‘UN Peacekeeping Defence Ministerial focuses on military planning and performance when strategic political guidance is still missing’.

This article draws on a article published by the  IPI Global Observatory,https://theglobalobservatory.org/2016/09/peacekeeping-reform-united-nations-south-sudan-congo/

Dr Charles Hunt is a Research Fellow at the Asia Pacific Centre for the Responsibility to Protect and  is a Vice-Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Centre for Global Research and the School of Global, Urban and Social Studies at RMIT University, Australia  http://www.rmit.edu.au/contact/staff-contacts/academic-staff/h/hunt-dr-charlie



UN peace operations play a critical role in responding to today’s international peace and security challenges. They are deployed in greater numbers in response to more complex conflict situations than ever before to protect civilians from direct harm as well as to conduct a host of other tasks such as supporting the (re)building of state institutions, facilitating humanitarian aid, and overseeing political commitments.

Despite admirable aims, many of these missions are failing to meet their objectives. In South Sudan, the UN has failed to protect the thousands of civilians[1] seeking refuge inside and adjacent to UN bases. In Mali, the mission struggles to protect itself, let alone anyone else. Efforts to stabilize the Democratic Republic of the Congo rely on bargains with unpalatable governments that can undermine the impartiality of the UN.[2] The reputation of the organization is being further eroded by instances of sexual exploitation by UN personnel such as recent allegations in the Central African Republic.[3] UN peacekeeping is straining to cope with enormous challenges and requires major reform.

Recognising these maladies, a ‘UN Peacekeeping Defence Ministerial’ meeting was held in London on 8 September – only the second-ever meeting of Defense Ministers and Chiefs of Defense focused specifically on peacekeeping.[4] The meeting brought together representatives of around 70 member states indicating widespread international support for making peacekeeping fit for purpose in the 21st Century.[5]

The gathering produced some laudable achievements. 31 countries made new pledges with a significant portion of these earmarked for much-needed rapid deployment.[6] Additional ‘mission enablers’ such as intelligence gathering capacities, engineering units, field hospitals and strategic air assets were also pledged.[7] Emphasis was placed on: increasing the number of women in peacekeeping, including in senior positions; establishing a UN Training of Trainers Centre; and producing more competent and courageous leadership that is also accountable for poor performance.

The meeting culminated with a Communiqué[8] that put forward a ‘blueprint’ for improving UN peace operations anchored on ‘3 Ps’ – better planning, additional pledges and improving performance. If implemented, the commitments therein should improve peace operations, however, the meeting and the communiqué skirted over important lingering issues.

First, commitments refer to technical attempts to treat symptoms rather than political responses to their causes. The ‘3 Ps’ fail to sufficiently take into account key findings of the recent High-Level Independent Panel on Peace Operations (HIPPO) report[9] highlighting the primacy of politics in enabling effective missions in the future – a 4th and perhaps most important ‘P’. There can be no exclusively military solution to the conflicts that peace operations address. Peacekeeping – and any use of force by peacekeepers – must be deployed in support of a political strategy, not as a substitute for one.[10] The Communiqué’s says little about how political planning should look but instead focused on military and technical planning for clear and sequenced mandates. While it does recall the “…renewed focus on the primacy of politics”, in the HIPPO report, it offered little indication of what that means, who is responsible for ensuring it, or where it fits into the reform agenda going forward. Consequently, the conference avoided grappling with the difficult questions of the politics of modern peace operations and implications for the fundamental principles of peacekeeping.

Second, this was a highly militarized affair with all the pomp and ceremony that brings. While many civilian experts attended – and no-doubt performed the leg-work behind the scenes – the fact remains that this was a gathering of ministers and chiefs of defence. This portrays a peace operations system where military actors heavily influence decision-making. This is sensible when it comes to troop contributions and military hardware but it makes little sense regarding other vital civilian components or, more importantly, when crafting the political strategies that underpin peace operations.

Peace operations are not the right tool for responding to all violent conflict. Where there is no peace to keep, the Security Council may need to consider enforcement action and stabilization operations in order to protect civilians and prevent the escalation of violence. However, to do so under the auspices of UN peace operations is to jeopardize the fragile consensus that enables it. The unintended consequences of stretching or manipulating them may be severe – potentially jeopardizing the agreed upon principles, threatening the force generation base and possibly undermining the viability of the whole enterprise.[11] Some have argued that it may therefore be necessary to develop another modality – with associated doctrine and frameworks – to execute such missions.[12]

In the meantime, UN peacekeeping must muddle through. The London meeting’s tangible steps to close the capacity gaps plaguing current missions give cause for hope. “Doing better with more,” sounds like a better proposition than “doing more with less” – the mantra of peacekeeping in austerity-shaped early 2000s. However, what is urgently required is for member states to debate and negotiate what UN peacekeeping should be doing in the 21st Century. Without structural reforms, explicit political strategies and conceptual clarity, UN peacekeeping will continue to disappoint and risks losing its legitimacy and credibility. Once gone, no amount of reinforcements will bring that back and the world will be worse off for such a loss.



[1] https://www.doctorswithoutborders.org/sites/usa/files/msf_malakal_report_2016.pdf


[3] https://www.hrw.org/news/2016/02/04/central-african-republic-rape-peacekeepers

[4] First in Kigali in March, 2015.

[5]  “Twenty‐first century UN peace operations: protection, force and the changing security environment.”

[6] https://cc.unlb.org/default.aspx

[7] https://www.ipinst.org/2016/07/smart-peacekeeping-tech-enabled) http://peaceoperationsreview.org/thematic-essays/can-attack-helicopters-save-u-n-peacekeeping/)

[8] https://www.gov.uk/government/news/un-peacekeeping-defence-ministerial-london-communique

[9] http://futurepeaceops.org/project/uniting-our-strengths-for-peace-politics-partnerships-and-people-report-of-the-high-level-independent-panel-on-united-nations-peace-operations-2015/

[10] https://www.brookings.edu/book/the-fog-of-peace/

[11] “All necessary means to what ends? The unintended consequences of the ‘robust turn’ in UN peace operations”

[12] http://futurepeaceops.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/Briefing-Book-Final.pdf

UN Peacekeeping Defence Ministerial London 2016

Author: protectiongateway

Human Protection Hub

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