Can we make UN peacekeeping great again?

United Nations Operation in Burundi (ONUB) peacekeepers during a military exercise in the Bujumbura Rural Province in October 2004. (UN Photo/Martine Perret)

Alexandra Novosseloff

If UN peacekeeping operations are “at a crossroads” as the Secretary-General told the Security Council on 6 April, then it is a policy and linguistic roundabout. This is the same phrase that a senior official used to describe the Brahimi report in 2000 and others used to characterize the work of the High-level Independent Panel on Peace Operations (HIPPO) in 2015. Does this mean that the policy debate that surrounds UN peacekeeping has just been going around in circles for the past twenty years?

The recent declarations made by the US administration on possible cuts of its share of the peacekeeping budget and its push to cut individual missions at the time of mandate renewal (as observed in the case of MONUSCO already) has created uneasiness and has given new life to the old debate about the relevance of UN peacekeeping. But this in itself is not a new position. The HIPPO report has also argued for such a review of existing operations.

Whether peacekeeping missions are “fit for purpose”, and what this actually means in practice, are questions numerous governments, delegations in New York, departments of the UN Secretariat, experts on the matter, non-governmental organizations and at times, international public opinion, have kept asking for years and even decades. The question was put on the table of the Security Council again by the new US administration during its presidency in April 2017. The goal, as outlined in its concept paper, was to review every single peacekeeping operation to “identify areas where mandates no longer match political realities.” The objective was to “propose alternatives or paths towards restructuring to bring missions more in line with achievable outcomes.”

HIPPO had already identified and advocated for “more effective and implementable mandates tailored to missions.” But those that deplore the inabilities or inconsistencies of UN peacekeeping operations often forget that they are part of this complex endeavor as a decision-maker, as a financial contributor, as an implementer or as a contributor in uniformed personnel. Failures of the UN are, in a way, failures of us all.

The UN has been constantly adapting to evolving security environments. Since its creation, the Organization has undertaken numerous reforms, restructuring, and rationalization. Stretching the Organization’s peace and security efforts even thinner could reverse all the Sisyphus work of professionalization undertaken on peace operations in recent years. Equally, giving it tasks that go beyond its remit undermines it. UN peacekeeping is already a rather cheap instrument that allows it to keep many crises at a low level of insecurity. As President Donald Trump himself recognized during his recent lunch with Security Council ambassadors, it’s “peanuts”, it’s “pennies”. The current sixteen missions only cost $7.87 billion. If such a debate should be welcomed by the UN Secretariat, which should seize the moment to transform it into an “opportunity to propose changes on its own terms”, the debate should also be broadened to include a discussion about the limits of peacekeeping that could prepare the ground for a renewed consensus around a clearer peacekeeping doctrine that would reset the limits and help operationalize the concept of the “primacy of politics” put forward by the HIPPO report.

Peacekeeping, a limited instrument in essence

The creation of a clearer peacekeeping doctrine should begin by recalling the origins of peacekeeping and the principles invented by Dag Hammarskjöld and Lester B. Pearson in 1956. From the outset, peacekeeping operations were conceived as a means to solve conflicts by being neither purely diplomatic nor resorting to a full-scale war. In a bipolar world, they were led by an impartial “third party”, the United Nations, which could play the role of an arbiter as the Organization was an actor with no stake in the conflict or the crisis. Peacekeeping operations were conceived as “a political in-between” with limited means and originally without the involvement of any permanent member of the Security Council, in order to stay away from the “politicization” in the Council.

Some of these peacekeeping operations are still in place today in Jerusalem (UNTSO), Kashmir (UNMOGIP), Cyprus (UNFICYP), the Golan Heights (UNDOF, although now suffering from a spillover effect of the war in Syria), South Lebanon (UNIFIL), Western Sahara (MINURSO) and Abyei (UNISFA). They have indeed frozen those situations on the ground but are helpful in keeping former belligerents apart. They have lingered not because the UN wishes to prolong indefinitely its presence, but because the parties (and their regional/international protectors) have not been able to find a solution to the original dispute. Even with UNIFIL, the biggest mission in this category (a budget of $488 millions and a mission which downsizing had been favored by some members of the Council but resisted by the main parties to the conflict), those missions do not take a great share of the UN budget on peacekeeping (one million out of almost eight).

