On the New Agenda for Peace

by Bertrand Ramcharan


Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is in the process of writing a New Agenda for Peace, and it is timely to look at where he plans to go with this initiative. In drafting such a document, two approaches could be followed: a selective, strategic approach, or a kitchen-sink approach: throwing everything into the document.

The initial Agenda for Peace, issued by Secretary-General Boutros-Boutros Ghali in 1992, followed the first approach—the selective, strategic one. As its chapter titles indicate, it had in mind the enhancement of preventive diplomacy, peacemaking, peacekeeping, and peacebuilding, and the development of peace enforcement.

As the author of the first draft of the 1992 Agenda for Peace, I helped shape this strategy. A group of senior officials had been meeting on the subject, and many of them had submitted written papers. Their discussions were dragging on, and they concluded that they needed someone to take their written submissions and turn them into a working draft. As the head of the speechwriting team of the Secretary-General, this task was entrusted to me.

I digested their papers and wrote the first draft, which was commented on by Secretary-General Boutros-Boutros Ghali in professorial manner, with extensive annotations. Informed by his comments, I polished my first draft and submitted it to him. It subsequently went through two further drafting exercises until the final Agenda was issued.

The structure of the document remained as I had drafted it, as did the definitions of preventive diplomacy, peacemaking, peacekeeping, and peace-building—except that peacebuilding was unwisely framed as post-conflict peacebuilding, something that has since changed through practice. The Peacebuilding Commission eventually approached peacebuilding more broadly to include factors conducive to peace—as I had initially defined it.

My draft did not have a chapter on peace enforcement, and I have always felt that it was a mistake to include it in the final document. I have been, and remain, of the view that the UN should only on the rarest of occasions seek to be engaged in the business of fighting wars.

What, then, about the forthcoming New Agenda for Peace? In his wide-ranging February 6 briefing to the General Assembly on priorities for 2023, Secretary-General Antonio Guterres provided broad indications of what he intends to include in the new Agenda for Peace. This, he said, is not a time for tinkering. He warned that “The Doomsday Clock is now 90 seconds to midnight, which means 90 seconds to total global catastrophe.”

His vision is for “A transformation grounded in everything that guides our work—starting with the Charter and the Universal Declaration—the distillation of our shared mission to uphold and uplift our common humanity.”

He framed his briefing around seven sets of rights: first, the right to peace; second, social and economic rights and the right to development; third, the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment; fourth, respect for diversity and the universality of cultural rights (a curious formulation in that he restricted universality to cultural rights only); fifth, the right to full gender equality; sixth, civil and political rights as the basis of inclusive societies; seventh, the rights of future generations: “We must recognize that all the threats we face undermine not only people’s rights today, but also the rights of future generations.”

Spelling out his vision for a new Agenda for Peace, Guterres declared that it is time to transform our approach to peace by recommitting to the Charter—putting human rights and dignity first, with prevention at the heart. That, he said, requires a holistic view of the peace continuum that identifies root causes and prevents the seeds of war from sprouting. One that invests in prevention to avoid conflicts in the first place, focuses on mediation, advances peacebuilding and includes much broader participation from women and young people.

“These,” he declared, “are core elements of the proposed New Agenda for Peace—our plan to revitalize multilateral action for a world in transition and [a] new era of geostrategic competition.” The New Agenda for Peace, he added, “must seek to address all forms and domains of threats, old and new.”

He referred to his ‘Action for Peacekeeping Plus’ initiative, adding: “But the new Agenda for Peace must recognize the need for a new generation of peace enforcement missions and counter-terrorist operations, led by regional forces, with a Security Council mandate under Chapter VII, and with guaranteed, predictable funding.”

One cannot help but wonder how wise this is for the future of the UN. The UN is a peace organization and does not have the capacity to fight wars. It might occasionally authorize coalitions of the willing to take action, but it should be very careful in doing so, as could be seen in the case of Libya.

Continuing the parameters of the New Agenda for Peace, he warned that “We are at the highest risk in decades of a nuclear war that could start by accident or design. We need to end the threat posed by 13,000 nuclear weapons held in arsenals around the world.” At the same time, he continued, “no Agenda for Peace can ignore the dangers posed by new technologies.”

The New Agenda for Peace, he rounded off, “should aim to maximize the convening power of the United Nations as a platform for broad-based coalitions and effective diplomacy.”

The Secretary-General is an energetic moral crusader and deserves all of our support. The question that needs to be asked in relation to the foregoing elements of the proposed New Agenda for Peace is: “It may be crusading, but is it strategic?” We leave it to the reader to ponder on the answer. If anything, the first Agenda for Peace crystallized the idea of preventive diplomacy and gave rise to a series of operational developments in this area. It also gave us the Peacebuilding Commission. Let us hope that, when it is eventually issued, the New Agenda for Peace will similarly lead to concrete results.