How Not to Do UN Peacekeeping

Canadian Air Task Force deployed to MINUSMA in Mali, August, 2018. (UN Photo/Marco Dormino)

What factors influence the effectiveness of peace operations? Looking back over the past 75 years of United Nations (UN) peacekeeping, this is the most enduring question from researchers and policymakers. Historically, most peacekeeping operations have been successful. However, UN peacekeeping is now under new pressure because of a significant loss of trust between its three large stabilization operations and their host countries of Central African Republic (CAR), the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and Mali.

This trust deficit, coupled with financial pressure and heightened geopolitical rivalry, has resulted in a steady decline in the number of UN peacekeeping operations over the last decade. No new peacekeeping missions have been deployed since 2014. The new peace operations that have been deployed over the last decade—for example, the UN Verification Mission in Colombia, the UN Mission to Support the Hodeidah Agreement (UNMHA), and the UN Integrated Transition Assistance Mission in Sudan (UNITAMS)—have all been deployed as special political missions.

This may be a temporary period of contraction and moderation, but it does signal a tension between the overall evidence that UN peacekeeping works and the current perception in the Security Council and elsewhere that the remaining large UN peacekeeping operations are ineffective and problematic.

Despite the role of the UN peacekeeping operations in CAR, the DRC, and Mali in contributing to preventing large-scale violent conflict and protecting thousands of civilians, the security situations in each of these countries have deteriorated over the last few years. The mandates, capabilities, and activities of these missions were thus insufficient to end violent conflict and to prevent an increase in civilian and combatant casualties and deaths. The inability of these operations to protect civilians at a scale matching the expectations raised by their mandates has contributed significantly to the perception that these operations are ineffective.

One significant factor that distinguishes the UN peacekeeping operations in CAR, the DRC, and Mali from the historic record is the absence of a viable political or peace process. One of the most enduring lessons we have learned over the past 75 years of peacekeeping is that, without such a process in place, peace operations cannot be realistically expected to end the conflict in these countries on their own. Peace cannot be imposed.

Another factor that sets these missions apart from the historic legacy of UN peacekeeping is that they have all been specifically designated as “stabilization” missions. Previously, only one other UN peacekeeping mission had “stabilization” in its name—the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti. There is currently no UN policy that explains why these three missions are called stabilization missions, what the implications are for their mandate, or how they differ from peacekeeping operations that don’t have stabilization in their name, like the UN Mission in South Sudan. However, if we analyze the mandates and actions of the three stabilization missions in CAR, DRC, and Mali, we can identify what they have in common:

  • they operate in the midst of ongoing conflicts, without a clear peace process or political project;
  • they are mandated to contribute to restoring and maintaining stability by helping to protect the government and its people against identified aggressors; helping the government to reclaim control over territories previously controlled by such aggressors; and helping the government to extend the authority of the state throughout its territory;
  • they operate in support of and alongside the security forces of the host nation, and their mandates often include supporting efforts to build the capacity of these security forces; and
  • they are mandated to use force robustly in the face of anticipated attacks against themselves and those they are tasked to protect, and encouraged to do so proactively.

The essential difference between peacekeeping and stabilization seems to be that, in peacekeeping, the aim is to maintain a ceasefire or implement a peace agreement with the consent of the parties to a conflict, while in stabilization, the theory of change seems to be to assist the host state to restore and maintain order by containing aggressors, protecting civilians, and building the capacity of the state, especially its security services. There are thus important differences between how the principles of peacekeeping—consent, impartiality, and use of force in self-defense—are interpreted in peacekeeping and stabilization operations. In stabilization operations, the missions only have the consent of the host state and are mandated to act against certain parties to the conflict, so their impartiality can be questioned, at least in relation to those identified to be aggressors. For example, they are authorized to use force to protect civilians, UN and other international staff, and humanitarian workers, and in the case of the DRC, to neutralize armed groups like the M23.

