Mediation in Peacekeeping Contexts: Trends and Challenges for Mission Leadership

UNMIS head addresses civilians and rebel forces in northern Darfur in October, 2006. (UN Photo/Fred Noy)

The year 2023 marks the 75th anniversary of the deployment of the first United Nations (UN) peacekeeping operation to the Middle East, the UN Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO). Even though less often mentioned, it also marks the first appointment of a UN high-profile mediator, Count Folke Bernadotte. Since then, the UN has frequently been involved in mediation in peacekeeping contexts. Indeed, the leadership of “multidimensional” peacekeeping missions—which combine military, civilian, and police capabilities—plays an important role in furthering political solutions to conflicts. This article explores the mediation role of peacekeeping operations and shares reflections on how it may develop in the future.

Mission Leadership and the Primacy of Politics

A civilian diplomat, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General (SRSG) ensures the leadership of multidimensional peacekeeping missions through managing the mission and coordinating its civilian, military, and police components. The SRSG is chiefly responsible for interpreting the mandate and using it to develop mission plans for all three components. Mission leaders are critical actors in driving the political efforts of any peacekeeping operation, and in many cases are the lead mediators in facilitating the peace process.

Indeed, the “primacy of politics” has become a key principle of UN peacekeeping operations as underlined in the HIPPO report of 2015. Developed partly as a response to increasingly robust approaches to peacekeeping, it specifies that failing to center political solutions may undermine the broader success of a peacekeeping operation. The call for a continued focus on politics was reiterated by member states in their Declaration of Shared Commitments on UN Peacekeeping Operations in 2018, in which they acknowledged that political solutions should guide the design and deployment of peacekeeping operations. This has come to mean that UN peacekeeping operations should always work toward the support of the political process, rather than just be a military solution to the conflict. Even the most robust missions should therefore keep a political element and continuously incorporate political tools such as mediation that have a long-term horizon. Without such a commitment, a mission may face the danger of becoming paralyzed or, worse still, being drawn into the conflict.

As part of this primacy of politics, peacekeeping operations have been involved in a supportive function to the political peace processes in the country where they are deployed. This may include, first and foremost, providing their good offices and mediation. In the framework of peacekeeping operations, the SRSGs’ role is mostly to mediate when violence erupts in the post-settlement phase and to address the sources of renewed violence. This often blurs the boundaries between peacemaking and peacebuilding activities.

Current Challenges for Mission Leadership in Mediation

Contemporary peacekeeping operations and their leaders operate in complex environments: they need to navigate changing political landscapes and balance their engagement with the different parties involved. In doing so, their mediation role has been challenged in recent years due to five main reasons.

First, host-state consent to political rather than stabilization mandate tasks has been difficult to come by in contexts like Mali or the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The respective governments have increasingly spoken out against the missions’ engagements in political tasks and want external support to focus on stabilization instead. With an increased engagement by different states, such as Russia, as well as a more important role of regional organizations, these host states also have alternative support structures and are not to the same extent dependent on UN support. For instance, the Malian authorities, who are supported by Russia, have requested the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) to prioritize security and logistical tasks. In the DRC, the UN Stabilization Mission (MONUSCO) has faced criticism from political elites and is planning its withdrawal schedule for 2024, while a newly set-up regional intervention force was deployed by the East African Community (EAC). In these cases, even if the UN would like to play a more political role, the authorities pursue the stabilization route.

Second, the perceived impartiality of a mission is a key resource of SRSG mediators. However, stabilization efforts that imply mission support to the physical and institutional extension or restoration of state authority, such as in Mali, DRC, and the Central African Republic (CAR), have often hampered this main asset of a peacekeeping operation. In the DRC, for example, the MONUSCO Force Intervention Brigade (FIB) supports the Congolese authorities in restoring their authority in the east, which makes it difficult for anyone associated with the mission to be perceived as impartial by the armed groups targeted by the FIB. This may hamper the political role MONUSCO can play in trying to help the conflict parties find an agreement to end the violence.

Third, the quality of mission leadership is also key for their political mandates. While the secretary-general is in charge of appointing and dismissing peacekeeping operation leadership, the lack of specific performance evaluation standards makes it difficult to decide whether to retain or let peacekeeping leaders go. The first case of public accountability for a mission leader was only in 2015 when the head of the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA) was requested to resign after extraordinary allegations of abuse in the country. Notably, politics also matter: Leaders from important troop-contributing countries or from those that are permanent members of the Security Council remained in office for lengthier periods compared to leaders from other countries. Such politics could weaken the legitimacy of the UN if it overrides considerations of merit or protects officials from responsibility for subpar performance. It can then also hamper the mission’s mediation mandate as acceptability is crucial for implementing it.

