Can the United Nations do peacekeeping?

Can the United Nations do peacekeeping?

The United Nations needs to be more dynamic. It has only limited resources. Once the UN can do no more in a crisis, it should be pro-active in directing the resources being used towards something else in respect of which it can play a useful function. If the United Nations were to show acceptance of this limitation with due humility, then it might improve its diminished reputation amongst the peoples of the world it is surely mandated to serve.

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By Matthew Parish

The title of this essay is misleading because the question it asks is far too simplistic. There are many logically anterior questions, the most important of which might be “under what conditions can anyone do peacekeeping?”. A better title for this article might conceivably be “are there any circumstances in which a UN (as opposed to other) peacekeeping operation is the least bad option, and if so then what are they?”. But that hardly trips off the tongue. Moreover I can hardly hope to answer so complex a question here. All I can hope to do is to sketch the logic of the further questions we might need to investigate in the course of trying to find an answer.

Let us begin. The most powerful arguments both for and against the United Nations doing peacekeeping (as opposed to any individual state doing so in a bilateral capacity) are the fact one and the same: the United Nations is neutral. The argument in favour of UN peacekeeping from neutrality is obvious: peacekeeping is less effective if the party engaged in putting troops and civilian experts on the ground is perceived as biased. Russian peacekeepers in Syria would be controversial; UN missions, whether described as peacekeeping operations or defined in broader humanitarian terms, are less so. Even here, an important distinction should be observed. There are two constituencies in respect of whom a non-neutral peacekeeping mission might be deemed controversial. Let us stay with the Syrian example for now, relating to foreign interventions arising out of the Syrian Civil War (2011-). Russian peacekeepers in Syria might be considered controversial by a domestic Syrian constituency, namely those opposed to the Damascus government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that Moscow supports. They might also be considered controversial by the international community as a whole, because a number of Great Powers are more or less overtly opposed to the Russian agenda in Syria.

Civil conflicts often divide international public opinion along parallel contours to the internal dynamics of the conflicts themselves. The Russian support the Damascene Alawite regime. The Americans support the Kurds. The Turks support support the Sunnis. These groups are to varying degrees opposed to one-another in the Syrian Civil War, and for this reason US peacekeepers would be perceived as objectionable by some constituents both domestic and international – as would Turkish peacekeepers. Moreover the fact is that all three nations have troops in Syria, but they are not keeping the peace – they are engaged in fighting on behalf of the interests of various domestic groups.

A UN peacekeeping force might be a way of overcoming the inevitable perceptions of bias in favour of one waring party over the other(s) that would follow from having a unilateral or bilateral peacekeeping force. So far there are no UN peacekeepers of substance in Syria, and it seems unlikely that there will be. That is because Russia, having ensured its proxy in Damascus has the upper hard, would surely veto any proposed UN Security Council Resolution with the potential to install a neutral UN military force in Syria that might displace Russia’s own military dominance in the more densely populated parts of the country.

This brings us neatly onto neutrality as a disadvantage for the UN as a peacekeeper. The clearest aspect of this disadvantage is that if one party is winning a war or conflict, then they do not want a neutral peacekeeper. The prevailing domestic party may seek the assistance of larger foreign states to which it serves as proxy (or owes allegiance or with whom it is otherwise close) to block involvement of the United Nations. Neutrality is only attractive in circumstances of stalemate, where the parties have fought themselves to a halt. Where one or more of the parties is of the view that it can win a war and afford to pay the costs of doing so in blood and treasure, it will do everything possible to resist a neural intervention that can only count against it. Moreover a UN mission might well be regarded as suicidal were it to insert itself into a civil war, irrespective of its formal mandate under Chapters VI or VII of the UN Charter: at least, where a stalemate had not been reached and one or more of the parties were determined to fight to win. That is because any such party would be highly likely to attack the UN on their own home territory. The UN would become a party to the conflict – and one less familiar with the geography of the contested region and all the other local factors relevant to obtaining the upper hand in a civil war. Not only would the UN therefore be at a profound tactual disadvantage, it would have complicated a conflict rather than resolving it. Under such conditions, neutral force is no use at all.

There is a distinct sense in which a neutral peacekeeping force is a disadvantage. Almost ex hypothesi, neutral military actors don’t care about the conflict. If they did, then they wouldn’t be neutral. To understand this point better, recall that the United Nations does not actually have an army. Its so-called peacekeeping forces are an amalgam of military and civilian brigades provided to the UN by member states, often (but not always) in exchange for money. Those military forces are loyal primarily to the country of their origin, irrespective of what the legal documentation may say pursuant to which the troops are assigned to the United Nations. If the troop-contributing member state does not have an interest in the conflict that the UN is peacekeeping, then the effectiveness of those troops, and hence the peacekeeping mission as a whole, may be diminished.

