Nailing Down the Primacy of Politics in UN Peacekeeping: An Insider Perspective

Moroccan peacekeepers serving with the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA) in Bangui. (UN Photo/Catianne Tijerina)

A high-level United Nations move to strengthen peacekeeping: what’s not to love? Secretary-General António Guterres’ Action for Peacekeeping initiative (A4P) draws on a plethora of existing reviews and recommendations and is intended to yield a declaration of shared government commitments to UN peacekeeping operations at the UN General Assembly in September. The A4P process doesn’t introduce fresh proposals, but Security Council members can make good use of it to review their expectations of existing UN peace operations, and to revamp the mandating process.

A pledge of stronger engagement to advance political solutions to conflict dominates the draft Declaration of Shared Commitments (“the Declaration”). Under the Declaration, states will pursue complementary political objectives and integrated strategies, including at national and regional levels. A Security Council Presidential Statement in May noted that political solutions should guide the design and deployment of UN peacekeeping operations, articulating a clear end state with a pathway to achieving sustainable peace. For this mantra of political solutions to become the driving force of UN peace operations, the Security Council and the secretary-general must expect the leadership of every peace operation to articulate a coherent political strategy, including its national and regional elements, partnerships, and assumptions.

Past practice suggests that some mission strategies have been overly-focused on security, influenced by third-party state preferences, drawn ahistorically from experiences in quite different settings, or barely articulated at all. At a recent think-tank discussion on the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), one speaker acknowledged that “we could have given more attention to the political dimensions of the crisis.” This should be an ongoing activity, not a one-off as a mission starts up.

The primary function of a Special Representative of the Secretary-General (SRSG) is usually to create movement towards political solutions, bringing the principal players on board and identifying where leverage lies. Understanding what might work in a given moment in the national, regional, and international contexts is difficult. Still, without requiring an envoy to divulge every last detail, Security Council members should always be told the overall strategy, and whether modifications are needed in response to changing circumstances on the ground. This is consistent with the secretary-general’s commitment, in the draft Declaration, to report to the Council with a comprehensive analysis and frank recommendations—much as recommended by Lakhdar Brahimi’s peacekeeping review nearly two decades ago.

While the average length of a modern UN peacekeeping mission is now over twelve years[1], attaining profound political and structural changes that are also “sustainable,” as called for in the Declaration, is a long and fraught process, with setbacks to be anticipated. Typical mandate elements are geared towards improved security, national reconciliation, the rule of law, human rights, and sustainable development. The draft Declaration acknowledges that progress in these areas “needs to occur” for there to be lasting progress, but then adds “in parallel,” which is problematic, as it conveys the notion that these elements are divorced from the mission and mandate.

During a course I taught, I was asked how an SRSG could remember all the components of their mandate. Not unlike the Jesuit Matteo Ricci and his memory palace, it is by being able to tell the story in which every task plays a part—within an over-arching political strategy. Without a strategy, the mandated tasks are like a catalogue of furnishings without a floor plan. Task proliferation in mandates is less a problem of sheer volume, although that is part of it, and more a question of whether there is clarity about how each element underpins sustainable political change.  The SRSG’s narrative should illuminate whether, and how, each part of the mandate buttresses the mission’s strategic intent.

The HIPPO Report argued for a two-stage mandating process, in which the mission would be given “…an initial mandate with an overall political goal, a limited number of initial priority tasks and an explicit planning mandate that requests the Secretary-General to return within six months with a proposal for sequenced activities based on a limited number of achievable benchmarks for mission performance.”

Some prioritizing and sequencing of mandate components appears to make sense. Challenges will lurk in the interpretation of “priority” and “achievable,” as sequencing decisions can be driven by different imperatives—by mission capacity, or by member state reluctance. If security threats subside in the mission setting, the Council may lose its appetite for mandating fresh tasks, asking instead that these be handled by the UN country team. Some civil society organizations fear that entire categories of mission activity might be excluded, which may be the aim of some Council members. Here, too, the secretary-general needs to be able to articulate how and why the “sequenced activities” sustain stability and governance, and need the political heft, signaling, resources, and convening power of a Council-backed mandate and SRSG.

