Peacekeepers Shouldn’t Always Be Peaceful
The United Nations needs to accept that it's possible to fight and broker peace agreements at the same time.
Almost two decades ago, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan asked Lakhdar Brahimi, one of the most experienced diplomats to have ever served the U.N., to chair a commission to examine the peacekeeping disasters of the 1990s, from Bosnia to Somalia and Rwanda, to see if any lessons could be learned. His hard-hitting report guided my actions as head of U.N. peacekeeping from 2000 to 2008. And its recommendation to “tell the Security Council what it needs to know, not what it wants to hear” is as valid as ever — which is why we must acknowledge that peacekeeping today has changed dramatically since the Brahimi Report’s publication in 2000.
Another key recommendation of the report was not to send peacekeepers where there was no peace to keep. But most peacekeeping missions are now deployed precisely in such places. Moreover, terrorism, almost absent in 2000, is present in several countries where peacekeepers are deployed, because it thrives on civil wars. Containing violence and stopping the spread of terrorism have thus displaced earlier ambitions of state-building, which have proven much harder to fulfill than anticipated.
Together, these changes have transformed the operational environment of peacekeeping — and increased the threat to peacekeepers. (The U.N. mission in Mali, for instance, has lost more peacekeepers to hostile actions than any U.N. mission since Yugoslavia.) That’s why Secretary-General António Guterres is correct to have launched a review of peace operations. The world must decide how it now understands, and plans to use, peace operations.
The U.N. faces a dilemma: Its most important comparative advantage is its impartiality. Traditionally, peacekeepers have been provided by countries that did not have a national stake in the conflict, and thus had little incentive to join any fighting. In recent years, countries — especially those that neighbor a given conflict — have volunteered for peacekeeping for precisely the opposite reason: because they had an interest in the outcome. Tanzania, for instance, deployed in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, just as Ethiopia and Kenya have deployed in the U.N.-supported African Union mission in Somalia. In such situations, the peacekeepers from these countries also have incentive to take greater military risks in their engagement with the conflicts, in accordance with their political objectives.
Can one fight and broker a peace agreement at the same time? The short answer is yes, because peace will often have enemies. Terrorists need to be defeated, and spoilers need to be deterred: Sabotaging a peace process should not be cost-free. But the reality is complex. A big part of defeating terrorism, as well as marginalizing spoilers, is separating hardcore terrorists with a transnational agenda, or criminal actors who benefit from war, from those whose grievances should be addressed in a political process.
Peacekeeping requires a new framework to organize this process. A recent report by a former, and very effective, U.N. force commander, Gen. Carlos Alberto dos Santos Cruz, recommends that U.N. forces not shy away from tactical offensive operations to preempt hostile acts, instead of becoming sitting ducks who lose the respect of the population and actually end up increasing risks for themselves. He is right, and his recommendations complement rather than contradict the conclusions of another recent U.N. report, the so-called HIPPO report, which reaffirmed the primacy of politics in the success of peace operations. The two approaches now need to be combined in a single strategic vision.
The U.N. is not going to become a war machine: Most troop contributors don’t want that, and blue helmets do not have the level of integration, strength of command and control, intelligence assets, and willingness to fight that the effective conduct of war requires. Peacekeepers need to learn how to operate alongside forces better designed and better motivated to conduct offensive operations, and they should not be embarrassed by such cooperation. An interesting test case is on display in the counterterrorism operations in the Sahel region of Africa, where there is an ongoing U.N. mission in Mali, alongside a French-led military mission called Operation Barkhane, and a newly formed institution, the G5 Sahel, designed to coordinate the military operations of several Sahelian countries.
Force should never define peacekeeping strategy, of course, whether in the name of “countering violent extremism” or of “protecting civilians” as in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The ultimate goal of complex operations should be to help national authorities restore their failing sovereignty. But peace operations’ political goals can be lost if they fall into what might be called “the peacekeeping trap”: The presence of peacekeepers can relieve national actors of their core responsibility to build trust with the population, but their departure may lead to resumption of violence. The exit strategy of a mission should therefore be in place from the outset, making the composition and behavior of new national security forces a top priority.
That should lead to time-bound commitments with clear benchmarks. U.N. peace operations enjoy the great advantage of having reliable and predictable funding, which discourages spoilers on the ground who oppose peace. But that must not become an excuse for open-ended deployments that will exhaust the patience of the major financial contributors to the peacekeeping budget and send the wrong signal to national actors.
Whether it is against terrorists or criminal militias, national actors provide the only sustainable response. The role of peace operations is to empower them, not substitute for them. Whatever else the U.N. review of peacekeeping decides, that basic fact will likely be at the center of its conclusions.