As the United Nations Department of Peace Operations (DPO) embarks on a project to examine the future of peacekeeping, one thing is becoming abundantly clear: the prospects for UN peacekeeping—indeed of peace operations—are inseparable from those of the UN as an organization.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has spoken of the four, now five, “horsemen” that threaten our common future—geostrategic tensions, the climate crisis, growing global mistrust, what he calls the dark side of the digital world, and the COVID-19 pandemic. He has called on the global community to rally around a common agenda for a peaceful, inclusive, and sustainable world, of which peace operations will be a part. How the UN positions itself in a multipolar world, where multilateralism and the UN’s normative framework are no longer the default approach taken by some of its most powerful members, will be a key determinant for peace operations.
Peacekeeping operations still enjoy a high degree of unified support from the UN Security Council, but they are not immune to geopolitical friction and rivalry, as we have seen through the non-unanimous adoption of resolutions on countries hosting missions. Disunity in the Council will be exploited by parties on the ground, and competition among the permanent five may get in the way of multilateral policymaking for future conflicts. The COVID related economic crisis is resulting in intense scrutiny of UN budgets, and, barring a major crisis, appetite for costly operations in the coming years is likely to be low (despite being an inexpensive option). Meanwhile, a toxic cocktail of conflict drivers will continue to increase fragility across the globe.
Many are pessimistic about the prospects of peacekeeping missions given these challenges. To be sure, five missions have closed or downsized significantly since 2015 and it is fair to question whether the “moment” of large, multidimensional missions has passed, along with the political conditions that made them possible. But peacekeeping has always been the product of vision and resourcefulness. The history of peacekeeping is peppered with the ingenuity of its masters.
The first armed peacekeeping operation, the UN Emergency Force, was established amid Cold War tensions, and despite Security Council vetoes. Recognizing the UN organization’s limitations in dealing with the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s Ituri region in 2003, Secretary-General Kofi Annan called on the European Union to step in with its first operation outside Europe, a bold move that pacified the region and bought time for political negotiations supported by the UN mission at the time, MONUC. The UN-African Union Mission in Darfur’s (UNAMID) hybrid model enabled engagement on Darfur in the midst of violence and conflict, and the mission in Central African Republic, MINUSCA, was created in 2014 at a time of great power tensions over Ukraine. It is not that hard to imagine that divisions between powers can lead to UN missions as the default universal organization.
Seizing—and creating—political opportunities for peace are fundamental to sustaining a positive operational contribution. Five factors to enable such a dynamic are beginning to emerge from DPO’s future of peacekeeping project.
Anticipate Where the UN May Play a Positive Role
Stronger connections are required between the UN organization’s preventive and operational roles. We must leverage our regional presences, network of envoys, and emissaries to build relationships in volatile regions where the UN may eventually be asked to play a role. For this, we must leverage all the resources of the UN’s peace and security pillar and other UN actors, and embrace the notion of a spectrum of flexibly applied peace operations; something that, as noted elsewhere, has not been fully realized. We are, after all, already operating along a tangled-up spectrum of sorts, in which peacekeeping cannot be narrowly equated with large footprint presences, nor special political missions with the absence of police or military components. Narrow strictures do not lend themselves to creative solutions. We must allow the circumstances of a conflict and the needs of those affected by it to shape the role that the UN should play.
Deepen and Cultivate the Already Strong Support That UN Operations Enjoy
Wobbly Security Council support for individual operations notwithstanding, UN peacekeeping enjoys robust and cross-regional political support, as is clear from the Action for Peacekeeping initiative’s 154 member state endorsements. This cross-regional legitimacy is our strongest calling card, and one that should be nurtured. As the geopolitical tectonic plates shift, the UN should cultivate new partnerships with emerging actors to tap into and build support, both for existing and prospective missions. And as regional and sub-regional organizations across various continents become more politically and operationally involved in conflict resolution and management, the UN Secretariat should widen its scope of partners and the nature of its partnerships—perhaps even acting as a mechanism to bring different regional and sub-regional organizations closer together, using the track record of UN standards and practice as a springboard.
Incubate Knowledge and Expertise on Emerging Areas
As we look to the future, there are clear global trends that will shape the conflicts of the future. The UN needs to strengthen its strategic planning and foresight to develop responses to the factors that will shape conflict in the future, including drawing upon predictive analytics and modeling. How will the progression of climate change interact with population movements and how should the UN pre-position its capabilities to respond? How will urbanization impact the conduct of war? What measures should be put in place to prevent disinformation resulting in violence and undermining peace? What cyber capabilities should missions be developing? In a digital world, the UN Secretariat will need to move on from analogue ways and embrace new skills, expertise, and ways of working to keep up with the rest of the world.
Respond to the Hopes and Aspirations of Host Countries and Populations
The pandemic has shed a harsh light on existing inequalities and discrimination within countries; peace operations have been criticized for supporting elite bargains that focus on short-term stability and for failing to enable the socio-economic transformation required to address underlying grievances. Understanding and acting upon the distribution of power and resources in conflict, including acting to mitigate the perpetuation of inequalities by a peace operation, is a longstanding challenge that will remain relevant in the years to come.
Peacekeeping operations have the unique ability to bring the voice of a struggling mother in an otherwise remote and inaccessible part of the world into the Security Council’s chambers. They also can seek and build the accountability of host authorities to their people. We will need to continue developing our ability to build bridges between the people and the state.
Preparing for Different Footprints
The operations of the future must first and foremost be adapted to the evolving dynamics of conflict, much as integrated missions responded to the multidimensional nature of civil wars. Today, the normalization of counterterrorism across wars in Africa and the Middle East, and the emergence of new operational actors means that a new shift is required in how the UN deploys. In such contexts, a more streamlined, nimble mode of intervention that leverages partnerships with development, peacebuilding, or security partners, and an agile, smaller footprint may be warranted, potentially drawing on a more flexible global workforce. The UN should also be prepared for the possibility of playing a role in inter-state conflict, perhaps through cyber versions of traditional confidence-building, inter-positioning or monitoring functions. In all scenarios, the UN will need to take a quantum leap in its use of digital technology, from creating new knowledge from the wealth of data its operations collect, to responding to online incitement to violence and disinformation where mandated.
The UN can continue to play a positive role in peace and security through its operational work, even in these challenging times. We must do so by cultivating relationships, building bridges, and exercising foresight. Ultimately, the success of UN peacekeeping operations will depend on the legitimacy the UN itself is seen to have. That in turn will be affected by how impartial the UN as an organization is perceived to be. Carving out that space may be the biggest challenge to the UN’s operational work.
Naomi Miyashita is Policy Planning Team Leader in DPO.
This article is part of a series exploring the future of United Nations peacekeeping.