The changing nature of UN peace operations

Discussions in Vancouver this week are part of a broader effort to make peacekeeping missions more effective, write Clark Soriano and Rhonda Gossen. Here's how that can be done.

By: , /
November 15, 2017
Indonesian peacekeepers of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) stand facing a UN naval ship during a handover ceremony from Italian Major-General Luciano Portolano to Irish Major-General Michael Bearyover the command of Lebanon's U.N. peacekeeping forces at the United Nations headquarters in Naqoura, southern Lebanon, July 19, 2016. REUTERS/Ali Hashisho

The complex nature of conflict today demands more than deploying United Nations peacekeeping forces in conflict zones. Old models are not working fast enough to reduce or bring an end to conflict, fully protect civilians or alleviate immense suffering and displacement especially in protracted conflicts.

Even if conflict is stopped, the chance of it recurring looms if the root causes that fuelled it, such as exclusion from development, injustice, poverty and inequity, remain. If there is any chance of tackling the damaging conflicts happening around the world, combining all efforts of a diverse range of actors within and outside the UN is needed.

That’s tall order for the UN these days, but steps are being taken. In September, the UN and the World Bank launched a joint study: Pathways for Peace: Inclusive Approaches to Preventing Violent Conflict which takes a hard look at how development aid can better align its programming with diplomacy and mediation efforts and security in order to prevent conflict from becoming violent.

Another study, released in February this year by New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, analyzes restructuring options within the UN Secretariat for better support of peacekeeping and highlights recent initiatives that have catalyzed change to prioritize prevention of conflict and align the peace and security pillar more closely with the development and human rights pillars. Those initiatives include the June 2015 Report of the High-level Independent Panel on Peace Operations, the Advisory Group of Experts on the UN’s Peacebuilding Architecture, the Global Study on the Implementation of Resolution 1325 on women, peace and security; the UN70 initiative and important outcomes of the 2015 New York Leader’s Summit, as well as the London and Paris ministerial conferences on peacekeeping, both of which were held in the fall of 2016.

The paradigm shift these recent studies propose is an attempt to depart from the old model of conflict prevention and move from siloed actions of different actors to an integrated approach to peace and security, linking conflict, development, peacebuilding and diplomacy.

What does an integrated approach mean in practice? It means moving away from a mindset that approaches peace as a rigid set of sequential and separate interventions — humanitarian response, ceasefire and peacekeeping, elections and governance, early recovery and, finally, social and economic development — towards a new way of working that focuses on protection and meets people’s immediate humanitarian needs while reducing risk and vulnerability and reducing conflict. It involves a commitment by those working on development, humanitarian relief and peacebuilding and peacekeeping towards collective outcomes.

One of the recent drivers of this new way of working was the first-ever World Humanitarian Summit, held in May 2016 in Istanbul. It committed actors to transcend humanitarian and development divides by connecting short-term investments in relief with long-term development.  Also last year, twin UN Security Council resolutions on sustaining peace called for the three pillars of peace and security, development and human rights to address root causes. Likewise, the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, which were developed in 2015, are committed to leaving no one behind.

This week in Vancouver, Canada hosts a major UN peacekeeping summit where more than 500 delegates are expected to discuss improvements to peace operations. Discussions on these broader strategic shifts, particularly protecting those at risk and ensuring a gender perspective, will help further the search for solutions. 

While discussions are ongoing, here are three ways in which the model for peacekeeping and conflict prevention is already changing.

1. It is working towards one common agenda across the UN system.

Changes to the way the UN analyzes conflict and risk are bringing together the knowledge and expertise of its frontline practitioners, bilateral partners, civil society and governments. In 2016, the United Nations Development Group produced guidance for UN agencies on conducting conflict and development analysis. The UN Department of Political Affairs and UNDP, jointly with the peacebuilding support office, bring together the political and development arms of the UN to help resident coordinators and UN country teams on the ground strengthen national capacities for dialogue, mediation and reconciliation. 

All actors working in a conflict zone need a better understanding of the conflict situation and the diverse efforts underway in the country. Humanitarian aid workers can identify interventions that will work for peace and security based on their critical presence on the ground. Humanitarians, far from working completely independently, need to ensure their interventions are conflict sensitive and “do no harm.” Development actors are increasingly undertaking conflict analysis but more needs to be done to further harmonize their operations with diplomatic actors especially in upstream conflict prevention.

This is already happening with divisions in humanitarian, peacebuilding and development work streams in Iraq and DRC. In Lebanon, development, humanitarian, and political streams came together in a crisis response plan aimed at supporting Lebanese institutions affected by the Syrian crisis, including the military, while also providing livelihood and humanitarian assistance to the Syrian refugees in Lebanon. This was supported by an international support group for Lebanon, composed of P-5 members (France, UK, China, Russia, US), the League of Arab States, the UN, the EU, the World Bank, and select other states.

Liberia’s Ebola response was another prime example of an integrated approach to a crisis. The collective outcome was straight forward: save lives, prevent the virus from spreading and track its spread. Under the leadership of the Special Representative of the UN Secretary General (SRSG) and the UN Deputy SRSG/Resident Coordinator/Humanitarian Coordinator, development programs of UN agencies were quickly redirected, surge staff recruited and innovative changes in processes introduced to direct more resources to fight Ebola. Simultaneously the SRSG responsible for the UN Peacekeeping mission there (UNMIL) directed assets to the Ebola response. UNMIL supplied trucks and officers to manage the logistics warehouse and used its community radio network to convey national messages in 10 local dialects. Its military observers surveyed all health facilities for government. The mission’s quick impact program was used for the response and UNMIL’s field offices became hubs for coordinating UN agency support from UNDP, WHO, UNICEF, FAO and others. Weekly meetings and frequent interactions spurred by the urgency of the situation overcame the usual bureaucratic barriers that can hinder rapid response.

