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The Last Station Before Hell: UN Peacekeeping at Inflection Point


On 29 May, the world honours the contribution to international peace and security of United Nations peacekeepers. It comes as peacekeeping faces unprecedented challenges to its effectiveness and even its legitimacy.

After more than 12 years, the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Cote d’Ivoire (UNOCI) will close its doors at the end of June. With much fanfare (and little humility), the announcement of the withdrawal included a salvo of news items and social media posts heralding this as a success story and a case of ‘mission accomplished’.

Yet halfway through the mission’s lifetime, and under its watch, disputed presidential elections in 2010 led to the outbreak of widespread violence resulting in 3,000 civilian deaths and the displacement of 300,000 people. Furthermore, as I have argued elsewhere, the victor’s justice that has pertained after the 2010 crisis in Cote d’Ivoire may yet challenge the sustainability of the peace that UNOCI is so proud of leaving behind.

The definition of success for peacekeeping has been the subject of disagreement among scholars and diplomats for some time. Meaningfully measuring such a slippery concept is extremely difficult. However, even if UNOCI goes down as a success story, what does this mean for how we assess other missions? Do they have the mandates, resources and political backing necessary to achieve similar commendations of ‘mission accomplished’?

UN peacekeeping’s changing nature

As Alex Bellamy and I argued in a recent article, since the early 2010s, the new generation of UN peace operations is increasingly expected to provide protection to huge numbers of civilians in contexts where there is little or no peace to keep. In Mali, South Sudan, the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, peacekeepers have been called upon to protect civilians from harm where governments are unable or unwilling to do so. These missions are increasingly predicated on stabilisation logics that place (sometimes abusive and often recalcitrant) host governments at the centre of the ‘peace’. At times, peacekeepers have been mandated to use lethal force to militarily defeat those who jeopardise civilian wellbeing and resist efforts to extend host state authority.

These more ‘robust’ missions blur the lines between peacekeeping, stabilisation, counter-terrorism, atrocity prevention and state-building. Some scholars argue that the UN is now fighting wars and waging peace. Picking winners and losers in these conflicts can make the UN a party to conflicts rather than an impartial arbiter. In these cases, the UN flag is no longer a source of protection and UN personnel are attacked, no longer for where they are, but for who they are.

The changing nature of UN peacekeeping environments presents principled and practical challenges for those authorising contemporary missions. As Secretary-General Antonio Guterres recently put it, “Peace operations are at a crossroads”. The way in which these challenges are met will have implications for the future reputation, substance and viability of UN peacekeeping.

Doing more with less?

As peacekeepers are targeted in the field, the peacekeeping bureaucracy at UN headquarters in New York faces intense scrutiny. Following the form of his two most recent predecessors, Antonio Guterres launched a comprehensive review of peacekeeping within days of taking office. Framed as a drive to make operations more cost-effective, Guterres’ initiative echoes perennial refrains about ‘doing more with less’. Meanwhile, the new US administration is doing its best to drastically cut its sizeable financial contribution to the cost of peacekeeping.

In addition to Cote d’Ivoire, the missions in Haiti and Liberia are in drawdown phases and will offer some savings in the US$7 billion (AU$9.4 billion) annual peacekeeping budget. However, the need for further cuts and rationalisations will reduce funding to peacekeeping missions that are already woefully under-resourced for delivering on their ambitious mandates. While research shows that these operations not only saves lives but also offer good value for money, the austerity drive will necessarily require a recalibration of the expectations placed upon UN peacekeeping.

Back to basics

Given the challenges in the field and a fiscal squeeze at HQ, should UN peacekeeping go back to basics? After all, you don’t do more with less: you do less with less. This could also align well with Guterres’ simultaneous call to focus more on conflict prevention. In addition, those member states who contribute most of the near-100,000 uniformed personnel are quite attached to the traditional principles of peacekeeping. Jeopardising their buy-in could severely undermine the viability of the whole peacekeeping endeavour. It may be necessary for the UN to develop a separate stabilisation doctrine and set up a new infrastructure to support those missions authorised by the Security Council that depart from  traditional peacekeeping principles. Regardless, many observers argue that the extant doctrinal basis for peacekeeping needs a revamp.

Or should peacekeeping adapt to present circumstances? Since its first deployment in 1948, UN peacekeeping has continuously evolved to respond to the changing nature of threats to international peace and security. In that light, recent efforts to respond robustly to the targeting of civilians is in keeping with the history of peacekeeping. While many caution against using peacekeeping to conduct military counter-terrorism operations, tackling violent extremism more holistically is one of the few areas that the permanent members of the Security Council and member states from the Global South can reach consensus on. Funding under this rubric is also much easier to achieve. Countering violent extremism is therefore more likely to feature when any future UN peacekeeping roles in Syria, Yemen and Libya are discussed.

What constitutes success for UN peacekeeping missions remains a thorny question and a moving target. However, as former chief of UN peacekeeping, Jean-Marie Guehenno, said, “for those affected, peacekeeping is the last station before hell”.

Much like the UN itself, if we did not have peacekeeping, we would immediately need to create it. The fate of millions of people will be affected by decisions about where peacekeeping goes and what it does in the future. Those with the ability to affect this direction of travel should take that responsibility seriously.

Dr Charles T. Hunt is vice chancellor’s senior research fellow at the Centre for Global Research, School of Global, Urban and Social Studies, RMIT University. His most recent book is ‘UN Peace Operations and International Policing: Negotiating Complexity, Assessing Impact and Learning to Learn’ (Routledge, 2015).

This article is based on a presentation Dr Hunt gave to AIIA VIC on 23 May 2017. It is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.

Published May 29, 2017

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