Every time the international community encounters a new issue, the United Nations creates a new piece of machinery to deal with it, said Gillian Bird, the Permanent Representative of Australia to the United Nations. Rather than addressing the problem, she said this more often leads to unhelpful fragmentation.
“We’ve really got to get better at integrating these issues across the UN system as a whole,” Ms. Bird said.
“On the ground, I think there’s been a bit more success—a recognition that you really need to operate as one,” she said, “but I still don’t think it’s happening—it’s the silos and the fragmentation and therefore the competition between various arms of the UN rather than [it] all pulling together.”
Speaking to Warren Hoge of the International Peace Institute on the sidelines of the Independent Commission on Multilateralism’s retreat on fragile states and fragile cities, Ms. Bird noted the importance of local ownership when dealing with issues of fragility.
“I think it’s really important to look at the role of fragile states themselves,” she said, highlighting the role they played in the discussions on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.
Australia’s experience with the Solomon Islands was a good example of how countries can assist a state in difficult circumstances, Ms. Bird said. The Solomon Islands went through a dramatic breakdown of law and order in 2003 and neighboring countries provided assistance.
“I think in hindsight it was the right thing to do because we were able to deploy in a way that was much more rapid, nimble, and holistic than the UN would ever have been able to do,” she said.
“We do think the UN does need to pay particular attention to the needs of small island states,” Ms. Bird argued. “There’s sometimes a bit of a tendency for the issues that face small island states to be drowned out by other bigger players and actors, so I think maybe there’s a lesson there for the UN.”
Listen to the interview:
Ambassador Bird, we’re on the margins of a meeting being held by the Independent Commission on Multilateralism. Our subject is fragile cities and fragile states, and one of the big questions is how the multilateral system, indeed the UN itself, can address something as local as a fragile city or a fragile state?
It’s a really important question because dealing with the issues to do with fragile states, or indeed any state, you need to understand local circumstances, and you really need that local ownership. I think it’s really important to look at the role of fragile states themselves. The creation of what’s called the G7+ group, which is essentially self-identified fragile states, has been really important because it’s taking ownership of the issues to do with fragility and the way forward.
So it’s not just a question of outsiders talking and saying what’s needed, it’s them taking ownership of the issue themselves. I’ve been particularly struck by the role they’ve played in the discussion on the Sustainable Development Goals. They were the ones who pushed for Goal 16, which is all about peaceful and inclusive societies, access to justice for all, effective, accountable inclusive institutions. They were the ones who, from experience, knew how important those issues were and pushed for it very hard, and there wasn’t always support for that among their G77 colleagues, but it was a really good outcome.
You’ve been around the UN intermittently for a while, and I wanted to ask you about how the UN acts when it’s on the ground. For quite a while now there’s been this theory that the UN should act as one, but up against that is something that goes by the name of “silos and fragmentation.” Which is the reality?
I fear that on the ground, it’s more the “silos and fragmentation,” and I wish it weren’t so. I know the UN doesn’t want it to be, but there really is, I think, a fundamental problem with the UN. Every time there’s a new issue or something emerges, there’s a tendency to create a new piece of machinery to deal with it. I think it would be a real sign of failure rather than success if we created something, for example, called the Fragile States Unit. We’ve really got to get better at integrating these issues across the UN system as a whole and stop creating a new piece of machinery every time there’s a new issue.
We should get better, but it’s something we don’t do—closing something down that might be passed its “use by date” or combining things. I don’t blame the UN secretariat for this, member states are often at fault. We’re often the worst at proposing these things or stopping attempts to wind them up, but it really does mitigate against the UN operating as one. On the ground, I think there’s been a bit more success—a recognition that you really need to operate as one, but I still don’t think it’s happening—it’s the silos and the fragmentation and therefore the competition between various arms of the UN rather than all pulling together.
[Turning to] Australia’s own experience with fragility that you mentioned in the meeting—you specifically talked about the Solomon Islands case study. Tell us about that and what its relevance is to this whole conversation.
I think it was a good example of how countries can assist a state in difficult circumstances. In the Solomon Islands, there was a dramatic breakdown of law and order in 2003, and we’d looked at maybe going down the UN Security Council route, but that was complicated for a number of reasons. The Solomon Islands asked for assistance and the region gave it in the form of a Regional Assistance Mission for the Solomon Islands, RAMSI. I think in hindsight it was the right thing to do because we were able to deploy in a way that was much more rapid, nimble, and holistic than the UN would ever have been able to do. We were also able to stay the course. That operation has been going for more than a decade now in a way that I think the UN would find challenging.
[The] other advantages of a regional approach is regional countries tend to know their neighbors well, so we understand the circumstances on the ground, we’re known by those countries and those populations, and a regional approach can give a legitimacy in the eyes of the local populations in a way that might sometimes be more difficult for the UN. I think the challenge, therefore, if I look at what that means for the UN, is that you really need to find those organizations or groups within the system that know the country well.
There’s no substitute for those connections and knowledge when you’re deploying. The other thing we were able to do that I think the UN finds challenging is there was a single coordinator in charge of that mission. The mission had military, policing, and civilian components and it was integrated from the beginning. The percentage of each of those varied over time, but those three elements were there from the beginning. There was one coordinator who had responsibility for that mission, who liaised with the Solomon Islands’ government and with other members of the mission, and having that one person in charge is critically important.
Looking at the world from an Atlantic perspective, the Pacific Islands are very far away, and I can imagine that the Pacific islands would be less trusting of the UN, which is sitting here in New York, than other parts of the world might be.
The flip side of that is therefore a region [in which] their neighbors are familiar to them. [With] the Regional Assistance Mission of the Solomons, for example—all 16 members of the Pacific Islands Forum participated to varying degrees, but again it gave it that legitimacy in the eyes of the local population in particular, and local ownership is critical. That would be more challenging because the UN just doesn’t necessarily feature in the Pacific the way perhaps it should—although that is another issue. We do think the UN does need to pay particular attention to the needs of small island states. There’s sometimes a bit of a tendency for the issues that face small island states to be drowned out by other bigger players and actors, so I think maybe there’s a lesson there for the UN as well.
Excellent. Thank you very much.