The United Nations Turns to Stabilization

Indonesian peacekeepers serving with the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA). August 21, 2014. (UN Photo/Catianne Tijerina)

Stabilization is catching on in security and development circles. It is the object of growing attention among military practitioners in particular, and US-led stability operations are currently ongoing in at least 50 fragile settings, especially in the Americas, Africa and the Middle East. Other governments including AustraliaCanada, and the United Kingdom are invested in stabilization, albeit adopting different approaches. Although expanding in number and scale, the conceptual and operational parameters of these stabilization interventions are still opaque. Moreover, their actual record of success is still only dimly understood. There is in fact an emerging backlash challenging the underlying theory, assumptions and practices of stabilization.

The United Nations Security Council recently authorized stabilization interventions on several occasions. Yet even among Council members, there is still a considerable lack of clarity about what stabilization is, what it is intended to achieve, and when it begins or ends. Notwithstanding talk of robust peacekeeping and setting benchmarks, there is in fact no agreed definition of what constitutes stabilization in the United Nations. Although guidance and manuals are emerging from the UK and US, these are not applied by United Nations agencies. Conceptually speaking, stabilization appears to constitute a “transition” from large-scale peacekeeping operations in areas affected by widespread insecurity to smaller-scale program with targeted security and development packages.

The appetite for stabilization coincides with growing alarm over fragile states and cities. Fragility is also a poorly defined concept, though current estimates suggest there are between 40 and 60 fragile states and territories alternately gripped by armed conflict, emerging from war, or suffering from extreme forms of organized (and frequently criminal) violence. Governments in many of these settings seem unable and/or unwilling to fulfill the social contract which in turn contributes to declining service delivery, tax take, and regime legitimacy. As a result, a steadily growing proportion of bilateral military and development assistance is being channelled to fragile settings in order to avoid their collapse and contagion effects. Some of this assistance is earmarked for stabilization and reconstruction.

The United Nations is cautiously reviewing its system-wide approach to fragility and ways to stabilize these environments. The organization clearly sees conflict prevention and preventive diplomacy, rule of law, peacekeeping, and peacebuilding as key strategies. Likewise, the Department for Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO), the Peacebuilding Support Office (PBSO), the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), and others are re-appraising their roles, competencies, and capabilities in fragile environments. The shift to more proactive approaches engaging with fragile, conflict- and violence-affected areas has not gone unnoticed. A number of member states, including some associated with the G-77, have voiced concern about the potential for stability operations to give rise to interference and interventionism.

The turn to stabilization within the United Nations is comparatively recent. The 2008 Capstone Doctrine treats “stability” and “security” as goals but does not refer explicitly to stabilization. Likewise, the reportA New Partnership Agenda: Charting a New Horizon for UN Peacekeeping—avoids mentioning stabilization overtly. Apart from featuring in the names of certain missions—including the Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA) in 2014, the Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) in 2013, the Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) in 2010, and the Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) in 2004, there is scarce mention of the term in UN Security Council resolutions or UN General Assembly statements. The assumptions and expectations associated with stabilization instead seem to be implied. In practice, stabilization serves as a synonym for a new kind of peacekeeping mission, as a subcomponent of a peacekeeping mission, or a follow-on or additive activity including policing civilian and policing surges in the wake of a peacekeeping drawdown.

A thorough accounting of the origins, spread, and implications of stabilization in United Nations circles has yet to be written. Doing so could foster a minimum (shared) understanding across agencies of what it is, and what it is not. According to one analyst,

“The essential difference between peacekeeping and stabilization seems to be that in peacekeeping the aim is to arrive at and maintain a cease-fire and/or implement a peace agreement among the parties to a conflict, whilst in stabilization the theory of change is to achieve peace by managing or removing an aggressor.”

Other practitioners describe stabilization as either “late peacekeeping” or “early peacebuilding.” In the absence of a clear definition, stabilization is being (re)conceived and (re)interpreted on the basis of parochial bilateral and national or host government interests.

The United Nations is to some extent a newcomer to the stabilization debate, having only recently started wading into the discussion. At least some of the impulses for its adoption of stabilization stems from a wider preoccupation with “exit” or “consolidation” strategies that might facilitate a transition out of prolonged peace support operations. United Nations member states have for years been actively seeking to identify appropriate standards for peace consolidation, as well as intermediary forms of peacekeeping and peacebuilding requiring less resource intensive deployments. Moreover, the United Nations is also simultaneously refocusing attention toward enhancing its civilian and policing capacity for deployment alongside wider peacekeeping activities.

Taken together, the United Nations’ gradual adoption of stabilization practices appears to be driven as much by internal institutional pressures—including the pursuit of integrated missions—as by a wider appreciation of external threats including fragility, crime, and extremism. United Nations missions are increasingly multidimensional combining robust operations with peacebuilding and statebuilding activities.

United Nations peacekeeping principles and guidelines already emphasize the creation of “a secure and stable environment while strengthening the state’s capacity to provide security.” With the UN now fielding over 130,000 personnel in peace operations around the world, the Secretary-General has called for a far-reaching review of peacekeeping missions, and his high-level independent panel should carefully consider what stabilization implies for the organization. If nothing else, stabilization is revealing the many fault lines and opportunities confronting the United Nations in the 21st century.

The Journal of Stability, co-founded by the author, is featuring a special edition on stabilization in 2015. Policymakers, practitioners, and scholars interested in contributing to the series are encouraged to visit the website