Sarah-Myriam Martin-Brûlé: Evaluating the success and failure of UN peacekeeping missions

©Routledge Press

Sarah-Myriam Martin-Brulé

Alexandra Novosseloff

Sarah-Myriam Martin-Brûlé’s book “Evaluating Peacekeeping Missions: A Typology of Success and Failure in International Interventions” proposes a new definition of the success of a peace operation based on two crucial elements: the reestablishment of order and the accomplishment of the mandate. It explains the different outcomes of UN peace operations by outlining the effect of the combination of the key ingredients-strategy and the type of interveners. The following is an edited transcript of an interview by CIC Senior Visiting Fellow Alexandra Novosseloff with the author undertaken in Montreal in the margins of the workshop “Peace First: Canada’s Role in Peace Operations” organized conjointly by Bishop’s University and the Center for International and Defense Policy.

Alexandra Novosseloff (AN): You have written a book on evaluating peacekeeping operations. You first highlight what best practices can be learned from the successes and failures of peacekeeping operations. This is your starting point for evaluating peacekeeping operations. Could you briefly summarize the main arguments of your book?

Sarah-Myriam Martin-Brûlé (SMMB): Two main lessons emerge from this book. First, you cannot win on the cheap. Interveners need to invest in communication, cultivate knowledge and have the capacity to show resolve. The second lesson is that boots on the ground matter and that a great power needs to send troops alongside a UN peace operation for it to succeed. In my book I put forward a new definition of peace operation success based on the establishment of order and the accomplishment of the mandate. Based on my research, a successful peace operation is one that allows the establishment of institutional authority and capacity and one in which the mandate is accomplished. My book refutes the pessimism about UN peace operations in countries that fall into what has been qualified as the worst context for transitional politics. I argue that even in the hardest cases, in failed states settings, international peace operations can be effective if the right combination of strategy and interveners is applied. My research showed that for a peace operation in an intra-state war, the adoption of a deterrence strategy works best for re-establishing order and it is the involvement of a great power that facilitates the best the accomplishment of the mandate.

AN: In a way you’re looking at what are the ambitions of peacekeeping and should we be so ambitious when drafting mandates or, on the contrary, should we reduce our ambitions and expectations and then have a measurement of success that is more realistic?

SMMB: Using peace operations’ mandates to evaluate success is problematic because they are highly political. Mandates are made strategically ambiguous to satisfy Members of the Security Council and to ensure flexibility in order to adapt to changing conditions. If we were to assess peace operations’ outcomes focusing only on the mandate, this assessment would end up being more about the clarity of the mandate than about the achievements of the operation itself. Peace operations vary in the details of their mission and in what constitutes the successful accomplishment of their operations but all share the common aim of restoring order, legitimately enforced by the state. To assess the accomplishment of the mandate, I take into account the context, the duration of the peace operation, and its resources. With these criteria I strived for a thorough assessment of what was actually being accomplished by a peace mission. This framework has the added benefit of considering the accomplishment of the mandate based upon the particular conditions of peace operations in failed state settings.

Yet to me, looking at the accomplishment of the mandate is insufficient. Success depends as well on the reestablishment of order. I employ Huntington’s definition of order, which is a function of authority and capacity. Authority is the power to command without having to threaten the use of coercion, and which must be independent of enforcement or of the specific person who rules. Capacity refers to the monopoly over coercive use of force, which should ideally be legitimate but not necessarily. It extends to the importance of being able to establish a certain degree of stability, which sometimes can be at the cost of legitimacy.

The third peacekeeping operation in Somalia, UNOSOM II, deployed between 1993 and 1995, is a prime example of why one cannot look exclusively at the establishment of order to assess a peace operation’s success. In this case, the operation’s mandate was broad, unclear, and unrealistic in terms of goals and means deployed. Those who have qualified this operation as an outright failure have not looked at the whole picture. If UNOSOM II had been given a more realistic/precise mandate, the operation would have been judged a greater success, particularly given the constraints and the challenges that it faced and in light of its accomplishments. Over the course of two years, it is estimated that an estimated 250,000 lives were saved. Also extremely significant is the fact that the number of refugees dropped from 1.5 million to 750,000. Militarily speaking, achievements included the capture of General Aideed’s associates and the killing of roughly 500 to 1,000 of Aideed’s soldiers. The operation also brought unprecedented amount of money in the country. It created employment opportunities, which stimulate and reinforced legitimate businesses. The operation succeeded in eradicating starvation. The most vulnerable population groups were receiving food aid, and ‘food-for-work’ schemes were established to help with the rehabilitation of schools and hospitals, as well as water, sanitation and other services.

