The Action for Peacekeeping (A4P) initiative, launched by Secretary-General António Guterres at the end of March, champions a people-centric approach to peacekeeping. It suggests that all peacekeeping stakeholders—the Security Council, the Secretariat, the troop-, police-, and finance-contributing countries, and the parties to a peace process—are ultimately responsible to ordinary people living in communities torn apart by violence.
This is a laudable goal. But responding to the needs of the people can put peacekeepers in direct conflict with the government of the country that is hosting them. That conflict is one of the greatest dilemmas that United Nations peacekeeping faces today, and the A4P agenda can kickstart an effort to address it.
Consent is a core principle of UN peacekeeping: peacekeeping missions cannot deploy without the agreement of the host-state government (and other main parties to the conflict). Legally, consent is black-and-white—it either exists or it doesn’t. But politically, consent can exist on a spectrum. In many mission settings, host-state governments have consented—sometimes under pressure—to a mission’s presence on paper while in practice obstructing some of the mission’s mandated activities or the political process that the mission is there to support.
At the extreme level, as seen in Sudan, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and other places, host-state governments have perpetrated or sponsored deliberate violence against civilians, or attempted to block missions from accessing vulnerable populations in need of protection. In these situations, missions struggle to uphold their responsibilities to protect people from the actions of the host-state government while also preserving that same government’s consent to remain on the ground.
When the interests of the host-state government and the interests of the people are not aligned, peacekeepers are compelled to make extremely difficult decisions in the field. Should they force their way through a remote government checkpoint to investigate reports that there are civilians in harm’s way? How strenuously can they demand that elections be held or human rights abuses investigated, in accordance with the will of the people, without being expelled? If they witness state forces perpetrating violence against civilians, would exchanging fire ultimately lead to greater protection or greater civilian casualties? Legally, their mandates and status-of-forces agreements (SOFAs) allow them to take these actions, but the potential political costs, and risks to civilians’ and peacekeepers’ lives, make these choices very tough.
The erosion of host-state consent thus has dire consequences for both civilians and peacekeeping missions. It undermines missions’ ability to effectively protect civilians and support a political process. It can present a grave risk to peacekeepers’ safety and security when governments obstruct casualty or medical evacuations or restrict critical supplies and equipment from entering the country. And it makes it impossible for missions to work toward a successful exit, as exit strategies necessarily require close partnerships between missions and host-state governments to allow the transfer of mission responsibilities to state authorities.
This gap—between formal consent on paper and obstruction in practice—needs urgent attention. Despite the critical importance of host-state consent and cooperation in allowing peacekeeping stakeholders to meet their responsibilities to people, and for the overall success of the mission, UN peacekeeping policy offers scant guidance on what consent means in practice or what peacekeepers can or should do to maintain it. Member states are often unaware of problems with host-state consent until the situation becomes a crisis. New mission leaders are not briefed on potential situations that are likely to lead to an erosion of host-state consent and cooperation, or how to respond if these situations arise.
There are concrete actions that member states could take as part of the A4P agenda to strengthen host-state consent and cooperation in a people-centered way. With the right support from member states, peacekeeping missions can prevent or de-escalate these problems and promote a stronger relationship with the host-state government.
First, member states should make commitments to promote consent and cooperation from the outset of the mission. These commitments could be captured in the anticipated A4P Declaration document to be signed in the margins of the General Assembly this year. For example, prior to authorizing a new mission, the Security Council could either visit the host country or host a briefing by the major parties and civil society representatives in New York to better understand the political dynamics at play, the parties’ political priorities and sensitivities, and the political support the mission will require. These consultations could also be used by member states and the Council to reduce misunderstandings and mismatched expectations between themselves and the host state about the mission’s responsibilities and limitations, which often lead to deterioration of consent down the road.
Second, mission leaders need better preparation to navigate these issues of host-state consent. Support for and cooperation with a peacekeeping mission can wax and wane with the changing interests, personalities, and power dynamics of the government. It takes daily effort by mission leaders—with the backing of member states and regional organizations—to maintain the consent and cooperation of host-state government counterparts through all these changes. In fact, managing host-state consent and cooperation is arguably the most important and difficult part of a mission leader’s job.
Member states should direct the UN Secretariat to ensure that induction training for new mission leaders includes a briefing on the status of host-state consent in the country and any relevant tensions or sensitivities. This training should also stress the importance of the SOFA, how to identify and respond to different types of SOFA violations, and implications associated with such violations. This can be reinforced with scenario-based training for mission personnel in the field that tackles situations involving eroding host-state consent.
Third, member states should ensure that missions have the right tools to manage host-state consent and escalate issues to the Security Council when needed—before the situation becomes a crisis. The Special Committee on Peacekeeping Operations (C34) usefully requested missions to systematically document SOFA violations in this year’s report. This language is a good start to help mission leaders better track, analyze, and resolve some problems, but a more comprehensive set of tools and approaches is needed. Member states should request the Secretariat to produce guidance on how to navigate the relationship with host-state governments that outlines different consent scenarios facing peacekeepers, response options, and criteria for identifying serious deterioration of consent, which, when met, would encourage the Secretariat to bring the issue to the Security Council for consideration or action.
Finally, in the A4P Declaration, member states should commit to provide missions with early, strategic, and sustained political support when they encounter issues with host-state consent. Firm and united action from member states in support of the peacekeeping mission can be vital in response to early SOFA violations or other warning signs that host-state consent or cooperation may be eroding—this can send a strong message and set a pattern for behavior going forward.
In order to provide timely and decisive support, member states need to stay abreast of challenges to host-state consent and cooperation. Member states should request that quarterly reports by the Secretary-General on each mission include information about SOFA violations and how they were addressed, and that strategic reviews of missions include an analysis of the strength of host-state consent. They could additionally request follow-up briefings by the secretary-general or undersecretaries-general on consent in specific country contexts when necessary.
Member states could also commit in the A4P Declaration to using the full range of tools at their disposal if the deterioration of host-state consent is at a critical level and jeopardizes the mission’s ability to achieve its objectives. These tools could include Security Council visits to the host country, sustained member state diplomacy with regional neighbors and regional organizations, open debates on the situation in the Security Council, and issuing diplomatic démarches. In extreme circumstances of deterioration of consent, particularly when the host-state government is complicit in mass atrocities, peacekeeping missions may not be the right tool for the job and the Security Council should consider approving mechanisms that do not require host-state consent, such as regional or coalition interventions.
A4P represents a rare opportunity to grapple with host-state consent and cooperation in a frank and constructive way. In particular, through the A4P framework, member states can support missions in their efforts to maintain consent and cooperation while ensuring that they remain focused on the needs of the people affected by conflict. By taking the concrete steps outlined above, member states may be able to make real progress on an issue that goes to the heart of peacekeeping effectiveness.
Aditi Gorur is the Director of the Protecting Civilians in Conflict Program at the Stimson Center, a non-partisan research institute based in Washington, DC. She is also the co-author of UN Peacekeeping and Host-State Consent: How Missions Navigate Relationships with Governments.