UN Peacekeeping: Back to Basics Is Not Backwards

Sign in a UN Mission compound. (Alexandra Novosseloff)

Peacekeeping is once again at a crossroads. Researchers and practitioners are saying that UN peacekeeping needs to adapt to the fact that the UN flag no longer provides protection, and that peacekeepers are facing criminals and terrorist groups, not only armed rebels. Many—including Lieutenant General dos Santos Cruz in his report last December—are asking the UN to change in response to a significant increase in the number of fatalities. A series of recent UN investigations have also pointed to deficiencies in most multidimensional peacekeeping operations—leadership failures, a failure to protect civilians and peacekeepers themselves, and the failure of appropriate training and equipment. Indeed, all this has to change, but how?

All these observers have come to the conclusion that, in many ways, UN peacekeeping has lost its compass and faces an existential crisis. What is peacekeeping today? Is there a need to go “back to basics,” or to move beyond peacekeeping altogether?

The reality is that there is a scarcity crisis in that peacekeeping is too overstretched, has too many budget constraints, and too few critical enablers. At the same time, there is a crisis of plenty in that there are too many expectations and overly ambitious mandates. Are we witnessing the end of a peacekeeping era or the end of peacekeeping full stop? Does the UN have to invent something else, or does the burden of crisis management need to be shared in a more equitable way?

During the March 28 open debate of the Security Council on peacekeeping, member states expressed a general and genuine desire to reform and at last tackle some of the issues that have remained unresolved for some twenty years, but their intentions often run up against the intricacies of political, administrative, and logistical implementation. As pointed out by Richard Gowan, “While most Council members agree that UN operations are overstretched in theory, they continue to push the organization to take on more conflict management duties in practice.” In the end, any peacekeeping reform remains incremental at best and often takes the form of an impasse in the short term. The question is, why?

1. There is no consensus on the way to conduct peacekeeping

Doctrine is becoming a dirty word (much more than intelligence) in New York, even if one of the answers to the current situation would be to re-define clear limits to UN peacekeeping operations—or in other words, doctrine. Why is that? Because of the extreme tension between Council members and Western member states who wish to move towards more robust peacekeeping on the one hand—while making up only 7.4% of all troop contributions—and the major troop-contributing countries (TCCs) on the other, who sustain the casualties as a result of not being given or having the means to face the environments where they are asked to deploy (one must also acknowledge here that some of them just do not want to take those risks). Thus, when TCCs hear the word “doctrine,” they immediately think that the Council and Western countries want to expand the “traditional principles” of peacekeeping towards more “robustness” or “enforcement.” This is a path that the majority of TCCs clearly do not want to take, and some of them have stated they would not contribute to Mali or the Force Intervention Brigade in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. These issues should be talked about during triangular cooperation meetings, which for the time being only happen on a very inconsistent basis, as there is no other venue in New York where these differences between Council members and TCCs could be reconciled.

2. There is no consistency in implementing mandates

If there is no agreed doctrine—despite the existence of the Department of Peacekeeping Operations’ (DPKO) Capstone Doctrine of 2008, which is sometimes used in training courses, sometimes not—then member states will contribute according to their own understanding of peacekeeping and based on their own strategic interest. Thus, in a multilateral operation where because of its very nature—the number of contributors, the weak level of interoperability—it gets even weaker, and all the more so as its operations are faced with increasingly contradicting orders.

Further still, the UN does not have an adequate system by which it can deal with caveats. The UN also does not have a mechanism by which political mandates are translated into operational military tasks. No military committee exists to assist the Security Council (despite its increased activity, the Military Staff Committee still falls short of performing such a task). In such a context, TCCs have their own interpretation of the mandates given by the Council that fit their understanding of peacekeeping. Ultimately, that pick and choose attitude is undermining the authority of the Security Council, has consequences on the ground, and is instrumentalized by parties to the conflict.

3. There is no consistency on policy issues related to peacekeeping

The UN is the only organization where those who decide the mandate of operations are not the same as those who contribute troops or finances—except in the case of China. This creates a dilution of responsibility and a lack of accountability across the system. When the Council is voting on ambitious mandates, e.g., on deploying more than 10,000 soldiers and other personnel in a country, the Fifth Committee is looking at limiting the budget, often months later. When deciding, the Council does not have an idea of overall cost. And some of the political battles that some countries cannot conduct in the Council are later conducted in the Fifth Committee.

The other contradiction is that although 80 percent of peacekeeping operations expenditures are military-related, they are typically financed through the limited civilian budgets of member states and not through their larger military budgets, where peacekeeping spending for military components could be more easily absorbed.

