On June 16, the UN secretary General’s High-Level Independent Panel released its eagerly awaited review of UN-mandated peacekeeping: ‘Uniting our Strengths for Peace’. A comprehensive assessment of the UN’s evolving role in conflict management and a detailed set of reforms to its peacekeeping architecture, the report has already generated thoughtful analysis, with many observers highlighting the Panel’s principal conclusion that “lasting peace is achieved not through military and technical engagements, but through political solutions” (Executive Summary). This post examines three significant trends in peacekeeping mandates – the use of force, state-building and criminal jurisdiction – which will likely remain contested aspects of UN-mandated conflict resolution going forward. Against the backdrop of the report’s main findings, it argues that the UN’s large-scale operations increasingly blur the lines between political mediation and classical peace-keeping on the one hand, and peace-building, peace enforcement and state-building on the other.
As is well known, peacekeeping missions have operated in increasingly hostile environments since the end of the Cold War. Beginning with the Balkans, Rwanda and Somalia in the 1990s, peacekeepers have often been deployed to areas with little or no peace to keep, while taking on a continuously expanding set of peace-building tasks. This trend has only intensified in the last few years, starting with the UN’s longstanding mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUSCO), its revamped mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), as well as newly established missions in Mali (MINUSMA) and in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA).
Yet, despite its expanding role in conflict-management, a striking feature of recent UN operations has been the Security Council’s practice of enshrining the classic principles of peacekeeping into mission mandates. Starting with the 2013 renewal of MONUSCO’s mandate, the Security Council has consistently re-affirmed the ‘trinity of virtues’ – impartiality, host state consent and non-use of force beyond self-defence and defence of the mission mandate – in the preambles of its largest peacekeeping operations (DRC: 2013, 2014, 2015; Mali: 2013, 2014, 2015; CAR: 2014, 2015; South Sudan: 2014, 2015). Although their status under international law remains contested, the three classic principles are grounded in an (almost) by-gone era of conflict-management, where UN peacekeepers monitored mutually agreed cease-fires.
While such peacekeeping missions still exist (e.g. Cyprus), this no longer reflects the realities of modern conflict. In the DRC, where over thirty armed groups operate in the vicinity of UN peacekeepers, the Security Council decided in 2013 to create an Intervention Brigade to:
“carry out targeted offensive operations… in a robust, highly mobile and versatile manner… to prevent the expansion of all armed groups, neutralize these groups, and to disarm them…” (SC Res 2098; para. 12 (b)).
In Mali, where the UN is bogged down in operations against terrorist groups that have cost the lives of dozens of peacekeepers, MINUSMA is authorised:
“to stabilize the key population centres, notably in the North of Mali, and… to deter threats and take active steps to prevent the return of armed elements to those areas” (SC Res 2100, para. 16 (a) (i)).
In light of such pro-active authorisations to use military force, one could easily conclude that the Security Council’s invocation of classical peacekeeping principles is little more than window-dressing. But it creates very real legal dilemmas in the field, most notably with respect to maintaining the protected status of UN personnel, the detention and internment powers of UN operations, responsibility for human rights law violations, translating principles on the use of force into operational guidelines, and criminal accountability for killing peacekeepers.
The Panel, cognisant of these problems, argues that ‘clarity is needed on the use of force’. Yet its analysis does little to advance the discussion. Urging a ‘flexible and progressive’ understanding of the core peacekeeping principles, the report suggests there is no insurmountable incompatibility between using force to eliminate some parties to a conflict and a mission’s impartiality or the principle of consent. With respect to peace enforcement, including neutralising and defeating a ‘designated enemy’, the Panel says only that such military operations should be ‘exceptional’ and ‘time-limited’. Regarding terrorism, it recommends, in surprisingly categorical language, that the UN should not be involved in any counter-terrorism operations going forward. One cannot help but wonder how these ideas will be enforced if and when the UN deploys troops to what are likely to be – as the Panel concedes – its next theatres of operations: Yemen, Syria and Libya.
There is, in effect, a clear disconnect between the Security Council’s newfound need to re-affirm the core peacekeeping principles and the Panel’s suggestion that:
“ultimately the clarity of what is required for any particular mission is not found in doctrine, but contained in clear and mission-specific statements of unit requirements, guidelines for troop- and police-contributing countries and rules of engagement” (Report, para. 126).
