What does ‘stabilisation’ mean in a UN Peacekeeping context?

The most important issue that the High-level Independent Panel on Peace Operations will have to consider and provide guidance on is how far we can stretch UN peacekeeping along the Use of Force trajectory, before it looses its core ethos? At what point along this trajectory does the core principles of UN peacekeeping loose its relevance? And why does it matter? Are we sentimentally attached to the core peacekeeping principles, or does this question cut to the hart of how we measure the success of peacekeeping missions?

I will try to answer these questions by looking at three issues:

  • How does stabilisation missions differ from peacekeeping missions?
  • Should the UN be doing stabilisation missions at all?, and
  • If the UN is mandated to do a stabilisation operation, what are some of the key considerations that need to be taken into account?

How does stabilisation missions differ from peacekeeping missions?

The shift towards more robustness has been exemplified by the UN’s three most recent peacekeeping deployments: the Forced Intervention Brigade in MONUSCO, the transition to MINUSMA in Mali and the deployment of MINUSCA in CAR. All three these missions have the word ‘stabilisation’ in their name and all three have stabilisation tasks in their mandates. What does ‘stabilisation’ mean in a UN peacekeeping context, i.e. what is the difference between a UN ‘stabilisation’ mission and a UN peacekeeping mission?

If we analyse these three missions we can broadly say that what they have in common are:

  • that they operate in the midst of on-going conflicts;
  • that their mandates tasks them to contribute to restoring an maintaining order in a given situation, by protecting a government and its people against identified aggressors;
  • that they work in support of the local authorities, and
  • that they are tasked to undertake robust operations, and in the case of the FIB in eastern-DRC, also offensive operations.

The essential difference between peacekeeping and stabilisation seems to be that in peacekeeping the aim is to arrive at, and then maintain a cease-fire and implement a peace agreement, among the parties to a conflict, whilst in stabilisation, the theory of change is to restore and maintain order by managing or containing aggressors and spoilers. So, in peacekeeping the aim is Conflict Resolution, whilst in stabilisation the objective is limited to Conflict Management or containment.

Stabilisation differs in important ways from peacekeeping. The UN peacekeeping theory of change is that UN acts as an impartial 3rd party that guarantees, supports and facilitates a peace process between two or more parties to a conflict. This approach is premised on recognition that there is a political conflict, and there is thus an assumption that the conflict can be resolved through a negotiated political settlement. Thus consent recognizes the legitimacy of the parties. Impartiality confirms that the UN recognizes the parties as equals, and the use of force principle reflects the assumption that the conflict has essentially come to an end.

However, in the case of these three stabilisation missions, the UN Security Council (UNSC) has tasked the UN to support the government to restore or maintain order. In all three cases the UNSC has identified those that threaten the State. There is no question of consent or impartiality when it comes to the disarmament of the M23 or the FDLR in the DRC, or containing AQIM and other identified and listed terrorist groups in Mali, or containing the Seleka and anti-Beleka in CAR. In the case of the DRC, the UNSC has gone further and have identified aggressors that are in breach of international law, and have authorized the use of force, to ensure compliance with, or to enforce, the international will and restore international peace and security.

Whilst all these missions also have a Protection of Civilians mandate, this is not unique to stabilisation missions. The need for effective protection is thus an important factor in stabilisation missions, and manifests differently in that in all these missions the UN works closely in support of host authorities to protect civilians.

Should the UN be doing stabilisation missions?

One important question that the Panel will have to address is whether the UN should be doing stabilisation at all. The UN doctrine has consistently been that when enforcement is necessary the UNSC should authorize a coalition of the willing or a Multi-National Force to stabilize the situation.

This was initially done in Mali and CAR, but the AU forces that were doing the initial stabilisation needed to be relieved because they were not financially self-sustainable and the UN ended up – as a last resort – being deployed into situations that were not yet sufficiently stable to warrant a normal peacekeeping mandate.

In the case of the FIB the countries of the region demanded action, but coordinating a SADC or AU mission deployed alongside a UN missions would pose a number of serious challenges, so it was decided to integrate the concept in the UN mission in the form of the FIB.

Deploying UN stabilisation missions into the DRC, Mali and CAR was thus not the result of a strategic choice based on doctrine or comparative advantage. The UNSC had little choice, and – as a last resort – deployed UN operations. It looks likely that the UNSC will continue to task the UN to do stabilisation missions, not because they are a preferred option, but as an option of last resort. Even if the Horta Panel were to find – like the Brahimi Panel did – that these kinds of missions are undesirable, the UNSC may have little choice. In today’s highly contested international order, the UN is often the only option for agreed international action.

If the UN is mandated to do a stabilisation operation, what are some of the key considerations that need to be taken into account?

The typical UN peacekeeping missions, and the units, trained, prepared and equipped to do consensual peacekeeping, is not capable of the kind of robust operations these stabilisation mission require. When the UN is mandated to undertake a enforcement actions, some of the following factors need to be taken into account:

  • When these missions have an enforcement mandate, they require a clear limited mandate, linked to clear milestones and an explicit exit strategy. Such focus generates the kind of political attention and strategic coherence such enforcement missions need to succeed. However, such focus and coherence cannot be sustained for long, hence the need for limited duration surges.
  • Not all TCCs and PCCs have the capability to do robust operations. It is thus better to work with a few that does have the capabilities and are willing to use it. This means that the FIB-model, where a special brigade or battle-group is created for a limited period around a specific objective, is a more realistic way to generate the kind of forces needed for enforcement action.
  • If we associate UN peacekeeping with Blue Helmets and white vehicles and installations, then enforcement operations can be said to require a green posture. Units must be able to use stealth, attack with surprise and need special forces that can operate behind the lines.
  • In most cases, only TCCs and PCCs that have a direct interest at stake will be willing to deploy units to a mission where active combat is likely, because only they will be able to justify the increased cost in casualties, wounded, loss and damage to equipment, etc. However, using countries with a national interest at stake have both positive and negative consequences, and more effort would need to be devoted to monitor and manage the negative consequences, both at mission and higher political and strategic levels.

These observations remind us that stabilisation operations, especially those with an enforcement mandate, requires a different mind-set and approach. A business as usual approach is likely to result in a serious mismatch between supply and demand, as the current experiences in Mali shows.

Can the UN continue to undertake stabilisation operations with a peacekeeping doctrine?

Thus, one of the key questions the Panel will have to respond to, is to clarify where these stabilisation missions fit into the UN peacekeeping doctrine, so that all those involved can have a clearer understanding of what it is they have to do differently when the UN is mandated to undertake a stabilisation operation, and even more so when such a mission has an enforcement mandate.


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