What are friends for?: ‘Groups of Friends’ and the UN system

by David Joseph Deutch, Universal Rights Group NYC Beyond the Council, Blog, Blog, New York City, Universal Rights Group NYC

Having arisen out of the post Cold War period, the concept of ‘Groups of Friends’ represented a newly found faith and belief in the power of multilateralism as a means of global problem solving. Groups of friends are coalitions of United Nations (UN) member states, who band together in order to further and actualise particular goals and outcomes related to specific issues or situations. While this model started in the realm of mediation and peacekeeping, over the past few years, there has been an explosion of ‘Groups of Friends’ that seek to leverage multilateralism to address issues as diverse as climate change, human trafficking, and to work towards just outcomes for indigenous populations.

Despite the fact that today’s major challenges are increasingly global in nature, cooperation on the international level has been under threat. To this end, Secretary-General Antonio Guterres emphasised that, in relation to the current moment, that ‘multilateralism is precisely under threat when we need it most.’ In such a political climate, ‘Groups of Friends’ have taken on new life and meaning with 2019 seeing the launch of at least five new Groups. This piece will provide an overview of the formation and development of ‘Groups of Friends’ within the UN system. Additionally, it will contend with the question of their usefulness and potential to be a constructive and purposeful mode for countries to collectively tackle pressing issues. 


The very first iteration of a ‘Group of Friends’ was envisioned as a means of offsetting geopolitical power and interest in the context of the civil conflict in El Salvador. Established by the Secretary-General with the intent of supporting the UN mediation effort, which began in 1990 and ended with the conclusion of the civil war in 1992, the Group consisted of Colombia, Mexico, Spain, and Venezuela. Through the utilisation of a group of states with obvious interests in the conflict that nonetheless were not connected to questions of global power projection, the Secretary-General was able to gain a level of legitimacy and leverage over the conflicting parties that would not have been possible in other circumstances. This experiment in multilateralism concluded with the signing of the peace agreement on 16 January 1992, which resulted in the conclusion of 12 years of civil war.

While it is widely recognised that the conflict in El Salvador was reaching an ideal point for mediation, according to Teresa Whitfield, the Group undoubtedly was a positive force in moving parties towards a peace settlement.Through bringing together a group of like-minded member States, who shared similar views and interests regarding the region and conflict, Secretary-General Javier Pérez de Cuéllar was able to demonstrate the potential for the model and that the UN can be an effective and even handed mediator. 

As a result of the success of this initial utilisation, the early 90s witnessed a proliferation of such ‘Groups’. Over the period 1992 – 1995, ‘Groups of Friends’ were formed to support a number of mediation efforts including Haiti, Georgia, Guatemala and Tajikistan. 

Growth and change

As the model proliferated, it became less of a novelty and more of a normal multilateral mechanism for the uniting of interested parties in pursuance of a common cause. Though, with the ever increasing use of the model, its overall effectiveness declined. Initially envisaged as a means of overcoming power politics, and the will of the Permanent Five members of the United Nations Security Council (Britain, China, France, Russia, and the US), the dominant powers of the international arena grew accustomed to the model, and therefore were able to counter its potentially disruptive impacts.

While mediation was the initial goal and intention behind the model, over the past decade, there has been a concerted shift towards utilising ‘Group of Friends’ throughout the UN system in pursuit of a range of broad reaching goals. The most notable of such groups remains the ‘ Group of Friends of R2P’, who has been active since its founding by Canada in 2005.

This broadening of the role and subject area that ‘Groups’ are willing to work on has coincided with the proliferation of various advocacy and lobbying focused ‘Groups of Friends’. In the years of 2018 and 2019 combined, there was the formation of at least ten separate ‘Groups of Friends’. This shift in focus has meant a corresponding shift of work. No longer are ‘Groups of Friends’ confidants of the Secretary-General, but rather work as centres of congregation and cooperation focusing on the furthering of specific issues or causes. This takes the form of organising events on the margins of sessions, preparing and submitting statements on behalf of the group, advocating for specific courses of action for Member States, and broad lobbying on given issues or resolutions. Additionally, ‘Groups’ may be based in Geneva, New York, or both depending on the arm of the UN system the ‘Group’ wishes to target. 

