Benefits of Paring Down Peacekeeping Mandates Also Come With Risks

UNMISS peacekeepers conducting a patrol in South Sudan. (UN Photo/Martine Perret)

In recent years, the United Nations’ big peace operations—particularly the big five in Africa—have been directed by their political masters in the Security Council to perform a bewildering array of tasks. The UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), for example, was requested to undertake as many as 209 different tasks despite on-going conflict and serious restrictions on the mission’s freedom of movement.

These mandates have been compared disparagingly to a Christmas tree—laden as they are with as many attention-grabbing provisions as possible. Launching the Action for Peacekeeping (A4P) reform initiative last year, Secretary-General Antonio Guterres declared that “Christmas is over” and called on member states to do away with this practice.


The A4P commitments endorsed by 151 member states call for the Security Council to promulgate “clear, focused, sequenced, prioritized and achievable mandates.” Slimming down these political directives certainly has its appeal.

More clearly defined strategic objectives can help identify priorities for operational planners and those implementing in the field. Clarity here could also inform more realistic goals allowing for more credible accounts of success and failure. Focused and sequenced mandates may also make the frequent plea to match mandates with commensurate means more achievable. A recent Security Council Report research paper lays out a number of sensible recommendations on how the mandating process could be improved in this regard.

Paring back mandates may also address a bugbear of some major troop, police, and financial contributors who blame the permanent members of the Security Council for handing down “impossible mandates.” And when it comes to mandate language, “less may be more” if constructive ambiguity can allow for creativity in interpretation and implementation on the ground.

In reality, Council practice has already begun to shift in this direction. Since the 2015 report of the High-Level Independent Panel on Peace Operations (HIPPO), member states have sought to prioritize objectives in the mandates they hand down to field missions. It is now commonplace for missions to have protection of civilians (POC) and support to the political/peace process as their highest order objectives. In this context, the major challenge facing many of the current missions is not clarifying priorities, but working out how best to pursue them.

Perhaps less obviously, when it comes to getting rid of Christmas tree mandates, advocates should be careful what they wish for.

Why Be Careful?

There are reasons to be wary about taking down the Christmas trees too quickly. While it may be sensible to relieve missions like UNMISS of many of its 209 tasks, there is a risk that once sacrificed on the altar of efficiency, it may prove difficult to bring some elements—for example, rule of law, women/children’s protection advisers—back into specific mandates though this may be less of an issue for some of the subsidiary tasks.

In addition, the “copy-and-paste” approach to mandate language may have other benefits, too. If member states—particularly the relevant pen-holder leading the drafting process—were required to negotiate each of the roles on a case-by-case basis rather than insert as an off-the-shelf package, then a door would be opened to member states to pick apart mandates that contain elements they are less supportive of. Russian and Chinese push-back on human rights posts in recent budgetary negotiations illustrate that this is a real, not imagined risk.

This may be a reason why Council members are inclined to persist with the Christmas tree approach, not because they expect missions to implement the litany of tasks, but to give them the authority to do so if and when needed. Management reforms underway at the UN are meant to delegate greater flexibility over use of funds to mission leadership in the field. If that happens, then the decorations can be more easily repurposed.

The alternative—removing certain functions from mandates—could result in peacekeepers being inhibited from acting in key areas even if senior mission leaders think such action is necessary. This is a serious concern if it means further diminishing a mission’s ability to hold governments accountable for violations or inaction.

Mandates and Support Matter

Getting mandates right is important for the business of peace operations, but it is only part of the picture. The A4P agenda includes commitments on other elements that are also necessary.

First, turning words into deeds when it comes to the “primacy of politics.” Member states must redouble efforts to advance political solutions and heed the secretary-general’s plea that missions be deployed in support of, not as a substitute for, a diplomatic process aimed at bringing sustainable peace. There are limits to what consensual measures can achieve and consensus can be elusive among the P5. But the Council must display the fortitude to back decisions, including getting tough on intransigent governments. Leveraging the support of regional arrangements and leaders can make or break progress in this regard.

Second, improving performance, accountability, and conduct of peacekeepers. A number of initiatives have been set in motion to revamp performance management in the field. These are steps in the right direction to shift the incentive structure for risk averse, but also often under-equipped personnel. Beyond this, the peace operations bureaucracy, with the Council in support, must be willing to undertake bold reforms and make difficult choices about which troop-contributing countries to accept and reject, as well as when to repatriate contingents due to under-performance and misconduct.

Third, the exhortation that is seemingly ignored as often as uttered, mandates (however ambitious) will only be achievable if they are matched with commensurate resources. Where the rubber hits the road this means member states paying their dues, delivering on pledges of additional uniformed personnel and other enablers, and acting in good faith by providing up-to-standard equipment and fit-for-purpose personnel. Trimming mandates must not be a Trojan horse for cutting costs.

Bringing an end to Christmas tree mandates is only a good idea if this bureaucratic measure is complemented by the other political and material commitments in the A4P declarations. If member states can find a way to enshrine these commitments in a Council resolution, this would make a political statement and bring a modicum of legal weight to incentivize compliance. This might go some way to giving today’s peace operations a better chance of meeting the high expectations held by both local and global publics.