by Roger Meece
Peacekeeping operations are mandated to deal with some of the most intractable conflict areas on the planet, but receive little media attention and little debate at the political level about their nature, operations, and effectiveness. Occasional headlines will focus on perceived peacekeeping failures, suggesting operational or other implementation deficiencies. In my view, however, the apparent lack of success of these peacekeeping missions stems from systemic problems largely overlooked or ignored by the major powers, notably to include the five Security Council permanent members. We need to find more effective solutions.
As of July of this year, the United Nations Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO), the main agency overseeing contemporary peacekeeping operations, directs 14 operations on 4 continents utilizing roughly 110,000 personnel (military, police, and civilians) with an operating budget of U.S. $ 6.8 billion for fiscal year 2017-2018. In the words of UN Secretary-General António Guterres, they operate “…on the frontlines of our efforts to prevent the emergence of lawless regions where insecurity, transnational crime, and extremism can flourish. They are an investment in global peace, security, and prosperity.”
The United States plays a key policy role in the establishment and overall direction of these peacekeeping operations. The U.S. currently pays 28.47% of the UN peacekeeping budget through the assessed contribution formula, which is based on the relative economic size of the member state plus an additional premium for Security Council permanent members. The next two largest funding providers are China (10.25%) and Japan (9.68%). The U.S., however, has little direct participation in peacekeeping operations, ranking 75th on the list of military and police personnel contributors, with a total of 53 people as of May of this year. In contrast, China ranks 11th with 2,514; France ranks 33rd with 759. The top military and police contributor is Ethiopia with 8,417 personnel.
By far the largest of the UN operations are in Africa, with missions in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), South Sudan, Mali, and the Central African Republic (CAR), along with a “hybrid” UN/African Union force in Darfur, Sudan. These African missions constitute roughly 75% of the total current UN peacekeeping mission personnel strength. As with all UN peacekeeping missions, they are predicated on three basic principles: 1) consent of the parties, 2) impartiality, and 3) non-use of force except in self-defense and defense of the mandate. These principles and resulting peacekeeping mandates are effectively based on an assumed context of a general post-conflict environment accepted by the belligerents to monitor and support a truce, settlement, or overall ongoing peace process. All, however, operate to varying degrees in zones of active conflict, implicitly if not explicitly directed through Security Council mandates to manage if not resolve those conflicts. While I am convinced that these missions have provided invaluable service to protect lives and often prevent a complete collapse of order in extremely difficult circumstances, the contradiction between the post-conflict peacekeeping paradigm and the goal of dealing with active conflicts all but ensures a failure to meet expectations.
The key problem is that, often, one or more major belligerents are opposed to political settlement(s), whether out of ideological commitment, the belief that they are “winning” in accordance with their objectives, economic and commercial interests, or other local factors. The problematic belligerent(s) are often established governments as well as non-state organizations or military and militia forces; in all cases they represent a clear violation of the first principle of contemporary peacekeeping, consent of the parties. In some cases, the peacekeeping hosting government has in fact been one of these unsupportive of political resolution, controlling security forces representing a major threat to the civilian population of the country. This sets up an obvious tension between a peacekeeping mission dedicated to protecting civilians and advancing respect for human rights, and the governing authority, which in turn creates major operational issues and a potentially untenable situation for the maintenance of an effective presence in the country.
In implicit recognition of these issues, there has been a growing trend by Security Council members, the UN DPKO, and regional bodies to embrace the idea of what is commonly referred to as “robust” peacekeeping. In essence this means a search for a middle ground between peacekeeping and peace “enforcement,” or in UN Charter terms, something between Chapter VI authorities (a permissive environment) and Chapter VII (non-permissive). Various models have developed to provide for a more muscular military capability seeking to contain threatening forces. These have included, for example, a somewhat ambiguously defined arrangement between the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali and French national forces deployed to the country. In the DRC in 2003, the Security Council authorized a short-term European Union (EU), French-led military “Emergency Multinational Force” to use force under Chapter VII authority “to contribute to the stabilization of the security conditions” in the provincial capital of Bunia. This represented a rather aggressive short-term mission (Operation Artemis) widely viewed as intended to enforce a UN peacekeeping presence in the city through military action, and it was generally judged to have accomplished its objective. In the DRC and elsewhere, the UN has attempted to declare unilaterally weapon-free zones, subsequently deploying forces to enforce the declaration, pushing the envelope of authorized uses of force but yielding mixed results. A situation that demanded even more active military action, the collapsed state of Somalia, went beyond what the UN could handle with the “Chapter VI 1/2” approach. A different model was tried, an African Union (AU) “peacekeeping” force (African Union Mission in Somalia, AMISOM). It has developed as an essentially western-financed-but-African-manned security and enforcement operation with a mandate to support and expand the authority and capability of Somalia’s weak federal government. None of these or related efforts has resulted to date in longer-term security or durable peaceful conditions.
Along with the trend toward “robust” peacekeeping, the Security Council has increasingly specified that a “protection of civilians” mandate should be the peacekeeping mission priority, placing it as the heart of mandated tasks. This broad phrase implies an obligation to do all possible to protect civilians against imminent threats, as well a long-term effort to ensure stability and security, a daunting challenge in an active-conflict environment.
