Pressing issues for UN peacekeeping operations

29 September 2009

The resignation of the UN commander in chief in Congo this year is indicative of the rising number of problematic UN peacekeeping missions. For peacemaking in complex environments to have a chance of succeeding, members of the UN Security Council will need to transcend their own national security and economic interests.

Last February 2009, the Spanish general Vicente Díaz de Villegas presented his resignation to the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) for the UN Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUC). As Commander in Chief of the Mission, he explained that MONUC had neither the military infrastructure nor a correct assessment, based on serious intelligence, of the dangerous and complex situation in this country. He believed that the UN capacities were inadequate to confront the great risk to local civilians and UN forces. He called the situation “a potential disaster”. In the following weeks his prediction was confirmed.

The example of general Villegas is just one in a series of problematic scenarios that the UN is facing around the world. The situation could be summarized simply: too many contradictory and ambitious Security Council (UNSC) mandates, not enough troops and resources, weak political will from the interveners, and lack of UN coordination. From a political perspective the main dilemma is how peacekeepers can act when there is no peace to keep. In these cases the line between peacekeeping and war-fighting is difficult to trace.

The number of peace operations, involving military, police and civilian personnel, has been growing since the end of the Cold War. In September, the UN had 15 peacekeeping operations led by the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO). Almost 116,000 personnel were serving on these operations, more than 82,000 of whom were troops and military observers and about 11,000 police personnel. In addition, there are more than 6,000 international civilian personnel, nearly 15,000 local civilian staff and some 2,200 UN Volunteers from over 160 nations, as published by the DPKO. The cost of these operations has risen precipitously: for just the UN missions alone 4.7 billions Euros has been allocated in 2008.

Peacekeeping operations are confronting a series of challenges. UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon said last July: “We face mounting difficulties in getting enough troops, the right equipment and adequate logistical support. Supply has not kept pace with demand. The global economic crisis could further limit our ability to respond effectively. And a number of missions struggle to operate amidst? Stalled peace processes and ongoing violence. These gaps and constraints should concern all of us”.

Although the importance and burden of peacekeeping operations (or peace operations, the other label given these missions), the UN Charter does not make any explicit reference to them. Some jurists consider that the practice of peacekeeping is an alternative to the inoperative system of collective security of the UN Charter Chapter VII and the limitations of the Chapter VI ( peaceful settlement of disputes).

Dangerous and easy missions

For the States that contribute with troops and funding, the growing trend represents a paradoxical situation. The more nations contribute with forces or funds, the more influence they could have in the UN. But these commitments mean more burdens for their national state budget and also generate risks for troops and political risks for governments. The UN missions are mostly filled with southern forces from countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh, India or Nigeria (por seguir el orden real de contribuyentes). But decisions are taken by the five members of the Security Council. This kind of division of labor has created resentments. As published by the Financial Times last August, Hardeep Singh Puri, an Indian envoy to the UN, explained in the Security Council that “mandates are increasingly “robust” and place peacekeepers – most of whom come from member States not represented in this Council- in non permissive environments”.

A study by Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) indicates that in the near future “it seems likely that the demands for easy or moderately challenging operations will generally be met.” On the other hand, the UNSC will proceed with caution regarding any dangerous missions owing to negative factors: heavy reliance on a limited number of countries to provide the necessary personnel, political ambivalence of the mandates, and lagging capacities of contributing countries.

Since the end of the Cold War peace missions have become multi dimensional and increasingly complex as the nature and characteristics of conflict have changed, from inter-state war to civil and intra-state wars with regional impacts. Supervising a ceasefire in a country was not enough. Actually, the complexity of the missions has generated a lack of clarity about their definition.

From keeping the peace and monitoring cease fires in the first decades of the UN, the peace operations are now dealing with disarmament, demobilization and reintegration of former combatants, peace building and state-building, tasks that include setting up of institutions for the Rule of Law, strengthening human rights protection, good governance practices and promoting security sector reforms. This multidimensional character of peacekeeping operations includes not only military personnel, but also civil administrators and many different professionals in civilian affairs.

