Peacekeeping Needs Reform, Not Just Reinforcement

Peacekeepers patrol the area around the UNMISS compound after rebel attacks. Juba, South Sudan, July 15, 2016 (Eric Kanalstein/UN Photo)

It costs $7.87 billion a year to deploy around 120,000 United Nations peacekeepers to protect civilians from direct harm and support rebuilding of state institutions, facilitation of humanitarian aid, implementation of peace agreements, and more. Peacekeepers are deployed in greater numbers and in response to more complex conflict situations than ever before. Yet many of their missions are failing to meet objectives.

The UN Peacekeeping Defence Ministerial held on September 8 in the United Kingdom sought to address some of these challenges. As a follow-up to last year’s historic Leaders’ Summit on Peacekeeping, co-hosted by US President Barack Obama, the meeting brought together representatives of around 70 UN member states. It is thus indicative of widespread international support and momentum behind improving peacekeeping and making it fit for purpose in the 21st century.

Persistent capacity gaps mean that peacekeeping mandates cannot meet the high expectations placed upon them. The UN mission in South Sudan has failed to protect the thousands of civilians who have sought refuge inside and adjacent to its bases. In Mali, the mission is struggling to protect itself from extremist attacks, let alone provide a safe and secure environment for civilians and others working to assist them. Efforts to stabilize countries such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo rely on bargains with governments that can undermine the impartiality of the UN and leave peacekeepers susceptible to the whims of unpalatable leaders. The world body’s reputation is also being eroded by instances of sexual exploitation and other malfeasance.

The recent UK gathering appears to have produced some laudable achievements in addressing these issues. A total of 31 countries made new pledges with a significant portion of these earmarked for rapid deployment, and vital commitments were made for much-needed “mission enablers”—assets such as intelligence gathering capacities, engineering units, field hospitals, and strategic air capabilities.

The meeting culminated with a blueprint for improving peace operations based on “three Ps” of better planning, additional pledges, and improving performance, which should all help peace operations become more fit for contemporary purposes. Yet the meeting also showed that peacekeeping policy continues to skirt over several important issues.

The majority of commitments from the recent meeting constitute technical treatments for the symptoms of under-performance rather than political responses to its causes. They fail to sufficiently take into account key findings of last year’s High-Level Independent Panel on Peace Operations report and recent academic research highlighting the “primacy of politics” in enabling effective missions. As former UN Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Jean-Marie Guéhenno has argued, there can be no exclusively military solutions to the conflicts that peace operations are sent to address. Peacekeeping must be deployed in support of a political strategy, not as a substitute for one.

Yet there is little understanding about what political planning needs to look like among UN member states, with the focus instead falling on military and technical planning for clear and sequenced mandates. There is no clarification on who is responsible for ensuring the primacy of politics or where it fits into the reform agenda of work going forward.

Peacekeeping also remains a highly militarized affair. While many civilian experts attended the UK meeting, this was primarily a gathering of ministers and chiefs of defense. This portrays a peace operations system where decision-making remains in the hands of defense personnel. While this might be perfectly logical when it comes to dealing with troop contributions and military hardware, it makes little sense regarding other vital civilian components or, more importantly, when crafting the political strategies that underpin peace operations themselves.

Peace operations should not be thought of as a panacea for responding to all conflict. The consequences of attempting to fit a square peg in a round hole may be severe. Where there is no peace to keep, the UN Security Council may need to consider enforcement action and stabilization operations in order to protect civilians and prevent the escalation of violence. However, to do this under the banner of peacekeeping may potentially jeopardize its established principles, lead to major troop-contributing countries stepping back from their roles, and possibly undermine the viability of the whole enterprise. Some have argued that it may therefore be necessary to develop another modality—with associated doctrine and frameworks—for executing the robust stabilization operations increasingly required.

In the meantime, UN peacekeeping must continue to muddle through. The UK meeting gives cause for hope that there are tangible efforts underway to close the contribution and capabilities gap plaguing current missions. “Doing better with more” sounds like a better proposition than “doing more with less,” which was the mantra of the previous decade of austerity-shaped peacekeeping. However, what is urgently required is for member states to debate and negotiate what UN peacekeeping should look like in the 21st century. Without crucial structural reforms, explicit political strategies, and conceptual clarity, it will struggle in the face of enormous challenges and is likely to lose further legitimacy.

Charles T. Hunt is a Research Fellow in the Centre for Global Research at RMIT University, Melbourne.