Emily Paddon Rhoads: “Taking Sides”: The Challenges of Impartiality in UN Peacekeeping Operations

©Oxford University Press

Emily Paddon Rhoads

Jason Stearns

Alexandra Novosseloff

Emily Paddon Rhoads’ book Taking Sides in Peacekeeping: Impartiality and the Future of the United Nations is an important study of the meaning, reality, and consequences of impartiality for peacekeepers. The issue of impartiality is one of the core principles of UN peacekeeping, but it is also one of the most challenging for those on the ground in multidimensional peace operations. Consent of the host nation and/or the main parties to the conflict is another founding principle and missions cannot deploy without it. But what can a mission do when after they are on the ground this consent becomes weak or is withdrawn when the host government becomes displeased with the UN’s presence? Alexandra Novosseloff and Jason Stearns recently discussed these issues with the author.

Alexandra Novosseloff (AN): What do you mean by impartiality? How do you define it? What is the book’s main argument?

Emily Paddon Rhoads (EPR): Impartiality has been a core norm of UN peacekeeping since its inception during the Cold War. It is a norm in that it prescribes how peacekeepers should behave: namely, that they be unbiased and informed when making decisions or in taking action. It is integral to the identity of peacekeepers, to what peacekeeping is and what it is not (i.e. warfighting), and to the values and principles that the UN seeks to project. It is a form of authority derived not only from a lack of bias but critically from what peacekeepers, like other ‘impartial actors’, are supposed to represent and further in the absence of particular interests. These are largely the values outlined in a mission’s mandate, which relate to the specific mission context as well as to broader norms of international peace and security. It is important to note that impartiality is not a given. My argument is that claims to impartial authority are just that – claims, and as such are disputable. For peacekeepers and the UN to command such authority, there must be some agreement on the underlying values.

I became interested in impartiality because of a change in the meaning of impartiality, how it was talked about and represented in peacekeeping doctrine, at the end of the 1990s. This new conception was more assertive and called for robust uses of force to protect civilians.

The book sets out to analyse the politics surrounding this new, more assertive conception of impartiality – at the global level (UN headquarters), and at the local level (as implemented in the Democratic Republic of Congo), and it considers the implications. I argue that the transformation has deeply politicized peacekeeping at all levels and, in cases such as Congo, has effectively converted UN forces into one warring party among many. While member states generally agree that impartiality should remain a core norm of peacekeeping, there is very little consensus over what that actually means, and thus over the purposes of and actions involved in contemporary peacekeeping. This raises pressing questions about the sustainability of peacekeeping, the acceptance of peacekeepers locally, and it calls into question the UN’s future role and ability to act as the legitimate guarantor of international peace and security if it is perceived as partial, as having taken sides.

Jason Stearns (JS): You describe the shift in impartiality as a radical transformation. What do you mean? What does this look like at the UN?

EPR: The radical transformation is seen in the roles prescribed for peacekeepers in conflict and post-conflict settings and the basis on which they now claim authority. During the Cold War, it was easier to frame and perceive peacekeepers as impartial mediators or monitors. Their authority was limited to that which the parties conferred upon them in their mandates. They were “passively” impartial, beholden to the wishes and policies of those parties to a dispute, and only in areas permitted by the superpowers. They could smile, or frown, but they couldn’t bite. When an agreement disintegrated or consent was retracted, peacekeepers did not have recourse to defend their mandate and they withdrew. That was how UNEF, the first peacekeeping mission, ended.

The reality today is very different. Starting in 2000, the role prescribed for peacekeepers in many contexts has been more akin to the impartial police officer that enforces the law evenhandedly, penalizing infractions, regardless of who is the aggressor. Whereas traditional mandates did not point fingers and treated parties with moral equivalence, contemporary peacekeepers are expected to make judgments about who is right and who is wrong and to punish perpetrators of violence irrespective of whether the individual or group has given their consent for the mission. That’s a very significant change.

It should be noted that this transformation is not specific to peacekeeping. In other areas of international engagement, claims to impartial authority, which were once based exclusively on terms to which all parties consented, are now premised on a more ambitious and expansive set of human-rights-related norms around which consensus is presumed. For example, through the principle of universal jurisdiction, the International Criminal Court asserts an unprecedented claim to impartially investigate and try alleged perpetrators of international crimes — independently of whether their states have given consent to the organization by ratifying the Rome Statute.

AN: Nowadays peacekeeping operations are increasingly sent in countries where there is not such a stable peace agreement. How does this challenge the principle of impartiality? And how can impartiality be maintained when consent of the host nation weakens and the mission become unwelcome?

EPR: Changes in the operating environment during the 1990s were critical in bringing about the transformation, the new conception of impartiality. As peacekeepers and other international actors became more heavily engaged in inter-state conflicts in places like Somalia, Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia – where peace agreements frequently lacked buy-in or broke down and consent for their operations was tenuous – they confronted difficult questions about the sources of their own authority and how to adjudicate disputes between local competing claimants for authority. Whose consent was necessary? What to do when civilians were attacked? The UN’s future relevance depended on finding answers to these questions. Human rights and protection seemed to offer a basis for claiming authority and for adjudicating between parties. The spread of the idea of human rights over decades implied that these were values on which everyone could agree; peacekeepers, it was thought — perhaps more, hoped — could protect civilians and still be impartial, above politics.

