Dame Margaret Joan Anstee, 1926-2016: A Passing, and an Opportunity

The distinguished legacy of a British-born pioneer in UN peacekeeping operations should provide London with the impetus to provide further leadership on this topic at a ministerial conference it hosts this week.

The death of Dame Margaret Joan Anstee, a remarkable woman whose contribution to the UN in general and peacekeeping in particular has gone largely unheralded outside diplomatic circles, not only calls for a moment of commemoration, but also one of contemplation about her life and huge achievement. In Uruguay, she became the first woman to head a UN mission, and in Angola the first to head a military peacekeeping mission, positions she discharged with distinction. In Angola, for instance, despite threats from military and political leader Jonas Savimbi and the initial failure of the UN member states to contribute, Dame Margaret remained steadfast, chairing negotiations without the coercive or deterrent presence of force. And even after retirement, she remained something of a force of nature, contributing to peacekeeping training across the globe, robustly arguing her case and winning the respect of generals and civilians alike. Indeed, in addition to formal British state honours, she was also made a four-star general by the US Army and, more intriguingly perhaps, an honorary cormorant by the UK Joint Services Command and Staff College. I had the privilege to work with her on a number of these later occasions.

While her loss will be deeply felt, it is perhaps fitting that shortly after her passing, the UK hosts a defence ministerial meeting on 7–8 September to discuss UN peacekeeping. Following on from the UN Leaders’ Summit on Peacekeeping held in New York in September 2015, the British-hosted event focuses on how to improve UN peacekeeping and continue to make progress on reform. In particular, it will consider how to include more women in upholding peace and security, and consider what is necessary to ensure the future of UN peacekeeping. There is no doubt that Margaret would have approved of this agenda, as a strong champion of the role of women and someone who was tireless in her efforts to improve the effectiveness of peacekeeping missions.

There is little doubt that UN peacekeeping is under the spotlight now. A series of scandals surrounding individual missions, including allegations of sexual abuse and disease contamination by peacekeepers, provides the backdrop against which persistent questions are being raised about the effectiveness of UN missions in places such as South Sudan, in what has become a primary role of protecting civilians. There have been reports of UN troops apparently standing by while armed groups have attacked, raped and killed civilians across the country, from Malakal to the capital Juba. While these allegations need to be seen in context, the fact that a supplementary regional force is now being proposed to back up the mission in providing security in Juba does not necessarily speak well of the current state of UN peacekeeping.

In addition, the London ministerial meeting this week seeks to explore ways by which the number of women deployed as UN peacekeepers can be raised from the current levels of about 3% of total military personnel and 10% of police personnel. Significant efforts have already been made in this regard, with female special representatives leading missions, following in the footsteps of Margaret Anstee. This was the recent case of the Norwegian Hilde Johnson in South Sudan. There is also the inspiring example of Johnson’s fellow countrywoman, Major General Kristin Lund, the first female force commander who led in Cyprus and was also in charge of an all-female police unit deployed in Liberia. Still, given the increasing focus on the importance of women in societies involved in peacebuilding, the challenge will be for the UN to encourage troop-contributing member states to prioritise the deployment of women soldiers and police beyond these relatively small if significant steps. This will require the adoption of some ideas that member states might find challenging, perhaps including the UN paying a higher per diem allowance to troop-contributing countries for female peacekeepers. However, it is essential that radical measures are considered and adopted, if women are to continue and expand on Dame Margaret’s legacy in peacebuilding.

Overall, the broader question of the future of UN peacekeeping remains problematic. The credibility of UN missions is once more in question, and the temptation of governments will be to focus on the tactical and technical commitments to dealing with some of the more immediate problems.

An increasing focus on the preparation and assessment of peacekeepers prior to deployment including a focus on stopping sexual abuse is, of course, to be welcomed. A culture of continuous professional improvement is essential if the UN peacebuilding endeavour is to continue to have utility in the twenty-first century. However, perhaps it is time for a more fundamental assessment of what UN peacekeeping should actually seek to achieve. Having moved from primarily interceding between warring parties as part of a peace process with a relatively weak mandate under Chapter 6 of the UN Charter, in the era where the concept of a Responsibility to Protect assumes a higher profile, there is an increasing need for robust mandates to protect civilians in circumstances where peace is fragile. Are UN peacekeepers as currently deployed fit for that task? Do they have all of the tools of a modern military that would equip them for these robust mandates – such as drones – to allow surveillance, or the necessary helicopters to facilitate a rapid response? What role should the wealthier world play in supporting those peacekeepers, many of whom come from relatively poor nations?

If she could have attended this week’s gathering in London, Dame Margaret would have wanted all these questions addressed, openly and honestly. But the UK, her country of birth, now has an opportunity to take a leadership role in a field in which the late grand lady was such a pioneer.


Ewan Lawson

Associate Fellow

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