Political action is required to save peacekeepers’ lives

UN members must act fast to bridge the gap between expectations and performance in peace operations.

Today, 29 May, is International Day of United Nations (UN) Peacekeepers, established to acknowledge the contributions of peacekeepers and honour those who have lost their lives. While such tribute is essential, this year’s commemoration is fogged by questions regarding the effectiveness of peacekeeping as a tool to respond to the challenges of armed conflict.

‘Change in practice (at the UN) sometimes comes far too slowly,’ the Australian permanent representative in New York, Gillian Bird, said during a seminar at the International Peace Institute on 16 May. The slow pace of change is especially evident in the number of attempts and limited results of reforms of UN peacekeeping over the past three decades.

In 2015, a report from the High-Level Panel on Peace Operations (HIPPO) identified key mechanisms that can strengthen the quality of peacekeeping. The report brought new expectations on how peacekeeping could be enhanced, particularly by identifying more pragmatic forms of interventions. Three years later, there is still much to be done.

The ultimate test for peacekeeping is its capacity to implement its mandates on the ground

The latest initiative launched by UN Secretary-General António Guterres was the Action for Peacekeeping. The action summarises the findings of the UN’s latest peacekeeping reform attempts, including the HIPPO report. It focuses on three areas: identifying realistic expectations; making missions stronger and safer; and mobilising greater support for political solutions and effective forces. In addressing these areas, member states must provide the political will to better design and deploy operations.

Firstly, to help them identify realistic expectations, they need to address the gap between the expectations and performance of peacekeeping operations. The United Nations Organisation Stabilisation Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) mandate that was approved in March 2017 demonstrates this gap. Troop and military observer numbers were cut, the need to replace ordinary soldiers with specialised units was neglected and the political commitment to find a solution became lukewarm. 

The ultimate test for peacekeeping is its capacity to implement its mandates on the ground. Political organs such as the UN Security Council must provide more realistic, focused and achievable mandates. The UN must continue to provide guidance on how to manage a wide range of tasks, and design mandates that can be implemented effectively.

Therefore the initiative by the UN Security Council requesting Guterres to provide ‘frank advice, recognising the importance of re‑evaluating the mission mandates and composition based on realities on the ground’ is welcomed. It however won’t be successful without timely action by the UN itself, and its member states.

The G5 Sahel force showed how countries need to step in to address the limitations of UN peacekeeping

Secondly, the UN must address the problem of deploying peacekeepers to areas described as having ‘no peace to keep’, for example in the Democratic Republic of the Congo or Mali. With fatalities on the rise, operations need to better ensure the safety and security of UN peacekeepers.

In December 2017, the UN released the report Improving Security of United Nations Peacekeepers: We need to change the way we are doing business – informally known as the Cruz report. It claims that UN peacekeeping has not effectively adapted to increasingly challenging environments, with critical deficiencies in training, equipment and performance.

Implementing the recommendations of the Cruz report will not be easy for the UN, and there are certainly concerns from many member states about the willingness of the UN to use ‘overwhelming force’ as a response to challenges on the ground. The report says if the UN and troop- and police-contributing countries ‘do not change their mindset, take risks and show a willingness to face these new challenges, they will be consciously sending troops into harm’s way’.

Thirdly, the UN must identify ways to garner greater political support for its operations. Challenges include the reduced budget faced by peacekeeping operations. This puts pressure on the UN to ‘do more with less’. Financial reductions could lead to operations that have fewer personnel, a smaller footprint and a lower capacity to project forces, says peace and security expert Paul Williams.

The UN must address the problem of deploying peacekeepers to areas where there is ‘no peace to keep’

Mobilising greater support will require member states to find new ways of addressing security concerns. While the Cruz report calls for more offensive operations, there has been increasing willingness of member states, especially in Africa, to deploy such operations outside the UN context. Examples include regional ad hoc security initiatives such as the Regional Cooperation Initiative for the Elimination of the Lord’s Resistance Army, the Multinational Joint Task Force and G5 Sahel.

The deployment of the G5 Sahel force showed how countries would increasingly need to step in to address the limitations of UN peacekeeping and broader buy-in from member states. Such challenges were made clear when the UN Security Council, and especially the United States, resisted appeals from African member states and France to give the UN a stronger supporting role.

Resourcing of peacekeeping operations and political will have to go hand in hand to ensure continuous support for developing innovative responses. If political will is not found to address challenges in the design and implementation of peacekeeping responses, operations will continue to underperform.

To ensure the safe deployment of peacekeepers and the successful completion of mandates, states must implement provisions in the frameworks that already exist. If sustained action is not achieved, these frameworks will remain nothing more than written documents.

Gustavo de Carvalho, Senior Researcher, and Annette Leijenaar, Programme Head, Peace Operations and Peacebuilding, ISS Pretoria

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Picture: United Nations Photo/Flickr

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