Lessons From the High-Level Panel’s 2015 Review for the Future of Peace Operations

A meeting of the UN Security Council in December 2015 where a presidential statement on peacekeeping operations was passed, noting in particular the recommendations of the HIPPO review. (UN Photo/Rick Bajornas)

In June 2014, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon announced that he would establish a review of peacekeeping operations, fourteen years after the Brahimi report. He was swiftly persuaded, however, that the review should also extend to the other category of peace operations, special political missions, which had been greatly increasing in number and scale. Thus, the review was entrusted to a High-level Independent Panel on Peace Operations, soon dubbed HIPPO.

Central to HIPPO’s June 2015 report was a strong insistence on escaping the bifurcation in planning, management, and funding between peacekeeping operations and the large field-based special political missions, in favor of what we called a “spectrum of peace operations.” This would enable the UN to deliver and adapt more flexibly-tailored missions, rather than be constrained by mindsets and bureaucracies inclined to templates.

The loss of this central recommendation is the most regrettable failure in following through on the HIPPO approach. Much of what HIPPO advocated has been adopted in the past five years. Our emphasis on the primacy of politics has been strongly embraced, although it proves harder to reflect in specific contexts. Recommended improvements in the performance of peacekeepers, already under way, have been given further impetus. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has rapidly fulfilled HIPPO’s recommendations regarding appointing more women to senior leadership positions, and set about tackling sexual exploitation and abuse by mission personnel. The emphasis on partnership with regional organizations has found overwhelming acceptance, especially as regards the African Union (AU), although the warm collaboration at the top of the organizations has yet to be found consistently country-by-country, and the United States in particular has stood in the way of progress towards the funding of AU peace operations out of UN assessed contributions as HIPPO recommended.

These and other aspects of HIPPO’s recommendations were well reflected in Secretary-General Guterres’ Action for Peacekeeping (A4P) initiative. But A4P also displays a reversion to an exclusive focus on peacekeeping, rather than the full spectrum of peace operations. A key question which should therefore still be asked is: just how much progress has been made in overcoming the constraints to well designed and flexibly adapted peace operations?

HIPPO directed some of its most trenchant criticism at the dysfunction of the departmental configuration which saw persistent infighting between the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) and the Department of Political Affairs (DPA). The secretary-general has restructured the peace and security departments to seek to overcome the duplication and rivalry of regional divisions in two departments. The single political-operational structure under regional assistant-secretaries-general reporting to both the under-secretaries-general for political and peacebuilding affairs and for peace operations can ensure that peace operations are designed and managed within their regional context, promote integrated analysis and strategies, and achieve smoother transitions along the spectrum of peace operations. A Standing Principals’ Group has been established under the chairmanship of the secretary-general, intended to provide unified leadership for a “whole of pillar” approach across the peace and security pillar. The Secretary-General’s Executive Committee, the Strategic Coordination Unit, and the Regional Monthly Reviews which are a major legacy of the Human Rights Up Front initiative, all offer opportunities for the full UN tool box available across all three pillars to be more coherently deployed.

However, the rival mindsets carried forward from DPKO and DPA into the new structure have yet to be fully overcome. Many opportunities for common approaches to all peace operations continue to be lost. The refusal of key member states to have any of large field-based special political missions brought within the operational responsibility of the new Department of Peace Operations, as initially recommended by the secretary-general, means that despite its name, DPO remains a Department of Peacekeeping Operations only, risking an exclusive identification of peace operations with peacekeeping. This refusal was linked to the firm resistance of the permanent five members of the Security Council (P5) to HIPPO’s recommendation that special political missions should no longer be funded out of the regular budget, and that there should be a single “peace operations account” to finance all peace operations and related backstopping activities. The handicaps of this budgetary distinction were long-ago spelt out by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and remain substantial, especially for large special political missions and for transitions.

