From 2010 to 2012, Arab states in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region experienced dramatic upheavals in what came to be known as the Arab Spring. These popular uprisings were triggered by an economic downturn and long-standing political grievances. But instead of triggering major changes for democracy and development, the outcomes were instability, violence and greater repression.
I reviewed the United Nations' actions in the region before and after the Arab Spring (between 1994-2017). I wanted to know whether the UN had the right tools to help states address the root causes of conflict. After all, the UN has a mandate to prevent threats to peace and promote human rights.
My findings suggested that the UN's own principles sometimes prevented it from living up to its objectives.
There is a complex interplay between the UN's principles of self-determination and non-interference - that external actors and states have no right to interfere within the jurisdiction of a state - and its mandate. Without the consent of governments, the UN was unable to promote human development, human rights and democracy. And where its activities took root, they weren't comprehensive enough to encourage democratic change or address the poor human rights situation.
Before the crisis, from about 1998, the UN agency charged with development - the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) - focused its spending on democratic governance in the region. For instance, in Egypt, it mostly supported decentralisation, electoral reform and encouraged dialogue between the government and civil society. Projects also sought to promote the rule of law, accountability and human rights across the region.
The UNDP was on the right track, but not all these efforts were welcome. Libya and Tunisia (countries that were later to be affected by the Arab Spring) did not accept any democratic governance measures. Other countries accepted less politically sensitive measures - like building the competency of parliamentarians - but these were not enough to address the frustrations building up towards the Arab Spring: a lack of freedom, human rights and democracy.
When it came to human rights, since 2006, the UN's Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights (OHCHR) has frequently noted the poor human rights situation in the region. In particular it noted,
the absence of democratic structures and effective national human rights protection systems
that are necessary to ensure human rights.
But because of the non-intervention rule, the UN was only able to respond to gross violations of human rights, such as targeted killing, torture, enforced disappearances, prolonged and targeted detention, and systematic discrimination.
But it's not just the UN's restricted ability to function that prevents it from fulfilling its mandate. Sometimes its projects are ineffective because it tackles the wrong ones, a problem that arises because of how it measures human development.
For example, before the crisis, the human development index scores for the region - which cover measurements like a long, healthy life and standards of living - were medium to high.
But these weren't accurate reflections of what was happening on the ground. They overlooked political freedoms, community participation and physical security.
The scores also concealed income inequality. This meant that, rather than dealing with socioeconomic inequalities (like job or education opportunities), UN development measures focused on absolute poverty and poverty elimination.
This was seen in the economic support it provided in the poorest regions between 1994-2010. The UNDP gave support to Egypt for private sector development, Syria for rising standards of living and micro-financing and Tunisia for job creation. But there was no attention to issues that perpetuate inequalities, such as the lack of rule of law and political participation.
After the crisis
After the uprisings, UN governance efforts in the region continued to meet resistance from governments. As a result interventions haven't been comprehensive in scope or geographically. In addition, the UNDP still hasn't been able to address the root causes of the Arab Spring. Instead, it has been focusing on recovery, reconstruction and dialogue to prevent an acute crisis flaring up again.
When it comes to human rights, efforts mostly took place where the OHCHR had country offices (Tunisia and Yemen) or a field presence (Libya and Iraq).
In general, projects provided assistance to ensure human rights standards were incorporated into national legislation, and that national human rights institutions and transitional justice processes (like truth commissions) were created.
The UN's Human Rights Council did adopt resolutions to set up commissions of inquiry into rights abuses, or provide assistance. But these only happened after the conflict and gross human rights violations had already taken place.
The way forward
On a positive note, since he took office, UN Secretary-General António Guterres prioritised a surge in diplomacy for peace. This has been designed to strengthen the UN's mediation role in conflict prevention and to help break the resistance that governments may have against its programmes or actions.
For instance, in the run-up to Tunisia's 2011 elections (following the overthrow of the previous government), the UNDP helped more than 50 political parties engage in dialogue with each other to secure a consensus-based transition.
Also the UN's Joint UNDP - DPA (Department for Political Affairs) Programme has since increased its efforts worldwide to build mediation capacities of national actors for facilitating the UN's conflict prevention efforts. The number of countries that Peace and Development Advisors has been sent to has risen and includes Jordan, Tunisia and Sudan as well as many other countries in Africa.
The international rule of non-interference can only be relaxed by state consent. The surge in diplomacy is therefore necessary and may enable the UN to be more effective in addressing deeply rooted causes of large-scale crises like the Arab Spring.