All the high-level strategic reviews of UN peacekeeping, including the Brahimi panel (2000) and the High-level Independent Panel of Experts on Peace Operations (HIPPO) report (2015), stressed the primacy of politics and the importance of peacekeeping being directed by a clear political strategy. Adam Day and Charles Hunt point out that a preoccupation with protection distracts from the primacy of politics and other interdependent priorities.

I will go a step further and argue that protection and stabilization mandates, in a context where there is no ceasefire, peace agreement, or viable political project, produce a stabilization dilemma: The more effectively a peace operation protects civilians and helps to achieve stability, the less incentive there is for ruling political elites to find long-term political solutions. This often produces an outcome that Jan Pospisil refers to as a “formalized political unsettlement.”

  • This stabilization dilemma generates several additional unintended consequences. Stabilization is inherently a state- and institution-building set of activities. From a Western state formation experience, the assumption is that state institutions are politically impartial, but the reality in many of these settings is that one set of elites has captured the state, and others contest their exclusion and marginalization. If the UN is perceived to be enhancing the capacity of one party to the conflict against others, then it becomes a part of the conflict and loses its impartiality. Sarah von Billerback and Oisín Tansey argue that another unintended consequence of these mandates is that they unintentionally enable authoritarianism by building the capacity of incumbent authoritarian leaders and by signaling a permissive environment for authoritarian behavior. A further perverse effect is that it traps peacekeeping operations in place, because without a viable political project, they lack an exit strategy or end-state.
  • While the presence of peacekeeping operations helps to protect these states and from large-scale violence, they don’t have the mandate or capabilities to neutralize armed groups. When armed groups are disrupted but not defeated, they may morph into something better and stronger. Being under pressure can make armed groups adapt and improve their tactics, and diversify their operations and their means of income and support, locally and internationally. The net result is more resilient armed groups.
  • An additional perverse effect is that the longer these operations stay in place, the more they become part of the local political economy. The political and economic elites that have captured the state are extracting a rent from the peacekeeping operation and the international presence they enable, through the renting of properties, the provision of private security and other services, and income for the local retail and entertainment sectors. They thus have an incentive not to create the conditions that will interrupt their ability to sustain this rent economy.
  • The compounded result of all these perverse effects is a prolongation of the conflict and thus a continuation of the risk of violence for the civilian population. The stabilization dilemma thus generates several perverse effects which not only undermine the credibility of these specific UN operations, but also the credibility of UN peacekeeping as an instrument, as the decline in its use demonstrates. Overall, it has also contributed to a decline in public trust in the UN Security Council’s ability to maintain international peace and security.

Both the Brahimi report (deploy only when there is a peace to keep) and the HIPPO report (the primacy of politics) emphasized that UN peacekeeping operations can be effective only when there is a viable political project they can support and protect. This implies that the Security Council should only deploy a UN peacekeeping operation if there is a ceasefire agreement; a peace agreement or a peace process to which the major parties to the conflict have committed themselves; or a clear political roadmap toward such a peace process that is realistically achievable.

The point is not that the UN Security Council should shirk its responsibility, but rather that it should not turn to UN peacekeeping operations for the sake of convenience or political expediency. The Security Council has a range of tools at its disposal and a spectrum of peace operations to consider. UN peacekeeping operations are one of these tools. Seventy-five years of peacekeeping experience has shown that it is effective in certain contexts but performs poorly in others, and one of the key factors that influences its effectiveness is whether there is a viable political project in place. If there is not one, then the consistent advice to the Council from the various expert commissions it has commissioned over the years is that it should look beyond peacekeeping to the other tools at its disposal. This can, depending on the situation, imply diplomatic and peacemaking efforts to pursue ceasefire and peace agreements, and when there is a need for peace enforcement, look to coalitions of the willing or regional arrangements, like mandating the African Union to act on its behalf.

Cedric de Coning is a research professor with the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NUPI) and a senior advisor to the African Center for the Construction Resolution of Disputes (ACCORD). He also coordinates the Effectiveness of Peace Operations Network (EPON).