Learning From Recent Independent Reviews of UN Peace Operations

Independent reviews are increasingly popular tools for evaluating the strategies and performance of United Nations peace operations. They have been requested by both the UN Security Council and the secretary-general, and have covered multidimensional peacekeeping operations such as the UN Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA) and UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), field-based special political missions including the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) and UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI), and regional offices such as the UN Office to the African Union (UNOAU) and UN Office for West Africa and the Sahel (UNOWAS). Eighteen reviews have taken place since the practice was established in 2017 (see Table 1), with a nineteenth currently underway.

Independent reviews are highly political and analytically complex processes. At their most aspirational, they can help inject fresh thinking and bold ideas into otherwise routine discussions about UN peace operations. They can also create space for credible, external voices to issue findings and propose recommendations that do not conform to prevailing interests at headquarters or in the field. But while these exercises are nominally similar on the surface, the eighteen reviews have had different political mandates, methodologies, outcomes, and impact. This diversity contributes to a wide array of experiences.

Features of the Independent Review Process

The appointment of an independent, external team leader is the most visible feature of the process. The UN has preferred appointing a former senior headquarters official, a special representative of the secretary-general, or force commander to lead these exercises, balancing peace operations expertise, country or region expertise, political gravitas and credibility, and distance from the UN Secretariat in their choices. An under-considered factor in this equation is gender balance: women have led only two of the completed independent reviews.

Table 1: Independent Reviews of UN Peace Operations (2017-2021)

Independent reviews are hybrid exercises: while the team leader comes from outside the organization, the rest of the team often includes officials from different UN departments and agencies. Team compositions often strive to balance substantive expertise, language skills, gender balance, departmental interests, and professional seniority.

Review teams also draw upon additional tools to support their work. For example, they receive briefings from UN officials and outside experts to help inform their conflict analyses and lines of inquiry. Mission data and related analytical products are prepared to help the review teams ground their assessments in rigorous evidence bases. And red teams—a panel of external reviewers—comprising three to five UN and outside experts are convened to stress test each review’s methodologies and comment on the draft report.

All reports are first submitted to the secretary-general, accompanied by cover letters from the Department of Political Affairs (DPPA) or Department of Peace Operations (DPO). The team leaders brief the UN’s Deputies and Executive Committees on their findings and recommendations. If the report is intended to remain confidential, the secretary-general will usually summarize the review in a report or a letter to the Security Council, as seen with the reviews of the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) or the UN Integrated Peacebuilding Support Office in Guinea-Bissau (UNIOGBIS). This practice was used for fourteen of the eighteen reviews to date. If the report is intended to be disclosed in full to the Security Council, the secretary-general will submit the report along with a covering letter that documents the organization’s own perspectives: recent reviews of the UN Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) and UNMISS are noteworthy because the entire reports were made public.

Takeaways From Previous Independent Reviews

While each of the eighteen independent reviews have their own context, process, and outcomes, some trends cut across these processes.

Varying Objectives

Independent reviews have been mandated by different UN entities at different points in the targeted mission’s lifecycle. These reviews have sought to achieve different, but not mutually exclusive, political objectives. Some were intended to offer a holistic evaluation, epitomized by the secretary-general’s review of eight peacekeeping operations between 2017 and 2018. Others sought to assess how changes in security conditions or political processes would impact a mission’s strategies. Some reviews—including the 2019 reviews of UNIOGBIS and MONUSCO—were aimed to inform potential mission drawdowns or reconfiguration processes. The Security Council has requested some reviews as tools for political compromise during mandate negotiations, especially when one member strongly advocates for changes to a mission’s priorities or footprint. And some reviews mandated by the secretary-general have been used to reconcile different desired approaches by the mission and the Secretariat.

Negotiating Independence

Independence is a flexible concept, the character of each review’s independence is influenced by factors beyond just the appointment of an external team leader. At the most fundamental level, the independence (and value) of these exercises rests on the team leader’s unquestioned ability to issue findings and recommendations separate from the interests of the UN System or Security Council members.

But the team leader’s background, expertise, and understanding of their mandate also informs how they have interpreted their independence. Some emphasized that independent reviews afforded them the opportunity to offer frank and unvarnished recommendations to the secretary-general or the Security Council, even if their inputs did not sit well in the prevailing political climate. Others highlighted how they interpreted their roles as carefully balancing independent analysis and constructive engagement, in part to ensure their recommendations could be taken forward within highly politicized ecosystems.