This, as my book shows, has been anything but true. Judgments as to who is perpetrator and who is victim, as well as to who is the protector and who the party in need of protection, are often subjective, fluid and deeply contested by actors on the ground as well as by members of the international community. Politics permeates decision-making at all levels. We still live in a world made up of sovereign, autonomous, self-determining states, a world in which human rights and protection still requires the engagement and, you could say “agreement”, of those states. And so, as you note, consent is still a relevant principle in peacekeeping and missions must work with host states. But that means that there are tensions, visible in most peacekeeping mandates today, which give rise to a number of dilemmas and operational challenges. That’s what the book explores.

JS: How do you observe that transformation of the UN’s role in the Congo?

EPR: The UN mission in the Congo is an interesting case because it has been a standard bearer for more assertive approaches. It was first deployed in 1999 just as the new conception of impartiality was beginning to take hold at the UN. From very early on, we see the transformation reflected in the mandate given to it by the Security Council. Since 2000, blue helmets have been endowed with a Chapter VII mandate to protect civilians and their rules of engagement have steadily strengthened to allow for the proactive use of force. This makes it an interesting case to look at the challenges surrounding the implementation of the “new” conception of impartiality, but also to draw out the linkages with the more global politics of peacekeeping during this time.

JS: What are these challenges?

EPR: There are many but I will just mention a few. Some of the thorniest challenges concern the mission’s relationship to the state. In particular, the mission has struggled with how to reconcile its core task of civilian protection with the necessity of maintaining host state consent and its mandate to support the government. This has been particularly tricky in instances where the state itself or elements of the state pose a threat, if not the greatest threat, to civilians. Similarly, the mission has grappled with how to be both a forceful defender of human rights in the short-term, undertaking robust action against particular groups, and also be accepted as a convener and animator of peace and political processes in Congo that are really the only long-term solution to ending the conflict and reducing civilian imperilment.

It is important to note that impartiality is not a given. My argument is that claims to impartial authority are just that – claims, and as such are disputable.

There are also challenges, which stem from the broader politics of peacekeeping. Peacekeeping is something of a hydra-headed institution. No single actor is forced, let alone able, to assume the complete costs, political or otherwise, of a UN collective decision. This splitting up of burdens increases the likelihood of political evasion and posturing. Those member states that have the greatest policy influence in Congo and that have authored these ambitious mandates, are rarely the same ones that put forces in the field, and the lines of accountability are weak. Over time this has bred resentment amongst troop contributing countries (TCCs). As a result, they have become more risk-averse, less willing to step into the line of fire. People often forget that during the transition period (2003-2006), traditional TCCs – Pakistani, Indian and Bangladeshi troops – undertook some of the most robust and forceful peacekeeping action in the UN’s history.

JS: Was the UN able to be more impartial during the transition period, than in the post-transition period?

EPR: Yes, in some ways the UN did find it easier to be impartial during the transition. In the absence of an elected sovereign, peacekeepers could be more even-handed vis-à-vis the different parties. There was a coherent strategy, a goal, which the mission, backed by donors, could get behind. Nonetheless, there were a number of cases during the transition, such as Bukavu in 2004, when the mission proved unwilling to use force against certain groups, in particular, against the main signatories of the peace agreement that established the transition, or those allied to them, for fear of losing consent and being expelled. There was also the issue of Rwanda. Close ties between members of the Security Council and Rwanda, meant that the mission did not address Kigali’s culpability in fomenting instability in eastern Congo. This undue deference to Rwandan interests and unwillingness to militarily confront those backed by Rwanda, has engendered and continues to engender local perceptions that the UN is partial.

Following the transition, with the election of Joseph Kabila, impartiality became even more difficult. Kabila has played the sovereignty card very well and prevented the UN from having any real leverage or meaningful authority. From the get go, he made it be known that he was in charge and that MONUC/MONUSCO was there on his terms, and his terms only. So there is a change, there definitely is a change from the transition period to post-transition period, but some of the same political dynamics and tensions are at play across the duration of the mission.

JS: It seems to me that there are cases where the UN is partial because of inaction and there are cases where it is partial because of its action. The former seems to apply more to the transition period in the Congo and the latter to the post-transition during which the UN has partnered with the state and engaged in joint operations (e.g., the Umoja Wetu, Kimia II operations, Amani Leo)….

