A Peacekeeper’s Lament

Last year, 2023 was a tough year for United Nations peacekeeping. 

The UN’s “big four” multidimensional peacekeeping operations, accounting in 2023 for about 75 percent of the UN’s peacekeeping $6.3 billion budget, struggled to implement their mandates. At the insistence of the Malian government, the UN operation MINUSMA was prematurely terminated. The government has pushed for an accelerated departure of MONUSCO, the peacekeeping mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The two other large missions – MINUSCA in the Central African Republic and UNMISS in South Sudan – also encountered serious difficulties during the year.

A year of challenges and change

Each of these missions has confronted similar challenges that have prompted searching questions about the viability and credibility of UN peacekeeping.

The expectations challenge

The gap between expectations as laid out in peacekeeping mandates and operational realities present a recurring challenge. Peacekeeping operations are usually deployed as part of a peace deal, but peace agreements do not make or guarantee peace. If they fail, missions can find themselves stranded in situations where there is no peace to keep. This was the case in several peacekeeping operations where I was deployed. When the peace agreements fell apart, host governments expected the UN to enforce peace even though our mandates and means did not stretch that far. This was not a welcome message. Some governments have resorted instead to private military contractors (PMC’s) like the Wagner Group willing to do their bidding (at a price). Regrettably, a key tenet of the 2000 Brahimi report, that “force alone cannot create peace; it can only create the space in which peace may be built,” has often been ignored or forgotten. Substituting PMC’s for peacekeepers as has been suggested is not necessarily the right answer.

The protection challenge

A second and related challenge arises from the UN’s commitment to the protection of civilians, a central feature of the mandates of all the major peacekeeping operations.

Following horrific humanitarian disasters in Somalia, Rwanda and the Balkans, the late former  Secretary General Kofi Annan set out a protection agenda in a report to the Security Council in 1999. The report paved the way for an increasingly activist UN approach to protection that was strongly encouraged by civil society and humanitarian actors. Annan stressed, however, the need for “credible force to guarantee the safety of civilian populations” under UN protection.

That caution was underlined by the UN’s High-level Independent Panel on Peace Operations in 2015, which noted that “United Nations forces currently deployed could not protect more than a small fraction of them even if directed to do so.”

UN peacekeepers have often been criticized for failing the protection test. And it’s true, as I know from personal experience, that not all peacekeeping contingents have displayed the leadership and training needed to ensure civilian protection, which requires a different mindset and capabilities from traditional warfighting.

The UN has made a sustained effort to improve protection practice as a part of on-going reforms.  Nonetheless, the pressure “to do something” when civilians are being brutalized can lead to unrealistic assumptions about the level of protection that may possible. Constant dialogue with affected communities may attenuate – if not totally dissipate – popular anger (sometimes amplified by governments to deflect attention from their own failings) that erupts when UN peacekeepers are unable to prevent attacks on civilians. But the Security Council must continue to insist that protection is first and foremost a national responsibility.

The mandate challenge

Another significant challenge resides in the extended scope of mission mandates. The mandates of the multidimensional missions encapsulate a broad range of responsibilities, sometimes running to dozens of tasks. Mandates are never pruned. Long running missions accumulate responsibilities, which blurs their focus and diminishes efficacy.

Wide-ranging mandates can distract mission leaders from core goals because they are accountable for delivering on all aspects of the mandate. Streamlined mission mandates would help leadership to focus on what must be done rather than what might be done.

The misconduct challenge

Sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA) by UN peacekeepers inflicts inexcusable harm on victims and indelible reputational damage to the UN. Despite many exhortations and pledges by successive UN leaders, the problem persists, seemingly impervious to correction. This critical challenge demands some fresh thinking on the effectiveness of SEA prevention and disciplinary measures.

The peacekeeping balance sheet

Terrible tragedies like the Rwanda genocide and the Srebrenica massacre are sobering reminders of how the UN as an institution (not just peacekeepers) failed. More recently, the travails of the missions in Darfur, Mali and the DRC have again prompted criticism and questions about the effectiveness of UN peacekeeping operations.

On a more positive note, however, past operations like those in Cambodia, Mozambique, Timor Leste, and Liberia, which I led for part of its mandate, are acknowledged to have succeeded in helping to restore peace.

