Implications of Offensive and Stabilisation Mandates for the Future of UN Peacekeeping

The most important issue that the UN 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 and transforms into something else? At what point along this trajectory does the principles of UN peacekeeping – consent, impartiality and limited use of force – loose its relevance?

In this context, the UN’s missions in CAR (MINUSCA), the DRC (MONUSCO) and Mali (MINUSMA) reflect a new trend in that that they all have ‘stabilisation’ in their names and in their mandated tasks. Whilst each of these missions have their own unique features, taken together with AMISOM in Somalia and the new Multi-National Joint Task Force (MJTF) mission against Boko Haram in the Lake Chad basin, they represent a new category of operations, which has something to do with protecting a government and its people against an aggressor.

The UN’s mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) also has stabilization in its name and tasks, but seem to reflect an earlier use of the term that does not fit well with how the concept is used in the other three UN cases.

If we analyse these 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 stability, by helping to protect a government and its people against identified aggressors;
  • that they work in support of and alongside the local authorities who have the primary responsibility for protecting the government and its citizens, and
  • that they are expected to act robustly in the face of anticipated attacks against them and those they are mandated to protect. In the case of the FIB in eastern-DRC, AMISOM in Somalia and the MJTF in the Lake Chad basin, they are also tasked to undertake offensive operations to forcefully disarm the aggressors, or to degrade their capacity to continue their insurgency and to enforce stability.

The central tension between the established UN peacekeeping principles of consent, impartiality and the limited use of force, and these stabilisation missions is that the theory of change of the stabilisation missions is to achieve stability by containing aggressors and spoilers. In each of these missions the UNSC has identified aggressors that need to be contained (the M23++ in DRC, AQIM in Mali, Seleka and anti-Baleka in CAR, Al Shabaab in Somalia, and Boko Haram in the MJTF). In Somalia, Mali and in the MJTF mission, the aggressors identified by the UN Security Council are all radical Islamist movements. These missions are thus not premised on consent or impartiality as these identified aggressors are framed outside the context of (legitimate) ‘parties to the conflict’, because they have opted to use violence to pursue their objectives.

In the case of the FIB the mandate to undertake offensive operations also go beyond the established use of force principle, that has up to now always been framed in defensive terms. The UN Peacekeeping Capstone Doctrine of 2008 opened the door for the tactical use of force to contain spoilers and to defend the mandate. The use of force against pre-identified aggressors, and the use of offensive force, both mean that the UN Security Council has, in these stabilisation missions, authorised the strategic use of force.

Another aspect that is important to note is that whilst these stabilisation missions are tasked with containing aggressors – others such as Special Envoys and Special Political Missions (SPMs) – are pursuing the political track, with what is regarded as the legitimate political actors. In most of these cases, the aggressors are using long standing centre-periphery tensions to mobilse opposition against the central government. There is thus a linkage with legitimate political debates, but the way the identified aggressors use violence to pursue these objectives are rejected by the UN Security Council. The stabilization missions are tasked to contain these aggressors that use violence to pursue their political objectives, whilst at the same time the UN and/or regional actors support and encourage the national actors to seek political solutions with those that represent the legitimate political interests at stake.

These missions should thus not be misunderstood as seeking a military solution to a conflict. They should rather be seen as part of a larger strategy to proactively shape the security environment, by containing the aggressors, in order to create space for the political, peacebuilding and humanitarian actions that are aimed at seeking medium to long-term political solutions, and that take steps to mitigate the short to medium-term negative effects of the conflict.

These missions also reflect a larger shift in the orientation of UN peacekeeping from conflict resolution to conflict management. In the post-Cold War ere UN peacekeeping was typically used to implement comprehensive peace agreements aimed at resolving civil wars. Over the last decade UN peacekeeping has been increasingly used to manage conflicts, i.e. to contain spoiler, promote stability and protect civilians, whilst Special Envoys and SPMs are given the political mandate. In addition the stabilization missions introduced earlier, other UN peacekeeping missions like UNAMID in Darfur and the post December 2013 UNMISS also reflect this trend.

The ‘stabilisation’ concept can be problematic because it is means different things for different people. For the United Kingdom and others it implies a comprehensive and full spectrum approach to conflict management. Whilst some in the UN share this understanding, others understand ‘stabilisation’ to mean containment or enforcement, and it is used when the UN is tasked to stabilize a conflict in the absence of a peace agreement. Sooner or later the UN is going to have to define what it means when using the term ‘stabilisation’ in a UN peacekeeping context.

In the mean-time, the question that many expect the Panel to address is whether the UN should be doing these kind of missions 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 (MNF) to stabilize the situation, and once a peace agreement is in place, the UN can replace the MNF with a UN peacekeeping mission. A gap has now emerged between this established doctrine and the recent precedents where the UN has deployed ‘peacekeeping’ missions amidst ongoing conflicts with a stabilization mandate.

The AU and French missions that was initially deployed in Mali and CAR followed the MNF model, but these forces needed to be relieved because they were not self-sustainable. The UN ended up – as a last resort – being deployed into these situations, even though they were not yet sufficiently stable to warrant a peacekeeping mandate.

Deploying these missions into Mali and CAR with a stabilisation mandate was thus not the result of a strategic choice based on UN peacekeeping doctrine or comparative advantage. In reality, the UN Security Council had no other option but to – as a last resort – deploy UN operations, because the cost of not replacing these missions with UN missions funded under the predictable assessed contribution system were deemed to high.

This trend is likely to continue because:

  • in Africa the AU and sub-regions do not have access to predictable funding,
  • there a few other regional organisations that have the legitimacy and credibility take on such a role, and in the changing global order the UN is one of the few institutions that have the credibility and legitimacy to undertake such missions, and
  • conflict trends suggest that there will continue to be a need for these kind of stability missions for the foreseeable future.

The UN High-level Independent Panel on Peace Operations may thus not have the luxury of recommending whether the UN should, or should not undertake such missions. Regardless of what the Panel my find, it looks highly likely that the UN Security Council will find it necessary to mandate such missions again in future. If this is the context within which the Panel have to act, then it could make a meaningful contribution to the policy debate by giving guidance on how the UN should, and should not, act when given such mandates.

Stabilisation operations require a new UN doctrine that is separate and different from the existing UN peacekeeping principles, identity and approach. When the UN Security Council – as a last resort –mandate the UN Secretary-General to undertake stability and offensive operations, the UN should not have to do so using the existing peacekeeping doctrine and its blue helmet identity. A new UN stabilisation doctrine with a matching identity should be developed that provides guidance on the kind of command and control, mission support and logistics, rules of engagement, equipment, etc. that would be required should the UN be tasked with such mandates.

Such a new stabilisation doctrine will help to protect the existing UN peacekeeping doctrine and identity from being misapplied in contexts where it is not fit for purpose. It will also help the UN maintain credibility and legitimacy by ensuring that it has appropriate doctrine, equipment and soldiers that are prepared for the task assigned to it by the Security Council.

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