The Peace Operations Challenge for the Next Secretary-General

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon visits the Peace Operations Support Training Center in Tavan Tolgoi, Mongolia. July 26, 2009. (Eskinder Debebe/UN Photo)

The United Nations currently manages nearly 40 peace operations: 16 so-called peacekeeping operations and about two dozen special political missions. Combined, these operations involve over 125,000 UN peacekeepers, incorporating soldiers, police, and civilians from over 120 UN member states. They cost around US$8 billion to sustain each year. Since 1948, over 1,200,000 people have worn the UN’s distinctive blue helmets or berets in nearly 70 different peacekeeping operations. Over 3,500 of them have died while serving in those missions.

Current Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has called peacekeeping a “flagship enterprise” of the organization and presided over a series of positive reforms that aimed to make peace operations more fit-for-purpose. Whoever replaces him will need to build on some of these processes. But they will also inherit some difficult and unresolved challenges related to the organization’s ongoing and future peace operations. Five in particular stand out: ensuring what is now referred to as “the primacy of politics;” deciding whether the basic principles of UN peacekeeping are still appropriate; improving the UN’s force generation process; identifying and assessing performance standards for UN peacekeepers in the field; and ensuring peacekeepers are held accountable for misconduct.

Political Pathways to Peace

The first challenge is ensuring what last year’s High-Level Independent Panel on Peace Operations (HIPPO) called “the primacy of politics.” In essence, peace operations are political instruments, sometimes backed by a security guarantee in the form of troops. They are not the same thing as a political strategy aimed at resolving the crisis in question. Instead, as the HIPPO report emphasized, “UN peace operations must be deployed as part of a viable process” to achieve a political settlement to the crisis in question. This is because “Lasting peace is not achieved nor sustained by military and technical engagements, but through political solutions.” Because political primacy ultimately rests with national actors, the UN’s missions can only support peace processes; they cannot make peace in the absence of local willingness to do so. If the UN deploys peace operations without a political pathway to peace, the best scenario is that peacekeepers limit some of the worst negative consequences of the armed conflict. But it would be naïve to believe that peacekeepers can deliver peace if key local actors want war.

Fit-for-Purpose Principles

A second challenge facing the new secretary-general will be to develop as wide a consensus as possible among member states on whether the basic principles of UN peacekeeping remain fit-for-purpose. The UN’s 2008 Capstone Doctrine declares, and member states have repeatedly reaffirmed, that peacekeeping is based on three basic interrelated and mutually reinforcing principles: consent of the main parties to the conflict, including the host government; impartial implementation of mandates without favor or prejudice to any party; and non-use of force except in self-defense and defense of the mandate.

Based on these principles, UN peacekeeping operations have tended to deploy after a ceasefire or political agreement is established and assist in its implementation. But increasing numbers of UN peacekeepers are now deployed in situations of active armed conflict. Moreover, the principle of impartiality has been undermined in several cases, including recent UN missions in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Cote d’Ivoire, and Mali, where peacekeepers deliberately targeted particular groups. Similarly, in Sudan, South Sudan, and Burundi, the principle of consent has also come under pressure as the UN faced governments that did not want to cooperate with its missions.

Consensus on these principles is crucial because they guide both the entry and exit strategies for peace operations. Peace operations are not the right international tool in all circumstances and the next secretary-general should resist the temptation to deploy them in inappropriate situations. Clarifying when the UN should say no is crucial. However, given the world body’s severe reluctance to give its peacekeepers counterterrorism or even counterinsurgency mandates there is a real risk that there will be persistent threats to international peace and security from groups like al-Shabaab, Boko Haram, and ISIS that UN peace operations are unable to alleviate. In such situations, it must forge effective partnerships with other actors that can effectively counter such threats. The best example so far is the deepening strategic partnership between the UN and African Union.

Generating the Right Force

Once the UN has decided what its peace operations are for (and what they cannot do), the next secretary-general must ensure the relevant peacekeepers and capabilities are generated rapidly. Each peace operation requires a unique combination of force requirements and capabilities. Since the UN does not have its own army or police force, it must rely on what its member states are willing to contribute. Identifying the right types of capabilities and getting them into the field in a timely manner is thus a crucial part of delivering effective peace operations.