What was relatively easy to do when implementing a solid peace agreement between two States that had an interest in keeping their word, has become much more difficult to achieve with a multitude of non-state parties to a conflict. UN peacekeeping has always been a complicated endeavor when it went beyond its limited “borders” whether in the Congo in the 1960s, in Bosnia and Somalia in the 1990s or today with the deployment of multidimensional peacekeeping operations in Central Africa, Darfur, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mali, and South Sudan. It is not the intervention in internal affairs per se that creates difficulties as the UN has been successful doing this in countries like Namibia, Mozambique, Cambodia, Guatemala, East Timor, Côte d’Ivoire and to a certain extent in Haiti and Liberia (missions that are set to close in the course of 2017 and 2018, respectively). A lot remains to be done to sustain peace in all these countries but their relapse into conflict is less likely after the work done by the UN. Several studies have indeed pointed out the “pretty good track record” of UN peacekeeping in terminating conflicts, insuring against their reoccurrence, and reducing the length of local conflict.

It becomes more difficult for the UN when its missions are sent into an on-going civil war, when the peace process is either inexistent or shaky. This leaves too much room for the instrumentalization of the UN presence by the parties, especially when the UN is left with a passive humanitarian role such as providing safe areas in Bosnia or protection of civilian sites in South Sudan. When a mandate becomes too large and too vague, it creates expectations that will never be met and ambitions that are unachievable. The World Bank’s World Development Report of 2011 told us that re-building a state takes at least two to three generations. These open-ended multidimensional missions, often deployed in asymmetric threat environments, also led the UN to militarize its operations. There is a tendency towards giving these operations increasingly offensive mandate, such as through the creation of the Force Intervention Brigade to “neutralize” armed groups in Eastern Congo. Or they have been deployed to operate in counter-terrorism environments, such as in Mali, putting huge stress on the guiding principles of peacekeeping and the capabilities of those missions.

We need to stop just quoting Brahimi or HIPPO and start implementing some of their key recommendations

This increases further the divisions among the various troop-contributors, especially between European/Western countries who support the militarily robust missions but only represent 5 per cent of all contributions, and larger Troop-Contributing Countries (TCCs) who are reluctant to take own such tasks. The divide is replicated between the large TCCs and the mandating organ, the Security Council. This invariably exposes these operations to several dangers. The military tasks take on disproportionate importance in the absence of political objective or strategy. In such absence, the use of force is always doomed to fail whether it is engaged in a multilateral, a multinational or a national framework. All this only widens the division between the various internal and international stakeholders. In short, UN peacekeeping is being progressively left in a doctrine vacuum in which principles are not respected, stabilization not defined, and credibility undermined.

Why has it become difficult for the UN to operate in such conditions?

First, the UN has never been given the adequate financial and military means to make a difference in such challenging environments. Member States’ contributions to UN peacekeeping are small as it rarely comes out of their defense budgets. This severely limits the number of troops and the amount of equipment that can be sent to UN peacekeeping operations. In a recent press conference, the outgoing Under Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations, Hervé Ladsous, told reporters the current total budget of peacekeeping operations is equivalent to 0.4 per cent of world’s military expenditures. A blue helmet annually costs $20,000, where as a US soldier is $800,000. Such limited budget always requires the leadership of the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) and of the various missions on the ground to make hard choices and set priorities in terms of operations to launch as well as protection equipment for the personnel and technological assets to procure.

Second, once deployed on the ground, UN peacekeeping operations are “weak actors”, for several reasons:

- Units lack interoperability because all these contributors, which have only basic English as a common language, work together on only this one operation, and rotate every six months or so; some countries have only begun training their troops on the UN procedures and standards; they come to the operation with their own ways of operating. And often, the most capable countries in deploying military force think that being able to deal with the high end of conflicts makes them fit for the lower end, which is not the case. All countries need training on the specific methods of peacekeeping.

- Soldiers and police units are deployed in areas that are often very far from their home country’s strategic interests, which is not conducive to taking any risk. Contingents respond to this risk by putting forward caveats or, worse, disobeying orders. This is exacerbated by mandates that are elaborated without them, even if the Council is increasingly informing them on the objectives of the negotiations of the resolution. Overall, the gap between the contributors and the decision-makers is not helping the cohesion of peacekeeping operations.

