Political Solutions Must Drive the Design and Implementation of Peace Operations

Boys from Kassab camp for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in North Darfur collect water donated by the UN-AU Hybrid Mission in Darfur (UNAMID). (UN Photo/Albert González Farran)

Secretary-General Antonio Guterres launched the “Action for Peacekeeping” (A4P) initiative during the open debate on peacekeeping reform on March 28, 2018, at which he called for a “quantum leap in collective engagement” in United Nations peace operations. In response, UN member states are now working to reach agreement on a set of shared commitments to strengthen peacekeeping, including ways to ensure that, as the secretary-general said, “peace operations are deployed in support of active diplomatic efforts, not as a substitute.”

The A4P initiative provides an opportunity to reaffirm a shared understanding among member states and the UN Secretariat of what it means for political solutions to “drive the design and implementation of peace operations,” as called for by the High-Level Independent Panel on UN Peace Operations (HIPPO). In particular, this short note argues that the initiative should emphasize the need to (1) develop and support an overarching political strategy across all mission components; (2) take concrete steps to link UN political engagement at the international, regional, national, and sub-national levels; (3) ensure that missions are internally calibrated to be able to engage politically and run day-to-day operations; and (4) encourage member states—above all the Security Council—to support political solutions through sustained attention and clearer, more realistic mandates.

The Challenge of Defining and Achieving Political Solutions

In 2015, the report of the High-Level Independent Panel on Peace Operations observed that,

“Lasting peace is achieved not through military and technical engagements but through political solutions. Political solutions should always guide the design and deployment of UN peace operations. When the momentum behind peace falters, the United Nations, and particularly Member States, must help to mobilize renewed political efforts to keep peace processes on track.”

The HIPPO recommendation was a response to perceptions that, in many missions, military action had supplanted political engagement as the central focus of peacekeeping missions. As HIPPO member Jean Arnault commented, in Darfur and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, robust mandates to use force to protect civilians were largely disconnected from efforts to find long-term political solutions. The HIPPO’s first concern therefore to was “reconnecting the use of force with political strategies.” Beyond the use of force, other core peacekeeping tasks—such as support to institution-building, protection of civilians, and promotion of human rights—should similarly be envisioned within an overarching political strategy. Such a strategy should articulate a set of political and security conditions necessary for the drawdown and exit of the mission, with all other activities described as means to that end.

Yet, in the majority of peacekeeping operations today—whether long-standing missions in the Middle East or more recent multidimensional missions in Africa—the short-term prospects of sustainable, inclusive political processes appear remote, and may be in retreat. In fact, there is strong evidence that today’s conflicts are more intractable and less conducive to political resolution. As the HIPPO and others have recognized, modern conflicts tend to be complicated by the rising influence of non-state actors, transnational criminal networks, the impact of extremist groups, and increasing involvement of regional actors in intra-state disputes. In this context, missions are often deployed where peace agreements are absent or lacking engagement with key conflict actors, where those who can influence the trajectory of a conflict are not at the table, and where international leverage is insufficient to ensure compliance.

The result is that the majority of UN peacekeeping operations have little prospect of achieving their original political goals. In Darfur, UN peacekeepers appear focused on containing risks to civilians and mitigating a continuing humanitarian crisis, while comprehensive, sustainable peace across the warring factions seems beyond reach. In South Sudan, a brutal civil war that started in 2013 scuttled any hopes that the UN would succeed in its ambitious state-building project, and the UN has now shifted its mandate and resources towards protection and human rights monitoring. In Mali, Central African Republic, and eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), explicit authorization to use force against armed groups and to extend state authority when its legitimacy is contested has undermined perceptions of the UN’s impartiality among some parties to the conflict and local populations. This has created challenges for the UN in negotiating peace and has contributed to direct attacks on the UN by armed groups in some cases. In Abyei along the border between Sudan and South Sudan, the Security Council conditioned further extension of the peace operation’s mandate on political progress, despite the lack of likely breakthroughs between the parties.