EPR: That’s an interesting way of framing it. I agree that the UN’s partnership with the state, its mandate to support and strengthen the state in the post-transition period, has rendered it distinctly partial in the eyes of many and made its relationship with other actors, humanitarians in particular, very tricky. However, understanding the mission’s partiality post-transition solely through the lens of “action”, actions taken to support the state, leaves out a number of important political dynamics that have resulted in instances of peacekeeper inaction, compounding perceptions of partiality and further delegitimizing the mission. A good example of this is the Force Intervention Brigade (FIB)– a specialized unit within the UN mission in Congo. Deployed in 2013 with a mandate to ‘neutralize armed groups’ in the east, it is comprised of roughly 3,000 troops from South Africa, Tanzania and Malawi. The FIB has been widely praised for the crucial role it played in helping to defeat the M23. Less acknowledged was the particular set of interests that made such action possible– the forces that made up the FIB were from neighbouring states closely allied to Kabila, two of which had significant beefs with Rwanda. This convergence of interests was not sustained, however, and as a result the FIB has since been reluctant to forcefully engage other armed actors. A recent internal UN report, described the FIB as having assumed a “largely passive and reactive stance” post M23.

That issues of impartiality/partiality arise in the context of partnerships within the peacekeeping system and not solely with external actors, like the state, is important given that regional actors, particularly African states, are increasingly willing to deploy forces and lead broader crisis management processes on their continent. What’s more, in recent years they have emerged as proponents of robust uses of force.

AN: In a way, regionalisation of peacekeeping operations undermines the impartiality of those operations, right?

EPR: Yes, I would say so. The very characteristics that often make regional actors suited to rapid and robust response (i.e., proximity, local knowledge, an incentive to contain violence) can make their lack of bias – real or perceived – all the more questionable. As in Congo, they often have their own political agendas, which can play out through operations and impact UN peacekeepers deployed alongside or following such arrangements.

JS: Do you think, then, that the UN should not partner with the host state? If it gets too afraid it can lead to paralysis?

EPR: Partnership with the state, or at the very least a working relationship with the state, is inevitable so long as host-state consent continues to be a requirement for mission deployment. And I don’t think consent is about to disappear. States just aren’t willing to field forces for that type of operation. The question then is how to balance, how to navigate, these competing and often conflicting priorities. Several policy innovations have attempted to address these challenges. None has completely resolved the issue. For example, the Human Rights Due Diligence Policy (HRDDP), which makes the UN’s assistance to non-UN security forces conditional on respecting human rights, has encountered a number of difficulties during implementation. And in Congo, the policy was actually instrumentalized by the government when it appointed two “red-listed” generals to lead joint operations last year. Another innovation example is the High-level Independent Panel on Peace Operation’s (the HIPPO report) recommendation for the establishment of political compacts between host governments and the UN (with donor involvement) with a view to bolstering national ownership and managing consent. This is an interesting idea, particularly if it strengthens donor coordination and leverage. However, I am wary of how effective it will be where a mission is already deployed and where the host-state has no intention of honouring its commitments, where consent is only in name. These contexts—where there is no meaningful political process to support—raise some really hard and difficult questions about whether a peacekeeping mission is in fact appropriate, whether support should continue, questions that in my opinion, the Security Council has been reluctant to seriously consider.

AN: The problem is that UN missions are also often deployed because some states do not want to engage on more enforcement action alone or in a bilateral way or because some other states do not have the will to engage politically. Peacekeeping operations have therefore become the last resort and they are far from perfect.

EPR: Indeed, that is one of the main points I make in the book. Peacekeeping missions have in many ways become a last resort, a lowest common denominator response, in places of relatively minor strategic interest but where the Council is under pressure to do something, particularly when there are headlines of suffering. In this way, ambitious protection mandates authorized by the Council offer a way to be seen to be doing something without any real political engagement.

And this has very real consequences, consequences that are not just about how or whether the mandate is implemented. The policies of international actors don’t exist in a vacuum. Stated promises of protection, pronouncements and statements of policy have vastly influential effects on the ground. They raise expectations, create incentives amongst local actors, and encourage behaviour that would not have occurred otherwise. Civilians, for example, who are told that peacekeepers will protect them may be emboldened to take even greater risks. And as I show in the Congo case, armed groups have at various points instrumentalized and co-opted the discourse and practices associated with the mission’s robust mandate to self-legitimize and de-legitimize others.

JS: Does the book only highlight the political dynamics? Does it also provide prescriptions?

EPR: First and foremost, the book is about understanding the transformation, the politics associated with it and the implications for peacekeeping and the UN. By bringing to light some of the challenges we’ve talked about, my intention is not to discredit protection as a goal and it doesn’t mean that I think we should abandon such efforts entirely or peacekeeping more generally. My hope is rather that a better understanding of the politics helps to illuminate areas of reform. It definitely reinforces the value of a political, less technical, approach to peacekeeping and to having a clear strategy in contexts where peacekeepers are deployed. But also practically, it points to possible reforms like more equitable burden sharing by widening the base of contributors as well as greater TCC involvement in mandate formulation. Ultimately, though, I do think many of the challenges we see today are likely to persist given the nature of the political dynamics we’ve discussed. And so, by exposing the politics – by calling a spade a spade – and by considering where this is all leading us, the book is a call for caution, for greater prudence and pragmatism in peacekeeping.

Emily Paddon Rhoads is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Swarthmore College 

Alexandra Novosseloff is a Senior Visiting Fellow at the Center on International Cooperation | Twitter: @DeSachenka

Jason Stearns is a Senior Fellow at the Center on International Cooperation and the Director of the Congo Research Group | Twitter: @jasonkstearns