Remarks at a UN Security Council Briefing on the Maintenance of International Peace and Security: Mediation and Settlement of Disputes

Rodney Hunter
Political Coordinator
U.S. Mission to the United Nations
New York City
August 29, 2018


Thank you, Mr. President, for coming to chair this briefing. Thank you also to the Secretary-General, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and to Ms. Qadeem for your remarks today. The United States joins the Archbishop in honoring the memory of the late Kofi Annan on this issue.

In August of 2012, Mr. Annan spoke to the press about his work as Special Envoy for Syria. Reflecting on his task, he said, “I accepted this task, which some called ‘Mission Impossible’ – for I believed it was a sacred duty to do whatever was in my power to help the Syrian people find a peaceful solution to this bloody conflict.”

He made real progress toward developing a peace plan. Had the parties listened to Mr. Annan at the time, hundreds of thousands of Syrians could have been saved. But after five months on the job, Annan came to a sobering realization. As he said, “You have to understand: as an Envoy, I can’t want peace more than the protagonists.”

He stepped down, paralyzed because the Assad regime did not want peace, and Russia, sometimes alongside China, blocked the Security Council from stepping in.

This is the challenge with mediation. All of us know that it is vastly better to solve conflicts through talks, instead of by force. All of us agree that investing in mediation and prevention is important. All of us support the efforts of the Secretary-General to build the UN’s mediation capacity.

But, of course, even the world’s greatest mediators have no troops at their command. They cannot impose sanctions. They cannot compel people to do anything.

The missing ingredient when it comes to mediation is often a real desire by us, the members of the Security Council, to see these efforts succeed.

Around the world, the Security Council is quick to send out envoys and proclaim our support for them. There are UN-led dialogues and political processes in Yemen, Libya, Syria, Iraq, Colombia, Afghanistan, and the Great Lakes, to name just a few. These are some of the world’s most daunting conflicts, and we are looking to the UN’s envoys to find solutions. But they cannot do it alone.

That is why the United States has pushed the Security Council to impose real consequences when parties are not willing to negotiate. Mediators may not be able to compel people to come to the table, so we have to play that role.

In South Sudan, this Council waited years before finally imposing an arms embargo . This is a place where war has raged out of control. Government troops and other armed groups have slaughtered civilians, burned down their villages, and committed unspeakable atrocities.

The United States repeatedly sought to impose sanctions as a step toward holding South Sudan’s leaders accountable for their actions. But we were told over and over to wait for talks to come through.

Agreements and ceasefires came and went, the violence continued, but we were still told to wait to take action. In the end, we passed an arms embargo and new sanctions last month. Now, the parties will have a new incentive to negotiate in earnest and reach a sustainable agreement that represents the needs and interests of the South Sudanese people.

We do not know whether these negotiations will ultimately be successful. But we know that progress will not be possible without consequences for those who refuse to compromise for peace.

We must not let mediation blind us to the realities of what people are doing to each other on the ground. We want diplomacy to work, but when it doesn’t, we must have the courage to say it and to pursue a meaningful response. That is how we help mediators out – by showing the parties that there will be consequences if they don’t commit to talks.

The United States has also made it a priority to push for political progress in places that have long been on our agenda. In situations like Cyprus and Western Sahara, we have peacekeeping missions that have sat on the ground for decades.

In theory, these missions support political solutions. But in reality, they are perpetuating a status quo.

The United States is going back to these legacy peacekeeping missions and asking hard questions about what we are achieving. We are making a renewed push to see whether the parties are working with the UN to make political progress. And if they are not, we are going to reassess what these missions are doing. Either way, we do mediators no favors when we let the status quo be an end to itself.

The UN can never walk away from mediation. Even in the worst of circumstances, we look to the UN and its mediators to keep trying to find a way out of conflict. That is the fundamental purpose of this organization.

For mediators, talk can be powerful. But for the Security Council, talk is cheap. It’s easy for us to express support for mediation. But it’s only when we actually empower mediators and use the tools that we have to push parties back to the table that we can expect to see results. Thank you, Mr. President.