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UN Peacekeeping Needs Top-Down Restructuring, Expert Panel Says


A UN patrol in Western Sahara, where the UN has a peacekeeping mission. MARTINE PERRET/UN PHOTO
A UN patrol in the region of Western Sahara, where the UN has a peacekeeping mission. MARTINE PERRET/UN PHOTO

The creation of a new office of deputy secretary-general for peace and security to consolidate and hasten United Nations’ responses to conflicts, and a surprising suggestion that the UN should not undertake missions involving counterterrorism were two major recommendations for the future of peacekeeping to emerge from a high-level seven-month study commissioned by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

In a less-than-robust survey, the panel generally urged the UN, and the Security Council in particular, to use “extreme caution” in “any call for a UN peacekeeping operation to undertake enforcement tasks.” And that the “UN should not engage in military counter-terrorism operations.”

These and other preliminary findings were made public in a media briefing at the UN on June 16 by the panel’s chair, José Ramos-Horta of Timor-Leste, and Ameerah Haq of Bangladesh, vice-chair. The full report, expected to be released in a few days, has been sent to the secretary-general and to members of the Security Council.

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The two sides of peacekeeping, military and political, need much closer coordination, Ramos-Horta said in explaining the call for an overarching office for a deputy secretary-general, which he contended could be done “within budget” and was a recommendation from a 2005 analysis on peacekeeping. The UN has a deputy secretary-general, Jan Eliasson of Sweden, but he is generally in charge of development matters.

The report apparently steered clear of the issue of lifting the immunity of peacekeeping troops and police contingents, who would continue to be prosecuted by the authorities in their home countries when allegations of abuse, including sexual contexts, are made. This has been a longstanding arrangement in UN peacekeeping demanded by troop-contributing countries.

Ramos-Horta said that no country, troop contributor or not, would be willing to take part if their soldiers and police were under local legal jurisdiction. Lifting immunity for any troops, Ramos-Horta said, would be “a killer of peacekeeping.” Civilians directly employed by the UN would not have immunity.

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However, the report suggested that a much more stringent response by the UN was needed at the first instance when abuses of peacekeepers surface. It recommended a public listing — naming and shaming — of countries whose troops were facing allegations of abuse, and a delisting of such countries if they proved they had prosecuted alleged offenders. Even that step could provoke negative reactions around the world. There has not been an encouraging record of prosecuting offenders in their own countries in decades of dealing with troop contributors.

Yet calls for more deliberate follow-up and upholding “zero tolerance” standards by the UN in such matters are growing more insistent, as the UN has conceded that the problems are not being handled rigorously. As Ramos-Horta said at the briefing, “Immunity must not ever mean impunity.”

In a personal and instructive aside, Ramos-Horta, a Nobel Peace Prize winner and former president of Timor-Leste, who has since that role been a special envoy of the secretary-general in Guinea-Bissau, recalled how individual peacekeepers can set an example.

He told the story of a Brazilian and a Jordanian soldier on duty in East Timor after its independence from Indonesia who were involved in separate traffic accidents that killed a child in one case and an adult in the other. The two soldiers went immediately to the families of the victims to apologize, to share their grief and to offer compensation. In the case of the Jordanian, Ramos-Horta said, he donated all his salary as a peacekeeper for the rest of the mission in which he served to the bereaved family. In most cases, Jordan has been exemplary in disciplining its troops.

Jose Ramos-Horta, chairman of the peacekeeping panel. ESKINDER DEBEBE/UN PHOTO

This new report is the first thorough review of peacekeeping in 15 years; the previous one, a landmark document, was known as the Brahimi report for its lead author, Lakhdar Brahimi, a former foreign minister of Algeria and a top UN troubleshooter globally. Ramos-Horta, who humorously noted that his last name was too awkward to be attached so easily to the new report, outlined its main points, or “the four essential shifts needed”:

  • The primacy of politics. Lasting peace is achieved through political solutions and not through military and technical engagements alone. Political solutions must guide all UN peace operations.
  • Responsive operations. UN missions should be tailored to context. The UN should embrace the term ‘peace operations’ to denote the full spectrum of responses.
  • Stronger partnerships. A more resilient global and regional architecture for international peace and security is needed for the future. The UN must lay out a vision and help enable others.
  • Fieldfocused and people-centered. UN Headquarters should focus more on enabling field missions and UN personnel must renew their resolve to serve and protect the people.

Among the specific recommendations under these categories, the report’s baldly stated message that the “The UN should not engage in military counter-terrorism operations,” comes off as a blanket if not odd prohibition in an age of terrorist- and extremist-instigated conflict, one that may counter the thinking of the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations on what new and unconventional tools are needed to combat surging “asymmetric” warfare.

The UN mission in Mali, for example, is establishing itself as a technologically advanced operation, using surveillance to help defend peacekeeping bases from the wide array of jihadists roaming the vast desert of northern Mali, some of whom have been deliberately attacking UN peacekeepers. The mission, called Minusma, is now the deadliest of all UN peace operations by far, leaving some regular troop-contributing countries wary of sending their soldiers to Mali.

The report also called for “gender-sensitve” analyses across all peace mission components and the inclusion of human rights developments in briefings to the Security Council, both of which are already being done but not consistently. It asks for the “institutionalization” of better consultations among troop contributors, the UN Secretariat and the Security Council, and support from UN-assessed contributions to African Union operations, with standards set and accountability in such operations monitored.

In addition, the panel reiterated that any country included in the annual UN report on children and armed conflict be barred from participating in peacekeeping missions until the country is delisted.

The report called for creating fast-response units that can respond to crises earlier than the nine months it usually takes to field a mission. The United States has already established such a program with a number of African nations, but this has yet to be tested in practice.

We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.

Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”

Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.

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