AN: Generally, the UN is not telling the story of its successful missions. Which missions in your view have been the most successful? When you are talking about measuring success, how do you measure success against initial ambitions?

SMMB: In my book, I study eleven peace operations that occurred in three countries, Somalia, Liberia and Sierra Leone between 1990 and 2009. Peace operations aim to create and sustain the conditions necessary for peace to thrive. They comprise diverse types of activities from support to diplomacy, peacekeeping, and peace enforcement. Protection of humanitarian assistance, establishment of order and stability, enforcement of sanctions, guarantee and denial of movement, establishment of protected zones, and forcible separation of belligerents are also part of peace operations activities. The peace operations covered in this book are missions, carried by the UN or by a Member States (such as the United States in the case of Restore Hope) or by the Economic Community of the West African States which acted under United Nations Security Council authorization, with or without the consent of the parties to the conflict.

From these eleven peace operations, I found three to be what I call total successes based on the reestablishment of order and the accomplishment of mandate: UNITAF (the peace operation in Somalia deployed from 1992 to 1993), UNMIL (UN Mission in Liberia that I studied from 2003 to 2009) and UNAMSIL (UN Mission in Sierra Leone examined from 2001 to 2004). In all three, a combination of a deterrence strategy and great power intervention led to fewer casualties and less confrontation with the warring parties. UNITAF, UNMIL and UNAMSIL invested significantly in establishing good communication with the population and also made sure to maintain good communication amongst their troops and with “the international community”, the actors and organizations outside the mission and outside the country. Doing so helped each operation to gain and maintain wide support for their mission, at home, abroad and of course in the host country.

For all three operations, order was re-established, and the mandate was accomplished largely thanks to the quantity and quality of the material deployed by the peacekeepers, whose ranks included a great power. These operations showed that capacity also matters, not so much in terms of quantity but in terms of whether the equipment and means are tailored to the setting of the intervention.

Also in all three operations, the great power’s strong commitment to the peace operation, as well as of the operational latitude and capabilities granted to the peace operation’s forces, convinced the belligerents to avoid prohibited actions. Reputation and known interests were used to adapt the intervention to the setting and to the population (civilians and belligerents), and such adaptation was key in assuring both the re-establishment of order and the accomplishment of the mandate.

This leads to your question about initial ambitions that, in my view, may be considered as guidelines but not as measurement of success. To succeed, peace operations must adapt. Peace operations are organic pieces. By definition, initial ambitions of interveners are based on their understanding of the conflict and of its dynamic prior to the intervention. These initial ambitions must then be adjusted to fit with how the intervention factors in the dynamic of the conflict.

AN: Can there be an honest evaluation of peacekeeping operation when we know that there are so many interests at stake, those contributing countries, those of the Security Council, those of the host nations?

SMMB: It depends what you mean by honest evaluation. The difficulty with circumscribing success lies in the multidimensionality of peacekeeping missions. How can we define success when all the different dimensions of success of peace operations are not compatible? How do we address blurry outcomes? To provide an honest evaluation, one must clarify thresholds that will delineate a failed peace operation from a successful one. In my book I introduce intermediate outcome categories between success and failure to refine the understanding and classification of scenarios in which different dimensions of success are not compatible.

With this book, my goal was to provide a clearer definition of success. There are many excellent analyses of peace operation success that are useful for understanding the impact of many criteria separately. However, what seemed to be missing was an attempt to assess the outcome of these various criteria when combined together. To address this gap, I studied these eleven peace operations and classified them into one of four categories: failure, partial failure, partial success and success.

The book offers a refutation of the political pessimism on the use of peace operations in the worst contexts of intervention.

In the book, I thus look at the four peace missions in Liberia to show how it this case, it took 20 years for peace operations to succeed. I thus examine the UN Observer Mission in Liberia (UNOMIL: 1993-1997), which proved to be a failure; the ECOMOG in Liberia (1990-1998), a partial failure; ECOMIL, the ECOWAS Mission in Liberia, in 2003, a partial success; and UNMIL (United Nations Mission in Liberia: 2003-2009), which turned out to be a successful peace mission. Chapter 4 is devoted to peace missions in Sierra Leone. The UN Observer Mission in Sierra Leone (UNOMSIL: 1998-1999), ECOMOG in Sierra Leone (1998-2000) and the UN Assistance Mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL: 2001-2004) are examined to explain how, in this case too, the missions followed the path of failure, to partial failure, partial success and success. The peace operations in Somalia were key in highlighting that failure and success do not necessarily follow a chronological order. The cases of UNOSOM I (United Nations Operation in Somalia: 1991–1992), UNITAF (Unified Taskforce: 1992-1993) and UNOSOM II (1993-1995) are addressed to discuss how these operations went from failure, to success and, finally, partial failure.

