UN peacekeeping under new leadership

Cedric de Coning

1 February 2017


Ban Ki Moon, the previous Secretary-General of the United Nations (UN), referred to peacekeeping as the flagship enterprise of the UN. He also recognised, however, that UN peacekeeping is under severe pressure. Over the last two decades, most UN peacekeepers were engaged in post-conflict peace agreement implementation missions in countries like Angola, Cambodia and Mozambique. Today, more than two-thirds of the UN’s peacekeepers are deployed amidst ongoing conflict to protect civilians in countries like the Central African Republic (CAR); the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Mali and South Sudan.

The UN Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) is a good example of the kinds of challenges UN peace operations face today. As of 31 December 2016, the mission has suffered approximately 75 casualties from attacks from militant opposition groups since it was established in 2013. This is the highest number of casualties sustained by a UN operation in 20 years. This is largely due to asymmetric terrorist attacks on the UN, including the use of improvised explosive devices. The threats the UN is facing are closely linked to the fact that it is not viewed as an impartial actor by the militant opposition groups, because its mandate involves helping the government in Bamako to extend its authority and control over the North of Mali. This puts the UN in direct confrontation with those armed groups and political factions campaigning for more autonomy for the North.

These kinds of dilemmas have raised the question: is UN peacekeeping still fit for purpose? In 2014, then Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon appointed Nobel Peace Laureate and former President of Timor Leste, José Ramos-Horta, to head a High-level Independent Panel on UN Peace Operations (HIPPO). The Panel submitted its report on 16 June 2015. The key recommendations of the HIPPO Panel were that:

  • the political solutions should always guide the design and deployment of peace operations;
  • the UN must improve the methods it utilises to protect civilians, but must also resist the pressure to undertake combat operations;
  • instead, the UN should invest in strategic partnerships with the African Union and other regional organisations; and
  • the UN must place people firmly at the centre of its peace operations.

A ten-year review of the UN peacebuilding architecture, as well as a review of the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security, took place over the same period. The peacebuilding review led to both the Security Council and the General Assembly passing resolutions in April 2016 that adopted a ‘new’ sustaining peace concept. The concept is defined as incorporating activities aimed at preventing the outbreak, escalation, continuation and recurrence of conflict, addressing root causes, assisting parties to conflict to end hostilities, ensuring national reconciliation, and moving towards recovery, reconstruction and development.

In January 2017, a new Secretary-General, António Guterres, assumed office. There are several challenges that the he will have to address in the area of peacekeeping operations over his five-year term. I will highlight three.

First, Guterres has made preventing conflict and sustaining peace a central theme of his office. This means that he will have to change those aspects of the UN culture, structures and rules that constrain or undermine conflict prevention. The most serious of these are those incentives that favour peacekeeping operations that respond to conflict, rather than those instruments that can work to prevent conflicts and sustain peace. One argument is that if the assessed contribution system could be utilised for all peace and security related tasks authorised by the UN Security Council, then the UN would be more effective in preventing conflicts. This would result in less demand for peacekeeping, and thus an overall reduction of the peacekeeping or assessed contribution budget.

Secondly, the HIPPO panel has recognized that there is a widening gap between what UN peacekeeping has been designed for—as reflected in its doctrine and how most Troop Contributing Countries prepare, deploy and equip their peacekeepers—and what it is being tasked to do. An important task for new Secretary-General Guterres over the coming months and years will be to guide the UN Secretariat through the process of adapting its doctrine and guidance to these new realities.

Thirdly, in addition to the argument for reducing the peacekeeping budget so that more can be spent on conflict prevention, the new Trump administration has signalled that it wants to significantly reduce US contributions to the UN. In a formula based on GDP, the US is currently responsible for 28.6% of the UN’s peacekeeping costs. Nikki Haley, the new US Ambassador to the UN, has initiated a review of UN peacekeeping operations with a view to determining their value and cost efficiency. This is likely to result in pressure to downsize, drawdown and close some UN missions, or reducing the size of others, starting most likely with those in Darfur, DRC, Haiti and Liberia.

Secretary-General Guterres will need to balance the pressure to reduce costs with a credible plan for right-sizing and refocussing UN peacekeeping. He would have to be cautious to do so without leaving the civilians the UN is mandated to protect exposed to greater risk. If one of the countries in which the UN decides to close-down or scale-down a peacekeeping mission relapses into violent conflict, it will be a serious setback not just for the people and country concerned, but also for Guterres’ new focus on preventing conflict and sustaining peace.


About the Author

Cedric de Coning

Cedric de Coning is a Senior Research Fellow with the Peace and Conflict Research Group at NUPI and a Senior Advisor on Peacekeeping and Peacebuilding for ACCORD.

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