2. It is improving the multidimensional response of peacekeeping missions.

Nowhere is the urgency for an integrated model for development, peace and security more imperative than in the Sahel. The ongoing challenges in central and west Africa led the UN to launch, the G5 Sahel Force in July 2017 which will deploy 5,000 troops in the region. 

In recognition that security and military responses are not enough to tackle the lawlessness, insecurity, exclusion and impoverishment of the region, complementing the military force are peacebuilding and stabilization programs accompanied by a proposed human rights monitoring and protection approach. The UN Secretary General has called for instigation of innovative measures in governance and development for the region.

In Mali, the base of the Sahel force, the fragility of social cohesion and the huge challenges ahead due to the lack of schools, health centres, and infrastructure in conflict areas require some quick results be delivered to the local population. The UN, with international partners including Canada, is working on multidimensional efforts to do just that. The UN peacekeeping mission there — called the multidimensional integrated stabilization mission or MINUSMA — has a stabilization section that facilitates coherence between peacekeeping components, development and peacebuilding work toward implementing the peace agreement, restoring state authority in conflict areas, and mediation, rule of law and social cohesion efforts to reduce intra community violence. Complementing this, the UN Peacebuilding Fund supports projects that stabilize communities and bridge development, peace and security through initiatives such as fostering dialogue among key groups in society and improving access to services for victims of gender based violence. But more needs to be done to fully connect the long-standing development programs of many countries and agencies in Mali to the peace and security agenda and address grievances around exclusion and give diplomacy a more central role.

3. It is working to empower leadership in the field.

Ensuring that the UN speaks with one voice and delivers as one is an important facet of the critical UN senior leadership role. This is especially important at the sub-national level, where peacekeeping can make the most difference.

In Sudan, the Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary General (also working as the UN Resident Coordinator and Humanitarian Coordinator, known as the DSRSG-RC-HC) established an integrated and decentralized model in 20 states across the country. Specialized coordination staff from both UNDP and the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) worked closely with UN agencies and the NGOs in each state to analyze and plan the response jointly with local authorities.

The initiative to set up integrated UN resident coordinator support offices in contentious areas like the Blue Nile, Abyei and South Kordofan by the DSRSG, enabled the frontline teams to design practical ways of collaborating through better personal chemistry and a team spirit — notwithstanding institutional barriers at the global level.

The result? Health and education services were better aligned, water and sanitation projects were more efficiently managed and livelihood programs were better targeted. Coordination staff worked closely with DPKO heads and civil affairs officers to anticipate threats and target support to reconciliation and community dialogue. The Department of Peacekeeping Operations staff provided UN development agencies and NGOs with essential political capacity. Thus, humanitarian and livelihood activities were designed with a sharp understanding of the security and political context. This led to smarter decisions about pre-positioning life-saving supplies and services, and mapping out areas where it was possible for agencies to work and where temporary postponements made sense. UN agencies were able to use the logistical and engineering capacity of the peacekeeping forces.

Grooming future UN senior mission leaders to manage the complexity of advancing work on various fronts — humanitarian, development, political, human rights, security — and being personally effective in high pressure and challenging environments is a high priority. Through targeted training programs, supported by Canada and other countries, UN DPKO prepares potential and current senior mission staff for leadership positions in UN peacekeeping contexts. The courses address the training needs of SRSGs, DSRSGs, force commanders and police commissioners, directors and other senior staff. The regular induction training of UN resident coordinators organized by UNDG has become a platform for an important conversation on leadership roles essential to an integrated mission context. Elements include managing complexity and focusing on new innovative and tested experiences, leading teams who may not always want to collaborate and being personally effective in promoting and represent the UN. Supported by more trained professionals with a requisite skillset would further strengthen the DSRSG role.

What peacekeeping changes mean for Canada

If the UN is working towards greater coherence in its operations for conflict prevention and peacekeeping, Canada’s funding and programming across humanitarian-development-stabilization and peace operations needs to keep pace.

Faster release of money in priority countries affected by conflict will also help. Lessons from Canada’s experience with a whole of government approach in Afghanistan are being applied in different crisis contexts but the challenge of working for alignment between development, diplomacy, peace operations and humanitarian assistance requires a continuous effort. 

Canada’s recognition of the political and diplomatic aims of peace operations as equally important in stabilization could help move forward a new way of working and integrated approach to addressing conflict.

Political and diplomatic solutions that enhance governance and open up space for political dialogue can complement humanitarian relief, development and security and peacekeeping efforts. This is where Canada can make a difference in advocating and putting into practice a comprehensive and integrated approach to peacekeeping.

Creating incentives to break the silos that prevent an integrated approach using Canada’s experience implementing a whole-of-government approach in Afghanistan could transfer practical lessons from Afghanistan to the efforts towards global conflict prevention being advocated by the World Bank and the UN.

Many of these initiatives have been building for more than a decade; it’s time to make them a reality.