How should the Security Council, and the UN Secretariat, review mission progress and the appropriateness of mandates? The May 2018 presidential statement asks the secretary-general to conduct “rigorous reviews” of peace operations. An independent strategic review, while only advisory, can create a reliable point of reference through its own integrity and thoroughness, particularly if the independence of such reviews is maintained. Reviews are not intended as consensus documents. (The new practice of red-teaming, where drafts are challenged by critical thinkers, could usefully be applied to broader swathes of UN report-writing).

Strategic reviews should also consider the perspectives of other parts of the UN. Peace operations’ engagement with UN agencies and international financial institutions seems to vary. Longer-term stability needs collective partner support from the outset. Mission transition is too late to be establishing agency roles or handing over “residual” tasks. A stronger, more consistent relationship between the SRSG and UN team should be cultivated, even though UN agencies do not work at the direction of either the Council or the secretary-general. The current draft Declaration alludes to the need for greater coherence among UN system actors in a single blink-and-you’ll-miss-it sentence subclause, suggesting that this remains a low priority. Structural issues that perpetuate conflict, including factors inherent to a country’s economic model or historical patterns of social exclusion, must be understood in designing the political strategy: in Liberia, engaging with country team members and international financial institutions active on land reform, extractive industries, and decentralization enhanced the UN mission’s understanding and response.

What more can the Council do to transform the primacy of politics from a declaration to a habit? A central concern for Council members is host government commitment to the political strategy. In Burundi, a Statement of Mutual Commitment was drawn up with the government early in the involvement of the Peacebuilding Commission—the next best thing to having a full-blown compact with the government. Subsequently my colleagues in the Burundi mission and I developed detailed benchmarks to accompany the mandate of the UN Office in Burundi, negotiated and agreed upon with our government counterparts. The growing return of benchmarking to mission mandates is a welcome development, as it brings greater clarity to defining what will constitute success—or at least a good enough outcome—and, in the longer run, to setting out the mission exit strategy.

The red line running through A4P and the draft Declaration is a push towards greater coherence among governments, across national and regional strategies, in UN processes (for mission mandating and financing, for one), and within mandates. By the same token, it is time to move away from seasonal flurries of activity around recommendations to steady, consistent Security Council oversight and follow-up of peace operations practice. This requires Council members to “check against delivery” in their consultations with the leadership of each peace operations, and within the UN bureaucracy, as well as to support the secretary-general in the selection of politically forward-leaning SRSGs.

As the Declaration notes, “success depends on all stakeholders playing their part in a renewed collective commitment.” Outlined above are just some of the ways the Security Council can collectively nail down the primacy of politics in peace operations, namely by actively encouraging political strategies and independent reviews, and by mandating benchmarks. As for the only thing that’s not to love about Action for Peacekeeping, it’s the name. A notable HIPPO contribution was the nomenclature of “peace operations,” recognizing the full spectrum of options for political, military, and other action across both peacekeeping and political missions. Adjusting this terminology, at least, could be a relatively easy fix.

Karin Landgren is Executive Director of Security Council Report. She is a former UN Under-Secretary-General and has headed peace operations in Liberia, Burundi and Nepal. The views expressed here are her own.

[1] Using data from the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations on the 14 current UN peacekeeping operations, the Center on International Cooperation at NYU has calculated their average length at 28 years, with a median length of 19 years (data currently off-line). If this is reviewed without the arguably distorting effect of the five longest-running traditional (interpositioning) operations—UNMOGIP, UNTSO, UNFICYP, UNDOF, and UNIFIL, which have existed for between 40 and 70 years—the average duration is roughly 12.5 years, with a median of 11 years.