UN Peacekeeping: A Long-term Challenge

@Alexandra Novosseloff - MONUSCO Patrol near Bunia - 2018

Over the years, United Nations peacekeeping has proved its longevity and adaptability, since its inception in 1956 when Dag Hammarskjöld, the UN Secretary-General, and Lester B. Pearson, then Canadian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, invented this third way of solving international crises and conflicts: through neutrality (that later transformed into impartiality), consent of the parties and non-use of force except in self-defense (that later was extended to the defense of the mandate). These operations are temporary by essence (as Article 40 of the Charter set for), and are still organized as such despite their durability: their mandate is renewed every 6 or 12 months, which set the pace for everything that follows in terms of duration of contracts of personnel and support elements.

With time, they also had to adapt to other types of crises and international context after being shaped for a very specific situation, the Suez crisis (interstate conflict). Through constant challenges and after numerous setbacks, peacekeeping reached a peak in April 2015 with 107,800 uniformed personnel deployed in 16 missions with a budget of 8 billion dollars; it is currently facing a low with only, as of July 2021, about 75,000 uniformed personnel deployed in 12 missions with a budget of 6,5 billion dollars. Five missions have closed in the past three years (Darfur, Côte d’Ivoire, Liberia, and two in Haiti), and the Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) has been slowly downsizing since 2019 after the presidential elections held in the country. Nevertheless, the United Nations still remains today the second (after the United States) deployer of troops in the world.

A diversity of endeavors towards a peace continuum

UN Peacekeeping is also characterized by a diversity of missions it has deployed on the ground. Until the end of the 1980s, UN peacekeeping was mainly, but not only, a tool to support the end of interstate conflicts (with the exception of the Congo, Cyprus and Lebanon); since then, it has become mainly, but not only, an imperfect tool to help solve intrastate conflicts (with the exceptions of the conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea in the early 2000s and the situation in Haiti, which was more of a civil unrest than a civil war). As the Security Council was dealing with various types of threats to international security (the latest being the health issue with Resolution 2177 of 18 September 2018, not to mention the current global crisis due to Covid-19 on which the Council was very late to react), peacekeeping operations embarked on an increasing list of tasks involving an increasing set of stakeholders (from the UN system entities, to regional and sub-regional organizations, and to non-governmental and civil society organizations), and that took the shape of multidimensional operations. These operations became the “norm” during some thirty years, from 1989 with the operation in Namibia to the operation in Central Africa in 2013, the last one of these sorts being created. The post-Cold War era saw however also other types of operations or missions being developed: peacebuilding offices, special political missions, police missions, transitional administrations, preventive deployments, regional offices. These smaller endeavors are currently beginning to be the “new norm” that correspond better to what member states are willing to invest in. The latest UN mission established in June 2020 (Resolution 2524), the UN Integrated Transitional Assistance Mission in Sudan (UNITAMS), reflects this trend after the UN Verification Mission in Columbia established in 2017, and the Mission in Yemen to support the Hudaydah Agreement established in 2019.

That diversity has been generated by the adaptation of the Organization to the evolving nature of conflicts. While interposition operations were a response to a bipolar world, multidimensional peacekeeping operations were responses to the post-Cold War era. For a number of years now, multidimensional operations are facing a number of setbacks and seem ill-adapted to be dealing with “the growth in importance of non-state actors,” such as “transnational illicit networks, globally-connected violent extremist groups, and private actors wielding new technologies.” Moreover, the task of supporting fragile states that are often looked at as illegitimate by a large number of their populations seems to be too much of a burden for these operations after all. As result more focused and more limited mandate have been considered lately as better suited to the capacity of the Organization. Now, the structure and the finances of the Organization have to adapt to this new reality and stop counting in a separate manner the “peacekeeping operations” and the “special political missions,” therefore undermining a spectrum of flexibly applied peace operations and the continuum of peace, tools that all belong to the business of keeping the peace. The budgets of all these missions should be under one “peacekeeping budget” (SPMs are still financed by the regular budget of the Organization); the Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs should devote its entire time to the follow up of political processes and mediations, and leave all operational issues to the Department of Peace Operations, something the latest reform of the Secretary-General failed to achieve. The current situation is creating turf war over transition between one setting to another, between a peacekeeping operation and a follow-on political mission or peacebuilding office, which undermines the effectiveness of the UN on the ground and its continuity of action.

