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Will the UN Review Fix Peacekeeping?

Adrian L Johnson
Commentary, 24 November 2014
United Nations, International Institutions, Africa
United Nations peacekeeping operations are once again under review. But is the political consensus on them unravelling?

In convening the new high-level review of UN peace operations , Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon gave a familiar litany of problems with contemporary peacekeeping missions. They are often mandated where there is no peace to keep. Some missions must also deal with conflicts that lack clearly identifiable factions – or involve a multitude of them. Others are authorised in the context of a failing or absent political process on the ground. And some operate in complex environments increasingly marked by asymmetric and unconventional threats, such as Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs).

As the conduct of peacekeeping has become more ambitious, some of the problems may be of its own making. Some contingents in the Congo (DRC), for example, have expressed concern about the knock-on effects of the Force Intervention Brigade’s offensive military activities on the wider mission’s impartiality and the risk to their own troops. UN troops in Mali, warned the mission’s force commander recently, are essentially undertaking counter-terrorism operations, but without the necessary resources. And in South Sudan and CAR, respective UN deployments have been stretched to protect civilians in problematic security environments. Four of the UN’s most challenging missions have stabilisation in their title. The question may now be whether this is an appropriate role for UN operations..

Diverging Perspectives?

This in turn may be leading to a deeper problem – an erosion of the underlying political bargain over peacekeeping and what it can and should (and should not) do, especially over issues such as the consent of local parties, the use of force and tasks such as the extension of state authority. The split is often portrayed, as with many other global issues, as a simple north/south divide, but the reality is more complex. There may now, in fact, be four broad camps on UN peacekeeping.

The P3 (France, the UK and US) and the West are generally not major Troop-Contributing Countries (TCCs), but push for robust, ambitious operations. The P3 also have a strong say over mandates.

African states, which include many major TCCs, have less say over mandates and mission planning. Nevertheless, they are broadly in favour of robust operations; for example, southern African states make up the Force Intervention Brigadein the DRC.

There are more cautious TCCs which also have less say over mandates and the planning of missions, despite several being the largest troop contributors – a long-running complaint. While there is variation in this camp, the concerns of more conservative states such as India, Pakistan and Brazil relate to the abandonment of the core principles of peacekeeping and the principle of respect for national sovereignty. Some also worry that the UN is overextending: in the words of the Indian ambassador to the UN, ‘the Council is effectively endorsing an unsustainable approach to the maintenance of international peace and security’.

Finally, there are sceptical non-TCCs, some of whom, like Russia, are highly concerned by recent trends. A good example of the wider concerns over the direction of peacekeeping is offered by the June 2014 Concept Note  presented to the Security Council by Russia, which warned of recent missions’ violation of the fundamental principles of UN peacekeeping.

These broad political divisions mean this is an important review to have, and how these divisions are managed could determine its course. Has the conduct of peacekeeping pushed beyond the global consensus? Can the P3 keep pushing more ambitious mandates without more Western troop contributions?

Hanging in the Balance

 It has also been fifteen years since the last substantial root-and-branch review of UN peacekeeping, the Brahimi Report, published in 2000. The 2009 New Horizons document, while calling for renewed partnership at the political level and a more inclusive process for the generation and sustainment of missions, did not tackle the more conceptual questions of the basic purpose and fundamental limits of peacekeeping.

As the review now gets underway, in time to report for the September 2015 UN General Assembly summit, there would seem to be three plausible outcomes. These would depend both on the content of the final recommendations, and how they are subsequently adopted – or not – by the major financial and personnel contributors to peacekeeping.

The review might make progress on the big issues, providing a new vision of peacekeeping – what it is for and, most importantly, what it is not for. In particular, a stronger consensus could emerge on what 'protection of civilians' actually means on the ground, as well as commitments to honour such mandates in practice. There could also be real progress on issues of inclusivity in peacekeeping operation decision-making and mission planning, which would probably include some institutional reforms at the UN. With a re-forged consensus, other operational reforms could follow. But the question then arises, if this is a likely outcome, why has it not already happened?

There could be more modest progress, mainly on operational issues. The review might not bridge the political divide over peacekeeping, but there could be some level of agreement on better military capabilities for UN peacekeeping operations, including more advanced technologies.

Or, perhaps, there is a third outcome: a review that produces little other than to echo the calls of previous peacekeeping reform efforts and does not add much that is substantially new.

Whatever the outcome, there is no doubting the importance of UN peacekeeping in bringing security to some of the world’s most vulnerable people. But it is an institution with limits. UN operations do play a valuable role in mobilising global resources into helping the transition from war to peace in the most fragile states and regions. However, the most ambitious operations are often criticised for promising what they cannot deliver and undertaking tasks for which they are ill-suited; and there are significant risks of using UN deployments simply because nothing better is available or ‘something must be done’, even though that is often precisely the temptation.

Adrian L Johnson is Director of Publications and a Research Fellow at RUSI.

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