From HIPPO to SG Legacy: What Prospects for UN Peace Operations Reform?

José Ramos-Horta, head of the High-Level Independent Panel on Peace Operations, during the handover of the final report to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, June 16, 2015. (UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe)

Almost three months after the High-Level Independent Panel on Peace Operations (HIPPO) released its 111-page report—and put forward over 100 recommendations—the UN Secretary-General (SG) released its own 28-page report earlier this month outlining his agenda and “priorities and key actions” to move the panel’s recommendations forward between now and the end of 2016, when his second and last term ends.

Which HIPPO recommendations did the Secretary-General endorse (or not endorse), and why? How can we ensure that the spirit of the report—together with the other global reviews such as the ones of the UN peacebuilding architecture and of the implementation of UN resolution 1325—are carefully considered by the membership and lead to meaningful reform that will help make UN peace operations “fit for purpose?”

Bureaucratic “Low-Hanging Fruits”

At first glance, and on the tail end of the SG’s tenure, the shorter SG report could look more like a showcase of how much the UN Secretariat has done/is doing on this topic; an attempt to leave a legacy during a year of reviews, rather than a strategic and focused agenda for change.

The SG report, which announces “steps that are being or can be taken forward in the next year,” lists no less than 40 United Nations Secretariat initiatives. These include forthcoming reports (on prevention, mediation, and financing); ongoing efforts (to deploy light teams of experts, improve administrative measures and UN-AU workings, design compacts with hosts governments, clarify intelligence parameters, etc.); as well as existing and pending reviews (of financing mechanisms for AU operations, conflict analysis mechanisms, key policies and processes, technology and innovation, in-mission mobility of military enabling assets, risk management and environment policies, etc.).

The HIPPO report itself has already been criticized for not being “bold-enough,” too similar to its predecessors Agenda for Peace (1992) and Brahimi-report (2000), a reduced list of “technocratic” fixes, lacking an overall compelling narrative that could incite action and engagement, and for failing to crystallize the main points needed for a cohesive and effective strategy. And the SG report would have naturally picked up from the HIPPO the bureaucratic “low-hanging fruits” that came out of the consultations the panel carried out with both the UN Secretariat and member states.

Upon closer look, however, observers may find that the legacy of the HIPPO, and of this Secretary-General, will not be in these somewhat modest bureaucratic fixes but instead in creating the impetus for a change in mindset, which the peacebuilding architecture report also calls for.

The SG & the Four HIPPO Shifts

Of the four essential shifts called for by the HIPPO —primacy of politics; full spectrum of UN peace operations; stronger global-regional partnerships; and field-focused and people-centered—the SG derived an action plan for the UN Secretariat focused on three pillars: a renewed focus on prevention and mediation; stronger regional-global partnerships; and new ways of planning and conducting peace operations.

First of all, the Secretary-General in his report endorses the HIPPO’s “primacy of politics” and use of the term “peace operations” to denote the full spectrum of responses, i.e., making flexible use of all UN tools available (rather than perpetuating the bureaucratic silos between UN Country Teams, Special Political Missions, and Peacekeeping Operations), tailored to the conflict and the political strategy. A big part of this SG’s legacy will no doubt be his experimenting with the “lighter” special political missions, special envoys, and regional offices, through which he has focused much of his good offices’ work during his two terms. His report actually supports the panel’s call for the establishment of additional regional offices.

This is both an opportunity to remedy the current fragmentation in the work of the UN entities in charge of implementing the organization peace and security agenda through “a continuum of response and smoother transitions” and a channel for the first shift the HIPPO called for, i.e., that peace operations be guided by political solutions—with a particular focus on prevention and mediation—and “for the Security Council to bring its collective political leverage to bear on behalf of political solutions.”

Second, the SG seconded the panel’s cautious approach to the use of force and conclusion that UN peace operations are not the appropriate tool for military counter-terrorism operations, despite the ambiguous use by the Security Council of the term “stabilization” in the title of a number of UN operations (in Haiti, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mali, the Central African Republic) as the HIPPO points out. At the same time, the SG calls for stronger global-regional partnerships, in particular with the African Union (AU), an organization that has carried out peace enforcement missions from Somalia—with some support from UN assessed budget—to Mali and the Central African Republic, two operations that the UN since took over.

The SG report, however, does not go as far as the HIPPO—which had been well-received by African member states—when it comes to the financing of such AU peace operations. Both the HIPPO and the SG call for “a pragmatic case-by-case approach” but the HIPPO also called for UN “enabling support—including through more predictable financing—to the African Union peace support operations when authorized by the Security Council” (as previously recommended by the Prodi report of 2008). AU ongoing discussions of establishing an intervention force for northern Mali, listing UN assessed contributions as one of the options for financing, as well as longstanding discussions of sub-regional standby arrangements will no doubt bring the issue to the front again.