Democratising the UN: The future of groups

Despite the recent increase in the number of ‘Groups’, the most active and engaged have remained connected to the issues of peacekeeping. That said, the recent proliferation of non-mediation related ‘Groups of Friends’ leaves considerable room for growth, and the potential to move towards a kind of democratising of the UN. 

In keeping with the original intent of the Model, the potential for States to come together and shape the discourse on their respective issues remains viable and potent. Not all ‘Groups of Friends’ have P5 members that can directly translate their goals into resolutions, but a critical mass can act as a lobbying power in both the Security Council, and the General Assembly (GA). Through proposing, and supporting, resolutions in Committees, the GA, and the Human Rights Council, the members of ‘Groups’ can use their collective influence to ensure the passage of resolutions connected to their particular cause. In regard to the Security Council, the ability to provide interventions, when invited by the Council, has been the most powerful platform afforded to the ‘Groups’. That they are able to make their collective will known to the Council provides one of the key points where intent can be translated into material action. 

To this end, the ‘Groups’ themselves are an effective model for democratising the UN system more broadly. Take the example of the ‘Group of Friends of Water’. This Group is not cut from the traditional cloth, in the sense that it’s primary concern is not mediation or peace-building but rather development and sustainability. This means that, rather than simply offsetting political power, it is engaged in the project of realising the promise of UN mechanisms for cooperation and collective action. Latent within this form of lobbying is potential to urge Member States to take unilateral action on the domestic level to assist in the combatting of global issues. The ‘Group of Friends on Climate and Security’ is notable in this regard in the sense that it aims at both utilising multilateral mechanisms, and urges countries to act directly in order to address climate change. There are a number of new ‘Group of Friends’ sprouting up with this goal in mind, though it is an avenue of great potential that has yet to be fully explored. 

Additionally, the ‘Groups’ have considerable leeway to influence opinion through the organising of external or side events. The example of ‘The Group of Friends of R2P’ is illuminating on this point. Through engagement, and collaboration, with a number of external think tanks and advocacy groups, the Group has significantly contributed to the R2P principle having become a mainstay of multilateralism. This type of network building has been utilised by a number of other Groups, who have been able to build novel relationships as a means of collectively leveraging their diplomatic capabilities. If effective partnerships are cultivated as part of an overarching advocacy strategy, newer ‘Groups’ may be able to have similar success. 

Concluding thoughts

Despite their positive potential, ‘Groups of Friends’ have a tendency to either be dissolved or become stagnant. While there are no clear figures on the number of groups to be disbanded, it can be inferred from the fact that information published about meetings and events organised by ‘Groups’ has a tendency to peter out or stop all together. The key question that needs to be addressed here is ‘how can ‘Groups of Friends’ be maintained and not simply turn into another meeting?’ There is potential in the approach of narrowing the scope of ‘Groups’, and making the issue on which they focus temporally defined, as was the case for a large number of issue specific mediation ‘Groups of Friends’. One such example, from outside the realm of mediation, was the ‘Group of Friends for UN Reform’, which operated from 2004 to 2005. The key difference between this ‘Group’ and others was that it had a clear goal, that being the development of a diplomatic strategy to assure progress on UN reform, with a clearly defined timeline. That said, always narrowing the Model to only include temporally defined groups is neither possible nor desirable. 

In lieu of reforms regarding political decision making in the multilateral arena, there is a need to find more effective ways to work within existing frameworks and expand the role of Member States. The ‘Group of Friends’ offers a promise of democratising the decision making processes by ensuring that issues outside of the priorities of dominant (or the most vocal) States may be placed on the agenda, and creating a critical mass behind specific causes. For this to be the case, these ‘Groups’ mustn’t simply become a space for like minded Member States to congregate; they must remain outward looking advocates for a more effective and just UN system.

Currently active Groups of Friends in NY (incomplete list):

[1] Whitfield, Teresa. Friends Indeed?: The United Nations, Groups of Friends, and the Resolution of Conflict. Washington D.C.: The United State Institute of Peace, 2007. 

Featured photo originally appeared in a tweet by @NLatUN (Netherlands at the UN), September 13 2018. The tweet reads: ‘Group of Friends to Eliminate #SexualHarassment was launched today at the initiative of @NLatUN @franceonu @IsraelinUN @KenyaMissionUN. Zero Tolerance for Sexual Harassment! #UNToo’

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