By Henrique Siniciato Terra Garbino, Class XVI

On August 19, 2003, a terrorist blast hit the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad. The attack killed at least 22 people, including Sergio Vieira de Mello, then head of the UN mission in Iraq. Sergio was a prominent UN official, well-known for his charisma and conflict resolution skills – a reference for Brazilian diplomats and practitioners in the field of peace and conflict. Less than one year later, Brazil sent its first troops to Haiti, assuming the military leadership of the United Nations Stabilisation Mission in Haiti. That was when I first thought of joining the Brazilian Army and become a peacekeeper.

This year on May 29 United Nations peacekeeping completes 70 years. The date marks the anniversary of the first operation ever, the United Nations Truce Supervision Organisation, founded in 1948 to help bring stability to the Middle East. Since then, peacekeepers have assisted countries to transition from conflict to peace. Especially after the end of the Cold War, peacekeeping has become a key conflict resolution mechanism at the disposal of the United Nations. Accordingly, when discussing the role of the UN in international peace and security, perhaps what first comes to our minds are the white-painted vehicles and soldiers wearing blue helmets patrolling some war-torn country; alternatively, some may remember instances when the UN has failed, such as in Rwanda and Srebrenica.

The truth is that peacekeeping has evolved considerably since 1948. What started as small deployments of unarmed military observers in the Middle East and Kashmir quickly transformed into lightly-armed interposition forces, deployed as a buffer between two warring parties. In the post-Cold War period, peacekeeping operations were oftentimes tasked to help rebuild countries in the aftermath of civil wars. Those tasks included support to the political process, electoral assistance, security sector reform, human rights monitoring, amongst others. The so-called multidimensional peacekeeping operations are usually authorized to use all necessary means in pursuit of the mission mandate, including the use of deadly force.

Currently, as a consequence of an independent review carried out in 2015, peacekeeping operations are going through a thorough reform process. Some missions, nonetheless, have already seen significant paradigm changes. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mali, and the Central African Republic, for example, peacekeepers have been given a proactive mandate against potential spoilers to the peace process. These missions are equipped with offensive military materials, such as field artillery and attack helicopters. In Lebanon, for the first time in history, the UN has deployed a maritime task force, which is responsible for monitoring the country’s territorial waters, securing the Lebanese coastline and preventing the unauthorized entry of arms or related materials.

Picture 1: peacekeepers in armoured vehicles from the UN’s mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo are deployed to the town of Bunagana where heavy gunfights between government forces and insurgent groups have pushed residents to flee toward the Ugandan border. Photo by Sylvain Liechti

The key takeaway from the review, however, is that success is not a matter of better equipping peacekeeping operations with military means. According to the report of the High-Level Independent Panel on Peace Operations, lasting peace cannot be achieved nor sustained by military and technical engagements, but only through political solutions. The primacy of politics should be the basis of UN approaches to conflict resolution. Implicit in this recommendation lies the fact that peace operations are political entities in essence.

In practice, peace operations are only authorized when there is enough support from the UN Security Council and, needless to say, no vetoes from any of its permanent members. Where there is insufficient political support from the Security Council, such as the ongoing conflicts in Syria and Myanmar, the idea peacekeeping is only elusive. Interest and political commitment may also change over time. The UN mission in Haiti saw significant drawdowns during the period I was deployed there. Even though the political discourse justified the reduction in terms of improvements on the ground, the priorities of the Security Council had arguably shifted to Mali and the Central African Republic, due to French and US interests in that region.

Further, the deployment of peacekeeping operations relies on the consent of the main parties to the conflict or the host nation, in case of internal conflicts. In other words, operations are only deployed with the authorization of the host nation, and at the moment consent is withdrawn the mission has to leave. Even if the host government is not willing to provide consent, pressures from the international community may be sufficient to make it agree to the peace operation. The host nation, however, still holds power to considerably limit operations. During the Darfur crisis, for instance, the Sudanese government was reluctant to provide consent, but, in the end, it agreed to a very limited peacekeeping operation, which struggles until today to carry out its mandate.

Moreover, the UN depends on voluntary contributions from member states. Far from altruistic motivations, countries provide troops and police due to different reasons, not to mention striking qualitative differences in training and equipment amongst troop- and police-contributing countries. Those reasons vary a lot from country to country and range from geostrategic interests and the promotion of a multilateral diplomatic profile, to sheer interests in the financial reimbursement. Domestic pressures and incentives also play an important role in this context. For example, during my time as an instructor at the Brazilian Peace Operations Joint Training Center, we deployed several mobile training teams to Mexico and Colombia, which were significantly reducing the engagement of their militaries in law enforcement and internal conflicts. Therefore, they had a growing surplus of idle military forces. Perhaps to justify military expenditure and budgeting, Mexico and Colombia aspired to increase their contributions to peacekeeping.

Picture 2: Ibrahim Gambari, Joint Special Representative for the African Union-United Nations Hybrid Operation in Darfur, meets with local Sudanese sheikhs at Mornei Internally Displaced Persons Camp in El Geneina, West Darfur. Photo by Albert González Farran.

So, is there a way forward to accommodate different and often opposing political interests when it comes to peacekeeping operations? The number and quality of military and police contributions could be enhanced by better assessing performance in peace operations and promoting good performers with political incentives. Moreover, the promotion of regional partnerships could help increase training standards and give political checks and balance. Whereas there is no credible expectation of a coming Security Council reform, managing host nation consent could be improved with a focus on local ownership. The inclusion of the host government and civil society from the early design and planning stages of a peace operation would not only increase their sense of ownership, but also bring up local and sustainable solutions to the conflict.

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