Like the Brahimi report before it, HIPPO was highly critical of the limited capacity of the UN Secretariat for strategic analysis, planning, and review of peace operations. The establishment of a Strategic Monitoring and Evaluation Unit in the Executive Office of the Secretary-General, with responsibility for strategic direction and planning for UN conflict response efforts, and a particular focus on new and transitioning peace operations, promised improvement, but it is overburdened with less strategic tasks. Instead of there being an overall planning capacity for the peace and security pillar, responsibility remains split between the two departments, a deficiency exposed by recent planning for the transition in Sudan. HIPPO’s recommendation of independent evaluations using external expertise is partly reflected in the independent leadership of the series of strategic reviews of major missions, now using data analysis and subjected to “red-teaming.” But the full outcomes of such reviews have not always been openly reported to the Security Council, as they should be, along with the Secretariat response. In the worst case, France was allowed to partly suppress the independent review of the UN Mission in Mali (MINUSMA).

Security Council members have been somewhat responsive to HIPPO’s criticism of “Christmas-tree mandates,” powerfully endorsed by the secretary-general’s own declaration that “Christmas is over,” and our advocacy of prioritization and sequencing of mission tasks. But the Council, and the Secretariat in its proposals, struggle to reflect these in individual mission mandates, and there has been little improvement in strategic discussion in the Security Council before the renegotiation of mandates. Since HIPPO reported, there has been no deployment of any new peacekeeping operation in which the proposal for two-stage mandating would be tested. The budgetary process, with its post-by-post approval of staffing, remains a major obstacle to flexibility in mission adaptation.

No aspect of the Brahimi and HIPPO reports bears more repeating than their observations on mission leadership. “Effective, dynamic leadership can make the difference between a cohesive mission with high morale and effectiveness despite adverse circumstances, and one that struggles to maintain any of those attributes…Although political and geographical considerations are legitimate, in the Panel’s view managerial talent and experience must be accorded at least equal priority.”[1] “There has not been a quantum improvement in the appointment of high-quality senior mission leaders…The factors undermining the selection and preparation of leaders of UN peace operations today include…lack of consistent application of a merit-based selection process for the highest level of mission leaders…”[2]

Rather than a quantum improvement, lobbying by member states for appointments of their nationals in what they see as their own interest, and further concessions to P5 approval of what should be the secretary-general’s representatives in reality as well as in name, seem to be at an all-time high. The recent cases of Libya, Mali, and Sudan have all spilled into the public domain, and roles that are urgently needed remain too long unfilled. HIPPO’s proposals for reinforcing the secretary-general’s independence in the appointment of senior leadership deserve consideration more than ever, including the suggestion that the secretary-general should establish an ad hoc group of former senior field leaders to advise on the suitability of potential candidates to be considered for mission leadership. HIPPO also recommended that performance management of heads of mission should be strengthened, including through “360-degree” appraisals and staff opinion surveys on mission management.

The UN has, from its earliest days, seen a compromise in appointments between the demands of the most powerful member states, and the Charter commitment to an international civil service and “the paramount consideration…of securing the highest standards of efficiency, competence and integrity.” As the Organization passes its 75th anniversary, there is no greater need than a restoration of the balance towards an international civil service, including in the leadership and staffing of its peace operations.

In his recent review of the implementation of his peace and security reform, Secretary-General Guterres recognized the need for corrective measures in some significant respects: to better coordinate the policy structures of the peace and security pillar, including a joint study to assess cooperation between special political missions and peacekeeping operations; and to ensure that the entire pillar has access to dedicated integrated assessment and planning capacity. Changing the work culture is understood to remain work in progress. Five years after HIPPO’s recommendations were first being considered by the Secretariat and by member states, those which remain unfulfilled merit renewed attention.

Ian Martin is the former special representative of the United Nations secretary-general in East Timor (1999), Nepal (2007-9) and Libya (2011-2), and a member of the HIPPO review panel. 

This article is part of a series exploring the future of United Nations peacekeeping.

[1] Brahimi Report, paras.92, 95.

[2] HIPPO Report, paras.268, 270.