Facilitating cooperation

Depoliticization can foster cooperation between different actors, be it member states with contradictory interests or IOs with contrasting perspectives on a specific issue. IOs gather opposing parties around an apparent technical and practical agenda to promote cooperation.77 For Abbott and Snidal, the functional role of IOs as neutral facilitators is a reason why states act through formal international organizations: “IOs provide neutral, depoliticized or specialized forums.”78 Theytake the IAEA as an example: “the superpowers could discuss technical nuclear issues within the IAEA without the intrusion of high politics, even at the height of the Cold War.”79 Furthermore, IO independence allows them “to operate as a neutral in managing interstate disputes and conflicts.”80 This perception persisted throughout the Cold War as highlighted by Orford: “The UN and other humanitarian internationalists understood themselves to be impartial and neutral actors, intervening to maintain peace and protect life with the consent of those they governed.”81 To this day, IO staff mostly share the view of IOs as a third party, which gives them the responsibility and legitimacy to act as mediators: “The UN understands itself as neutral and impartial—a mediator between factions (an expansive term that can encompass elected governments, insurgents, revolutionaries and genocidaires) unable to reach consensus.”82 The argument on IO depoliticization is three-fold: first, depoliticization results from international bureaucrats claiming their status as apolitical mediators; second, depoliticization practices precisely help construct an image of a third party; third, depoliticization is perceived as a pragmatic tool to enact the role of a neutral facilitator. In practice, these various dynamics often overlap with and reinforce each other.

The case of UNEP illustrates the perceived role of depoliticization in cooperation activities. Indeed, UNEP personnel based in the Geneva section working on environmental peacebuilding consider the focus on technical and practical issues as a means to water down the contentious dimension of political disputes. This perception is prevalent in the field of environmental policies and studies. Indeed, after the seminal work by Conca and Dabelko on “environmental peacemaking,”83 there has been a growing interest in the pacifying functions of environmental issues. For instance, Maas, Carius and Wittich approach the environment as a platform for dialogue between parties in conflict. In a very functionalist way, they argue that technical cooperation over environmental issues considered as low on the political agenda can “create a social space in which representatives of conflict parties can meet, discuss issues and cooperate with a view to developing (or creating) common solutions.”84 This view has been directly invoked by UNEP. In a UNEP report jointly published with DPA and addressed to mediation practitioners, the executive summary states:

Importantly, natural resource conflicts are often more amenable to mediation than disputes where ideology or ethnicity are the main driving factors. Indeed, finding consensus and building alliances over natural resources is often easier because natural resources shape economic incentives that transcend other divides.85

In concrete terms, in its work on soil and water in the occupied Palestinian territories, the organization fostered dialogue among the two sides, starting with the technical actors in charge of these issues. According to a high-ranking official, UNEP should facilitate interactions first among technical actors such as managers and engineers before political representatives.86 These interactions would lead to

Following a functional-pragmatic path 121 stronger ties between actors, promoting mutual cooperation. Other staff members further argue that UNEP could be a central actor in mediating conflicts over natural resources by establishing itself as a neutral and technical entity.87 Depoliticization performed by and within UNEP therefore follows a logic combining practical and technical rationality: a technical approach in the field of security and the environment facilitates cooperation while helping gain approval for field interventions. A similar logic is at work in the case of the Ar ctic Council introduced in Box 4.1.

Box 4.1 The Arctic Council: a depoliticized cooperation forum

Created in 1996, the Arctic Council is almost a textbook case of cooperation enhanced by functional and pragmatic logics of depoliticization. With competing and conflicting states, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States, in a highly sensitive region, cooperation seemed, at least on paper, quite unthinkable. Yet, as shown by Escudé,88 the Arctic Council was created as a high-level forum to tackle environmental issues such as climate change and sustainable development. The Arctic Council’s members developed flexible working methods and soft-law mechanisms which led to a variety of results:

  • publication of scientific reports on the Arctic that include, for instance, the production of regional maps used by the UN;
  • adoption of normative standards like the 2013 Agreement on Cooperation on Marine Oil Pollution Preparedness and Response in the Arctic;
  • contribution to UN programs and conventions such as the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants.

Less institutionalized than an IO stricto sensu, the Arctic Council deliberately moved away from security issues inherited from the Cold War context and avoided getting involved in political crises, such as the Ukrainian revolution in 2014. The Arctic Council exemplifies the "strength of flexibility”89 which facilitates cooperation over the long term.

The UN peacekeeping mission in Haiti, MINUSTAH (United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti from 2004 until 2017) provides another example of this instrumental use of supposedly depoliticized environmental issues to promote cooperation and peace. After a failed program of Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration, the UN Security Council requested the mission to reorient its efforts “towards a comprehensive community violence reduction programme adapted to local conditions.”90 Among the community violence reduction activities, onepillar concerned job creation and environmental protection through rehabilitation of community infrastructures.91 While the request for better environmental infrastructure came up during the focus groups organized with the local communities, the interdisciplinary community violence reduction team also saw environmental rehabilitation as a potential “pacification tool.”92 The rationale was four-fold: gang members would be less likely to engage in violence (i) with a paid job, (ii) because of the socialization effects of working together on the same project, (iii) as a result of the tiredness of the renovation efforts and (iv) they would symbolically benefit from contributing to a project good for the community.93 The program also allowed the mission to access gang members in the informal settings of the environmental renovation projects.94 It is not the place to discuss the actual outcomes of this program, but the depoliticization dimension is evident: the MINUSTAH pragmatically relied on a low political issue, environmental rehabilitation, to achieve a very political objective, namely community violence reduction.

We saw that depoliticization follows a practical rationality logic that facilitates cooperation by watering down political disagreements, but by doing so, reduces the space for political grievances and debates. By depoliticizing contentious debates, IOs run the risk of focusing on a limited agreement, while more important political questions are neglected.

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