Overstretch in UN peace operations

“In 2008 global peacekeeping was pushed to the brink,” says a new briefing paper from the Center on International Cooperation in New York announcing the Annual Review of Global Peace Operations 2009.  The authors chart out the basic peacekeeping figures – who contributes what peacekeeping forces where – but their main focus is on the serious degree of overstretch and the risk of operations breaking down.

That risk was, as the authors argue, most vividly demonstrated and came closest to being realised in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo in the later part of 2008. Many observers saw signs of things nearing collapse on the ground, with forces close to unable to carry out basic operations. The UN force in DRC, MONUC, has a mandate with two missions – humanitarian relief and support to government forces. These goals are in permanent tension with each other – one requires impartiality, the other requires taking sides – and many Congolese and foreign observers saw the two parts each contradicting and undermining the other. It is worth repeating the main conclusion that is drawn from reviewing failures and flaws in UN peacekeeping operations: the UN blue helmets on peacekeeping operations can support an effective political process that is aimed on all sides at restoring peace; they cannot substitute for one in its absence.

The authors of Global Peace Operations do not detain themselves by grappling with the definition of peacekeeping. They lump together all UN mandated operations even if they are not under UN command; thus they include ISAF – the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan – alongside UN missions in places such as Lebanon, Chad and Haiti, together with, for example, EU missions in Kosovo and Georgia. This is an inclusiveness many other commentators and researchers might question, but including ISAF brings part of the critical state of UN peacekeeping into sharp relief – the question of resources.

The commitments of European NATO forces to Afghanistan and, in the British and a few other cases, previously in Iraq have been depriving UN peacekeeping of important troop resources. The commitment of US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan has no effect on force availability for UN missions because US forces have hardly ever taken part in UN peace operations anyway. But the diversion of European NATO forces matters; Central and South Asian states and African states now provide almost 70 per cent of UN operations’ military personnel; Europe provides 13 per cent.

Resources form one of three basic, broad problem areas in peace operations. The other two are the content of the mandate – the mission as defined by the UN Security Council, often in an elaborate and at key points artfully vague formulations so as to get diplomatic agreement – and the readiness of the forces themselves to conduct peace operations. These operations require a particular range of skills among both officers and ordinary soldiers; some national forces are developing strong and effective traditions and carry out peace operations with extraordinary effectiveness, even when the mandate is vague, the resources are inadequate and the politics surrounding the mission are poisonous. And other forces are not doing so well; from time to time, UN forces have become part of the problem, as loathed by local people as any orher armed group operating in their area.

The hidden good news of the last 15 to 16 years is that the number of wars has been steadily declining. One of the key explanations for this has been the focusing of international attention on the problem, in large part through the UN, including peace operations under UN mandate and often under UN command. As I have argued before – see my post of 15 January – the good news has begun to tail off and the downward trend in war frequency has plateaued out. The economic recession gives grounds for concern that resources will tighten in poor countries, increasing risks of violent conflict, perhaps reigniting some old conflicts that have been managed, suppressed and suspended rather than actually resolved.

To this concern must now be added the crisis in peace operations identified by the the authors of Global Peace Operations. Note that they are talking about problems that surfaced in 2008 – i.e., the problems are not the product of any recession-driven tightening of belts that might deprive UN and other operations of funds. That spectre is looming but has yet to be faced.

There is considerable discussion in diplomatic circles about how to get peace operations right. But if, as the recession bites, politicians and public opinion in rich countries lose sight of the need to keep supporting peace-making, -keeping and -building in poor, faraway countries, the diplomatic work will be weightless. Political awareness of the problem and focus on it is essential. If not, as I have been arguing in earlier posts and as I will continue to, there is a real risk of a perfect storm of conflict escalation in poor countries and insufficient concern and action by rich ones.

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