Trends in Special Political Missions

Miroslav Lajčák, President of the seventy-second session of the General Assembly. ©UN Photo/Manuel Elias

Ryan Rappa

Today, March 28, 2018, the Security Council is holding an open debate on “Collective Action to Improve UN Peacekeeping Operations,” with the participation of the Secretary-General. In honor of the debate, CIC is publishing three posts this week cut from an advance version of its 2017 Annual Global Peace Operations Review. In these posts, CIC data specialist Ryan Rappa assesses the trends we observed in data on peace operations for 2017—a pivotal year for the international system, as the U.S. and the UN both saw leadership changes. The first article, published yesterday, looked at trends in peacekeeping. This second article examines trends in special political missions, and the third article will focus on the trends in the gender of UN senior staff, including field staff—all in light of the larger geopolitical context.

Trends in Special Political Missions

As described in my post yesterday, there has been an overall downtrend in budgets and personnel for peacekeeping operations. Senior officials have acknowledged these headwinds over the last year, and have been signaling a shift toward shoring up peacebuilding and conflict prevention initiatives – in other words, political missions, peacebuilding offices, preventive diplomacy, and other activities typically led by the Department of Political Affairs (DPA). These kinds of UN engagements can and have made meaningful contributions to diplomacy, conflict resolution, and capacity building, without blue helmets in situ. As UN General Assembly President Miroslav Lajčák said recently: “We need a stronger focus on peace when it still exists. We should be acting faster, and sooner, when there is a peace to keep, rather than scrambling for solutions once it has been lost.”[1]

So, are more resources actually being dedicated to conflict prevention and mediation activities? Or are they being allocated more strategically? Currently available data can only shed so much light on this, but initial indications seem neutral to positive. Specifically, spending on DPA-led missions and offices appears robust, at least in the aggregate, relative to DPKO expenditures (despite an unexplained dip in 2014).

Sources: United Nations; Center on International Cooperation

Although the data is preliminary for 2017, the above trend post-2014 has most likely continued. Along with apparently steady expenditures, the number of civilian staff – both local and international – working in DPA-led offices and missions has been slowly but steadily increasing from late 2015 through 2017. Our analysis also suggests that there has been a trend toward increased spending per capita on civilian staff, which could be driven by labor cost inflation, but also raises a question as to the composition of civilian staff. Are more high-paid (expert or highly skilled) personnel being employed in peacebuilding offices and political missions? We hope to explore this question in detail in a separate article.

Support for conflict prevention and mediation also appears to be holding steady in light of the very few offices and missions that have closed or are slated for closure, the recent opening of the UN Verification Mission in Colombia, and the UN Security Council’s continued focus on fragile states and situations. Additionally, we estimate that the number of political missions, good offices, and preventive diplomacy and post-conflict peacebuilding missions has increased from 31 in 2016 to 35 presently.

The multi-year pivot we are potentially observing from large peacekeeping missions to lower-cost peacebuilding activities may be a temporary swing of the pendulum – like the downtrend in UN peacekeeping from 1995 to 2000 – or it could be the beginning of a sustained shift in strategy and funding emphasis. The prospects for peacekeeping and political/peacebuilding missions will depend on a range of factors, including U.S. and Chinese policy and funding, the roles played by regional organizations and bilateral relationships, member states’ appetites for different kinds of UN engagement going forward, and trends in conflict risk and violence.