This may well be true in theory, but, if past practice is any indicator, mission-specific guidelines on the use of force will not come from the UN’s political bodies, especially the Security Council.
The growing tension between a proactive and a hands-off vision of peacekeeping is also apparent in the UN’s support for state institutions. Only a few years ago, experts agreed that large-scale peacekeeping missions with state-building capacity were drawing to a close. Writing in 2012, Richard Gowan argued that lighter missions with fewer personnel were to be expected because “[t]he era of peacekeeping that began in 1999 and 2000 thus seems to be waning…” (Gowan, p. 165). Three years on, with the UN entangled in increasingly complex missions in Mali and South Sudan – and especially in CAR, where state authority all but collapsed in 2013-2014 – these predictions seem premature.
The Security Council has responded to these challenges with not just peace-building and state-building initiatives, but also measures that temporarily displace state authority. Though the Council has already in the past authorised ‘extension of state authority’ in peacekeeping mandates, the UN is arguably doing more today in qualitative terms than at any time since its (civilian) territorial administrations in East Timor and Kosovo. In Mali, where MINUSMA has a mandate ‘to extend and re-establish State administration throughout the country’ (SC Res 2100, para. 16 (a) (ii)), this has undermined the UN’s impartiality in mediating a peace agreement. In South Sudan, where UNMISS has provided refuge to civilians on an unprecedented scale, peacekeepers have had to improvise to maintain law and order in their camps in lieu of the South Sudanese authorities. Meanwhile, in CAR the peacekeeping mission is authorised not only to ‘extend’ state authority, but also undertake ‘urgent temporary measures’ (UTMs) which displace core state functions “in areas where national security forces or judicial authorities are not present or operational.” According to the Security Council, UTMs are ‘limited in scope’, ‘time bound’ and therefore MINUSCA may “on an exceptional basis and without creating a precedent and without prejudice to the agreed principles of peacekeeping operations” exercise its powers to “arrest and detain in order to maintain basic law and order and fight impunity.” (SC Res 2217, para. 32 (f) (i))
Reflecting the Security Council’s growing willingness to displace national criminal jurisdiction, a core attribute of state sovereignty, UN peacekeepers are now also authorised to cooperate directly with the ICC’s investigations in the DRC (SC Res 2211, para. 9 (d)), in CAR (SC Res 2217, para. 33 (a) (iii)) and in Mali (SC Res 2227, para. 14 (e) (i)). Until 2013, peacekeepers could do so only indirectly, after obtaining the consent of state authorities, most notably in the DRC. In CAR, by contrast, the peacekeeping mission will soon be providing operational, technical, security and legal support to the newly established ‘Special Criminal Court’, which is expected to work alongside the ICC’s investigations and build domestic judicial capacity (SC Res 2217, para. 32 (g)). This will mark the first time a peacekeeping mission has provided law and order in so many ways in a single country. While its precedential value is still hard to assess, it illustrates the growing importance of UN operations in exercising state-like functions where domestic governance is lacking.
The Panel has little to say about these developments, suggesting unpersuasively that “Peace-building is not state-building; these are distinct but inter-linked efforts” (para. 128). The report opts for the generic and politically neutral term ‘sustaining peace’, but the fact is that peacekeeping mandates already include a number of measures, especially security sector reform and judicial reform, that defy any neat distinction between peace-building and state-building. Though it hints at dissatisfaction with the Security Council’s use of the term ‘stabilisation’ to describe de facto state-building measures (para. 111), the Panel misses an opportunity to contribute to the debate about the UN’s role in restoring state authority and its impact on the limits of peacekeeping, especially the principles of host-state consent and impartiality.
Taken together, these developments point to a gradual expansion of the UN’s powers in the area of peacekeeping. Despite its recent ‘re-discovery’ of the classic peacekeeping doctrine, the Security Council has, in fact, proved more willing to deploy military force and provide robust support to state institutions in the last few years. Echoing these trends, the Panel urges the UN to discard the term ‘peacekeeping’ in favour of ‘peace operations’, which denotes ‘a continuum of response and smoother transitions between different phases of missions’. In the end, whatever these missions are called, the great unknown is whether broader mandates and multidimensional operations will prove more successful in producing peaceful transitions.