Tackling the Peace Operations Dilemma: Q&A with José Ramos-Horta

UN troops from the Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA). Anefis, Mali, September 14, 2015. (Marco Dormino/UN Photo)

The United Nations must strengthen relationships with regional organizations such as the African Union in peace operations and seek to remain neutral in responding to increasingly complex crises, according to José Ramos-Horta, head of the recent UN High-Level Independent Panel on Peace Operations (HIPPO).

HIPPO released a report containing more than 100 recommendations for reforming UN peace operations in June this year, with a Secretary-General’s response following in September.

Both the HIPPO and Secretary-General’s reports advocated a cautious approach to the use of force in peace operations, but Mr. Ramos Horta admitted there were difficulties in implementing this when UN missions were increasingly deployed to unstable environments.

“It’s extremely dangerous for the UN and there are no easy answers, obviously, to this dilemma,” he said in an interview with International Peace Institute Senior Adviser Warren Hoge.

Nonetheless, Mr. Ramos Horta said the UN cannot be seen to be a party to conflicts, because it would lose credibility and authority and become unable to exercise a mediation role.

“So there has to be a strong resistance on the part of the Secretariat and the Secretary-General to demands from the Security Council for intervention in areas that are very volatile, complex and where you have a mixture of terrorism, extremism, etc.” he said.

The HIPPO report recommended the UN remain committed to the “primacy of politics” and to putting more emphasis on prevention mechanisms and mediation, which included providing more adequate funding to the Department of Political Affairs through assessed contributions for special political missions.

Listen to the interview, which has been edited for clarity and length:

As part of the HIPPO process, you consulted a broad range of stakeholders. In the end, do you feel the HIPPO report and the follow-on report by the UN Secretary-General reflected the views and priorities of these many constituencies: the member states, the UN Secretariat, the host countries, and finally the people?

I would say with some certainty that yes, our report and the follow-up report by the Secretary-General reflect largely the sentiments, the opinions, and the recommendations we got from all member states, regional organizations, civil society, and academics who took their time and energy in working with us. They worked with us, helped us to prepare this far-reaching report, and I say that so far the feedback we have received from member states has been very positive across the board. Feedback from NGOs and academics was also very, very positive, so it seems that we did reflect their concerns, and not because of lobbying or if they were putting pressure on us.

Also, we are citizens of the world; we are individuals like them. We came from different backgrounds, different experiences as individuals—that’s why we’re invited to the panel—and we are mostly people who live with the communities in various conflict countries, some with a great UN experience in the field, some experiencing only headquarters. So that’s why I would say the report reflected our collective concerns and aspirations to have the UN much more effective in preventing conflict or in mediating wars, and in building sustainable peace.

While the HIPPO report includes more than 120 separate recommendations, its core message is a call for a change in our fundamental approach to the broad spectrum of UN peace operations. What strategies and advocacy efforts need to be created to help member states and the UN bureaucracy engage in a meaningful way in the reform process advocated by both reports to, in effect, make sure that all this good work ends up in action and not on a bookshelf somewhere?

The report, ours and the other two reports—the Review of the United Nations Peacebuilding Architecture and the Global Study on the Implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security—come at a very difficult, critical time for everyone.

First, you have a Secretary-General that is on the way out. He has 1.5 years-2 years to go. And then you have a US administration that is on the way out. Then there will be a new Secretary-General, there will be a new Congress, a new president, and you have a European Union—a very important partner that praised and commended the report—that is facing extraordinary challenges of their own; a refugee crisis, to say one challenge they face, apart from the endless financial crisis, with unemployment and poverty plaguing parts of Europe.

What does it mean? It means that we need some strong friends—partners among member states, civil society—to continue to push for the implementation of the report and recommendations. At the United Nations, you have Friends of Mediation, led by Finland and Turkey; they have been extremely active, and we have the African Union that very strongly commended the report.

The report and our recommendations absolve a lot of the concerns and practical recommendations of the African Union. The EU itself praised and commended the report through their High Representative, so the political will seems to be there.

But we have to beg people to stay focused on the implementation, because, as I said, the next two or three years are going to be a challenge to have the report implemented so that it doesn’t sit on a shelf in a UN library, which would be a total disaster, because no one goes to the UN library. Or worse, it goes to a university library. So you made a valid, a very good point there, but we have friends who will follow up to make sure the recommendations are implemented.

The HIPPO process took place in parallel with other important global policy reviews, including the Peacebuilding Architecture Review and the work of the Advisory Group on Resolution 1325. That’s a lot of recommendations coming out across a broad range of the UN’s work, all at the same time. How can they be kept from stepping on each other, from colliding with each other? In the implementation phase, what should be done instead to create synergies among these studies?

