Counterterrorism and Challenges to Peacekeeping Impartiality

The tail of a UN Helicopter overlooks the landscape of Kashebere, Democratic Republic of the Congo. (UN Photo/Michael Ali)

A distinct characteristic of United Nations peacekeeping is its impartiality. It is also a reality that for UN peacekeeping to function properly, partnering with regional organizations and other groups is essential. Experiences in Mali and Somalia have, however, exposed the political and operational challenges that partnerships create in maintaining impartiality. The challenge at hand is the dynamic between peacekeeping and counterterrorism efforts, especially as partnerships have expanded—notably in Africa, where regional actors have deployed increasing numbers of counterterrorist forces in the Sahel, Somalia, and Lake Chad Basin.

The 2015 report of the High-Level Independent Panel on Peace Operations (HIPPO), the subsequent report of Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on the future of UN peace operations, and the 2018 report of the Special Committee on Peace Operations (C34) have all asserted that UN peacekeeping cannot and should not engage in counterterrorist operations. Despite this principled stance, it seems that the countering and preventing violent extremism (CVE/PVE) agenda has moved counterterrorism from the margins to center stage, ensuring that the UN will continue deploying peacekeepers in contexts where organizational partners do counterterrorism.

At the same time, the Action for Peacekeeping Initiative (A4P) emphasizes partnerships. And so, the questions have become about how UN peacekeepers can operate in environments where counterterrorist forces are also deployed, how UN missions can demarcate their responsibilities from that of counterterrorist objectives, and how UN peacekeeping can cooperate with regional organizations or coalitions of states that do counterterrorism. Moreover, to what extent should UN peacekeeping seek or promote partnerships? What types of UN cooperation with strategic partners should be encouraged, and which ones should be avoided, to strengthen peacekeeping? So far, the answers have been limited to operational and technical matters, and “simply” making sure that the UN and its partners properly distinguish their respective roles and spheres of action.

I argue that this act of distinguishing UN peacekeeping and counterterrorist roles and spheres of action is almost impossible to implement in the field without great risks to the integrity of UN peacekeeping and to deployed UN personnel, and without severely undermining conflict resolution efforts.

Theory vs. Practice

The respective theory and doctrine of peacekeeping and counterterrorism provide the normative and legal justifications for implementing a “division of labor.” Peacekeeping is built around a moral argument that the use of force is limited, to be used impartially, and that peacekeepers have no enemy to kill and destroy. Counterterrorism makes a different claim, calling upon a necessity to seek, capture, or kill the enemy. Thus defined, UN peacekeeping and counterterrorism refer to distinct ethical frameworks, even as they often share more tactical and doctrinal similarities than usually recognized. Hence, on paper, delineating roles works or should work. It is not quite the same in practice.

The UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) has been particularly instructive in illustrating the stakes, challenges, and risks of implementation. The intervention in Mali is defined in terms of a “division of labor” between MINUSMA who engages with the legitimate political actors part of the peace process, and French-led counterterrorist troops—including G5 Sahel, US, and European contingents—who deal with terrorists. This is premised on the ability to distinguish and, most importantly, on the authority to make the distinction between terrorist and non-terrorist actors, and between the spheres of terrorist activity and of legitimate war/peace politics.

However, enacting the distinction has proven difficult because of the fluidity and multiplicity of the conflict actors’ identities and relationships. As research has shown, time and again, terrorist groups in Mali and the Sahel are embedded in local dynamics, and at times have some degree of political authority and legitimacy, as they find support in criticisms of and protests over bad governance and lack of justice. Some terrorist leaders might be irredeemable, but group terrorist membership is varied, ephemeral, and largely comprised of people disgruntled with the state and with an imposed development model that does not match their priorities. The label “terrorist” disarticulates these groups, movements, and dynamics from the contexts of their historical and contemporary relations, but articulates the legal and doctrinal need for clearly defined roles and responsibilities.

Hence, this division of labor between the UN and counterterrorist partners in Mali addresses the legal aspects of having two military forces operating in the same theater, of separating UN peacekeepers from combat troops, but it cannot clearly delineate their respective roles and responsibilities politically, given the context-specific dynamics of the Malian conflict. In fact, it has arguably made things worse, as local actors—including signatories to the 2015 peace deal—have learned to walk this dividing line in order to benefit from both the peace process and the counterterrorist rent, thus producing little to no incentive for conflict resolution.

As the secretary-general’s reports keep describing the worsening situation in Mali, and as UN casualties mount, MINUSMA’s posture and mandate are not being transformed in order to better support the peace process, but rather to support the counterterrorist G5 Sahel Joint Force. As such, it enables and sustains a vicious circle that sees MINUSMA’s political mission of supporting the peace process being subordinated to military logic.