Fourth, in cases where the initial peace agreement was mediated by a regional power or organization, SRSGs heading a peacekeeping mission in the respective country are confronted with the challenge of implementing a deal that they did not broker themselves. In these situations, continued mediation between all involved parties is a central pillar of the implementation strategy, particularly if the regional powers’ positions are firm and there is little room for maneuvering for the mission’s leadership. In order for this sustained mediation to be successful, SRSGs face the challenging task to coordinate efforts in order to maximize the advantages of all mediation actors and, at the same time, ensure that sufficient resources are made available.

Fifth, the leadership of peacekeeping operations continuously needs to balance the mission’s financial resources, thus setting priorities. In some cases, political mandate tasks may be perceived as less relevant in the short term and are moved to the bottom of the list. In addition, in contexts where a conflict is ongoing for a long time, member states may feel less inclined to support the mission financially, further constraining leaders’ room for maneuver.

Mainstreaming Political Mandate Tasks and Moving from Peacekeeping to Political Missions

Despite these challenges, the political role of the UN may not have diminished overall, but shifted. This is shown in two trends. First, in the framework of peacekeeping operations, the political role seems to be increasingly questioned by the parties due to the above-mentioned reasons, and yet offering good offices and mediation remains the second most often assigned task to peace missions between 1991 and 2020 (after the coordination of donors, partners, and UN agencies). While it has been assigned to 35 political missions, 20 peacekeeping operations also had the task of providing their good offices and mediation. Research also shows that missions with good offices and mediation as mandate tasks have increased in the period from 2011 to 2020 when compared to earlier ten-year periods (1991-2000 and 2001-2010) and the share is increasing from 33.3 percent of all peacekeeping operations having mediation mandates in 1991-2000 to 40 percent and 60 percent in 2001-2010 and 2011-2020 respectively. This seems to indicate a discrepancy between what UN missions are mandated to do and what political role the host states and other belligerents are willing to give them.

Second, we see a shift from peacekeeping operations to political missions overall. While mediation and good offices are still performed as part of peacekeeping operations, they are also increasingly part of more targeted political missions, either in the form of Special Political Missions or Special Envoy or Advisors. Indeed, the number of newly deployed peacekeeping operations is decreasing: While 36 new peacekeeping operations were deployed from 1991 to 2010, the number decreased to 10 in the period from 2001-2010 and then to only 6 from 2011-2020. The number of political missions, in turn, has remained at around 20 new missions per period and has exceeded the number of peacekeeping operations in every year since 2000. Since 2014, the UN has only established one peacekeeping operation (the UN Mission for Justice Support in Haiti (MINUJUSTH) from 2017 to 2019) while deploying 11 new political missions (for instance the UN Electoral Observation Mission in Burundi (MENUB) in 2015 or the UN Mission to Support the Hudaydah Agreement in Yemen (UNMHA) in 2019). These political missions, as their name indicates, all had important political functions.

This points to two potentially contradictory trends. On the one hand, given the primacy of politics, we see the UN’s role focused more on political tasks in peacekeeping operations, with a steadily high number of peace missions having a mediation mandate and a shift toward political missions. On the other hand, conflict parties’ acceptance of peacekeeping operations’ mediation efforts seems to be decreasing. Host governments increasingly make use of alternative support structures with a clear focus on stabilization while peace stabilization efforts by the UN itself put the organization’s impartiality into question, potentially compromising the mission’s ability to deliver on its political mandate.

Overall, the current geopolitical context has rendered it more difficult for the UN Security Council to deploy new peacekeeping operations in contexts where the interests of any of its permanent five member states (P5) are at play, such as in Syria. Moreover, in places such as the DRC, Mali, or the CAR, the missions’ effectiveness has been challenged altogether, as they could not live up to expectations (sometimes created due to misunderstandings). In such a context of increased difficulties to deploy and maintain extensive peacekeeping operations, political missions may come as an increasingly welcome alternative to multidimensional peacekeeping operations due to their less intrusive nature.

Sara Hellmüller is Assistant Professor with the Centre on Conflict, Development and Peacebuilding (CCDP) at the Geneva Graduate Institute. Flavia Keller is a Master’s candidate in Development Studies at the Geneva Graduate Institute.