Also, other peacekeeping operations, though currently not well perceived, have made significant contributions to peace and security over the duration of their mandates. A case in point is the DRC. Forgotten in the current recriminations is the vital role that the UN peacekeepers played in helping to reunify the country after two disastrous civil wars and invasions from neighboring states.

Success may also come in stages. In Sierra Leone, the peacekeeping mission (UNAMSIL) ran into grave difficulties after the peace agreement collapsed in 2000 and peacekeepers were taken hostage. The mission was on the brink of failure. Fortunately, the UN did not retreat and UNAMSIL is today considered a peacekeeping success story.

So how do we objectively assess and measure progress in peacekeeping and its ultimate goal of establishing peace? We use metrics like disarmament, refugee returns, security sector reforms, but they tell only a partial story; they do not tell us how stable that peace will be. As the World Bank has pointed out, “the chief legacy of a civil war is another war.” This conundrum speaks to the limitations of what peacekeeping can achieve in the absence of national political will and leadership. Those are indispensable elements in the equation of peace, which peacekeepers cannot replace.

A new agenda for peacekeeping

What then does the future hold for UN peacekeeping?

In his New Agenda for Peace, Secretary General Antonio Guterres declared that “Peacekeeping represents effective multilateralism in action.” He added, however, that peacekeeping needed to move towards “adaptable models with appropriate, forward looking transition and exit strategies”.

In the Agenda, the Secretary General outlined some familiar problems such as the absence of political processes to end conflict and unrealistic mandates. But he did not propose any novel prescriptions for dealing with these perennial problems.  The Agenda does call, however, for more significant integration of peace operations that should “leverage the full range of civilian capacities and expertise across the United Nations system” and as part of a “system of networked multilateralism,”

Where peace enforcement is required, the Agenda calls on the Security Council to “authorize a multinational force or enforcement action by regional and sub-regional organizations.” There is no mention of UN forces taking on such responsibilities, which is wise given the fraught complications the UN would face in mounting and managing enforcement actions.

Encouragingly, the zero draft declaration for the forthcoming Summit of the Future emphasizes that peacekeeping should be part of the UN’s conflict prevention and resolution tool box, but it also calls for a “stronger focus on addressing root causes and underlying drivers and enablers of violence.”

So what might be the future profile of peacekeeping?

First, there seems little appetite within a deeply divided Security Council for big new UN peacekeeping commitments. The wave of major operations that followed the Cold War has probably crested even though at a recent ministerial conference there was still broad support for UN peacekeeping.

Second, inter-positional monitoring and observation operations like those in Cyprus, Kashmir and the Middle East will likely continue. They cost a fraction of the big integrated missions, but their presence keeps frozen conflicts from becoming hot ones.

Third, the use of “unarmed peacekeepers” may expand. This formula has been employed successfully in Nepal and Colombia. These were not peacekeeping operations, but they were mandated to assist with tasks like Disarmament Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) that usually fall within the remit of peacekeeping operations.

Finally, regional organizations, notably the African Union, are being encouraged to take on a bigger role in peacekeeping. However, regionalization is not a panacea for peace. Problems that have dogged UN peacekeeping can surface in regional interventions as well.  The East African Community Regional Force (EACRF) was recently asked to leave the DRC when it refused Kinshasa’s demand to conduct offensive operations against armed groups in the eastern DRC without a political track to peace.

A unique asset of the international community

An assessment of the overall impact of UN peacekeeping is necessarily an inexact exercise. Nevertheless, scholars like Steven Pinker and Lise Howard have concluded that “Peacekeeping forces occasionally have spectacular failures, but on average they have a dramatic overall effect in preventing civil wars from breaking out again.” The also add, “If we look systematically across the record most of the time peacekeeping works.” For those of us who have worked in peacekeeping those are heartening findings.

UN peacekeeping is a unique asset of the international community that should not be lightly discarded. Nevertheless, the UN must continue to translate operational experience into practical improvements in the way peacekeeping is shaped and managed. As Kofi Annan once remarked, “reform is a process not an event.” We must anticipate the future and innovate to ensure that peacekeeping remains a viable and valued instrument for peace and progress in the 21st century.

Alan Doss was the Secretary General’s Special Representative and Head of UN peacekeeping missions in Liberia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He was the former President of the Kofi Annan Foundation and is currently chair of the Oxford Global Society.

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