A tool with limitations and in need of a strategy

In fact, this new trend towards smaller missions (that favors the current Secretary-General) is also an acknowledgement of the inherent nature of UN peacekeeping that is an art of the possible limited in its scope, endeavor and spending, even if members states have too often assigned to it great ambitions. This limitation is particularly critical when it comes to the issue of the use of force. The ambiguity of the UN towards coercion and robustness, and the fact that its command and control structures, its doctrine, its capacities, and the uneven willingness of its member states makes UN peacekeeping ill-adapted to move towards counterinsurgency and counterterrorism. Peacekeeping is not about waging war and destroy an enemy, but about finding political solutions to conflicts with some military means, but not only, and talking to all parties, including extremist groups. As Antonio Guterres pointed out in March 2018 in a speech to the Security Council: “A peacekeeping operation is not an army, or a counter-terrorist force, or a humanitarian agency. It is a tool to create the space for a nationally owned political solution.” The Security Council is the only governing body taking decisions related to international security without a functioning military committee on its side. And member states deploy troops in parts of the world where they have little strategic interest and where therefore they do not want to take a lot of risks, especially with so little means. After all, the peacekeeping budget is one tenth of what NATO would spend for its own operations. Moreover, the lack of consensus on how to implement a mandate and when, where and against whom to use force is an impediment to robustness. And, in many multidimensional missions, the dialogue has always been somehow difficult between the military and the civilians for a lack of common field experience, training, and true integration between the components of a mission. Those limitations in undertaking robust endeavors applies also when the UN has to support other stakeholders (parallel forces dealing with terrorism in Somalia and in Mali).

The reality is that a peacekeeping mission is not a solution to everything, only a part of it. UN peacekeeping is a soft power tool, trying to convince day after day its interlocutors that they would be better off solving their conflict through dialogue and good governance. It has to do this through a network of partners and organizations that are all reluctant to integrate into a peace continuum of efforts where each stakeholder must fulfill its task and assume its responsibility. Some of peacekeeping setbacks have been due to an unhealthy burden sharing with other actors (coalitions, member states, regional organizations), and unwilling partners that do not want to be coordinated by the UN. That has often undermined the authority of the UN on the ground vis-à-vis parties to the conflict. Some other setbacks were caused by an overall lack of proper human resources (with the lack of a career path and of a system of systematic rotation between headquarters and the field), as well as a lack of accountability within the Organization and in some of those field missions. But the main cause of setbacks as well as challenges faced by peacekeeping operations over the years were due to the lack of a common political strategy among the member states (and especially the Permanent Five) of the Security Council that creates and mandates those operations, and by their division that leaves peacekeepers without much leverage vis-à-vis host nations. The current Secretary-General has repeated it many times: “Put simply, peace operations cannot succeed if they are deployed instead of a political solution, rather than in support of one.”


The current crisis of Covid-19 is unlikely to have much impact on these features and trends, but it will have consequences on the willingness of member states to devote time and money to peacekeeping endeavors. Both are likely to shrink drastically. But a preference for less ambitious, more focused and more political solutions may not be easier than the tendency towards the militarization of peacekeeping and multidimensional operations. It will require more fine tuning in devising mandates, in consistently pressuring the parties to the conflict, in creating less expectations among the population, in “building more bridges between the state and the people” where these missions are deployed, in better selecting missions’ leadership, and in coordinating actions, programs and activities of partners and of UN entities. Putting in place an agile networked peacekeeping working on a continuum of peace will be the great challenge of the Organization in the decades to come.

Overall, success of peacekeeping operations requires a unity of efforts of all stakeholders, a more equal burden sharing of risks and responsibilities, stronger acco

@Alexandra Novosseloff - UNIFIL-Lebanon - 2008

untability mechanisms to improve performance of all personnel, and these are not easy targets to reach. It requires synergy that demands a certain level of unity in the Security Council. It demands impartiality at all levels. Last but not least, in order to build on a more solid ground, the discourse on peacekeeping has to change and be more positive, starting with its successes and achievements rather than with its setbacks or failures, acknowledging the difficulty to navigate the complexity of crisis management. UN peacekeeping is a long-term endeavor to carry out.