dwelling on it here, the normative future of the ILO. On all four issues, Mr. Houngbo rated well—especially so, from my perspective, on at least two of them (informality and multilateralism), and credibly well on the other two.


Although I had treated gender equality as the second most important issue (after informality), I need to say that the best articulation on gender equality came from the two female candidates, former French Labor Minister Pénicaud and South Korean politician Kang Kyung-wha. One can always hope that a wholehearted embrace of gender equality does not depend on the gender of the candidate. But there is still a story of gender discrimination, including in the world of work, and thus we have witnessed more women than men taking an activist role on the subject over the past few decades. It is noteworthy on that point, by the way, that all three of the spokespersons for the ILO’s Governing Body’s three constituent groups are currently women. Both of the female candidates for the top job had comprehensive records on advancing gender equality.

Mr. Houngbo might not have as much of a record on gender equality as the others, but as the head of IFAD, he displayed an appreciation for the gender-related concerns of women in the rural sector, where the poverty-related travails are the most severe—for both women and men, and, for that matter, children too.


On the other issues (and in general), I would say that Mr. Houngbo was clearly the best choice. They all had their strengths, to be sure, and I should note here that one of his most serious competitors on these three issues, Greg Vines, ultimately ended up being a non-contender. The fact that he garnered only one vote on the first ballot is not a reflection of his credentials, but only a signal that he had essentially dropped out of the race, given the geopolitical dynamics among the members of the ILO. If one takes into account the need for the ILO to be moving in new directions in the future, Mr Houngbo was better suited than Greg Vines.

So, onto the three other issues I chose to highlight. First, informality is the most fundamental issue for the ILO in the future, and it is an issue on which Mr. Houngbo has clearly grappled with the challenges. He illustrated this with his descriptions of transitioning efforts in Togo when he was Prime Minister, and I do believe that the African context is relevant for an understanding of this issue. I also think that his African experience will play an important role in where the ILO goes on this issue—given that the increase in informality or precarious employment, along with the blurring of informality with the precariousness of micro- and small enterprises and the like, are relevant concerns for everyone.


On the issue of multilateralism, Mr. Houngbo also brings the right balance of credentials to take the ILO in new directions without necessarily disrupting the old patterns. I know that some critics were uncomfortable with his enthusiastic embrace of collaboration with different stakeholders, but I personally liked his proposal for a multi-stakeholder “Global Coalition for Social Justice” and for the ILO to be the “arbiter” of labor standards in trade agreements, including at the WTO. There is also the matter of other non-state actors here: the tripartite structure makes it difficult for the ILO to work with other non-state actors. Clearly this protectionism didn’t help the other candidates, including either Ms. Pénicaud (with her willingness to work with multinational enterprises directly, which seemed to upset the Employers Group) or Ms. Kang (with her strong record with human rights organizations, which didn’t help her with the Workers Group, given the poor record on labor standards of her own government in South Korea). But these days, it is time for the multilateral world and the abundance of multi-stakeholder actors to be more fully united.


There is the matter of geopolitics as well. Australia and France were both bound to encounter challenges with the spill over from the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Take a look at the UN resolution on that issue, after all. The vote there was 141 to 5 with 35 abstentions and 10 not voting. I would assume that the negatives and abstentions (including China, India and Pakistan) on that vote would have had some reservations with either Mr. Vines or Ms. Pénicaud—and even with Ms. Kang, for that matter.

The normative future of the ILO will benefit from Mr. Houngbo’s future leadership role, not only in terms of moving beyond the right-to-strike issue but also in terms of the constructive work on informality, occupational health and safety, and climate change that are looming for the ILO. I also trust that he will reach out in different ways to each of his competitors—all of whom can help strengthen his tenure.

Today's Briefing: Philippe Mottaz

Editorial Assistance: Ciara O'Donoghue

Guest Contributor: Katherine Hagen

Edited by: Dan Wheeler