Strengthening UN Peacekeeping: Placing the Santos Cruz Report in Context

Peacekeepers observing the Line of Control between India and Pakistan. (UN Photo/Evan Schneider)

In December 2017, General dos Santos Cruz issued his report, Improving Security of United Nations Peacekeepers (otherwise known as the “Santos Cruz report”), which looks at concrete ways to reduce fatalities in UN peacekeeping. The report has deepened the conversation around peacekeeper fatalities, while also reopening questions of whether UN peacekeepers are ready to act decisively in the face of direct attacks. More broadly, the discussion has led to a renewed dialogue on the viability of mandates in contemporary settings like Mali, South Sudan, or the Democratic Republic of Congo and, indeed, on the evolution of the peacekeeping instrument itself.

The recent transition of the missions in Côte d’Ivoire and Liberia are a testament to the positive legacy that many UN operations have had over the past seven decades, bringing hope and supporting those who are working to bring peace to their own communities. Millions of people live safer lives in countries that have found stability and durable peace through the support of multidimensional peacekeeping. And as traditional missions continue to ensure that ceasefires hold and the space for peace processes are maintained, communities benefit from the prevailing peace and confidence it provides. UN peacekeeping remains a remarkable and constantly evolving tool for international cooperation, burden sharing and the promotion of global security.

However, several of the UN’s remaining large missions are now operating at the outer limits of peacekeeping. They are deployed in the face of weak or stalled political processes, diminished consent, and direct attacks on personnel, sometimes by transnational actors. Some uniformed contingents have shown that they are not always willing or able to act decisively to protect themselves, mandates or civilian populations. Regional actors, who often lead international political engagement, are often unable to deliver the necessary impact on the parties. With political solutions elusive, exit strategies are harder to articulate, even as mandates remain broad. Member states call for lower budgets while the world expects greater results to prevent violence and atrocities. Even some so-called traditional peacekeeping missions are facing decreasing political and financial support.

Putting the Santos Cruz Report Into Context

Given these formidable political and security challenges, peacekeepers have found themselves facing increased life-and-death risks. The Santos Cruz report focuses on ways to reduce these, specifically in settings where peacekeeping is confronting higher threats in more hostile operating environments. Recommending action along four axes, the Cruz report calls on peacekeeping actors to do more to: change our mindset; ensure that missions have the necessary capacity and capabilities; adapt mission footprints; and hold ourselves accountable for preventing fatalities. Many recommendations on operations, preparation, and mindset are not limited to the military component but apply to the police and civilian peacekeepers as well. The report calls for civilian leadership and personnel to play a more active role in aligning the mission’s political strategy with its threat environment, coming into closer contact with the population, promoting greater situational awareness, and achieving an appropriate mission footprint, among other things.

The UN Secretariat has developed a Plan of Action, which takes its inspiration from the Santos Cruz report and identifies concrete ways that we can begin improving the safety and security of our personnel. Both in New York and the field, working together with troop and police contributing countries, the UN is moving rapidly from plan to action, with concrete new measures already being taken in force protection, training, accountability, and situational awareness.

Several commentators have remarked that the Santos Cruz report too narrowly focuses on security responses to the threats that kill peacekeepers — some even calling it militaristic in its approach and goals—leading UN peacekeeping astray from the political processes that should be at heart of UN peacekeeping. Indeed, the Santos Cruz report itself explicitly sidesteps the fundamental discussion of whether peacekeeping should deploy to such dangerous and problematic environments in the first place.

On the one hand, we must address the urgency of taking concrete measures to reduce fatalities in those settings where peacekeepers are already present. Yet, the UN is acutely aware that many peacekeeping operations face crises that are political at their core. Even perfect performance by UN military and police would leave many missions reckoning with a fundamental obstacle: the lack of durable political solutions. As we have known for decades, only a coherent response—which spans the political, security, human rights, and development tools available to us—can address the multi-faceted conflicts our missions are confronting. UN peacekeeping cannot impose a military solution; ultimately, parties to the conflict must want peace. When their will wavers or is absent, the member states of the UN must bring to bear the political incentives and leverage to help bring the peace process back on track. Where there is no consensus in the Security Council or among key countries, conflict parties will make different calculations, often considering the exercise of force as preferable to the continuation of dialogue.

Still, as commentators have pointed out, questions of security are never detached from questions of politics. Strengthening uniformed capabilities also enables missions to better perform mandates, and to more proactively offer security in support of dialogue and negotiated peace settlements. This is a necessary condition for—not a distraction from—the primacy of politics, as oftentimes political processes cannot flourish without the security that only an effective peacekeeping operation can provide. The Brahimi report made this clear nearly two decades ago, when it stressed that “no amount of good intentions can substitute for the fundamental ability to project credible force if complex peacekeeping, in particular, is to succeed.” Politics and security are mutually reinforcing, creating the very comparative advantage that is the hallmark of multidimensional UN peacekeeping.

Peacekeeping as a Collective Responsibility

As such, the UN Secretariat sees the Santos Cruz report as an important component of a broader reform debate. Questions on the safety, security, and performance of UN peacekeepers are framed by the Santos Cruz report and the Secretariat’s related Plan of Action, while a wider and equally candid discussion needs to take place on whether peacekeeping operations have the strategic support needed for their success.

To deliver effectively on their mandates, missions require coherence between security and political solutions framed in achievable mandates and, most importantly, the investment of political capital by influential Security Council members and regional actors. Therefore, an ongoing series of mission reviews are also supporting the adjustment of key operations through an assessment of approaches, capabilities, and conditions for successful mandate implementation. Review teams, which are being led by independent experts, have been charged with questioning fundamental assumptions, and they will assess—among other things—the viability of mandates and political processes. Where required, they will aim for a “strategic reset” of operations in need of new direction. The result will be, hopefully, a comprehensive and candid assessment of each field mission, its capacity to deliver, and the international support it needs to do so.

Across peacekeeping, the Secretary-General is calling for a renewed, frank dialogue. We hope for a concerted focus on political solutions, which remain the cornerstone of mandate implementation, as well as a reaffirmation of peacekeeping as a global partnership and shared responsibility. For peacekeeping operations to effectively promote peace and security, all those who have a stake in peacekeeping—the UN Secretariat, Security Council, General Assembly, troop and police contributors, host-states, financial contributors, and regional organizations—need to fulfil their roles respectively. As part of discussions in the Council and beyond, we hope to take a hard look collectively at peacekeeping and ask whether it has the mandates, resources, political support, mindset, and human capital needed to meet the very high expectations the world has for it.

As part of their response to the Santos Cruz report, commentators have raised underlying strategic questions about the use of the peacekeeping instrument. Can we continue to operate in the margins of—or even beyond—the space where peacekeeping has proven to be successful?  How can peacekeeping build its ability and resolve to use force, while also maintaining its legitimacy? This discussion must be had, especially with members of the Security Council and member states that contribute troops and police. But in the meantime, we have a duty to take all necessary measures to improve the safety and security of the men and women who are deployed in harm’s way in support of Security Council mandates.

David Haeri is the Director of the Division for Policy, Evaluation and Training of the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations.

This article is part of a series being published in February by the Global Observatory on the report of Lieutenant General Carlos Alberto dos Santos Cruz on peacekeeping fatalities and injuries. The Cruz report comes amid a broader strategic review of peacekeeping missions, focused on how the UN can adapt to the changing nature of conflict.