The UN made a positive step in 2015 when it established the new Strategic Force Generation and Capability Planning Cell to play matchmaker between the UN and its member states who contribute to peace operations. There is also a new Peacekeeping Capability Readiness System to coordinate how and where member states can pledge military, police, and other civilian personnel to participate in UN missions.

In order to ensure this process works effectively, the next secretary-general must continue broadening the base of member states who contribute to peace operations. This will enable the UN to become more selective in how it assembles peace operations. Ideally, this will see it move from a situation where it must accept what’s on offer even if the pledges don’t match the force requirements, to deploying the right kinds of personnel and capabilities. Ensuring more female peacekeepers are deployed in the field and to senior positions will pose a particular set of challenges; Ban Ki-moon’s replacement must be insistent in pushing for greater progress in this area.

Key to this endeavor will be maintaining the political momentum generated by the series of peacekeeping leaders’ summits in 20142015, and 2016. Canada has now pledged to host the follow-on 2017 defense ministerial.

Assessing Performance

For a policy tool that has been used since the 1940s, it is perhaps surprising that there is still no agreed list of tasks or set of criteria by which to measure the performance of UN peacekeepers. The next secretary-general should build on the important reform initiatives in this area carried out under Ban Ki-moon’s tenure. In particular, they should complete the process of identifying operational standards for peacekeeping tasks and devise metrics for ensuring that peacekeepers live up to them in the field. This applies to both rank-and-file peacekeepers and senior mission leadership teams.

In the immediate term, the effort should focus on implementing the UN’s new policy on Operational Readiness Assurance and Performance Improvement. This awkwardly titled document is arguably one of the most important in the history of peacekeeping because it details how the UN can improve the performance of deployed military units by ensuring a holistic approach by all stakeholders. Specifically, the next secretary-general should ensure that the Performance Improvement Cycle described as part of this process is institutionalized, adequately resourced, and routinely carried out for all UN peace operations.

In addition, the next secretary-general should clarify whether it is right to give different levels of incentives for different types of contributions, including those that assume more risk and can deploy rapidly into the field. Once the UN’s operational standards are clarified and the organization is able to evaluate them, it must ensure that when peacekeepers fail to perform they should be replaced by those who can.

Ensuring Accountability

More than any other issue in the peace operations field, the topic of accountability for peacekeepers has generated questions, accusations, and debate in the ongoing race for the next secretary-general. This is certainly an important issue, but other areas of the peace operations agenda should have been explored in more detail. Nevertheless, the next secretary-general must ensure that UN peacekeepers remain accountable both to their international bosses and the local populations they are supposed to serve. Misconduct by any UN peacekeepers damages the reputation of peacekeeping as a whole. Moreover, when peace operations are dependent on local support for their legitimacy and effectiveness, misconduct can have negative strategic effects.

Misconduct assumes multiple forms and hence so should accountability mechanisms. In the field of public health, for instance, when UN peacekeepers were found to have brought cholera to Haiti, it is right that the organization owns up and provides reparations to the affected local communities. Similarly, when peacekeepers engage in sexual exploitation and abuse they must be held accountable and punished. Here too, the victims must also have access to reparations. Ensuring that the commitments set out in UN Security Council Resolution 2272 are consistently implemented should be an important part of the next secretary-general’s agenda in this area. In this sense, the firing of the UN’s head of mission in the Central African Republic, General Babacar Gaye, over allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse by peacekeepers has set an important precedent. The same should apply when UN peacekeepers engage in other types of misconduct, including smuggling and other forms of civilian harm. As Ban Ki-moon noted, these episodes “tarnished the reputation of the United Nations and, far worse, traumatized many people we serve.”


None of these challenges have easy answers, but some important reforms have made progress under Ban Ki-moon’s tenure and they must be built upon and consolidated. However, it is important to emphasize that the next secretary-general is not the “head” or “in charge” of the UN. Overcoming any of these challenges is beyond the reach of even the most dedicated individual unless she or he has the support of enough member states. It is these states that can ultimately make or break their secretary-general. This is as true in the realm of peace operations as anywhere else. The next secretary-general must therefore be willing “To tell the UN Security Council what it needs to hear, not what it wants to hear.” They should also be prepared to walk away from the job if such advice is repeatedly unheeded.

Paul D. Williams is Associate Professor of International Affairs at George Washington University. @PDWilliamsGWU