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The changing face of peacekeeping: What’s gone wrong with the UN?

‘There is a crisis on the demand and supply side of the equation.’

A low angle photo showing a line of soldiers from Ugandan troops as they're about to board a flight to Mogadishu. Obi Anyadike/TNH
Ugandan troops board a flight to Mogadishu as part of the African Union's military intervention in Somalia, aimed at supporting a fragile government.

At the end of this year, the last UN peacekeepers are scheduled to leave the Democratic Republic of the Congo after two difficult decades, a withdrawal that reflects broader changes underway to the international security system.

The peacekeeping mission – known by its French acronym, MONUSCO – has been the biggest and most expensive deployment in UN history. Yet eastern DRC remains a humanitarian disaster zone, and the government of President Félix Tshisekedi has insisted on the accelerated departure of the unpopular blue helmets. 

The mission’s 16,000 uniformed personnel have failed to fulfil a mandate that includes supporting DRC’s dysfunctional military in stabilising the eastern region and protecting civilians. Although MONUSCO’s presence may have prevented worse chaos, more than 100 armed groups still flourish, and a resurgent Rwandan-backed M23 rebel group threatens major towns.

“MONUSCO was supposed to bring peace, with or without the Congolese government, with or without the Congolese army,” Ngulumira Amini Frederic, a pro-Tshisekedi politician in the eastern city of Goma, told The New Humanitarian. “It didn't work out as we'd hoped.”

Public anger over MONUSCO’s perceived inaction has at times been encouraged by a political class that is keen to find scapegoats for its own shortcomings. But frustration with the UN’s performance is real, and this “trust deficit” is replicated in other mission theatres – from the Central African Republic, to Mali, to South Sudan.

Tshisekedi seems determined to find a military solution to the M23 – beyond what MONUSCO can offer. In 2022, he invited forces from the East African Community to intervene, and this year, when they declined to go on the offensive, he turned to troops from southern Africa

But what remains absent, in a country that has suffered so much resource looting, are both an overarching peace process and any real attempt to tackle the structural problems that have allowed conflict to simmer for almost three decades.

A crisis of legitimacy

The success rate of UN peacekeeping is historically much better than its notoriety suggests. Studies show that levels of violence – including sexual violence – are lower and civilian casualties fewer where peacekeepers are deployed.

Yet UN peacekeeping is suffering a crisis of legitimacy. There have been no new major deployments since 2014 – despite the world facing the highest number of violent conflicts since World War II. It is widely accepted that the era of big and complex operations aimed at “fixing” states and building institutions has come to an end.

“There is a crisis on the demand and supply side of the equation,” explained Solomon Dersso of Amani Africa, an Addis Ababa-based policy think tank. “On the demand side, there are the expectations over what host country authorities and citizens expect, and what peacekeeping can deliver. That gulf in expectations creates the set of problems we’re now experiencing.”

UN peacekeeping faces three interrelated problems. The first is the changing nature of conflict, with adversaries now far more capable and nimble; the second is the often unrealistic mandates the UN Security Council hands to its missions; and the third is the power politics of a now more fragmented international system – the context in which operations are authorised. 

The cumulative impact of these challenges is that liberal internationalism is in retreat. In the wake of Afghanistan, Iraq, the so-called war on terror, and now Gaza, the ideological underpinnings of the “global world order” appear slightly shop-soiled. 

The shift to bigger missions 

The founding principles of peacekeeping are based on the consent of conflicting parties, impartiality, and the limited use of force. It is supposed to create the space for peace to occur, rather than to enforce it. 

But the bulk of armed violence these days is no longer between clearly identifiable opposing armies: It’s more likely to involve identity-driven militias, criminal gangs, and transnational jihadist insurgents. Governments are facing adversaries almost as well armed and capable as their own militaries.

“...a lot of the issues and challenges we have around security in Africa are not in the state: It's cross-border, which UN peacekeeping is not designed for.”

The ill-defined political goals of some of these groups, and their tendency to fragmentation and opportunistic behaviour, creates significant hurdles for mediators trying to craft peace agreements. Moreover, in the age of spreading jihadism – the security dilemma that confronts a number of states – there can be little peace to keep. The radical maximalist agenda of these insurgents leaves little room for negotiated settlements.

“UN peacekeeping is designed to be a bridge to peace and stability when there are peace agreements in place within a state,” Andrew Yaw Tchie, senior researcher at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NUPI) told The New Humanitarian. “But a lot of the issues and challenges we have around security in Africa are not in the state: It's cross-border, which UN peacekeeping is not designed for.”