While these peacekeeping settings demonstrate a wide array of challenges, they share a common trait: a small, and often shrinking, space for the UN to play a constructive and meaningful role in advancing the political objectives of the Security Council. In some cases, a mission’s priorities have been intentionally shifted away from engagement with political processes—such as the UN Stabilization Mission in DRC’s (MONUSCO) 2017 shift towards protection of civilians as the overarching mission priority. In others, such as the civil war in South Sudan, decisions by national leaders to pursue violent conflict rather than political reconciliation has left little room for the UN to broker political outcomes. Years of stymied progress, backsliding, and periodic crises have meant even defining a viable political outcome in most of these settings is vague at best. But it is precisely in these situations where a redoubled focus on political strategies is most important, even if the short-term prospects of success are unlikely.

The following broad recommendations to better link mandates and political strategy are designed to facilitate the ongoing discussions among member states and key UN departments in the lead-up to the A4P commitments later this year.


1. The Security Council, the Secretariat, the host country, and key stakeholders should work together to develop a common understanding of political objectives

One challenge in many peacekeeping settings is the difference of view between key stakeholders as to what the core objective of a mission is, and how to measure success against it. In places like DRC, this has led to serious misunderstandings between the mission and the host government when it comes to developing a common exit strategy. In others, like Darfur, it has meant that the political objectives were never realistic from the outset. The Council’s prerogative is to set the broad objectives for peace, but it cannot impose or manufacture consent. While there is value in allowing for significant flexibility in shaping the political objectives of a peace operation, the HIPPO has also pointed to the need for mandates to be guided by common ground between the UN Secretariat, the host government, and other relevant stakeholders.

2. A mission’s political function should be the central, defining activity around which all other mandated tasks cohere

As Jean Arnault has observed, “No element of the traditional international template [i.e., disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR), judicial reform, security sector reform (SSR), or elections] should be mandated without prior understanding of its relevance to the grievances and interests that drive the conflict, and the prospect of a political settlement among national actors.” Without a guiding political strategy, there is a risk that components carry out their work—whether military operations, DDR, judicial reform, civil affairs—in a siloed manner that does not help shape the environment and create conditions for the opening of possible entry points for progress towards the political objectives. Missions are tools to generate political will by the conflict parties, and should be designed and measured with that as a key benchmark. As such, a mission strategy should be one where each component understands and gauges its work as a means to the political end. In measuring progress in each of these areas, the question should not be whether the component delivered the expected outputs, but rather the extent to which the component contributed to the underlying political objectives of the mission.

3. The Security Council’s mandate should articulate a peace operation’s strategic objectives; the Special Representative of the Secretary-General (SRSG) should articulate a political strategy for how to achieve these objectives

Overly prescriptive mandates can reduce the political space in which the SRSG, and by extension, the mission, operate. The political strategy—how the overarching political goals defined by the Council will be met—should be informed by an understanding of the drivers of conflict as well as possible points of influence, leverage, and opportunity. It should be driven by the SRSG, drawing on analysis of conflict drivers, including international, regional, national, and local dimensions, and input from a range of stakeholders both inside and outside the country. This does not preclude advice and guidance from UN Headquarters, which will often be more attuned to political dynamics in the Council and other international stakeholders than the field, but a political strategy should not be led from New York.

4. Missions should regularly and routinely review their overarching political strategy

A mission’s political strategy needs to be regularly reviewed and updated to reflect both evolving understanding of the political-security environment, as well to ensure alignment with changes to the political and security landscape. This process requires mission components to have a clear understanding of how their tasks link up with and reinforce the overall goals of the mission. Several former SRSGs and Deputy SRSGs have described how they have found missions on autopilot, in which staff struggled to articulate the overall goal of the mission. Often, missions are too caught up in running day-to-day operations and responding to crises—the latest protection threat, security incident, or intransigent government official—to maintain a consistent focus on their overarching political strategy. Regularly reviewing and, when necessary, recalibrating peace operations would help ensure that the mission is contributing to the necessary political will among the key actors.

5. Professionalize chiefs of staff as “mission integrators” able to link an SRSG’s high politics with mission components

As the head of mission, the SRSG is ultimately responsible for designing, implementing, when necessary revising, and reporting on a mission’s overarching political strategy, as well as for ensuring that all components of the mission understand the strategy and are aligned with it. Expecting an SRSG to excel at both the high politics of advancing a peace process and marshaling the full resources of a mission in support of political objectives is asking a lot, requiring not only managerial skills but understanding of how military operations, DDR, SSR, human rights reporting, civil affairs, and other mission elements can be brought to bear. As Lakhdar Brahimi and Salman Ahmed note, “SRSGs cannot shirk their leadership responsibilities to ensure good order and discipline of personnel, proper management of mission assets and effective integration and unity of effort across components. Attention to the managerial role, however, can come at the expense of the political role, and vice versa.” A renewed focus on the chief of staff role as one that should free the SRSG to focus on the political engagement, while also ensuring that the SRSG’s strategy is translated into operational terms for all mission components, would be useful.

