Diplomacy Now – Edition 10, February 2024 – ‘Peacekeeping in Crisis’

It’s no secret that peacekeeping, the United Nations’ most expensive and visible export, is in a state of crisis. Three African governments – Mali, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Sudan – ordered UN peacekeepers, and political missions, in the case of Sudan, to leave in 2023, despite the fact they continue to face conflict and turmoil that their security forces are struggling to contain. 

As peacekeeping plunges into uncertainty, the world is at war and facing unprecedented levels of conflict and civilian casualties. Global norms and institutions have been shaken to their core, as we have seen in Ukraine and more recently Gaza. The world is divided, and the UN is no longer a unifying moral force, and the crisis in peacekeeping illustrates that. After decades of deploying troops in conflicts around the world, the Secretary General António Guterres published the New Agenda for Peace in June 2023. This long-awaited report unfortunately brings nothing new to the table, and simply reiterates obvious points: in a fragmented world greater trust and platforms for peace and dialogue need to be strengthened and developed; national ownership must be fostered; peace missions and dialogues need to be more inclusive; and prevention of conflict ought to be key. 

Peacekeeping was once an honored and respected symbol of peaceful global multilateralism, with the UN registering successes in Cambodia, El Salvador, Sierra Leone and Liberia – what went wrong? Are peacekeeping operations still relevant and possible today? 

Peacekeeping has long faced major integrity challenges, with troops from abusive armies being deployed from developing countries. Western nations have long outsourced peacekeeping to the poor while they fight wars elsewhere where they have more strategic interests. Peacekeeping has also come to be regarded as a business, particularly for repressive governments who have been cut off from international assistance, with Burundi as a glaring example of a government using peacekeeping as a source of hard currency.  Furthermore, there has been an overall lack of real accountability for the billions spent each year on missions and sexual exploitation and abuse has not been adequately addressed.

Since the 1990s these missions have developed a mandate creep stretching into areas in which they have no expertise, ranging from facilitating political processes, monitoring elections, investigating human rights abuses, as well as serving humanitarian and development functions, in addition to promoting the myth that poorly equipped peacekeeping operations can “protect civilians.”  Although there have been many reviews of UN peacekeeping, they have been initiated and largely controlled by the peacekeeping bureaucracy in the secretariat, which has its own bureaucratic interests. It’s time to develop a truly independent mechanism for the review of peacekeeping activities. 

For the past 27 years France has led peacekeeping in the UN secretariat, in what was a trade off for supporting the election of successive Secretary Generals since Kofi Annan. The backlash against peacekeeping missions in Africa must be partly seen in the context of the broader popular anger over French political influence in the region. However, are new proposed solutions, such as supporting regional actors like the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States to play a leading role wise when these organizations are deeply divided and struggling to build consensus on how to address armed conflicts and military coups within the region? Is the Security Council’s recent vote for the UN to provide funding for African-led missions a pragmatic idea or is it not just another example of the UN outsourcing responsibility?

This edition of Diplomacy Now, titled ‘Peacekeeping in Crisis’ explores the successes and failures of UN missions and offers insights into how they could better serve civilians and nations facing devastating conflicts. Our five authors, who have either worked within the UN system or researched the effects of peacekeeping throughout Africa, where almost all of the active missions are now located, offer some insight into peacekeeping’s challenges and how they ought to be addressed. We hope this edition contributes to an ongoing and complex debate about the relevance of peacekeeping and how the institution could best be reformed. 

As with every edition the views expressed by these authors are not all necessarily our own. However, ICDI remains committed to the ethos and philosophy that open debate, dialogue, diplomacy and mediation, rather than armed conflict and war, offer the way forward to resolving any conflict.

Thank you for following Diplomacy Now. We hope you will continue to follow our leading analysis on mediation in 2024 and welcome your feedback at diplomacynow@dialogueinitiatives.org

Jamal Benomar
Chair of ICDI 

A Peacekeeper’s Lament

Alan Doss, who led peacekeeping missions in Liberia and the Democratic Republic of Congo explores the ongoing challenges that continue to plague peacekeeping from failures to protect citizens, sexual abuse and exploitation of local populations and unwieldy mandates that can become unrealistic and unmanageable for missions.

Doss predicts that with a divided Security Council peacekeeping missions are likely to wane, ‘inter-positional monitoring and observation operations like those in Cyprus, Kashmir and the Middle East will likely continue,’ as well as the deployment of unarmed peacekeepers. But he questions whether the push for African regional bodies to take more of a leading role in peacekeeping will actually work. “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,” he writes.

“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,” he concludes. 

