Back to Basics or Adapt to Circumstance? The Options for UN Peace Operations

A member of the UN mission in Cote d'Ivoire on duty during a meeting with village chiefs. Para, Cote d'Ivoire, July 2, 2012 (Patricia Esteve/UN Photo)

After more than 12 years, the United Nations peace operation in Cote d’Ivoire (UNOCI) will close its doors at the end of June. With much fanfare (and little humility), the announcement of the withdrawal included a salvo of news releases and social media posts heralding this as a success story and a case of “mission accomplished.”

Yet halfway through the mission’s lifetime, and under its watch, disputed presidential elections in 2010 led to the outbreak of widespread violence resulting in 3,000 civilian deaths and the displacement of 300,000 people. Furthermore, as I have argued elsewhere, the victor’s justice that has pertained after the 2010 crisis in Cote d’Ivoire may yet challenge the sustainability of the peace that UNOCI is so proud of leaving behind.

The definition of success for peace operations has been the subject of disagreement among scholars and diplomats for some time. Meaningfully measuring such a slippery concept is extremely difficult. However, even if UNOCI goes down as a success story, what does this mean for how we assess other missions? Do they have the mandates, resources and political backing necessary to achieve similar commendations of “mission accomplished?”

Changing Nature of UN Peace Operations

As Alex Bellamy and I argued in a recent article, since the early 2010s, the new generation of UN peace operations is increasingly expected to provide protection to huge numbers of civilians in contexts where there is little or no peace to keep. In Mali, South Sudan, the Central African Republic, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, peacekeepers have been called upon to protect civilians from harm where governments are unable or unwilling to do so. These missions are increasingly predicated on stabilization logic that places (sometimes abusive and often recalcitrant) host governments at the center of the “peace.” At times, peacekeepers have been mandated to use lethal force to militarily defeat those who jeopardize civilian wellbeing and resist efforts to extend host state authority.

These more “robust” missions blur the lines between peacekeeping, stabilization, counter-terrorism, atrocity prevention, and state-building. Some scholars argue that the UN is now fighting wars and waging peace. Picking winners and losers in these conflicts can make the UN a party to conflicts rather than an impartial arbiter. In these cases, the UN flag is no longer a source of protection and UN personnel are attacked, no longer for where they are, but for who they are.

The changing nature of UN peace operations environments presents principled and practical challenges for those authorizing contemporary missions. As Secretary-General António Guterres recently put it, “Peace operations are at a crossroads.” As I have argued in a recent article, the way in which these challenges are met will have implications for the future reputation, substance, and viability of UN peacekeeping.

Doing More with Less?

As peacekeepers are targeted in the field, the peacekeeping bureaucracy at UN headquarters in New York faces intense scrutiny. Following the form of his two most recent predecessors, Guterres launched a comprehensive review of peacekeeping within days of taking office. Framed as a drive to make operations more cost-effective, Guterres’ initiative echoes perennial refrains about “doing more with less.” Meanwhile, the new US administration is doing its best to drastically cut its sizable financial contribution to the cost of peacekeeping.

In addition to Cote d’Ivoire, the missions in Haiti and Liberia are in drawdown phases and will offer some savings in the US$7 billion annual peacekeeping budget. However, the need for further cuts and rationalizations will reduce funding to peacekeeping missions that are already woefully under-resourced for delivering on their ambitious mandates. While research shows that these operations not only save lives but also offer good value for money, the austerity drive will necessarily require a recalibration of the expectations placed upon UN peacekeeping.

Two Scenarios

Given the challenges in the field and a fiscal squeeze at HQ, should UN peacekeeping go back to basics? This could align well with Guterres’ simultaneous call to focus more on conflict prevention. In addition, those member states who contribute most of the near-100,000 uniformed personnel are quite attached to the traditional principles of peacekeeping. Jeopardizing their buy-in could severely undermine the viability of the whole peacekeeping endeavor. It may be necessary for the UN to develop a separate stabilization doctrine and set up a new infrastructure to support those missions authorized by the Security Council that depart from traditional peacekeeping principles. Regardless, many observers argue that the extant doctrinal basis for peacekeeping needs a revamp.

Or should peacekeeping adapt to present circumstances? Since its first deployment in 1948, UN peacekeeping has continuously evolved to respond to the changing nature of threats to international peace and security. In that light, recent efforts to respond robustly to the targeting of civilians is in keeping with the history of peacekeeping. While many caution against using peacekeeping to conduct military counterterrorism operations, tackling violent extremism more holistically is one of the few areas in which the permanent members of the Security Council and member states from the Global South can reach consensus. Funding under this rubric is also much easier to achieve. Countering violent extremism is therefore more likely to feature when any future UN peacekeeping roles in Syria, Yemen, and Libya are discussed.

What constitutes success for UN peace operations remains a thorny question and a moving target. However, as former chief of UN peacekeeping, Jean-Marie Guehenno, once said, “for those affected, peacekeeping is the last station before hell.” Much like the UN itself, if we did not have peacekeeping, we would immediately need to create it. The fate of millions of people will be affected by decisions about where peacekeeping goes and what it does in the future. Those with the ability to affect this direction of travel should take that responsibility seriously.

Dr Charles T. Hunt is Vice Chancellor’s Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Global Research, School of Global, Urban and Social Studies, RMIT University, Melbourne. His most recent book is UN Peace Operations and International Policing: Negotiating Complexity, Assessing Impact and Learning to Learn (Routledge, 2015). A version of this article appeared first on the Australian Outlook blog, published by the Australian Institute of International Affairs.