More particularly, I examined the process by which each peace operation succeeded or failed at accomplishing its mandate while simultaneously contributing to or hindering its chances at re-establishing order. Since the constituent parts, communication, capability, and knowledge interacted differently depending on which strategy was adopted, I highlighted whether the strategy (whether it was compellence, deterrence or self-defense), combined with the type of intervener (a great power, a regional power, or a collective intervener) influenced the communication, the use of capacities, and the knowledge of the intervener and of the population (based on reputation and known interests). My research revealed that strategy either enabled or hindered the interveners to quickly achieve important part of their mandates. But by doing so, they can sabotage the very means by which they re-establish order in the country.

The difficulty in defining success of peace operations is that beyond the multidimensionality of outcomes of these missions, the means for accomplishing mandates are not necessarily those that will contribute to achieving order. Peace operations may well succeed in one dimension while failing in another: two dimensions of success are not always compatible. This was one of the main puzzles that lead me through my research for this book. How do we clarify or make sense of mixed outcomes? So of my eleven cases studies, five fall into one of the two categories of either partial failures or partial successes.

My research showed that for the ECOMOG missions in Liberia and Sierra Leone, as well as for UNOSOM II, the adoption of a compellence strategy (the use of coercive means to persuade an adversary to undertake a certain action), in a peace operation led by a major power facilitated the accomplishment of the mission’s mandate, yet hindered its capacity to establish order.

For missions like ECOMIL and UNAMSIL, in which a deterrence strategy was adopted without the intervention of a great power, order was re-established but the mandate was not accomplished. In the case of ECOMIL, by the end of its mission, it had created a safe and secure environment in Monrovia and its surrounding areas such that humanitarian organizations could resume their operations. ECOMIL’s presence slowed down the amount of bloodshed caused by the rebel factions. The intervention appeased the concerns of rebel groups who fought because they felt no other organization was able to defend them. Another peace agreement was signed a few weeks after the arrival of ECOMIL. Yet, while rebel movements withdrew, they still retained the option of a quick redeployment in the event of failure of the peace agreement. Once the peacekeepers retreated from key areas, the persistent resumption of violence continuously impeded the delivery of humanitarian assistance throughout the country. All sides of Liberian society, from civilians and civil society groups to fighters from the warring parties, repeatedly called for an intervention by the United States.

AN: So you studied in your book three main operations, Somalia, Liberia and Sierra Leone. What are the criteria of success that you can take from those operations from the 1990’s and apply them to more recent operations? What could be the common features of some of those successes and failures … an alarm that could show that this or that operation goes to a failing path or more of a successful one?

SMMB: To me the criteria of success remain the extent to which authority and capacity of institutions is restored due or in the wake of the peace operation and at the tasks achieved by the operation or because of the peace operation.

For more recent peace operations, these would be lessons learned. Important achievements can develop through the presence of the interveners. These achievements must be taken into account when measuring the success, of peace missions challenging and hostile contexts and given peace operations’ limited resources and duration.

UN peace operations pour enormous amount of money as well as sizeable employment and contract opportunities into countries. They thus help to stimulate and strengthen legitimate businesses, thereby shifting business activities away from a war economy toward construction, telecommunications, trade and services. In the process, it helped to reshape local interests in security and rule of law, and eventually local power as well.

Many accounts of success focus on humanitarian and political development in the capital city, yet we need to pay attention to its impact in improving living conditions in the rest of the country. Is the population receiving humanitarian assistance? Are the schools and hospitals being rebuilt? Are Internally Displaced Persons and refugees returning to their home and/or country? More importantly, one must look at the local, regional, international initiatives aiming at restoring peace. Does the peace operation facilitate the process for political factions to compete politically to lead and establish power bases through state-institutions?

As for common features of successful operations, communication, capacity and ability to use force and knowledge proved clear determinants of success. The ability to communicate clearly on three fronts: with the population (including the belligerents), within the mission itself and between the mission and the Member States of the UN (those of the Security Council, the financial contributors, the troop and police contributing countries, and the countries of the region) is a clear determinant of success. In all peace operations in which there was clear intent to establish and improve communication with the population, the operations fared better than in missions in which the communication was left aside.

