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UN must recognise ‘new normal’ and break rapidly from conformity

by Carley Bowman

Entrenched conformity in attitudes and structures within organisations like the UN means they are unable to cope with the fast increasing pace of disruption in the world.

That was the stark message from Thinking the Unthinkable founder and director Nik Gowing to an interactive discussion on ‘Multilateralism Under Threat’ hosted by the International Peace Institute and the President of the UN General Assembly (UNGA) in New York on 10 Sept 2018.

Nik Gowing on the panel at International Peace Institute's interactive discussion at the UN in New York
Nik Gowing shares TtU findings at the UN in New York

For the past 12 months, Nik has been an adviser to the current President of UNGA, Miroslav Lajčák (Foreign Minister of Slovakia) on the daunting inadequacies of leadership as they confront the new world of disruption and often sinister unthinkables.

Respect for institutions is being actively trashed. So is respect for the rule of law.

The glue holding together well-tested institutions and relationships between corporations and nations is being unravelled.

Nik described an ‘uncomfortable tension’ in what’s expected of the UN on so many issues. The reality of the world is moving fast in different directions.

The ongoing Thinking the Unthinkable work confirms that many leaders can’t accept the implications of the scale of upheaval, then how the system must adapt.

A first step is to recognise that the next generation have a very different value set. They are pushing back against what they see. They are increasingly frustrated and angry. Leaders ignore this new existential reality at their peril.

“It’s about purpose and values,” Nik told the audience. “They don’t like a lot of what the corporate and political world is doing and producing.”

But the top down nature of the UN, plus the heavy weight of process and protocol diminish the possibility of frank acceptance of this new reality.

The UN as an institution that represents 193 nations must ‘recognise this new normal’. To handle the new disruptions, the way things are is increasingly proving to be not just ineffective but also downright irrelevant to the way things are fast becoming.

The UN mantra remains to build peace and stability. Its lack of effectiveness as a peacebuilder was highlighted separately at a parallel event held in London the same day.

Chris Langdon, co-author of Thinking the Unthinkable was there.

From left to right: Marwa Baabbad, Centre for Women, Peace and Security, LSE, Yasminara Khan (Chair) BBC Newsnight, Reem Assil, Common Purpose, Dr Rim Turkmani, Senior Research Fellow at the Conflict and Civil Society Research Unit, LSE
Marwa Baabbad, Yasminara Khan (Chair), Reem Assil and Dr Rim Turkmani

Dr Rim Turkmani, a Syrian scientist and conflict specialist at the LSE, said that UN peacebuilding fails because it is stuck on old frameworks.

The UN has a very limited mandate in Syria.

It seeks an international peace agreement. But this is no longer appropriate in a conflict as complex as Syria, she said as a member of an all-woman panel at the event hosted by four British peacebuilding organisations.

The solution is for the UN to work differently and broker compromises at local, national and international levels, Dr Turkmani added.

The international community must have a higher risk appetite and engage with new civil society actors, said Marwa Baabbad, Yemen specialist at the Centre for Women, Peace and Security at the LSE.

Alastair Burt, the UK Minister of State for the Middle East, warned at the same event that the increasing trajectory of violent conflict means that the need for humanitarian assistance globally could double to $50 billion by 203O.

“That is not sustainable,” he said.

Are all these issues unthinkables? No, not only. They represent the new reality of unpalatables. They are trends moving the world away from the justifiable expectations for improvements in a sinister direction that most leaders find great difficulty even identifying, let alone accepting.

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