- Operations are deployed in vast countries and remote areas in relatively small numbers. NATO sent 50,000 troops to Kosovo, which is half the size of New York State, whereas the UN sent 11,000 blue helmets to the north of Mali, which is twice the size of Afghanistan, 12,000 troops to South Sudan, which is the size of France, and that is in a state of war. In the DRC, there are 16,000 UN personnel deployed in a country that is of the size of continental Europe. In those circumstances, there is always a limit to the protection UN peacekeepers can provide to populations in disarray.

- Peace operations often lack support from their political creators, in particular the powerful states of the Security Council that are the ones that can have leverage on the parties to the conflict. In 2000, the Brahimi report wrote “Member States must summon the political will to support the United Nations politically, financially and operationally — once they have decided to act as the United Nations — if the Organization is to be credible as a force for peace.” But when a UN mission fails, nobody is there to defend it or even to defend its personnel that are being attacked or kidnapped. And host governments can denigrate them without impunity.

Third, for a long time blue helmets have relied on their impartiality to be respected by the parties to the conflict. This is one of the reasons why all rules and regulations of the UN are antithetical to any inclination to become a party to the conflict and the mission cannot have an “enemy”. The UN has to be able to talk to all actors and stakeholders on the ground, even the most extremist ones. This is often a unique characteristic of a UN peacekeeping operation and one that adds value. Furthermore, if a minimum of impartiality is not respected, the UN will become irrelevant if needed as an honest broker when the parties finally decide to lay down their weapons. This is the main reason why all SRSGs have also been reluctant to use force on the ground, fearful of the consequences they know they did not have the means to deal with.

At the outset of the Security Council debate of 6 April, the Secretary-General pointed out the obvious: “Our ambitions do not correspond to our capacities, and our aims do not correspond to the resources available to achieve them.” The question for the Security Council, the Secretariat, and Member States is how to work better with those inherent limitations of UN peacekeeping and not stretch them to the point where the Organization will lose its soul as well as its ability to add value and maintain its legitimacy.

A renewed doctrine for a more adapted instrument for keeping the peace

The global political and economic environment is such that the UN cannot ask for more money to solve its problems. What the system can do is renew its peacekeeping doctrine in a way to operationalize “the primacy of politics”. It should build a new consensus among all peacekeeping stakeholders on how to conduct its operations. Peacekeeping needs a more realistic approach on what UN peacekeeping can achieve and what it will never be able to.

An updated doctrine should keep at its center the basic principles that have guided UN peacekeeping for more than 50 years: use of force in self-defense and in the defense of the mandate; impartiality; and consent of the host nation. These principles are enshrined in the 2008 Capstone Doctrine but they should not be considered as a given in any situation. They are a starting point that should empower the Secretariat to say “no” to some operations that would be better led by other sub-regional, regional or international groupings. They also imply the capacity to politically engage with the parties for them to understand that they, at a moment, have a greater interest in peace than in the continuation of war. Engaging the parties also means threatening them, pressuring them with tools by which the “international community” can have some leverage, including individual sanctions, arms embargos, and putting conditionality to the delivery of development aid. No peacekeeping operations should be mandated in the absence of an arms embargo, as the free circulation of weapons is an important means to allow the continuation of war.

These principles must be worked out in a better way before the deployment of an operation. Recently, the Security Council has mandated deployments in South Sudan (the Regional Protection Force in Juba) and Burundi (deployment of 228 police officers) that could not be deployed as the host nation opposed them. This was indicative of a lack of prior political pressures from their powerful neighbors and patrons. The Council is deciding to deploy operations before getting the politics right and looking at the practical modalities of deployment. Such missteps are ultimately undermining its authority.