That’s when we need some strong leadership focus assisting the UN, assisting member states; and I believe the International Peace Institute is well-placed to do that because of their resources, the expertise you have. You are across the street, you are in New York. So I think we need an institution that is very well-connected with the UN and the multilateral bodies, but at the same time, is independent enough to assist.

Of course, IPI can mobilize other think tanks or partner with member states to really coordinate the synergies, because it’s going to be a real challenge. The poor Secretary-General, you know, has more than a hundred concerns on his table, he’s leaving the organization…who is he going to turn to? So I think some of us have to do their homework, the groundwork to make life easier for him in what concerns his competence on the recommendations, to make life easier for the European Union, the US, and the African Union. To stay focused, we should at least identify some absolute priority areas that have to happen in 2016-2017 and then beyond.

On September 28, more than 40 countries got together for the Peacekeeping Leaders’ Summit—sometimes called in shorthand “The Obama Summit” because the US president was there—and they pledged almost 40,000 new troops and capabilities. Many hailed the summit as a success, but some others felt that there was too much emphasis on capabilities and hardware that could detract from the core HIPPO message regarding the primacy of politics and the importance of prevention. What are your thoughts on this?

I would say first, cynically, that of course, if you host a summit yourself, you have to declare it a success. I am also a bit concerned, you know, that success is measured in the amount of pledges for peacekeepers, and I would put it this way: certainly, there are ongoing situations right now that require more troops, better-trained troops, better-equipped and better-assisted troops, and etc., to improve existing peacekeeping missions in their operational requirements. However, having said that, peace enforcement through traditional peacekeeping, or peacekeeping in itself, cannot in any way be substituted for what we have recommended very strongly and with consensus, and that is more emphasis on prevention, political negotiations, and mediation to resolve conflicts.

Armed intervention is, sometimes, absolutely necessary; it’s undebatable. When there is a risk of genocide then we cannot wait too long; we would be repeating the tragedies of Rwanda and the Balkans. However, these are extreme circumstances, and usually that is best performed by a coalition of the willing because it always takes a long time to mobilize troops for an emergency situation.

As stated in our report, we remain committed to the “primacy of politics” as a priority. We have to put more emphasis on prevention mechanisms and mediation because I would say that the Department of Political Affairs of the United Nations is a stepdaughter of the UN peace and security arrangement. It’s very sparsely funded, which is why we recommend assessed contributions for special political missions. Since they are part of the whole architecture of peace and security, financing for a special political mission, financing for prevention, financing for mediation has to have reliable funding; and that’s done best through separate accounting so that the UN is able to pre-plan and deploy, especially in a timely fashion.

The Secretary-General seconded the panel’s cautious approach to the use of force, and the panel’s conclusion that UN peace operations are not the appropriate tool for military counterterrorism operations. Contrast that, though, with the stark reality that UN missions today are increasingly deployed to unstable environments—places such as Mali and the Golan Heights—where peacekeepers themselves have become targets. How can a UN mission withstand the pressures to use force to counter terrorist threats in such contested environments?

It’s extremely dangerous for the UN and there are no easy answers, obviously, to this dilemma. You have a situation where, in a particular conflict like Mali, there’s a mixture of groups; some with extremist, terrorist agendas or views, and you have others that are legitimate in their demands or protests against an established government, and that happens, also, in many, many other situations.

The reality is that the UN is overstretched. The UN cannot become party to a conflict, it cannot be seen to be party to a conflict, because then what’s the point of being there? It loses credibility, authority, and is not able to exercise a mediation role. So there has to be a strong resistance on the part of the Secretariat, the Secretary-General, to demands from the Security Council for intervention in areas that are very volatile, complex and where you have a mixture of terrorism, extremism, etc.

There are situations where the first responders are the regional organizations, i.e., you have the African Union in the African continent. The report makes strong recommendations to strengthen the partnership between the UN and the first responders of the African Union. Many countries are willing to provide more training and equipment to the African Union—the US and Europeans, Japan have made these pledges, and you have other situations where even the African Union are not capable of responding, like in Mali. You had to have an extra continental power, France, to intervene.

I would say, in dealing with extremely complex, volatile situations, the UN should preserve itself as the neutral player and let a coalition of the willing—with more resources and capabilities at least—to do the first intervention, to respond to the crisis. That way, you preserve United Nations’ professed neutrality and preferred role in seeking political solutions to a conflict, because if it goes immediately head-on, it gets bogged down with very difficult thoughts about how then to exit in a successful way.