Secretary-General António Guterres launched the Action for Peacekeeping (A4P) initiative on March 28 with the aim of rethinking aspects of United Nations peacekeeping. A4P is designed around five “Ps”: politics, performance, partnership, people, and peacebuilding. Others have written on some of these “Ps,” and this piece will delve into the peacebuilding dimension of A4P. To understand peacebuilding, it is important to draw out lessons from how the relationship between peacekeeping and peacebuilding has changed over time, and identify how the A4P initiative can apply these lessons to aspects of peacekeeping.
A starting point in the peacebuilding and peacekeeping relationship is former Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali’s Agenda for Peace, which chronologically sequenced peace efforts beginning with preventive diplomacy. In this sequence, if the UN was unable to prevent a conflict, it would help to negotiate a cease-fire and peace agreement (peacemaking) and deploy a mission to help implement these agreements (peacekeeping). Once the fighting ceased, peacebuilding activities were initiated—supporting elections, reconciliation, rebuilding state institutions, and disarming combatants—all aimed at helping consolidate the peace and preventing a relapse into violent conflict.
Peacekeeping was understood as managing a conflict by inter-positioning peacekeepers between the parties to a conflict, by taking steps to deescalate tensions, and by building confidence in a ceasefire or peace agreement. Peacebuilding, on the other hand, was understood as conflict resolution because it was aimed at addressing the root causes of the conflict, and in this way to remove the reasons why the conflict occurred in the first place. This post-conflict phase understanding of peacebuilding was reinforced when the UN Peacebuilding Architecture was established in 2005, as a way of maintaining international attention on peace processes after peacekeeping missions were withdrawn and the country progressed off the Security Council agenda.
The kind of peacebuilding activities that were undertaken by peacekeeping operations in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Sierra Leone, and Haiti gradually expanded over the last two decades to include: supporting trust- and confidence-building among the parties to a peace or political process; national dialogue initiatives; reviewing or drafting new constitutions; supporting transitional justice and national reconciliation processes; supporting reforms of, and capacity building for, rule of law and security institutions; supporting the development of local mechanisms for conflict resolution and reconciliation; disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR); protecting and promoting international human rights laws and standards; among many other areas. Peacekeeping operations also supported other peacebuilding actors and helped provide a political focus on peacebuilding goals, for instance by supporting the adoption of strategic frameworks that included peacebuilding goals.
Some peacebuilding activities were supported via the peacekeeping assessed contribution budget. In the last few years, some of these activities were funded with special programmatic funding authorized from assessed contributions for this purpose, in particular DDR, civilian violence reduction, reconciliation, and transitional justice activities. Others were financed via trust funds that relied on voluntary contributions. More recently, some of these activities were also funded by the UN secretary-general’s Peacebuilding Fund. The ability to use the assessed contribution budget, and the capacities of the UN peacekeeping mission—including its personnel, mobility, and field-offices—gave UN peacekeeping missions a comparative advantage in some areas over UN agencies, funds, and programs, as they had to depend on voluntary funding. As a result, more and more peacebuilding type activities were added to peacekeeping mandates over the years.
The sustaining peace concept emerged at a time when peacekeeping was under increasing political and financial pressure. In the 1990s and early 2000s, two-thirds of UN peacekeepers were deployed in places like Burundi, Cambodia, and Mozambique that implemented comprehensive peace agreements in the aftermath of civil wars. The focus of these missions, and others at the time such as in Kosovo and East Timor, was on peacebuilding and state-building. Today, in contrast, two thirds of peacekeepers are deployed in missions where the main focus is on the protection of civilians, amidst ongoing violent conflict, in places like the Central African Republic (CAR), DRC, Mali, and South Sudan. UN peacekeeping has experienced a significant shift away from conflict resolution, where peace consolidation and peacebuilding were the main activities, to conflict management, characterized by protection and stabilization activities.
Back to Basics
Under increasing performance and financial pressure, there is a growing number of policy makers and analysts that argue that it is time for UN peacekeeping to focus on more limited and achievable missions. In a reference to so-called Christmas-tree mandates, the secretary-general himself has argued that “Christmas is over,” meaning that peacekeeping missions should not be tasked with an unrealistically high number of mandated tasks. Alexandra Novosseloff similarly argues that UN peacekeeping needs to go back to basics. She argues missions should have more sequenced and prioritized mandates, and that they should be multidimensional in time but not in structure.