Balancing Transparency

Whether and how the final report of an independent review is shared has an outsized influence on the exercise’s transparency and, by extension, its independence. Less than one quarter of the independent review reports have been shared in full with the Security Council or been made public in their entirety. There are advantages of a final report that remains confidential to the secretary-general: team leaders can provide a more direct and honest analysis knowing that they are addressing one client (i.e., the secretary-general) rather than the fifteen clients of the Security Council. But these confidential reports have also received the most scrutiny due to the inability for the general public, let alone the Security Council members, to see the precise findings and recommendations.

Confidentiality has at times fostered incentives for the UN Secretariat to filter out findings and recommendations, or for Security Council members to intensely lobby the Secretariat behind the scenes for their preferred outcomes. These political tensions were most prominent following Ellen Løj’s review of the UN Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) in 2018. The Security Council has mandated independent reviews more frequently since that point, in part to gain leverage to request the full report.

Adaptation and Flexibility

Independent reviews have also helped incubate new tools within the UN to complement existing planning and analysis approaches. Their light methodology has encouraged context-driven adaptability, and review teams have taken different approaches to prioritizing field visits, managing internal workflows, and consulting with critical partners. When appropriate, some review teams have included consultants to work alongside UN officials in order to provide specific forms of support, reflecting a blended approach of internal and external capacities. The emphasis on data-driven evidence and the red team exercise, which first emerged through the independent review process, are now be expanded to other parts of the UN system, e.g., the UN’s system-wide data strategy. 

Managing Team Dynamics

Building a common purpose, shared expectations, and a clear division of labor within the review team itself are critical to an effective process. While review team members theoretically support the team leader in an independent capacity, they often straddle dual identities. Sometimes they act as individuals with specific substantive expertise, and other times they are unofficial representatives of the departments that nominate them. Review teams have also used different divisions of labor within the teams: some prioritized inclusivity, with all the team members participating in frequent briefings; others tended to consolidate inputs into the hands of a select number of members. While each of these approaches has benefits and drawbacks, the onus is on the team leader to make the expectations and responsibilities clear to all team members. Challenges have frequently arisen when the approach was unclear or inconsistent.

Navigating Consultations

Independent reviews have to navigate a wide range of interests inside and outside of the UN. Effective consultations can help solicit diverse perspectives, identify policy red lines, build political support for the independent review, and manage expectations. But these review exercises have at times struggled to build a common understanding among different constituencies about the process and its possible outcomes.

Security Council members in theory welcome independent inputs into their deliberations, but have been skeptical of these exercises when they are not guaranteed access to the full reports, or they have sought to use the process to drive their own national interests. The missions under review do not have defined roles in these processes, nor do they have influence over the final recommendations. This at times has led some missions to be skeptical of the exercises, interpreting them as signs of no confidence in their work. National stakeholders and regional partners are part and parcel of the review process especially as the UN strives to refine or adapt its political engagement. But it is similarly difficult to sustain their buy-in to the process when these stakeholders do not have influence over the review’s recommendations and how they may be implemented.

Sustaining Independent Reviews Into the Future

Independent reviews are becoming a fixture in the landscape of UN peace operations. And while they have evolved considerably since 2017, there are nonetheless some unresolved dynamics that will impact the viability of this practice moving forward.

First, it is unclear to what extent independent reviews should be kept as an exceptional practice, or whether they should be incorporated as recurring features for all UN peace operations. Expanding the practice may have political, operational, resource, and administrative implications that need to be examined in more detail.

Second, identifying ways to more systematically implement review recommendations is necessary to uphold their value as a practice. Independent team leaders complete their mandates as soon as they present the final report, making those best positioned to advocate for the recommendations not responsible for doing so. And because this ownership rests with the them—and not the Security Council, UN Secretariat, or missions—then recommendations that are not backed universally may fall by the wayside.

And third, there are legitimate reasons for both the UN Secretariat and the Security Council to mandate independent reviews, and to want purview over their findings and recommendations. But divergent incentives about the reports—best exemplified by debates over confidentiality—can foster distrust between these stakeholders at decisive political junctures. Finding ways to adapt these exercises to satisfy these different interests will be necessary to sustain their relevance.

This article was adapted from a paper prepared by the International Peace Institute (IPI) as part of its project on Assessing the Independent Reviews of UN peace operations, funded by the United Kingdom.