After 25 Years, the DRC Ushers UN Peacekeepers Toward the Exit

Congo and Burundi analyst for International Crisis Group Onesphore Sematumba guides us through the successes and failures of one of the largest and longest serving peacekeeping missions in the world, the United Nations Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUSCO). He argues that the role the Force Intervention Brigade played in helping to route out M23 in 2013, created unrealistic expectations of the mission’s strength and capacities which would be exacerbated during the recent resurgence of the armed group. “Either way, it is this perception of inertia in the face of massacres that drives anti-MONUSCO sentiment among the Congolese people. No doubt state security forces also bear responsibility, but in this case MONUSCO makes for a convenient scapegoat,” he writes. 

“MONUSCO’s failure in the DRC is due in part to the fact that it had to deal, from the outset, with different forms of conflict. Rather than peacekeeping, the situation called for a peace enforcement mission, but that would have required a reformulation of the mission’s mandate and the consent of the countries contributing troops.” 

Sematubma suggests that missions must ultimately have an exit strategy and operate more closely to improve communication with countries and civilian populations. 

A Crisis in UN Peacekeeping

Shannon Zimmerman, a scholar who researches peacekeeping, explores the significant shifts in peacekeeping since the end of the Second World War and the Cold War. She argues that the changing nature of conflict has shaken the “three ‘core principles’ for peace operations: consent of the conflict parties, impartiality, and the non-use of force except in self-defense.” “The very nature of conflict has changed dramatically since the creation of peacekeeping,” she writes. “Peace operations were originally conceived of as forces that would interpose themselves between two conflicting states. The end of the Cold War saw missions deploy within states, but often with peace agreements already in place. Post-2000 however, peace operations have struggled to adapt to increasingly transnational, networked conflicts that intersect with transnational criminal and terrorist networks,” he argues.

While UN peacekeeping and its more ‘traditional missions’ were lauded for their success in the 1980s and 90s, the lines between peacekeeping and warfare are blurring and they are now facing a crisis of consent and criticism for their inability to protect civilians. 

“The increasing transnational and dynamic nature of conflict, combined with the new imperative to protect civilians has placed immense strain on peace operations. This has only been exacerbated by the fact that countries are increasingly turning away from multinational institutions to manage conflicts,” she writes. “While there will always be the need for forces to help countries manage their transitions from conflict to peace, but whether or not these countries will continue to turn to the UN is increasingly unclear.”

After Mali: What is the Future for UN Peacekeeping in Africa?

Sierra Leonean scholar and diplomat Lansana Gberie explores why the United Nations Multidimensional Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA)  was such “abject failure” as he refers to it, but contrasts it with successes like Sierra Leone and Liberia who have maintained peace after their devastating civil wars in the 1990s. Part of the reason for their successes was the robust intervention of regional forces that preceded these UN operations.

“Liberia, in fact, was the first experiment in a regional peace operation in Africa, with the intervention of ECOWAS’ Monitoring Group (ECOMOG) in the1990s. That operation in turn marked the first time that the UN ever deployed its military personnel to actively support an already established regional peace initiative, abandoning a foundational policy that tended to keep such regional initiatives at arm’s length,” he writes. “That template was applied, more or less, to Sierra Leone. The two countries still remain peaceful, holding regular national elections and registering largely smooth political transitions.”

“Regional initiatives need to be more systematically supported: regional leaders should lead, not be dragged into, interventions that are planned from outside,” Gberie writes.

The Lingering Problem of Sexual Abuse and Exploitation in UN Peacekeeping

Dr Sabrina Karim, an academic who has researched the prevalence of Sexual Abuse and Exploitation (SEA) in Liberia, argues that SEA is not only is damaging to the victims but also to the goals of missions themselves. Despite Guterres’ pledge to eradicate SEA on peacekeeping missions, UN data suggests it is on the increase. “Not only does SEA delegitimize peacekeeping missions, but my research in Liberia also suggests that there could be even more pernicious consequences, including encouraging more sexual and gender-based violence by locals,” Karim writes.

Among the three approaches she outlines are naming and shaming Troop Contributing Countries who perpetuate abuse, having a victim centered approach and establishing funds and support groups, educating students about sexual abuse and improvements to recruitment training and culture. “There is no easy solution to the problem, but rather what is likely needed is some combination of all three approaches. The time for these changes is now,” she writes and raises concerns about the possibility for accountability as UN peacekeeping missions change. “Despite larger UN peacekeeping missions ending, in countries like Mali, and a deadlock at the UN over deploying new missions, the move to more decentralized deployments as has been seen in discussions around Kenya’s possible deployment to Haiti and in Africa at large means that any progress the UN has made on reducing SEA through UN-mandated missions will risk becoming irrelevant. Instead, the UN has an opportunity to set an example to centralize best practices on preventing SEA and making these practices a standard for any type of deployment.”

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If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.

Nelson Mandela

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