Peacekeeping is identified to other peace and security instruments, as conflict prevention, peacemaking, peace enforcement and post conflict activities. The decline in the number of armed conflicts in the last decades generated an increase in the number of post-conflict situations and consequently a growing trend in the number of peacekeeping operations and political missions approved by the Security Council.

The missions also have an internal challenge that ranges from obtaining the appropriate mandate and number of forces to sexual abuses by UN troops and lack of coordination and confrontations between the UN Missions and the other UN bodies. The UN has been trying to rationalize the problems, promoting the concept of integrated missions and dealing with these problems through reflections and handbooks such as the Capstone Doctrine of 2008. This document addresses planning, deployments, management, relationships between headquarters and the field, logistics, administration and transitions.

For the UN Secretary General the ingredients for successful peace operations are:

  1. Clear mandates.
  2. Political, material and financial support.
  3. Institutions that uphold the rule of law.
  4. An active civil society. A rejection of violence in favour of negotiation and compromise.
  5. Working effectively with regional organizations.

To these ingredients might be added that UN peace operations should have international legitimacy derived from an international mandate and local legitimacy and consent. But as William Durch and Madeline England writes in the Annual Review of Peace Operations 2009, local consensus in some instances might be partial or absent altogether. Also the political contexts in which peace operations are established use to be volatile and social consensus regarding the operation may change from one day to another. In these cases, the mandate must be very clear about protecting victims and guaranteeing the survival of a peace process.

What is success?

The missions today are more risky and more unlikely to be clearly successful. One important challenge for the UN, local governments and societies and the donor community is how to measure the impact and success of these operations. The current interest shown by the UN and governments to link benchmarks, accountability, and success is a product of the increasing number of missions, the complexity of the mandates and the higher cost and risks involved.

Here lies one of the main problems of the peacekeeping operations. Given that UN mandates have broadened so much, and that they have increasingly crossed the line between keeping the peace, erecting the pillars of peace building and state building, it´s becoming more difficult to measure success and define a temporary end for the missions. Some analysts indicate that the stabilization and normalization of countries, and a full recuperation of their sovereignty, like Sierra Leone or Haiti could take more than two decades.

Another problem is that peace building and state building are two concepts under intense debate regarding their definitions and feasibilities. Is it possible to build up peace and to construct a liberal state in postcolonial countries with complex ethnic, religious and national identities? What constitutes “normalization” in Somalia? The examples of Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq or Nigeria show that state building is a long-term historical process of continuous negotiations among the local stakeholders that can’t be imposed from outside. Should peace operations perhaps return to their limited missions of supervising ceasefire agreements and protecting civilians?

Particularly when the use of force is involved, there is a need, as Durch and England indicate, to “re-identify the fundamental purposes of peacekeeping, and address the associated question of when to deploy, who to send, and what to mandate them to do”.

Most of the recommendations on peacekeeping are oriented to the operative and doctrinal aspects, but the first problem that should be addressed is political and normative. Why are the UN State members-- and particularly the Security Council members-- reluctant to reach beyond the most basic agreements about peacekeeping? Why do they generally agree on a minimum consensus but refuse to assume risks? Why do they agree on what they can do but not about what is morally right to do?

If the Security Council is not capable to be coherent in fulfilling the functions assigned by the UN Charter, then the other organs of the UN, as the General Assembly, the Secretary General, the DPKO or even the State members, must highlight it.

Members of the Security Council give priority to their national interests before taking any decision on peacekeeping. But peacekeeping operations should be increasingly understood by the state members as instruments for important causes that transcend domestic and international interests. The protection of victims under risk of massive human rights violation or the peace building process are causes of common global and national interest.

The members of the Security Council should give the example of acting from a post-realist perspective, leaving aside their national security and economic interests. This will be a long term process, but they should start now to rethink their participation from this perspective of post-national interest. Peace operations should respond to what John Kennedy School professor John Ruggie considers “the qualitative dimension” of multilateralism. By this he means responding to international legal instruments and codifications. Peacekeeping should be one instrument of an advancing conception of security that integrates interests and normative perspectives, as well.