As the leader of multiple United Nations peacekeeping missions over the course of forty years at the UN, Alan Doss had to navigate difficult questions related to how missions could carry out their mandates in contexts with rebellions, political crises, and wars. On the sidelines of an event at the International Peace Institute (IPI), Doss spoke with Jake Sherman of IPI on his book, what he sees as the contributions and limitations of peacekeeping operations, and lessons for the future of UN peacekeeping.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
In your book, you grapple with the dilemma UN missions face in balancing protection of civilians mandates with the pursuit of political settlements. How did you navigate these dynamics as a Special Representative of the Secretary-General (SRSG)?
Mr. Doss: With considerable difficulty I have to say. The expectations are high and often outrun the political and operational capacities of peacekeepers to meet those expectations.
So protection mandates have to be anchored in a realistic political strategy and not just as an add-on to a peace process. The protection problem in the eastern Congo, for example, cannot be resolved without fundamental changes to the way that part of the country is governed and how communities share power.
We have tended to deal with symptoms rather than the underlying causes of violence against civilians. Right from the outset there is need for a frank discussion in the [UN] Security Council on the causes of the violence, including violence perpetrated by national security forces, and how it can be tackled. Sending UN forces to protect civilians against the failings of their own government is not a sustainable answer.
Protection is resource intensive and it requires much more than armed peacekeepers. In my book, I make a back of the envelope calculation of what an effective protection policy might require in the DRC. It far outstripped what we had. That doesn’t mean that we should throw up our hands in despair. We developed some innovative ideas to get better at protection on the ground, but I always felt that we were running against the tide.
A protection strategy needs to include efforts to build the justice system and respect for human rights without which the problems will continue. UN missions can contribute to these efforts during their time on the ground, but ultimately, they need to continue long after the departure of the mission, and require buy-in from the host government.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has prioritized professionalism and diversity in senior leadership, especially gender diversity. What do you see as the most important qualities and skills for mission leadership?
First, let me say that the gender dimension in peacekeeping isn’t only at the leadership level. It’s also at the middle level where leaders of the future should be groomed. It’s even more glaring on the military side of peacekeeping operations. During my 10 years in peacekeeping I never met a single female commander, though it’s worth noting that Major General Kristin Lund of Norway became the UN’s first female force commander in 2017 after being appointed by the secretary-general to head the UN Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO).
On mission leadership, I don’t think one size fits all. There are some generic qualities but they will always have to be adapted to the context. That said, let me outline a few.
I would start with the ability to inspire trust and confidence. That comes with listening, understanding, and empathy, something that Kofi Annan always emphasized. Second, a firm sense of direction based on priorities helps to keep you from being submerged by the daily troubles that beset most peacekeeping missions.
A third quality is patience and perseverance. As I remark in my book, peace processes are not linear exercises amenable to log frames and quantifiable outcomes. So a certain degree of doggedness is essential. That doesn’t mean ignoring bad news, but it does mean keeping a steady perspective and not giving into professional pessimism.
A fourth is an ability and willingness to communicate. Visibility is important, both to clearly demonstrate what the mission is doing, and what it is not, or cannot. It’s critical for setting and managing expectations—of the host government, country, and the Security Council.
You oversaw multiple UN peacekeeping missions in West Africa during periods of significant political transitions. What lessons would you highlight for peacekeeping in these contexts?
There are many lessons, but I’ll mention just four which I think are particularly important.
First, let’s remember that transitions do not occur in an historical vacuum; they have to be built on the debris of past failure. History casts a large and lingering shadow. Transitions have to address the fundamental fractures that created state collapse in the first place. Only national actors can do that. Peacekeepers and other external actors can help create the time and space for that process to go forward, but they can never replace national will.
Second, it’s essential to understand the ambitions, motivations, and fears of the people who are expected to make the transition work. I worried sometimes that we were proposing well-meaning, logical solutions that were simply not realistic because we had not factored in those human dimensions; and then we wondered why things didn’t happen.