Third, it is calling for “new ways of planning and conducting peace operations to make them faster, more responsive, and more accountable to countries and people in conflict.” Some of the more concrete measures presented in the SG report fall under this heading. These include the establishment of a small centralized analysis planning capacity in the SG’s office to enhance the Secretariat’s capacity to conduct conflict analysis and strategic planning across the UN system (but within existing resources, presumably through seconding planners from other parts of the system) and the already established small Strategic Force Generation and Capability Planning Cell—both ideas that had previously been put forward by the International Peace Institute (IPI) as part of its work on integrated strategic planning and UN force generation.

While these may seem like very small steps—and indeed represent only a handful of UN staff for now—these are steps in the right direction towards initiating the long-awaited shift from what have been largely numbers-based peacekeeping behemoths, to lighter and more flexible, capabilities-driven peace operations, capable of operating effectively in high-risk environments, and to deploy in phases under “sequenced mandates.” The latter implies that the Security Council can decide on an initial mandate and “light” UN presence on the ground to allow time for further consultations (with the host government, civil society, parties to the conflict and partners) for developing more detailed assessments and comprehensive proposals for consideration by the Council after a determined period of time.

On the downside, one could regret that the fourth shift called for by the HIPPO, i.e., towards more “field-focused and people-centered” operations, seem to have garnered less attention, with few concrete or novel initiatives in the SG report, giving the impression of a largely State-centric and top-down approach rather than a client-oriented one. The importance of unarmed strategies for civilian protection is largely absent from the SG report. The failure to really carry over the panel’s proposal of ways to effectively integrate women, peace and security throughout mission lifecycles and across mandated tasks and more broadly of the 1325 framework in the year of its 15th anniversary is also a missed opportunity, simply referring the issue to his forthcoming report on women peace and security. The stronger SG messages were on accountability, including regarding Sexual Exploitation and Accountability (SEA), directed to both his staff—following the SG’s recent order of Babacar Gaye’s resignation—and member states.

Importantly, the SG did not pick up the HIPPO’s suggestion to create an additional Deputy Secretary-General position responsible for peace and security (previously made by the 2004 SG’s High-level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change) as many within and outside the organization had already expressed concerns that this would merely create another layer of bureaucracy instead of helping to overcome silos. The SG did not either support the ambitious HIPPO recommendation to have a single “peace operations account” to finance all peace operations and their related back-stopping activities in the future.

Keeping the HIPPO Spirit Alive

So while the SG’s endorsement of the terminology “peace operations” and support for a stronger partnership with the AU are significant, in his report the SG largely focused on small “steps that are being or can be taken forward in the next year” and left the other–arguably most important– aspects of the HIPPO “for consideration by his successor and member states.” The SG left the critical issues of restructuring and funding to his successor, probably judging that he neither has the necessary authority internally at the end of his term, nor that member states are ready for such an overhaul of the system with potentially important financial implications.

The next SG may indeed be in a better position to push for internal reforms and he may also want to put his own mark on to UN peace operations reform instead of simply implementing recommendations from his predecessor. No matter what, such reforms will not be easy and the next SG will need to build a compelling narrative – accompanied by concrete incentives – on the value and relevance of a “peace operations” approach that both the UN bureaucracy and member states can support. Such reforms would no doubt challenge established power structures, risk-averse behaviors and mindsets of individuals, departments (DPA, DPKO and DFS turfs in particular), and member states who remain very divided on some of these issues.

In contrast to the peacebuilding review, which will now go into a formal intergovernmental process co-led by Angola and Australia—from November through March 2016— there is no clear plan for member states to carry either the HIPPO or the SG recommendations forward. The differential treatment of the two fundamentally intertwined reforms and lack of integration with the women, peace and security, points to the stumbling effort by the reports of both the HIPPO and the SG to grasp the opportunity to synchronize the three agendas and maximize the potential of the momentum to consolidate member states’ resources and support. The HIPPO report and the UN peacebuilding architecture review will have nonetheless had the great merit of having generated the impetus for the UN as a whole—Secretariat and member states—to reflect on the need to rethink our collective approach to peace and security but it will largely be up to “interested” member states to build the momentum and carry the HIPPO spirit alive over the next year and beyond.

The upcoming September 28th Leaders’ Summit on Peacekeeping (“Obama summit”) could be a first opportunity if the military capabilities pledged by troop-contributing countries are framed—and later used—in support of UN operations’ political strategies. This could be made clear in the final summit declaration with a clear reference to the spirit and letter of the HIPPO report. Beyond this summit, it will be essential for concerned member states to champion some of the “HIPPO shifts” and to build sustained support for key reforms. This could happen both in the Security Council and the General Assembly as well as relevant Standing Committees and ad hoc bodies such as the Security Council Working Group on Peacekeeping Operations and Ad-hoc Working Group on Conflict Prevention and Resolution in Africa, as well as the Special Committee on Peacekeeping Operations (C-34). The constructive spirit that has marked intergovernmental negotiations over Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and targets would hopefully also inspire the membership for future negotiations over peace operations.

Arthur Boutellis is Director of the Brian Urquhart Center for Peace Operations at the International Peace Institute.