U.N. resolutions may seem like cheap talk. But they might actually work

As world leaders meet virtually for the 2020 U.N. General Assembly, the U.N. Security Council will hold a high-level summit Sept. 24 to discuss the maintenance of international peace and security after the coronavirus pandemic ends.

In March, U.N. Secretary General António Guterres called for a global cease-fire so the world could focus on battling the coronavirus pandemic. In July, after months of political disagreement, the Security Council unanimously passed Resolution 2532, calling for an “immediate cessation of hostilities” and “a durable humanitarian pause … to enable the safe, unhindered and sustained delivery of humanitarian assistance” in all ongoing conflicts to combat the pandemic.

Natural disasters and other crises can exacerbate political violence and destabilize peace processes — but can Security Council resolutions help secure peace in these scenarios? Scholars and policymakers often dismiss Security Council resolutions as “cheap talk,” rhetoric without the enforcement capacity that peacekeeping provides. In contrast, our recent research suggests these resolutions keep peace processes on track.

We examined 350 Security Council resolutions

Our research looks at resolutions that discussed ongoing peace processes. We then paired the resolutions targeting each peace process with data that measures to what extent parties implemented the terms of the signed peace agreement over a period of 10 years. The data measure completeness from 0 to 100 percent, based on the proportion of revisions outlined in a peace agreement that have been completed.

We find that without either U.N. peacekeeping or Security Council resolutions, signatories complete 57 percent of an agreement’s revisions on average. Security Council resolutions increase the implementation rate to 78 percent. Interestingly, when the U.N. uses both resolutions and peacekeeping operations, the parties complete 68 percent of the revisions, less progress than when the U.N. uses resolutions alone.

Why peace agreements stall

What makes Security Council resolutions effective? In general, they help signatories overcome obstacles to implementing the peace. Negotiations do not end when a peace agreement is signed — instead, the signatories continue to bargain over the implementation of the agreement. This process can break down for two reasons.

First, signatories can shirk their commitments. Signatories often renounce promises made at the negotiating table, under the threat of continued violence. Some scholars argue that this inability to commit to an agreement is the key reason peace negotiations break down.

Second, progress can also stall because the signatories lack the ability to undertake revisions necessary to secure the peace. Civil conflict tends to devastate the local economy, for instance. Without international support, signatories lack the funding to secure the peace. Signatories might not know how to successfully carry out various programs, such as the disarmament, demobilization and reintegration of former combatants.

In our research, we find Security Council resolutions effectively overcome both deliberate shirking and the challenge of limited international support. We find that the U.N. encourages signatories to keep their promises by penalizing violations. Some resolutions include the threat of economic sanctions, which impose an immediate, tangible penalty for failing to carry out specific steps.

Other Security Council resolutions impose reputation costs, threatening a targeted group with a negative reputation for breaking negotiated settlements. Scholars have found that bad reputations can make it difficult for a government to negotiate new agreements, either with the same rebel group or new ones. Monitoring compliance with an agreement is often difficult for signatories without the support of the U.N. or another third party.

Second, we find that the Security Council uses resolutions to help fund programs to support peace. For example, in Resolution 818, regarding Mozambique’s General Peace Agreement, the Security Council in 1993 requested “prompt assistance” from international donors. Three months later, a donor conference secured an additional $70 million to support the peace process.

Security Council resolutions also promote the inclusion of local civil society — independent organizations or institutions that act on behalf of citizens and their interests — as well as regional and international organizations, in the peace process. These local groups can help keep signatories accountable, as well as increase the public legitimacy of the process. Resolutions also coordinate the response of other parts of the U.N. bureaucracy.

Regional organizations can provide the expert knowledge necessary to resolve impasses. For example, in South Sudan, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development facilitated negotiations over the number and location of the states within South Sudan and the creation of a unified military. Disagreements on these issues undermined a previous peace agreement in South Sudan, which led to renewed violence.

Can U.N. resolutions stop wars?

We know less about the effectiveness of resolutions aimed at stopping war outright, such as Resolution 2532. Our findings suggest these resolutions can be effective if they are part of sustained engagement by the U.N., the international community and other organizations to identify and address the causes of conflict.

However, the Security Council used the same strategies in Resolution 2532 that we identify in peace process resolutions. First, the Security Council identified violations of the peace and used strong language to push targeted groups to halt the violence. Second, Resolution 2532 called on the U.N. secretary general, the U.N. bureaucracy and member nations to coordinate their response to the coronavirus in ongoing conflicts and humanitarian crises. And, while the resolution lacks the funding language we highlight in our research, the U.N. did acknowledge the importance of funding for fragile states during the pandemic.

The interests of the Security Council’s permanent five members — China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States — undoubtedly influence Security Council resolutions. Nevertheless, our research shows that these resolutions effectively promote peace by mobilizing resources and support. Resolutions also have advantages over other conflict management tools, as they are low cost and can be used quickly to support the peace.

Matthew Hauenstein is a postdoctoral research associate at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies in the Keough School of Global Affairs at the University of Notre Dame.
Madhav Joshi is an associate research professor and associate director of the Peace Accords Matrix at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies in the Keough School of Global Affairs at the University of Notre Dame.

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