The dilemma of how to deal with these ongoing conflicts reached an inflection point in 2013, arising from an initiative of a central African regional organization to form a “neutral international force” with a clear offensive military authority and mandate in eastern DRC. Eventually this evolved to the level of the African Union, with three southern African countries willing to contribute forces and equipment, but without the finances needed to implement the proposal. Seeking to tap into UN assessed contribution peacekeeping funds, the proposal was referred to the UN with an AU endorsement. Despite strong misgivings by many UN member states and much of the UN hierarchy, it was hard to deny a regionally initiated proposal endorsed by the relevant continental body with regional states ready to contribute troops and equipment. After considerable debate, the Security Council under Resolution 2098 (2013) authorized an “Intervention Brigade” as a part of the MONUSCO force in the DRC. Reflecting Security Council ambivalence, the resolution included language specifying the Brigade was authorized “on an exceptional basis and without creating a precedent or any prejudice to the agreed principles of peacekeeping”. It charged MONUSCO through the new Brigade with responsibility for “neutralizing armed groups” including authorization for “targeted offensive operations,” a clear departure from previously accepted mandate language. Once deployed, the Intervention Brigade in conjunction with Congolese national forces achieved some significant success, notably ending the threat from the M23, a Rwandan-backed rebel group operating as the biggest military threat at the time in eastern DRC. The success of the Brigade subsequently has been substantially eroded due to a deteriorating relationship between the peacekeeping mission and the DRC government, running afoul again of the “consent of the parties” imperative.
The efforts to create robust peacekeeping capabilities in various forms have not been designed nor intended to achieve UN or other military victories as such. Rather the hope is to employ enforcement actions against recalcitrant parties resisting political settlements, to create the space needed to be able to pursue durable political solutions incorporating resolutions of the conflicts involved. These efforts have not been particularly successful to date due to two key factors. The first is the somewhat half-hearted authorities and operational parameters given to UN peacekeeping forces as exemplified by some of the mandate language cited above. The second, critically important, is the lack of sufficient comprehensive integrated approaches to conflict resolution or inadequately implemented key plan components in the affected area. A comprehensive program should involve effective enforcement capabilities and needed actions as part of an overall strategic plan, with an economic and social development component that can provide economic opportunities for the population in the areas affected, and institution-building programs to provide at least minimally effective governance.
There are valid questions as to whether the UN should be tasked with the enforcement role. A more active UN enforcement capability risks undermining the core UN principle of impartiality and under international law risks making the UN a party to the conflict(s). How to balance the need for military-backed enforcement operations and the imperative to protect civilians sets up a difficult quandary. I do not believe that the UN is necessarily the best place to vest this responsibility. The problem, however, is that governments lack the political will or means to commit national resources to undertake the needed actions, along with the lack of adequate alternative institutions or arrangements to implement effective plans. The UN becomes the default implementing agency.
I strongly believe that ineffective or absent governance is at the heart of these long-running tragedies that have produced millions of deaths, and untold misery arising from mass rapes, absent medical capabilities, disrupted food supplies, and other problems. The governments and political leadership of the countries directly involved bear the primary burden of responsibility for these crises, not the general international community. However, insofar as the broader international community believes there are moral, humanitarian, or stability reasons for external interventions, there is a need to seek means to deal with the threat. In my view, the billions of dollars put into the current peacekeeping models have not demonstrated that the existing models will solve the problems. Fundamental changes are needed, including adopting a comprehensive framework that incorporates basic integrated enforcement, development, governance/institution-building elements and capabilities in a strategic model, adapted to the local situation.
I note as well that this article addresses only a portion of the problems involved in these conflicts. All are complex and require substantial local knowledge to deal effectively with underlying factors that go beyond the scope of this general treatment of the subject. Tasking peacekeeping missions to take on active conflicts without adequate enforcement capability and authorities as an integral part of an overall strategy, however, sets up objectives impossible to achieve in areas of unresolved conflict and instability. This “peacekeeping dilemma” is now the situation confronting all large peacekeeping missions.
There are solutions to this problem. They require, however, a comprehensive approach with sufficient resources for effective broad peacekeeping and enforcement actions on the ground, along with humanitarian relief capabilities for those caught in the conflict areas. All of these involve longer-term commitments that are difficult both for the local governments involved, and among the world powers. I believe the magnitude of this challenge has been so great as to act as an impediment even to effective discussion about these issues among key participants, especially regarding the specific topic of how to define and realize enforcement capabilities. The relative lack of media coverage, the complexity of the conflicts involved, and the tendency to focus on the immediate headline and crisis of the day compounds the challenge. The Security Council is a viable forum for a serious international discussion of the fundamental issues including how to incorporate effective enforcement capabilities into peacekeeping, but the five permanent members and other governments have shown little readiness for such a discussion to date. Unless we are prepared to live with decades-long running catastrophes involving millions of lives and ongoing instability in large portions of the world, however, I believe that we have no choice but to try to press our foreign affairs and government leaders to take up this discussion and find more effective solutions.
Roger Meece retired from the Foreign Service after 30 years of service including appointments as Ambassador to Malawi and subsequently to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Following his retirement, in 2010 he was appointed as the Secretary-General’s Special Representative to the DRC, heading the UN peacekeeping mission there until 2013. Living now in Seattle, he is on the board of the Seattle World Affairs Council and currently chairs the area’s Foreign Service Retirees Association.