When missions are to be deployed and host nations are delaying the implementation of the mandate, the Security Council needs to collectively talk with their representatives behind closed doors and not just listen to them deliver a speech as part of an open session. The constant and consistent support of the Security Council is key to the success of any peacekeeping operation. A more formal compact in the form of a roadmap could also be signed at the outset of an operation between the Council, the host nation and the Secretariat on the steps taken to implement the mandate, on benchmarks to measure progress. This agreement would also provide the necessary guidance on the ground to elaborate its mission implementation plan and set out its priorities. The ownership of the UN operation by the host nation, the host population, by the main parties to the conflict is ultimately essential to its success. Strategies have to be developed to secure that buy-in for the long term for each mission in a realistic and achievable roadmap.

The credibility and the deterrence of the UN comes not only from the threat of using force (although show of force is necessary at times), but also from the potential diplomatic harm, from sanctions and embargoes, that could be caused if the Security Council is united. The UN cannot project force or engage on military actions like NATO, as it has neither the means nor the organization to do so. In the words of the Brahimi report, “the United Nations does not wage war”. The then Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, clearly stated for his part that such action should be undertaken by regional organizations or other international organizations. This does not mean that the UN cannot use force, on a contrary; a renewed consensus on the limits of peacekeeping should aim at making TCCs more at ease in being more robust when needed.

To make peacekeeping work for peace again

As long as Member States continue to deploy peacekeepers without a clear strategy on what needs to be achieved or what is achievable on the ground to solve a crisis, UN peacekeeping will face dire challenges and criticism. Blue helmets cannot be efficient without clear end states and exit strategies. If this approach continues, more reports will be written in the coming decades making the same recommendations as Brahimi and HIPPO. So, how can we break this vicious cycle and make peacekeeping great again?

First, we need to stop just quoting Brahimi or HIPPO and start implementing some of their key recommendations. Brahimi told us fifteen years ago that “the key conditions for the success of future complex operations are political support, rapid deployment with a robust force posture and a sound peacebuilding strategy.” The Security Council needs to not just write mandates but become actively involved in applying political pressure to give its decisions sharp teeth. A divided Council weakens UN peacekeeping operations.

Second, rapid deployment and robust posture will come by setting the limits to peacekeeping that all troop contributors agree with. There is also a need to bridge the gap between the wishes of some countries and the abilities/possibilities of others, and between the somehow militaristic answers given by the Council and the need for stronger political strategies. Differences among TCCs and Council members on how mandates are interpreted, and specifically, over attitudes to the use of force remain and have to be discussed if peacekeeping operations wish to be more efficient.

Third, Sustaining Peace will depend on the willingness of Member States to understand that UN peacekeeping is only one part of a continuum, a spectrum of actions in favor of peace and security to help a country rebuild, in a process that lasts decades. As such, the separation between special political missions and peacekeeping operations of all sorts has become irrelevant. Peacekeeping is only one building block of wider peacebuilding and developments processes. Its efficiency will also depend on the ability of all stakeholders to engage in a continuous dialogue with the host government and the local populations on the root causes of the crisis or the conflict. Ultimately, the exit goals must aim at consolidating the peacekeeping gains, and have connections with the UN country team and the UN system at large. As one entity leads or follows, the UN system needs to improve its ability to transition and handover by understanding the strengths of each part of the system, sharing information, and conducting more joint planning.

One could argue that this reflection on the nature and the limits of peacekeeping should have taken place before the reform processes initiated by the new Secretary-General (in particular the one related to the restructuring of the Secretariat), as the framework should precede the contents. Other would also argue that it should have happened after the release of the HIPPO report two years ago. The point is that no reform process will be really achieved if it avoids that issue and misses the opportunity to rebuild a consensus around a revamped doctrine of UN peacekeeping.

Peacekeeping is a complex endeavor. If it were simple, those missions that have been on duty for decades would have ended up in the “past missions” folder of the UN Secretariat a long time ago. But as a political endeavor, it needs as much guidance and direction from Member States as it ever did. For this reason, the current debate in New York should be seen as an opportunity and not as a threat; a time to breakdown a few silos, get off the roundabout of reporting writing, and to start implementing change. Peacekeeping is a global responsibility that each Member States should feel part of. But for that there needs to be an overall shift of priority, from securitization of answers and building arsenals to investing in peace and in sustaining it. The problem is that these long-term solutions rarely appeal to politicians and international public opinion, which are accustomed to quick fixes; something that UN peacekeeping will never be able to be.

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