All my case studies confirmed that communication with the population, with the capacity and resolve to use force, is a key combination in the success of any peace operation. These aspects should thus be the cornerstone of any intervention strategy. The cases also made it clear that communication is central to any tactic adopted by the belligerents. Belligerents are increasingly using the Internet, wireless communications, satellite TV and other communication tools to collect and disseminate information as part of their struggle. Communication in intervention missions is widely used, from psychological operations to information operations, from gathering human terrain data so as to facilitate operations to aiding with the capacity building of local governments.

Second, the capacity and the will to use force was another determinant of success. This is where the type of intervener made a difference. Great powers had more resources and were more determined to use it. That boosted their credibility and hence the efficiency of their intervention. Finally, the more the interveners were knowledgeable about the context of the missions, the better they were able to adapt in order to tailor their missions according to the context of their intervention.

As for alarms or warning signs that a peace operation is going badly with regards to order, an alarm is when no party is able to command obedience without threatening coercion. This shows a clear lack of authority since the different parties only follow rules with the use of coercive force. Alarms or warning signs for mandate can be found in the access granted to humanitarian assistance delivery. In most peace operations in which this access was denied, the mandate remained unaccomplished. All in all, missions that succeeded were the ones having a proper deterrence strategy and where a great power put boots on the ground.

AN: So what you are saying, is that one of the main criteria of success of peacekeeping identified by the Brahimi report fifteen years ago, i.e the full and sustained political support of the Security Council to operations it creates, remains one of the key elements of success.

SMMB: Of course, the full support of the Security Council is important. But the type of support and commitment matters. If we look at the ECOMIL mission in Liberia, it was an ECOWAS advance force. While it was a regional peacekeeping mission in the country, the formation of ECOMIL had been encouraged by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan by Security Council Resolution 1497 (in August 2003), which called for Member States to form a multinational force to intervene. Both the international community and the parties in conflict called for the United States to lead a new multinational force. The Americans refused but nonetheless agreed to provide financial and transportation support to ECOMIL. Therefore, while the United States supported the mission financially and diplomatically, the lack of a great power’s boots on the ground made it difficult for the peace operation to be efficient or to accomplish its mandate. In fact, financial support might also contribute to the deterioration of conditions on the ground as it sets expectations. The fact that the bulk of US support for the mission was financial created a mixed impression amongst the population and has been responsible for several setbacks due to disappointment with regards to the actual accomplishment of the mission. In fact, all the case studies in my book show that the type of commitment of a great power matters and impacts the success of a peace operation, in particular in terms of putting boots on the ground. What came out of my interviews, it that the belligerents would say, “We will not pull back unless you bring the Americans.” There was a similar echo in Sierra Leone, where it is only when the British sent troops on the ground that the belligerents backed down. The continued effective communication strategies coupled with an impressive show of potential overwhelming force convinced the belligerents to work with the intervener to re-establish order and accomplish the mandated tasks.

AN: Is there anything you want to add to on that we might not have covered in this conversation but was one of the key elements in your book?

SMMB: The process by which decisions are made would also be interesting to further investigate. In my book I looked at how the choice of strategy affected the success of a peace operation. However, further investigation of how the type of operation leads to a choice of strategy, which in itself leads to the type of outcome of the peace operation, merits further investigation. The question of mission creep would be interesting to address, as would the extent to which it can even lead to an eventual successful outcome. The example of Sierra Leone could be employed to examine such a situation. For UNAMSIL, a deterrence strategy was adopted and a great power intervened – but I did not consider how the United Kingdom came to such a decision. In fact, the government was engaged in what was believed to be a short evacuation operation. Britain was the commander on the ground that decided otherwise, by using the evacuation operation as an excuse to get the country involved in a robust way so as to deter the rebels and successfully convince them to back down. This points toward another avenue of investigation: How does each great power or each intervener decide which strategy to adopt, why do they make that choice, and what are the costs involved? Such an investigation would be quite fruitful.

Sarah-Myriam Martin-Brûlé, PhD in Political Science (McGill University, 2011), is Associate Professor in the Department of Politics and International Studies at Bishop’s University (2012-present).  Her recent research focuses on information sharing in international missions. | Twitter: @SaMyMarBru

Dr. Alexandra Novosseloff is Senior Visiting Fellow at the Center on International Cooperation of New York University. | Twitter: @DeSachenka