Should UN Peace Operations Get Off the Counter-Terror Bandwagon?

Peacekeepers clear the area in the aftermath of a terrorist attack that killed six peacekeepers in Mali in 2016. (UN Photo/Marco Dormino)

The hashtag of the recent—and first—United Nations High-Level Conference on Counter-Terrorism (#UNitetoCounterTerrorism) is emblematic of a discernible trend. Most member states, and many UN officials, want the UN to provide more support to international efforts to counter terrorism (CT), counter/prevent violent extremism (C/PVE), and stabilize conflict-affected countries. As a result, a wide range of UN offices have become involved, even including UNESCO, the educational, scientific, and cultural agency.

UN peace operations, including both peacekeeping and special political missions in a range of war-on-terror battlegrounds, have been roped in, too, with mandates from the Security Council to take a more proactive military posture, to assist conflict parties and/or to support C/PVE initiatives. Yet there has been too little discussion of the enormous risks this poses for UN efforts to maintain and build peace.

The Ailing War on Terror

By the end of the 2018 fiscal year, the US alone will have spent roughly $5.6 trillion combating terrorism since 9/11. Despite this, CT wars in AfghanistanMali and the SahelSomaliaSyria, and Yemen rumble on, and have already claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. Iraq and Libya remain profoundly unstable, and the underlying drivers of these conflicts continue to be neglected. For all the blood and treasure spent, global casualties from terror attacks increased seven-fold between 2000 and 2016. The ranks of violent Islamist movements more than tripled from 2000 to 2013. Even the main architects of C/PVE—the affable cousin of the war on terror—struggle to explain away its many flaws. 

Risks for the UN

As UN peace operations increasingly take on CT and C/PVE roles, the risks of replicating these costly failures are very real. Here are six:

1. More proactive use of force by UN troops to combat “terrorist” groups could perpetuate and exacerbate conflict. Mandates in contexts like Mali, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the Central African Republic require UN peacekeepers to anticipate attacks and proactively engage with potential attackers from designated “aggressor” or “terrorist” groups. However, the use of force for CT and stabilization purposes in many cases has failed to eliminate or weaken violent groups. Instead, it has exacerbated grievances and prolonged conflict. One reason why conflict drags on in Somalia is that indiscriminate violence by international actors against Somali civilians has helped to reinforce al-Shabaab’s narrative of grievance. A more proactive military posture inches the UN towards getting caught up in similar cycles of violence and revenge.

2. Supporting non-UN CT and military missions with logistics and intelligence risks making the UN a conflict party and complicit in conduct that fuels conflict. In December 2009, in Yemen, a US missile strike targeting al-Qaeda killed 41 civiliansChildren’s corpses quickly appeared on jihadist websites, fueling anti-US sentiment and support for al-Qaeda. With the UN now providing intelligence to counter-terror operations in Mali, the question is: can the UN trust allied militaries not to use it in mounting strikes and other operations that kill civilians? Either way, when a UN peace operation supplies “targeting packs” to CT forces, it stops being a peace operation and becomes a conflict party.

The same is true when the UN offers practical support to other violent CT operations that are implicated in serious abuses against civilians, as it does with CT operations in Mali by French and G5 Sahel joint forces, and with the African Union Mission to Somalia. Beyond drawing blowback against UN troops, the UN must avoid supporting abuses that escalate conflict.

3. UN support to militarized CT and stabilization efforts reduces the UN’s credibility, impartiality, and space for promoting peace, development, and human rights. Because “terrorist” groups rarely end in military defeat, it would be unwise to make the role of peacemaker untenable for the UN CT and militarized stabilization efforts intensify insecurity, so involvement in them can make the UN’s mediation, human rights monitoring, relief, and development work impossible to deliver.

As UN Secretary-General António Guterres recently told the Security Council, support for security actors in Mali has “contributed to the perception that the [UN] Mission was engaging in counter-terrorism.” Viewed as another belligerent force, the UN mission in Mali is stuck in a (very expensive) bunker trying to protect itself—unable to access communities, monitor human rights, and broker dialogue with armed groups effectively. Given that the bloody international fight against armed rebels in Mali has no clear political goal or endgame in sight, Guterres’ suggestion that the Mali mission “reprioritize its actions to focus on political tasks” should be taken seriously.

4. UN support to the expansion of state authority in CT and stabilization missions risks reinforcing state abuses, lessening reform incentives, and aggravating public grievances. In the rush to combat terror, Western governments have repeatedly backed allies whose abuse, corruption, and repression is at the heart of the problem. In Afghanistan, supporting the Northern Alliance against the Taliban meant handing the state over to known warlords, institutionalizing corruption and predation so severe that the public in some areas came to see the Taliban as a better alternative. A similar pattern has played out in SomaliaYemen, and elsewhere.

