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UN peacekeeping review: change, or more of the same?
25 February 2015

Peacekeeping operations, and their effectiveness, have long been subject to public scrutiny. Late last year, United Nations (UN) Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon announced a High-Level Independent Panel on Peace Operations tasked with providing a comprehensive review of the state of UN peace operations today, and the emerging needs of the future.

During the announcement of the review, it was stated that the panel will ‘consider a broad range of issues facing peace operations.’ These include the changing nature of conflict, mandates and peacebuilding challenges, along with planning, partnerships, human rights and the protection of civilians. Africa has a particularly high stake in this process, as 87% of uniformed UN personnel are deployed to Africa.

From 11 to 13 February, the UN High-Level Panel met in Addis Ababa for the African leg of its regional consultations on the current review. During the meeting, African member states, civil society and academia presented their views, concerns and requests to the panel. A key message was that Africa matters not just as a recipient of peacekeeping, but also a provider of solutions. Participants said that the UN should improve its collaboration with the African Union (AU) and regional economic communities (RECs) to better empower and support regional efforts. The AU and RECs increasingly deploy in contexts where the UN is not able or willing to, and as such, the idea of complementarity is key.

Africa matters not just as a recipient of peacekeeping, but also a provider of solutions

To make the review as useful as possible, both the UN and its member states must be committed to process and its findings. The UN should place this discussion at the centre of its existing reflection on what it means to be a global institution that has positive impact. If not, the review risks being perceived as a bureaucratic exercise.

Until the 1990s, the UN engaged in modest tasks of monitoring peace agreements, with a condensed and limited nature. This generation of peacekeeping operations contained a few successes – and too many significant disasters. Engagements in Rwanda, Somalia and the Balkans showed that the UN needed to become more proactive in assisting countries dealing with conflicts – and thereby move away from passive monitoring functions.

The UN created several new structures in the 1990s and 2000s, including the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) in 1992 and the UN Peacebuilding Architecture (PBA) in 2005. Beyond the UN, regional players also adopted a more proactive role in preventing the spoils of war. A key turning point for Africa occurred in 2002 when the AU was established to ensure that African states would be at the forefront of providing answers and responses to their own conflicts.

After a decade of challenges in ensuring effective peacekeeping responses, a review of UN peacekeeping was requested in 1999. It resulted in the now-famous Brahimi Report, which contributed towards the UN’s understanding of the increased role of regional responses to conflicts; a strong focus on robust operations; and critical non-military roles played by civilian and police components in providing long-term recovery and peacebuilding. Subsequent years saw the deployment of complex, integrated and large-scale missions that showed a UN aiming to use the report as a critical guiding tool for better, more effective deployment.

The UN continues to face difficulties in the effectiveness of its peacekeeping operations

While these changes have been important, the UN continues to face difficulties in the effectiveness of its peacekeeping operations. Since the Brahimi Report, peacekeeping operations have been deployed with more robust mandates, and with a particular focus on the protection of civilians. As part of this process, the peacekeeping budget soared from US$5.2 billion in 2007 to US$7.8 billion in 2014. Even this increased budget, however, could not match the challenges, as peacekeepers have been pressured to do more with less. This shows that the extent to which the Brahimi Report can address the ever-changing environment has been limited, with varied results.

While peacekeeping has become more deeply involved in resolving intrastate conflicts, it is usually unable to address the complex needs of its mandates and the reality on the ground. Last year, for instance, 123 peacekeepers died as a result of casualties during missions. Countries like Mali, the Central African Republic and South Sudan also present the challenge of conflict spilling over national borders, while missions such as those in the Democratic Republic of Congo show that new ways of engaging peacekeeping operations provide challenges for the UN to respond effectively.

The panel has a gigantic task ahead, and needs to make bold recommendations and think outside the box. While it has a diverse range of prominent members, they are mostly from ‘within the system’. Former special representatives, force commanders, and under secretary-generals allow for a diversity of nationalities and experiences, which gives the panel insight and first-hand experience on how the UN peacekeeping framework can improve. However, panel members need to guard against reinforcing their own structural vices. To reduce this risk, regional consultations must be seen as critical in getting outside expert views and insights.

Peacekeeping operations are often unable to address the complex needs of their mandates

If the panel is to have a balanced approach between external and internal expertise, the review has the potential to provide an outstanding and bold report. Headed by José Ramos-Horta – the former president of Timor-Leste and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate – the panel enjoys a high profile. It touches on issues that are critical for UN member states, in terms of political engagements and budgetary contributions, in a highly visible mechanism.

However, there is a degree of scepticism on whether the UN would have the capacity and political will to implement the recommendations, which are expected to be announced around May. This is somewhat justified since previous reviews, such as the UN Review on Civilian Capacities, show that bold recommendations on their own remain toothless if countries do not show strong leadership in buying into the report, or if the UN does not has the capacity to implement the directives.

Perhaps the most decisive factors for the review will be the commitment of the UN Secretariat, and the acceptance of member states in engaging with the review’s recommendations. Member states should champion it, since it shows their taxpayers that the enormous amounts of money that go to the UN are properly utilised and applied on the ground. They also need to champion it because if they want the UN to be effective, this would show that the process is more than an exercise in talking shop.

Peacekeeping is not an end in itself. Rather than attempting to do everything, the UN should focus on its core objectives and better collaborate with actors that can provide assistance. UN mandates should move away from the so-called ‘Christmas tree’ type of mandate, which includes every wish and desire of what the UN would like to achieve. A healthy dose of pragmatism and humility is required to ensure focused and effective responses from the UN.

Gustavo de Carvalho, Senior Researcher, Conflict Management and Peacebuilding Division, ISS Pretoria

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