Can UN Peacekeeping Work Within the Counterterrorism Paradigm?

The respective ethics, logic, and purposes of counterterrorism and peacekeeping are also in contradiction. Peacekeeping is premised on the idea of supporting a political process, while counterterrorism is military logic justified by the idea of creating the space for politics. In 1995, Boutros Boutros-Ghali’s supplement to his Agenda for Peace was already arguing something similar: “the logic of peacekeeping flows from political and military premises that are quite distinct from those of enforcement; and the dynamics of the latter are incompatible with the political process that peacekeeping is intended to facilitate.” He expressed the position that UN peacekeeping is a different tool for conflict resolution and management that was worth preserving.

In 1998, Kofi Annan came to another conclusion: “Sometimes peace has to be made—or enforced—before it can be kept.” He uttered the position of those who today claim the necessity of counterterrorism. The crucial difference between the debate in the 1990s and today, however, is how the latter is inflected by the normative power and influence of the “global war on terror” (GWOT).

The GWOT has had a profound effect on UN peacekeeping. One is the claim that the UN must adapt to the “new” threat environment of “terrorism” and “violent extremism”; the latter concept being a tolerable synonym of the former in UN circles. This has contributed to disrupting the meaning and purpose of UN peacekeeping; producing an “existential crisis.”

Indeed, the GWOT takes away what makes UN peacekeeping unique: its impartial judgment. Although in principle the UN can speak to everybody, the GWOT declares that some actors are outside the legitimate realm of politics, and that exceptional measures must or can be taken against them. As Emily Rhoads argues, “the impartial peacekeeper is one that passes judgment and acts by setting aside particular preferences or interests.” The principle of impartiality is “inherently bound up in claims about [UN] authority.” Impartiality is the bedrock of UN peacekeeping. Under GWOT conditions, UN peacekeeping’s claim to it is undermined.

What to Do: No Avoiding the Politics of Using Military Force

The challenge of “violent extremism”—of violent insurgencies—is obviously a big one. Yet, the response cannot be based on the logic of the GWOT, which is that a permanent war posture is the price to pay for peace. Under GWOT, because terrorists cannot be eradicated, you must always “mow the lawn,” a metaphor that military officers often repeat. It is a logic limited to containing and managing the effects of violent conflicts through the use of military force. At the very least, it is a logic that is incompatible with UN peacekeeping, whereas the military instrument is supposed to be, or should be, impartial and serve a political strategy of engagement in conflict dynamics for conflict resolution.

For Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO), the challenge to move away from the counterterrorism paradigm is even bigger. As the US, European, and African partner states and organizations develop and support the paradigm, UN peacekeeping is confronted with attempts at reframing its finality; with strategies to authorize counterterrorist operations through the legitimizing morality of UN peacekeeping. In this context, there is no technical solution to ensuring the clarity of delineated roles and responsibilities where counterterrorist operations and UN missions are deployed together.

The UN and its partners must protect the integrity of UN peacekeeping from the ways in which counterterrorism undermines its impartiality. First, the UN must develop a precise doctrine of peacekeeping in order to limit its purposes, to avoid overstretching the concept, and to isolate its unique morality from other kinds of military operations. This could take the form of a return to basics or the formulation a new typology of peacekeeping. Most importantly, any such doctrinal work must take seriously the principle that UN peacekeepers have no enemies. Impartiality plays a fundamental function as coercion is not inextricably linked to enmity.

Second, Secretary-General Guterres and DPKO should lead efforts at developing new conceptual tools for conflict analysis. The emphasis on “terrorism” and “violent extremism” conveys an understanding of violence as a form of moral collapse, as illegitimate and criminal, or “development in reverse.” The shift in thinking about UN peacekeeping is partly linked to such understandings of violence and conflict. It advocates straightforward alignment against terrorists or spoilers, even when local actors consider negotiation to be a serious option.

Lastly, UN counterterrorism partnerships should not be authorized via UN peacekeeping mandates. The UN Secretariat must be firm on this issue. If the Security Council wants to support African organizations in their counterterrorist operations (whether it should is another debate), it should reflect on creating other ways of funding and supporting such regional organizations and operations.

Isolating and preserving the specificity of UN peacekeeping—the “non-enmity clause”—should strengthen the political clout of UN missions and improve its effectiveness as a tool for conflict management and resolution.

Bruno Charbonneau is Associate Professor of Political Science at Laurentian University, and the Director of the Centre FrancoPaix for Conflict Resolution and Peace Missions at the Raoul-Dandurand Chair of Strategic and Diplomatic Studies at the University of Québec in Montréal.