Gaza, Ukraine, Sudan, Nordkorea, Sahel: The UN Security Council is at loggerheads, and for a member like Switzerland there is not a lot of space to get anything moving. Richard Gowan, the UN expert of International Crisis Group in New York has no hope that in 2024 things will turn to the better.


 Mr. Gowan, how are the Swiss doing on the Security Council?

They have a very professional and competent team here in New York. They play an important role in making sure that the proper references to International Humanitarian Law are made. It is in many ways a very credible performance, but in a very adverse geopolitical situation. 2023 was a worse year than 2022, when Switzerland’s predecessors, Norway and Ireland, were able to shape compromises. And it looks like 2024 will be as bad or even worse.



In 2022, the US and Russia were still uncertain about the impact of the war in Ukraine. In 2023, Russia took a more aggressive position, geopolitically and on the Council. They are harder to deal with, which makes life for the Council more difficult. And the war in Gaza makes it even ten times more difficult.


On many conflicts, like Gaza, Sudan, Ukraine, the diplomatic action appears to take place outside of the Security Council, and on others, like Myanmar, the Council is inactive.

No one says that the Security Council lives up to the UN Charter. It has not totally collapsed though. It does make decisions, such as the recent resolution which opens UN funding to peacekeeping missions of the African Union.


One difficult area on that continent is Sahel and West Africa where three countries now are ruled by military coup leaders which have left the regional organization, ECOWAS, and in Mali have thrown out the UN peacekeepers. The Swiss are the Security Council penholder for the mandate of UNOWAS, the UN Office for West Africa and the Sahel. What is expected from them?

Switzerland has a responsibility as penholder. One important task is trying to use this position to convene a serious discussion about how the UN can take steps to contain the spread of Islamic jihadism to the countries at the Atlantic coast. This will not be easy. Russia is backing the coup leaders. France, the former colonial power is in a big sulk. And Algeria, the new Council member, will not necessarily like Council interference in the region.


What can the Council do in Gaza?

The cycle of diplomatic explosions, followed by abatement and some reconciliation and new explosions will continue. The big question is how the war will end. There is a slightly optimistic scenario: truce, release of the hostages, ceasefire. Then, the Security Council could play a role in endorsing a post-war arrangement. The less optimistic scenario is that the war will drag on for months.


Are UN peacekeepers or a UN administration in Gaza a realistic outcome?

This is unlikely. But the UN will have a huge role in reconstruction, regardless of the turmoil about UNRWA.


What will the Council do about Ukraine?

It keeps discussing, but even Ukraine’s closest friends are running out of ways to advocate the Ukrainian cause at the UN. The perception of the war is shifting. I notice a shift in the moral balance with some non-western countries. It is not disputed that the Russian attack on Ukraine is a violation of the UN Charter. But I now hear some diplomats from the Western hemisphere pointing out that Ukraine is choosing not to negotiate but to fight – which by the way I understand, they are fighting to defend their county. I also hear some saying that the purpose of arming Ukraine is not only to assist their fight but also to bleed the Russians.


What do you make of the meetings on Ukraine’s peace formula like the one in Davos last month?

For the Ukrainians, this is smart tactics. They are disillusioned with the UN. They are not coming to the UN for support, seeking another General Assembly resolution. They see more value in meetings like the one in Davos or Copenhagen where they talk directly to high officials. For countries like India who have ties with Russia, these formats make it easier. They don’t have to vote. The Ukrainians can engage with these countries and build up the involved group.


Russia is not part of these meetings, and the basis is Ukraine’s 10-point peace plan. Can Switzerland be an honest broker?

The Swiss are not alone. It is a mix of countries hosting these conferences. Denmark, Saudi-Arabia, Malta.

There are more than 80 countries now taking part in the discussions, but not Russia.

For Russia, the Selensky plan is inoperable. There is no way that peace can be negotiated under those terms. Unless Russia collapses, the eventual peace terms in Ukraine will have to look different.  But the Ukrainians have used their proposals intelligently to shape international debates on peace options.


For those not dealing professionally with war and defense issues, the numbers of people killed in the Ukraine war is shocking and should be a call for action. According to one estimate 300 000 Russian soldiers have been killed. Is this an issue in New York?

The recent war in Ethiopia killed more people than the war in Ukraine, and no one cared too much. Estimates are up to 600 000. The number of deaths in a war does not translate into diplomatic action.


Another role Switzerland has on the Security Council is chair of the Sanctions Committee on North Korea. What is in the offing?

In April, the mandate of the panel of experts which assists the Committee is coming up for renewal. Russia could aim to change or block it, given its closer relationship with North Korea. This could turn into a real fight and Switzerland might be caught up in it.


The Swiss say that the penholdership in the Council is with the US and chairing the Sanctions Committee is more an administrative role.

It is a secondary role but a sensitive one. This is about the three big powers US, Russia and China. In the past, some elected Council members tried to find some middle ground which I think will be impossible now. But the Swiss might be caught in a storm.


An area of particular Swiss concern is the link between climate change and security issues. Not much is happening. Could more be done?

A majority of Member States genuinely believes that the Security Council should do more. Climate change is an existential threat to some countries, and it shapes conflicts like those in the Sahel or East Africa. But the Security Council is stuck. Russia and China are in opposition. This is why Switzerland, and her allies adopt a small-step approach, for instance inserting climate language in mandates. In the coming years, when the effects of climate change will require a more serious approach, we will look at this as prologue.



Richard Gowan is UN director of International Crisis Group  an “independent organisation working to prevent wars and shape policies that will build a more peaceful world.” It is financed by governments (including Switzerland), foundations, enterprises and private individuals.