Contemporary UN “stabilisation” missions are mandated to help national governments extend their authority – which jettisons impartiality. Increasingly, support has also been given to the counter-insurgency efforts of national armies, with all the human rights concerns that implies.

But war-fighting is not what the UN is geared up for. It lacks the doctrines, technical skills, and the willingness of troop-contributing nations – who wield considerable influence – to put their soldiers in harm’s way. 

Modern UN peace operations are also a far cry from the narrow, ceasefire monitoring deployments of the past. These so-called multidimensional missions are much broader in scope, with a range of add-ons, including security sector reform, rule of law, human rights, and development projects. A political strategy – the so-called “primacy of politics” – is supposed to guide missions, although it’s not always clear what that means.

The template for these missions ensures they are uniformly big, expensive, and slow to get going. Once established, an entrenched political economy develops around them – which can incentivise political inertia and military stalemate.

Superpower rivalries

But a new frugal mood affects peacekeeping. The austerity can in part be traced to former US president Donald Trump’s distaste for multilateralism. He triggered a UN cash crunch by refusing to pay the US’s 28% assessed contribution to the peacekeeping budget, claiming it was unfair. He settled for 25%, and Congress has maintained that cap under President Joe Biden. 

Financial pressure has sharpened a perception in the Security Council that large UN missions are ineffective. The trend now is for cheaper, less risky political missions – the lowest common denominator on which council members can agree. 

Peacekeeping has been impacted by the deep ideological divisions on the council. “The emergence of geopolitical tensions and big power rivalry means the consensus that had made the deployment of missions possible is now completely absent,” Dersso of Amani Africa told The New Humanitarian.

That has played out most explicitly in Mali. In June last year, the government in Bamako demanded the immediate withdrawal of the UN stabilisation mission, known as MINUSMA. The decision was a consequence of both a deteriorating security situation, and the UN’s willingness to call out the army’s human rights violations.

But the new military government’s friction with France – previously Mali’s anti-jihadist ally – and its deepening ties with Russia, were also part of the equation.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres’s New Agenda for Peace released last year notes that Security Council gridlock prevents the UN from leading on peace and security. He has thrown his support behind peace enforcement by regional and sub-regional organisations mandated by the Security Council, and paid for by UN member states.

The regional option

The African Union and sub-regional bodies have an impressive record in launching peace support operations. Since the turn of the millennium, they have authorised 38 missions in 25 countries. These have ranged from small observer teams, to large war-fighting interventions, exemplified by the 20,000-strong EU-funded African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM).

The perceived advantage of African-led operations is that they can intervene quickly, and more cheaply, to crisis zones. And whereas UN blue helmets typically only use force in self-defence or to protect civilians, African operations tend to be mandated for combat.

But military interventions do not deliver peace. There is no linear step-by-step guide that can “build” peace and “fix” states.

In December last year, the Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 2719. It establishes a framework for AU-led operations funded by a hybrid financing model: Assessed contributions from UN member states will cover 75% of mission costs, and the balance will be mobilised – theoretically – from the international community.

But while it is a vote of confidence in the AU, it’s unlikely that a peace mission under 2719 will be authorised by the Security Council anytime soon. “I don’t think the permanent members are willing to spend more money on peacekeeping via the UN or AU,” said Cedric de Coning, a senior researcher at NUPI.

“The US, for example, would much rather deal with [the jihadist group] al-Shabab via its own special forces and the training of Somalia's military rather than investing in the UN or AU,” he told The New Humanitarian. “They have much more faith in their own direct abilities to influence things.”

There are three types of African-led deployments. The AU model epitomised by AMISOM in Somalia; sub-regional initiatives like the Southern African Development Community (SADC) forces in DRC; and ad hoc initiatives, made up of coalitions of the willing, that have taken on a variety of roles – from hunting the Lord’s Resistance Army in central Africa, to counter-insurgency operations in the Lake Chad Basin.

These are not typical peace operations, and are much more firmly associated with supporting governments’ security needs. With the exception of SADC, these missions usually require a large degree of external financing and equipping – an outsourcing and dependency that undermines the mantra of ‘African solutions to African problems’.

But military interventions do not deliver peace. There is no linear step-by-step guide that can “build” peace and “fix” states. Neither is it about “exporting democracy and getting others to look like ourselves”, argues de Coning. But there are always local peace processes – some hyper-local – that can be leveraged and incentivised, he added.

Better governance does seem to be part of the conundrum – building consensus within societies, and among national actors, “and that can only be realised through political and diplomatic processes”, noted Dersso.

Edited by Andrew Gully. With additional reporting in Goma by Fidèle Kitsa.

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