In the first comprehensive review of UN peace operations since the Brahimi Report in 2000, the 2015 report of the High-Level Independent Panel on United Nations Peace Operations (HIPPO report) highlights a variety of logistical problems and resource constraints. Rapid deployment remains a challenge, for example, and many missions lack the personnel and equipment required to effectively implement their mandates.

The discussions at the 2017 UN Peacekeeping Defence Ministerial conference being held this month in Vancouver will likely include these issues. Yet the HIPPO report also points to a more fundamental problem. Contemporary UN missions are plagued by underlying disagreements about their proper role in managing armed conflict. These disagreements are especially acute when it comes to the use of force. To paraphrase a diplomat I spoke with in New York before the report was released, UN member states no longer agree on what peacekeeping should mean.

Historically, such disagreements were rare. During the Cold War, peacekeepers were prohibited from taking sides, promoting any particular ideology, or involving themselves in the domestic affairs of host states. The first peacekeeping mission, deployed during the Suez Crisis, was ordered to avoid any action that might tip the military scales of the conflict. There were exceptions to this rule — the United Nations Operation in the Congo is a notable one — but most peacekeepers were expected to serve as disinterested intermediaries. Peacekeeping meant passively monitoring cease-fires and liaising between parties to a peace agreement. These activities were grounded in three guiding principles: impartiality, consent of the parties, and the non-use of force except in self-defence.

UN personnel now take sides, militarily and ideologically, in ways that would have been unthinkable for traditional peacekeepers.

Contemporary peace operations have placed these principles — often referred to as the “holy trinity” of peacekeeping — under strain. UN personnel now take sides, militarily and ideologically, in ways that would have been unthinkable for traditional peacekeepers. In some cases they use deadly force to support one party to a conflict and oppose another. In 2011, for example, UN helicopters in Côte d’Ivoire launched air strikes and helped remove the incumbent president from power after he lost a UN-certified election.

In 2013 the Security Council deployed a Force Intervention Brigade, composed of infantry battalions, special forces and an artillery company, to “neutralize” nonstate armed groups in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). UN troops in Mali are currently working with the central government to extend state authority and confront armed groups like al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. In doing so, peacekeepers have effectively become involved in counter-insurgency and counterterrorism operations, often with deadly consequences. More than 80 peacekeepers have been killed since the mission was deployed four years ago, including three who died in late October when their vehicle hit an explosive device while escorting a convoy in northern Mali.

Activities like this remain the exception not the rule in UN missions. Still, they mark a radical departure from traditional peacekeeping practices, and they fly in the face of what most people believe they know about UN peace operations. Critics argue that they are completely at odds with the holy trinity and that they erode the UN’s ability to serve as a credible, third-party mediator. For others, the “robust” posture adopted by some missions is a welcome change from the disastrous passivity that characterized missions in places like Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. In this view — relatively common in Canada and other Western countries — forceful action is necessary to protect civilians from harm and uphold institutions that will foster peace over the long term. These debates hinge on divergent beliefs about the goals and purpose of UN peace operations. Should they be primarily concerned with mediation and with promoting negotiated solutions to armed conflict? Should they take decisive action against anyone responsible for serious human rights violations? What steps should they take to prevent attacks on civilians in the first place? Should they provide direct support to institutions that are considered essential for lasting peace?

Facilitating peace negotiations, protecting human rights and supporting democratic institutions all sound like desirable and reasonable goals. It is easy to understand how they came to be layered on top of one another in mission mandates and policy documents, which often present them as interlocking, complementary tasks. The problem is that these goals are not always compatible. How should UN personnel respond when — as has been the case in the DRC — they are supposed to conduct joint military operations with state security forces that are also responsible for egregious human rights violations? How should the mission in Mali support reconciliation and dialogue with all stakeholders when it routinely acts to suppress and displace some of those stakeholders? Practices on the ground vary widely because mission personnel reach different conclusions about how to balance these competing imperatives. This variation in practices has concrete implications, and is often a source of confusion, frustration and disappointment among populations in host countries.

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Many UN officials are reluctant to openly acknowledge these dilemmas. They take cues from member states, which may assign conflicting responsibilities without reaching any formal agreement on how to square them with core principles. When asked about controversial practices, UN officials often downplay their significance. They insist, for example, that targeted offensive operations against “negative forces” in the DRC are perfectly in line the organization’s long-standing commitment to impartiality. The HIPPO report provides some basis for this claim; it notes that core peacekeeping principles should be interpreted “progressively and with flexibility” in the face of new challenges. But core principles are not infinitely flexible. There is a clear disconnect between the holy trinity and many of the assertive peacekeeping practices described above.

There are two ways to resolve this disconnect. The first involves a major overhaul of the core principles that guide UN peace operations. Member states and UN officials would have to revise their formal commitment to impartiality, consent and the non-use of force except in self-defence. A departure from these principles is not likely to find favour among traditionalists concerned about state sovereignty, nor will it appeal to large troop-contributing countries like India. Losing their support could exacerbate the logistical challenges already facing UN peace operations.

The second option would involve stepping back from some of the more controversial practices, especially targeted offensive operations and de facto counter-insurgency activities. This option is politically more feasible, though it would also come with drawbacks, including concerns about ineffectiveness and irrelevance in contemporary conflicts. Either way, the coherence and credibility of future peacekeeping missions will depend on states’ and officials’ willingness to openly acknowledge these normative contradictions. Failing to grapple candidly with the current disconnect between rhetoric and action will gradually erode the legitimacy of UN peace operations. It will also damage their standing in the eyes of those who matter most: the people who are forced every day to live with conflict and instability.

This article is part of the special feature Peacekeeping Reimagined.

Photo: Canadian ISAF soldiers stand and listen to a speech by Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien at Camp Julien in Kabul, Afghanistan on Oct 18, 2003. Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien told several hundred of his nation’s peacekeeping soldiers during a visit to the Afghan capital on Saturday that their work in this war-torn nation was a source of pride to millions back home, and their sacrifices were not going unnoticed. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel)

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Marion Laurence
Marion Laurence is a PhD candidate in the department of political science at the University of Toronto. Her research focuses on global security governance, particularly change and learning in UN peace operations.

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