Third, transitions need to be manageable. They require some kind of organized framework based on a few key priorities, which government and national and external partners can agree on and monitor. We need to keep it simple, and not try to do too many things, too quickly. We should remember that transitions usually involve very weak national administrations with limited capacity, and limited resources.
More donors make for more demands. Sometimes, we were draining rather than building capacity. I understand the need for some conditionality, but we must recognize the limitations of what a newly installed administration can achieve.
Fourth, transitions need to be tangible. People need to see some improvement in their daily lives, starting with security. Expectations usually run very high. This was evident in both Sierra Leone and Liberia after the wars ended. But those expectations must be tempered by some realism about what can actually be achieved.
How have partnerships impacted the efficacy of peacekeeping missions? What are some of the areas in which non-UN partners can strengthen the work of UN peacekeepers on the ground?
I certainly agree that partnerships can strengthen UN interventions. But a partnership is more than a relationship: it implies a common goal and coordinated action. So partnerships have to be carefully cultivated and adroitly managed, starting upfront with a clear delineation of respective roles and responsibilities.
This is particularly crucial when military forces are deployed in the same theatre. My chapter on Côte d’Ivoire looks at that issue in some depth because of the presence in country of a French rapid reaction force that was mandated to work closely with the UN mission.
The UN system can be an immensely helpful partner. But it has to be a partnership and not just the SRSG telling UN agencies or programs what to do or not do. The relationship with humanitarian and human rights actors can be especially sensitive; and personalities always play a role. Again, I dwell at some length on this question in various parts of the book because partnerships are not a panacea.
Looking beyond the UN system, I would certainly encourage peacekeeping operations to develop a strong rapport with civil society and the NGO world. Some organizations may want to remain aloof in the name of preserving their neutrality. But I always found others who were willing to work with peacekeepers provided the boundaries of cooperation were well defined.
One area that I found especially amenable to collaboration was community-based initiatives. Civil society organizations (CSOs) and communities of faith are usually much closer to the people than government authorities and mission staff. So for the protection of civilians and the promotion of reconciliation, CSOs could be strong partners.
What can UN member states do to overcome divisions and what changes do you see foresee for the future of peacekeeping?
I think most observers believe that force in itself is not the answer even though it may be needed in extremis—hence the emphasis on political solutions. But political solutions usually require compromise, which becomes ever more difficult if the major actors—local and external—are deeply divided and line up behind the protagonists on one side or the other.
A deeply polarized Security Council makes prevention that much harder. And when prevention fails, the Council is not well-placed to craft a response to the crises that often ensue. The tragedies of Syria, Yemen, and Libya are surely prime examples of the consequences of the failure to find unity of purpose within the Council.
There are also implications for on-going peace operations that may run into trouble.
I was in three missions that were almost derailed by serious setbacks. Fortunately, the Council was largely of one mind and we were able to stabilize the situation. But this is not a given. If the compromises that make peacekeeping operations possible evaporate, then they will become very vulnerable to crises of one kind or another, often orchestrated by the protagonists who can be quite skilled at playing off Council members against each other.
It’s worth recalling that the first UN operation in the Congo (ONUC) was launched 60 years ago this July. It was a ground breaking effort, a multidisciplinary mission. Unfortunately, the operation quickly became a hostage of the Cold War. After ONUC closed down in 1964, it was almost three decades before UN peacekeeping operations resumed with an equally broad remit.
I certainly hope that we are not heading in the same direction. The UN has tended to intervene in smaller wars where big powers were less directly involved. However, if left untended, small wars run the risk of becoming much bigger wars that suck in larger interests making them far more difficult to resolve.
And all the more reason then, to ensure that UN peace operations are kept in a state of good repair and given the mandate and the means to intervene quickly and effectively to head off, or at least contain, what I call in my book “the contagion of conflict.”