In the past, the nexus between development, peace, and security was used to explain why peacekeeping missions should act as early peacebuilders. It was understood that conflicts cannot be resolved with military or security means alone. Peacekeeping was inherently political and a multidimension approach was needed to consolidate a peace process. Those who now argue for a more limited and focused approach to peacekeeping would still emphasize the importance of a comprehensive approach. However, they argue that while peacekeeping missions should be part of a well-coordinated larger holistic effort, they need not necessarily take responsibility for as many of the peacebuilding activities themselves, as they did in the past two decades.
The argument for taking peacekeeping back to basics may affect the degree to which peacekeeping operations will include peacebuilding activities in future, and may result in the expanded use of the peacebuilding office or “special political mission” (SPM) concept, perhaps alongside peacekeeping missions. For this approach to work, UN peacekeeping missions have to receive clearer direction—principally from the Security Council—on what kind of peacebuilding activities they should or should not prioritize. They will also need to invest more in developing the kind of planning and coordination frameworks that were envisaged in the UN’s integrated approach that was meant to enable peacekeeping missions to generate a shared strategic vision with their national counterparts and other international partners. Such a strategic framework should enable the partners to agree on a broad division of labor, and to track their progress over time. In this way it can be clear to this set of partners what their overall peacebuilding strategy is, who is undertaking which tasks, where any gaps may be, and what effects they are achieving together. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) results framework, which contains 36 targets across seven SDGs that measure aspects of peace, inclusion, and access to justice, may offer the foundation for such a shared effort.
If the trend is towards a more narrowly focused and limited peacekeeping, a critically important question that would need to be resolved is thus what kind of peacebuilding tasks, if any, should be included in future UN peacekeeping mandates. Currently, UN peacekeeping missions, including the contemporary protection and stabilization missions in CAR, DRC and Mali, typically include peacebuilding tasks related to rule of law (especially police and corrections), the reform of security institutions, the extension of state authority, and the capacity of sub-national authorities to prevent and manage conflict. Which of these responsibilities should be transferred to other parts of the UN system, such as SPMs, the peacebuilding architecture, or agencies, programs, and funds? Are there other actors, such as the World Bank or other international financial institutions that should play a larger role in some of these areas?
In fact, most of these alternative peacebuilding actors are already engaged in many of these very same peacebuilding areas. The question is rather what kind of peacebuilding activities, if any, should UN peacekeeping missions support, and what kind of peacebuilding activities are best undertaken by the host nation, other parts of the UN system, or other international and regional partners, and how best a networked approach to peacebuilding can be coordinated to ensure overall coherence and synergy.
When seeking to answer these questions one needs to guard against the temptation to think about UN peacekeeping as if there is only one standard peacekeeping mission. The mandates and needs of missions differ significantly from one to another. If one were to assess contemporary missions from a peacebuilding lens, then the context of the countries and the needs of the missions in CAR (MINUSCA), DRC (MONUSCO), Mali (MINUSMA), and Lebanon (UNIFIL) would differ significantly. Although there would be significant similarities in the structures of the missions, down to the names of components and units, one would find significant diversity in the actual peacebuilding activities they support. One should keep in mind that the question of the peacebuilding role of UN peacekeeping is best answered on a case-by-case basis, depending on the context of the country and the mandate of the mission. One also needs to keep in mind that in some contexts, especially when peacekeeping missions have stabilization mandates that require them to support security forces closely associated with the government of the day, it may be wise to task another entity, such as a regional UN office, with some of the more political peacebuilding tasks that require a more impartial posture.
One also needs to recognize that conflict systems, and the political processes they generate, are highly dynamic, non-linear, and complex. We should thus be weary of thinking of any specific country context or peacekeeping missions in static terms. The peacebuilding dimension of peacekeeping not only depends on the context and mandate, but also on the evolving nature of the context and the need for peacekeeping missions to be able to continuously adapt. This is what Alexandra Novosseloff refers to when she emphasizes the need for mandates to be more clearly sequenced and prioritized. Peacekeeping missions may, for instance, start off with an emphasis on protection and stabilization, and some may progress over time to include more peacebuilding tasks, but others may not. As the mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) shows, some may start with a peace process, but then end up with a protection mandate. It may thus be a mistake to take make a principled decision that peacekeeping missions should, or should not do peacebuilding tasks.
Cedric de Coning is a senior research fellow with the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NUPI) and a senior advisor to ACCORD.