If UN missions support and extend the authority of abusive host governments, they risk enabling behavior that drives conflict. Several current peace operations risk falling into this trap, not least Mali, where the recent uncovering of mass graves filled with the Malian army’s victims should prompt an immediate redesign of the UN strategy and mandate.

5. UN involvement in training, equipping, and funding national and regional security forces to do CT could prove counterproductive. For decades in Somalia, attempts to train and equip local forces that lack civilian oversight structures have led to repeated defections, together with the loss of huge numbers of weapons, uniforms, and vehicles. By fueling corruption, assisting those responsible for human rights abuses, putting arms into the wrong hands, and lessening incentives for reform, the idea of giving problematic partners capacity to eliminate “terrorists” consistently backfires. UN peace operations must avoid repeating these mistakes.

6. Integrating C/PVE objectives, terminology, and programs into peace operations carries serious risks. Security Council mandates for Afghanistan and Somalia affirm support for host governments’ CT and CVE efforts, and UN peace operations in Mali, Somalia, and elsewhere are doing C/PVE programming. But many UN staff are deeply uncomfortable with C/PVE’s spread across the UN. When the UN defines conflict parties as “violent extremists” and undertakes C/PVE initiatives that often implicitly label young people and Muslims as “potential terrorists,” it renounces impartiality and sides with the host government and its allies. This lessens the UN’s ability to challenge a state’s behavior and approach, and to address the societal grievances that underpin many violent movements. It can also diminish the potential for the UN to be seen as a neutral arbiter in mediation efforts.

Ostensible attempts to “empower” civil society to work closely with states against “violent extremists” often distract from other kinds of support to civil society that would allow it to pursue its own agenda, including its vital role in pressing governments to improve their behavior. Overall, buying into C/PVE can alienate communities, taint the UN by association, and expose its programs to greater risk of attack. 

The Need for Honest Debate

Many UN documents discourage its agencies from playing an active role in CT, and push for greater respect for human rights as the key to sustainable and successful CT. Many UN officials are concerned about the above risks. However, there are grey areas in policy, and in a challenging political environment, few member states are flagging the dangers of increasing UN engagement in CT and C/PVE. This needs to change through frank debate about the risks and policy alternatives.

How Could the UN Keep the Focus on Peace Rather Than CT and C/PVE?  

First, the UN could safeguard its impartiality more carefully. It could separate itself from the military strategies of all conflict parties, and avoid supporting other military missions with funds, logistics, intelligence, and training. To achieve this, member states and senior UN leaders should strongly discourage Security Council members from forcing UN peace operations to replicate the war on terror’s failings in pursuit of their own strategic interests.

Second, the UN should recognize the conceptual and practical drawbacks of designating conflict parties as “aggressors,” “terrorists,” or “violent extremists,” and reject C/PVE approaches to strategy and programming. This is a vital way to safeguard UN impartiality and keep peacebuilding options on the table.

Third, rather than enabling abusive states to maintain problematic behavior, UN peace operations should press them to make peace and address public grievances. They should always have an integrated human rights component mandated to monitor and report on human rights abuses by all sides. The UN must incentivize respect for human rights and maintain clear boundaries on what support it is prepared to provide to governments who fail to curb abuse, corruption, and exclusion. That means withdrawing support from state institutions and redefining its mandate where necessary.

Finally, to help promote peace in complex environments, the strategic role for UN peace operations lies in four areas: protection, human rights monitoring, mediation, and creation of an enabling environment for relief, development, peacebuilding, and governance programs. Peace operations should develop greater civilian capacity to address conflict drivers, regardless of whether conflict parties are labelled “terrorists” or “violent extremists.” Peace operations must invest in the skills and flexibility to work more closely with communities, include them in peace processes, and assist them to work through their greatest challenges (including through community security approaches).

Within the UN system, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) is seen as a good example of a peace operation that defended its impartiality from international CT efforts. Its impartial efforts to monitor all conflict parties’ respect for human rights bought it the space and trust to support mediation efforts. Today’s world does not need more CT operations and C/PVE programs, but it certainly needs more peace operations of this kind.

This article summarizes the new Saferworld research report United Nations peace operations in complex environments: Charting the right course.” A version of it was originally published in Just Security.

Larry Attree is Head of Global Policy and Advocacy at Saferworld. Jordan Street is Policy and Advocacy Coordinator at Saferworld.