UN peacekeeping has been proven cost-effective, as highlighted by a number reports of the US General Accounting Office, but has always suffered from a lack of investment, whether political, financial, or military. There is clearly a gap between what member states invest in at the UN and what they spend on other international interventions, e.g., NATO, EU, or bilateral. It is a choice, but there is a limit to what can be done in such circumstances, and the understanding of what UN peacekeeping can do should align with this strategic environment. And it seems that UN financial contributors are not ready to spend on UN peacekeeping what they spend on other military interventions.

So what impact does this have on peacekeeping? In my view, this means that UN peacekeeping needs to go back to basics rather than move beyond its fundamental principles. If the UN cannot send more troops, it must send higher quality troops and be more modest in its deployments, more focused on the politics, and also accompany any efforts with concrete aims and strategies, i.e., what the mission is intended to achieve, measured against clear benchmarks. The UN seems to now be moving away from multidimensional missions that have functioned like large, difficult-to-handle ships that struggle to change direction or adapt. These missions are often too visible and sometimes disruptive for local economies and societies. While they have good intentions, they are sometimes ill-adapted to the situations in which they are deployed, in particular when conflicts are regional. Furthermore, these “ships” create expectations that will never be met, as they are never big enough, agile enough, or tailored enough for the countries in which they are deployed.

Ultimately, going back to basics is not a choice between doing nothing or continuing business as usual. It is taking measures to achieve the requisite specificity in accordance with principles. In order to get back to basics, UN peacekeeping needs to get a few things right.

The first is that the meaning of peacekeeping—an inherently temporary measure, as understood in Article 40 of the UN Charter—should no longer be stretched. As Secretary-General Antonio Guterres put it on March 28, peacekeeping is a limited instrument that “creates the space for a nationally owned political solution.” Political mandates must also be more limited, focused, and related to the work the UN can do with national authorities to secure a peace process and dialogue. This means having more sequenced and prioritized mandates, and operations being multidimensional in time but not in structure. Partnering with bilateral or regional parallel forces that pay for their own expenses and are able to logistically support themselves is also essential, in order to avoid the UN being used as an exit strategy. Arranging creative ways of supporting some of these organizations could also improve that strategic partnership.

The second relates to the military component of missions. Since 80 percent of UN peacekeeping deployments are military related, if the military components of an operation are weak, the whole mission will be weak. The military dimension of peacekeeping needs to be taken more seriously, and the UN Secretariat should not hesitate to refuse or repatriate contributions or contingents that fail to meet certain standards. States must also be serious about the personnel and capacities they contribute to the UN. Contributing untrained or inadequate personnel or equipment will do nothing but weaken missions. Military leadership is also key in getting troops to have the right mindset to conduct their mission, and greater attention should be given to their selection.

The third is improving leadership and mission structure, as performance does not only concern uniformed personnel. Choosing the right people to do one of the most impossible jobs on earth is a real challenge. A lot of crises arise due to inexperienced, ineffective, or weak leadership. Special Representatives of the Secretary-General (SRSGs) are not only expected to be good diplomats, but also effective managers of complex organizations, able to respond to a wide range of crises. Too often, member states suggest individuals for these roles who they do not want in their administration or bureaucracy. This is not serious.

The fourth is that the UN needs to break down the silos in the Secretariat in New York and within the various missions. Civilians, police, and the military need to work in a more integrated fashion. This also means that the UN has to move away from a one-size-fits-all approach where it systematically deploys people in charge of security sector reform, disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration, children in armed conflict, rule of law, etc. These tasks are all important but they should be addressed sequentially.

Lastly, the relationship between the Security Council and the UN Secretariat should be more sound. The Secretariat must be firmer in its relationship with the Security Council and improve the candor of its reporting; it should relearn how to tell the body what it does not like to hear, namely, to decline missions that would be “off limits,” or to state more clearly the impact of certain financial cuts to its operations. This dialogue could also help the Council devise more realistic mandates that are more sequential and centered on the primacy of politics. Ultimately, we need to reconcile the politics of the Security Council with the requirements of the field.

Creating a peacekeeping operation in lieu of a better strategy, as a humanitarian tool or a stalling tactic in a context lacking political processes, is and will always be a dead end—a mission without a clear strategy or exit. If the Security Council wishes to succeed, a peacekeeping operation cannot be a strategy in itself but must be part of a larger strategy. Otherwise, we will be talking about these same problems years down the line, as we have been for the past 18 since the Brahimi report was released.

Alexandra Novosseloff is a Senior Visiting Fellow at the International Peace Institute. This article is the result of a presentation given at the International Studies Association Annual Conference in San Francisco on April 8, 2018 (#ISA2018) and a keynote speech given in front of the Canadian International Council in Winnipeg on March 1, 2018.