6. Prioritization and sequencing of mandates

The HIPPO referred to the need to prioritize and sequence mandates. Overly long, complex mandates with long lists of tasks have been a recurring challenge for peacekeeping missions, obscuring where a mission should focus its attention and resources. Yet, for political and financial reasons, it may be extremely difficult to winnow mandated tasks. Tasks should be aligned with and support an overarching strategy to advance a political process, or create opportunities for one to emerge. Different activities will need to be prioritized at different times, depending on how they contribute to and depend on a conducive political and security environment. The HIPPO reference to sequencing concerned new missions, which, it recommended, should begin with more limited mandates tailored to the political-security environment, to which the Council could then add further tasks based on improved understanding of the local context and progress on the ground. This was taken forward in the missions in both Colombia and Libya. It is a question of assessing whether there is sufficient political will and space to achieve the broader kinds of reforms often included at the outset, and a willingness to say that in some cases such reforms are not going to be achieved.

7. The Security Council should consider explicitly mandating missions to support local and national mediation initiatives

Where national-level political processes are stuck, UN missions are increasingly engaged in subnational and local-level conflict resolution. Similarly, there is a growing recognition that the success of national-level political processes depends in large part on active engagement at the local level as well; the two levels are symbiotically related and cannot be treated separately. Focus on “small ‘p’” political processes can mitigate violence and build trust with local communities, government officials, armed groups, and other actors; at times they can help create openings to national-level political processes. Yet often the national and local levels are not linked in a strategic manner. In Central African Republic (CAR), for example, research found that “local mediation has been mainly reactive, trying to seize opportunities as they arise.” Development of a strategic vision may help missions like the UN Stabilization Mission in CAR (MINUSCA) to better leverage its assets, work to mitigate risks, and ensure that local level political engagement brings added value to the table.

8. Encourage greater alignment between UN political strategies and those of regional and subregional organizations

The UN is rarely the lead mediator in political crises today; instead, regional, and subregional organizations or neighboring states are more likely out front—as, for instance, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) in South Sudan, or Algeria in Mali. Regional mediators can bring prior relationships and contextual understanding to a conflict. Yet, where the UN has large peacekeeping missions, there is a risk that regionally-led mediation may result in agreements that are out of step with what the UN can realistically implement. While the trend of regional and subregional leadership is likely to continue, the secretary-general and the Security Council should support SRSGs—including heads of peace operations, UN regional offices, and special envoys—to be more actively engaged in regionally-led political strategies in order to better align strategies.

9. Once a peace operation is mandated, the Security Council, as well as major troop/police contributing countries and donors, have a responsibility to provide ongoing political support and accompaniment

The search for a political solution to a crisis—encouraging, cajoling, and where necessary sanctioning key stakeholders—cannot be the sole responsibility of the UN, whether the SRSG in the field or the secretary-general. While much more could be said on this point, workload, distance, and disunity often limit the extent and effectiveness of direct Security Council action. To better position the Council to prevent conflict, Richard Gowan has suggested several potential mechanisms, including small-scale missions by less than the full Council, designating specific Council members to act as the body’s envoys, and endorsing engagement by Groups of Friends or non-New York-based groups of diplomats. These could usefully be applied to peacekeeping operations today.

Greater focus by the UN and member states on linking mandates and political strategy will not guarantee political solutions to the complex crises in which peacekeeping missions are deployed. However, articulating the political and security conditions that the mission is trying to achieve, and focusing all other activities on achieving that end, should increase the chance that when an opening does arise, the UN and its partners are positioned to take advantage of that opening, rather than miss it.

Jake Sherman is Director of the Brian Urquhart Center for Peace Operations at the International Peace Institute (IPI). Adam Day is Senior Policy Adviser at the Centre for Policy Research at United Nations University.