Technical Fixes Not Enough to Shore Up U.N. Peacekeeping.
Richard Gowan |Monday, June 22, 2015
Policy papers from the United Nations rarely make for scintillating reading. Last week, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon released “Uniting Our Strengths for Peace,” a new report by an expert panel on the future of peace operations. Running to over 90 pages and full of familiar bromides such as “the universal legitimacy of the United Nations is one of its greatest strengths,” this does not at first glance seem like an exceptionally enticing text. On closer inspection, it proves to be a subtly subversive summary of what is wrong with peace operations, and indeed the entire U.N., today.
|The U.N. Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) conducts a training exercise |
in riot control for its peacekeepers in Juba, South Sudan, May 7, 2015.
The organization, which currently has over 100,000 soldiers and police officers in the field, has been burned by a series of ugly crises in recent years. In South Sudan, many U.N. troops have refused to leave their bases as the country has slumped into prolonged anarchy. In northern Mali, scores of poorly equipped African peacekeepers have been killed by Islamist terrorists. Racing to keep up with these crises, the U.N. secretariat has struggled to find enough troops and military assets to sustain its missions.
As the Global Peace Operations Review, a new website published by the Center on International Cooperation this week, observes, the U.N. deployed 10,000 troops to Lebanon in the six months after Israel’s war with Hezbollah in 2006. Yet it got just 2,000 reinforcements into South Sudan in the half-year after the country imploded in December 2013. Such stumbling performances hurt the U.N.’s overall credibility.
When Ban Ki-moon launched his review process, he presumably wanted technical answers to these problems. How can the U.N. get more personnel in the field fast? What military equipment do they need to handle threats like roadside bombs in Mali? How can U.N. doctrine catch up with a new generation of civil wars and terrorist attacks?
The panel’s report answers these questions. To resolve rapid deployment problems, it proposes a new system of “vanguard contingents”: Small, agile forces that would be prepositioned in areas where the U.N. already has a heavy presence, like Central and West Africa, in order to quickly reinforce troubled missions or launch new ones in a crisis. It also contains a lot of smaller but sensible suggestions for improving the U.N.’s logistics and administrative apparatus, and proposes that a new deputy secretary-general position be created to take charge of these processes.
This is all very worthy, but is it anything new? My colleague Jim Della-Giacoma fairly notes that many of the panel’s ideas, large and small, echo previous U.N. studies. “The report’s conclusions,” Della-Giacoma adds, “will not send pulses racing within the house.”
But even those readers who can remain calm during a chance encounter with a U.N. reform proposal may appreciate some of the report’s less technical messages.
This is primarily because the report’s authors seem acutely aware of the limits of institutional fixes themselves. “Lasting peace is not achieved through military and technical engagements,” they note, “but through political solutions.” The leitmotif of the report is that the U.N. should invest more in tackling the political origins of the conflicts it is asked to address, rather than resolving bureaucratic obstacles to getting boots on the ground.
This message is targeted not only at U.N. officials, but also at the diplomats in the Security Council who put blue helmets in the field. The report evinces a healthy disrespect for the council, formally acknowledging its authority over peace operations yet repeatedly suggesting that it fails to give peace operations the top-level political backup they need. This may be a brave but futile gesture. As I have noted, the council all too frequently directs the U.N. to intervene in places like Mali and Syria because it needs an alibi for inaction on the actual root causes of the conflicts. A sternly worded policy report will not change that.
The report digs deeper to explain why the U.N. struggles in the field. It highlights that many of the countries that deploy peacekeepers have placed operationally debilitating caveats on their operations, including vetoes on high-risk maneuvers. The panel suggests that the U.N. should crack down on these instances of “disobedience to lawful command,” which is bound to bother officials in big troop-contributing countries like India and Bangladesh, which are already fighting accusations of sexual abuse by their men.
But the panel is happy to cause offense on many fronts. The report also highlights the most pernicious current challenge to U.N. operations: the tactics used by the governments of countries such as Sudan and South Sudan to keep peacekeeping missions from operating effectively on their territory. These ruses range from raising procedural obstacles, such as expelling key international staff or simply refusing them visas, to mounting fatal attacks on peacekeepers, and they present a greater strategic threat to the U.N.’s overall credibility than terrorist actions. Last week, the Security Council debated proposals from Sudan to close down the U.N. mission in Darfur altogether, despite a new tide of violence in the long-suffering region.
Many U.N. officials have tried to appease such hostile governments, but the panel argues that peacekeepers should pay more heed to opposition forces and civil society. The report’s “people-centered” approach will surely cause irritation in Khartoum and Juba. More broadly, it is hard not to read these elements of “Uniting Our Strengths for Peace” as an essay on the U.N.’s basic lack of unity over how to mandate and manage peace operations. The authors must have thought that “A Plague on All Your Houses” was not a viable title for the report.
The panel’s frankness about political issues may cause Ban Ki-moon discomfort as he tries to translate its more practical proposals into action. But its harsh words about peace operations are a necessary reminder to the major powers that run the U.N. that they cannot simply disown the missions they create, fund and set up to fail.
Richard Gowan is research director at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation and a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. His weekly column for World Politics Review, Diplomatic Fallout, appears every Monday