The Future of Peace Operations

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A large-scale review of peacekeeping, the United Nations’ flagship activity, is currently underway. Established by Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon late last year and chaired by Jose Ramon-Horta of Timor-Leste, the High-level Independent Panel on UN Peace Operations is expected to publish its final report before the 70th UN Summit in September.

The review could not be timelier. The last substantial and comprehensive appraisal of peace operations took place in 2000, and culminated in the widely cited Brahimi report. Since then the scale and sheer ambition of UN peace operations have grown exponentially. Today, the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) oversees the second largest military deployment around the world with over 120,000 uniformed personnel fielded in 16 missions. No longer tasked primarily with observing frontiers and ceasefire arrangements, most mission mandates now contain an explicit injunction for peacekeepers to use force to protect civilians under Chapter VII and many missions are authorized to engage in activities designed to support and expand the authority of the state in contested territories. This has resulted not only in operations that are more demanding and robust, but also in changing perceptions about the impartiality of peacekeepers and the UN more generally.

Of the many issues for the Independent Panel to consider, three trends stand out as particularly important in shaping the future of peacekeeping as an instrument of international peace and security. The first two concern the changing nature of conflict and the operational contexts into which peacekeepers are deployed. The third relates to the division of labour in peacekeeping.

First, after declining throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, the number of civil wars and battle-related deaths has increased significantly over the last decade with little indication that this trend is abating. Consequently, UN missions, as Ban Ki-Moon recently warned, are “increasingly mandated where there is no peace to keep” and are forced to operate in “more complex environments that feature asymmetric and unconventional threats.” Peacekeepers in Mali, for example, are grappling with violence carried out by brutal jihadists, a national liberation movement as well as deeply entrenched organized criminal networs. In the Central African Republic (CAR), blue helmets confront widespread sectarian violence, particularly outside the capital of Bangui, where state institutions are virtually non-existent and arms flow easily across the country’s notoriously porous borders. And in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), UN forces in the east of the country face an alphabet soup of armed actors, ranging from hyper localized self-defense militias to highly organized and sophisticated groups with regional and international networks that provide recruits, supplies, and money.

The UN’s long-term ability to sustain such operations is far from certain, and member states remain divided on how peacekeepers can and should address the range of threats confronted in the field. These missions are resource intensive and place great strain on what is an already burdened and overstretched UN system. They require sophisticated information-gathering capacities, mobility assets, and highly trained personnel with technical expertise as well as in-depth local knowledge. They are also more dangerous. In both Mali and CAR, UN personnel have been attacked and killed by groups that view the institution as an enemy.

Second, and closely related, operations in a number of contexts have been challenged by ever-bolder assertions of state sovereignty and expectations on the part of host governments that peacekeepers should act in the service of their own strategic and political interests. Failure to meet such expectations has had significant consequences. In places like Chad, Burundi, DRC and Sudan, intransigent host governments have scuppered mandate implementation and vigorously resisted institutional reforms aimed at addressing the causes of instability, but which threaten existing configurations of power. The UN’s political space has been restricted, freedom of movement has been curtailed, officials have been made persona non grata and missions have, at various junctures, been threatened with expulsion.

Relations between the UN and host governments have been further complicated in contexts such as DRC and South Sudan, where state actors have at times been complicit in the systematic abuse of civilians. In both cases, the incongruence between the mission’s Chapter VII mandate to protect  civilians and the UN’s stipulation that consent from the “main parties” remains a requirement of peacekeeping, has both contributed to inconsistent mandate implementation and given rise to accusations that peacekeepers are biased because they are unwilling to use force against perpetrators affiliated to the state.

The third and final trend relates to the division of labour in peacekeeping and the broader institutional architecture that supports peace operations globally. Developing countries and emerging powers have contributed the overwhelming majority of uniformed personnel deployed globally over the last decade. However, they have little influence over and input into the mission planning process and mandate formulation. By contrast, the permanent members of the Security Council – those who authorize increasingly ambitious and risky mandates – have been noticeably absent from the field and there is little indication that this trend will be reversed.

This unequal division of labour and burden sharing politicizes peacekeeping policy and erodes the political compromise on which peacekeeping is based. Tensions are exacerbated further by the fact that UN missions, which are dependent on member states for voluntary contributions, are continually under-resourced and operated with insufficient personnel for the tasks they are authorized to carry out. Failure to address these grievances and underlying political dynamics, risks a broader breakdown in the peacekeeping system.