SYDNEY, Australia — In August 2000, Lakhdar Brahimi, a prominent United Nations diplomat from Algeria, submitted his landmark review on UN peacekeeping to the secretary-general at the time, Kofi Annan.
The previous year had been crucial for peacekeeping. The retrenchment of the mid-90s had subsided and a new era of peacekeeping activism had begun. Missions were deployed to Kosovo, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sierra Leone and East Timor. The Sierra Leone mission, in particular, was indicative of the challenges Brahimi sought to address. It was the first mission embedded with a protection of civilians clause in its mandate, but it was also a mission rescued from the brink of collapse after 500 of its peacekeepers surrendered to the Revolutionary United Front rebels, the army fighting the Sierra Leone government.
Fifteen years later, on June 16, José Ramos-Horta, leading a new independent panel review of peace operations at the UN, delivered the document on both peacekeeping operations and special political missions to Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon.
Ramos-Horta, a Nobel Peace Prize winner and former president of East Timor, named the report after Nyakhat Pal, a 3-year old South Sudanese girl who sought the protection of the UN in Upper Nile State in her country.
The report has been submitted to Ban amid a similarly turbulent era. Peace operations have been dispatched to the far reaches of the earth, often into the middle of conflicts: in Central African Republic, Mali, Syria, South Sudan, Darfur and Congo. These missions represent an inconvenient fact: that far too often the reflex of the UN Security Council has been to do something. The council’s instrument of choice has been the deployment of heavy peacekeeping missions.
The mantra of finding political solutions resides at the center of the report. The Brahimi review offered similarly sage advice, saying that “peacekeeping cannot be a substitute for an effective political process.” Since then, the phrase “there can only be a political solution” has been uttered ad nauseam. Yet, operationalizing the concept has proven difficult for the UN. Missions nowadays are often sidelined to await the outcome of continuing negotiations.
By comparison, many UN missions (like those in El Salvador, Namibia, Cambodia and Mozambique) of the early 1990s were more ensconced in the machinations of their respective peace processes.
In a way, the Ramos-Horta report calls for a return to the format of old: “Whenever a peace operation is deployed, the UN should lead or play a leading role in the political process.”
The panel has invoked the Dutch adage as well, saying: “Prevention is better than the cure.” The cure is almost always costlier in both human and financial terms. The Security Council, however, seldom acts before the fact, and judgments made regarding the effectiveness of preventive measures are fraught. This is because for such measures to be judged effective, nothing happens.
In 1999, Annan spoke of moving from a culture of reaction to a culture of prevention. Yet little has changed. The horizon scanning briefings in the Security Council were meant to accommodate preventive thinking. But they encountered resistance and have been dropped. The only time the council moved to dispatch a force in the name of prevention was more than 20 years ago, when it deployed the UN Preventive Deployment Force (UNPREDP) to Macedonia.
If the UN were to identify states at risk of descending into crisis and conflict, then Article 2 (7) of the UN Charter, which forbids UN intervention in matters of domestic jurisdiction, might be invoked. That is why prevention is a sensitive area for the UN. Ramos-Horta and his panel, as an independent group, have decided to bravely tread this ground. Whether the secretary-general and the Security Council follow suit remains to be seen.
The panel has held to the “view that the three core principles of peacekeeping should be upheld.” As an extension of this commitment, they definitively concluded that the UN should not engage in counterterrorism and exercise caution when considering the deployment of a peace enforcement operation — an intervention brigade — which has been done in the Congo mission.
From here, the panel asks a number of pertinent questions of clarification: what does defense of the mandate actually mean? What is stabilization in the UN context? Both terms (defense of the mandate and stabilization) have entered UN lingo, but they have defied UN definition. Unfortunately, a unified UN doctrine is unlikely to emerge and national caveats — the bane of every force commander’s tenure — might prove difficult to remove. Yet clarity must be rendered on the questions of force: against whom, under what circumstances and to what ends?
UN force commanders and the forces they nominally command should be clear about how they function: to ameliorate, to contain, to coerce/deter or to destroy (remembering that the military can function only in these four ways).
The UN has consistently failed to appoint exceptional or even competent mission leaders, known as special representatives of the secretary-general. As with everything, there are exceptions, Sérgio Vieira de Mello, Ian Martin, Karin Landgren and Martin Kobler, to name a few. But why would the UN recruit a mediocre envoy when it could easily recruit an excellent mission leader? The answer is politics trumping competence. The skills and competence of special representatives vary considerably, as there exists neither a standardized competency-based recruitment process or a comprehensive training course for the envoys before their deployment.
More needs to be done to ensure that the right mission leaders are selected, and that those leaders are prepared to the highest standards. The report recognized this reality and recommended establishing an ad hoc independent group of former senior field leaders to advise the secretary-general on potential candidates — a good starting point.
The UN is described as the ultimate bureaucracy, so it is not surprising that the panel has pinpointed the red tape and “compartmentalized mindsets at Headquarters” that “hamper mandate delivery in the field.”
Another disconnect was also identified: UN missions display a tendency to “focus on capitals and elites” over regular engagement with the local populations (a phenomenon that Séverine Autesserre, a professor of political science at Barnard College, has written about in her book “Peaceland“). To address this gap, the panel has emphasized approaches that “move beyond merely consulting local people, to actively include them in their work.”
The report is incisive and pragmatic. On the surface, many of the recommendations proposed by the panel echo the Brahimi report: the need for rapid reaction, standby arrangements, leadership and context-sensitive mandates. But this is not a criticism. The UN membership and the Secretariat have a short memory and need to be constantly reminded and pushed toward improvement. The next step is for both parties to decisively take up the challenges laid down by the report.
This is an opinion essay.
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Peter Nadin is a researcher, policy analyst and consultant based in Sydney, Australia. His research interests include UN peace operations, armed groups (nonstate and state surrogate), leadership in UN missions and the UN Security Council. He has previously worked as a project associate at the United Nations University in Tokyo.
Nadin is a co-author of “Spoiler Groups and UN Peacekeeping,” published by the International Institute for Strategic Studies and Routledge in 2015. Nadin has also published more than a dozen UN-related articles for the United Nations University and the Lowy Institute for International Policy. He holds a bachelor of social science in peace and humanitarian studies, a bachelor of arts (honors) and a Ph.D. from the University of Western Sydney. His doctoral thesis was a study of the UN Security Council.