Add to this consideration the fact that the staff members of the UN bureaucracy administering the peacekeeping mission, also potentially owing loyalty principally to the state of their nationality and not to the United nations hierarchy per se, may be similarly disinterested in the outcome of the mission. If the nations from which the officials hail have no strategical interest in the region in which the intervention is taking place, then the competence of its execution is very much upon their consciences.Perhaps they care; perhaps they don’t. But even if they do, then an uncaring UN bureaucracy may make their work very difficult. Because the majority of senior United Nations staff are appointed wth the approval of their national governments, and therefore owe their principal debts and loyalty accordingly, the bureaucrats with with custody over funding, staffing and administration of UN missions may not care, even if those in charge of the specific peacekeeping missions do.

The UN administration tends to operate effectively, if at all, only where powerful contributing member states press it to do so by means of their national personal holding authoritative management positions in the organisation. A UN peacekeeping mission that is genuinely neutral, in the sense that none of the Great Powers / UN member states have a vested interest in the success of the mission, hardly stands a chance.The bureaucracy will not function if the mission is genuinely neutral. Although some might on occasion seek to pretend otherwise, the United Nations is not an independent sovereign nation with a mind and interests go its own. Instead it is a vehicle for multilateral cooperation, whose sentience and guiding mind are no more than composites of its members with interests in the matter at hand, together with a veneer of verbal good intentions applied to the exterior.

Hence for a UN peacekeeping mission to have any hope it needs a special sort of neutrality in which the mission`s backers do care but not necessarily all in the same way or with the same direction. You can`t do state-building if you don’t care. But the people involved might all care about different things and that can be fine. A UN peacekeeping mission ideally needs what I shall call “contested neutrality”. The mission is neutral, but not because nobody is interested at all. Instead the participants in the mission do care – and are pushing in different directions, and they are using the United Nations as a vehicle for international compromise and cooperation in respect of their competing interests. Those are the conditions, I suggest, in which the United Nations can do peacekeeping (better than anyone else).

To develop this point, consider the following. There are circumstances in which the UN does sometimes deploy peacekeeping missions but in my suggestion it should not. Those circumstances are where the United Nations is intended to serve as a multilateral fig leaf for unilateral (or bilateral) intervention. There is no value added by the UN bureaucracy in such a case. It can only serve as an additional level of administration that will decrease the effectiveness of the unilateral force that can operate without it. An argument that the UN adds expertise in such an instance is unpersuasive. Expertise is best obtained on the private markets, through International development consultants, were there are competitive pressures. Expertise is not best sourced from a multilateral bureaucracy not subject to any competitive pressures (save, perhaps, competition with other multilateral bureaucracies).

The argument that the UN legitimises a unilateral intervention is also weak. States intervene in one-another`s affairs, contrary to the strict principles of the UN Charter, all the time. Indeed UN Secretary General Boutros-Ghali`s seminal document on humanitarian interventions “An Agenda for Peace “(1992), advocates such intervention for admirable purposes ,even if an authorising UN Security Council Resolution under Chapter VII UN Charter cannot be obtained. The United Nations foresees unilateral interventions outside its ambit. There is therefore no need for a process of UN legitimation of a unilateral intervention, particularly where it may come at a price of importing the United Nation`s infernal bureaucracy, delays, procedures and corruption. Moreover the success or otherwise of a peacekeeping mission will not stand or fall with the UN`s support, as there have been several successful peacekeeping missions undertaken outside the UN umbrella.

The United Nations is the forum it was intended to be upon its establishment: a venue for multilateral diplomacy and cooperation between Great Powers in respect of an international problem where there is more than one Great Power interest at stake. If one reads the UN Charter afresh, it is clear that this is what the United Nations was originally supposed to do. The contested neutrality of the United Nations, essential for a peacekeeping mission established under UN auspices to succeed, is one in which the United Nations assist competing Great Powers to reach compromise over their competing interests in a civil conflict. Once that compromise has been mediated through the needs of the resulting peacekeeping mission because the various Great Powers whose interests are at stake have elected to pool resources to achieve a common compromise objective rather than to let a conflict play out via a proxy war between their competing interests.

The approach to UN peacekeeping requires a dose of modesty. Not every civil conflict should be dealt with in a multilateral context. There are many disadvantages: distant bureaucracies; coordinating troops and civilians from different countries and backgrounds; negotiating painful compromises between Great Power interests on a daily basis, and then coercing people, more or less gently, into complying wth them. Moreover the United Nations needs to learn better to do something that historically it has been very bad at: knowing when to stop. The conditions for successful UN intervention may not apply in the early steps of a conflict. If the UN therefore does nothing at this stage, or does something ineffective, that does not mean perpetuation of the conflict is the UN`s fault. The United Nations is not a universal panacea. It may only have the right solutions in certain cases. Moreover if the Great Powers behind a UN peacekeeping mission one day cease to be interested in the crisis; or if there is only one Great Power left interested in the project, then it may be time for the United Nations to step back. There are too many UN peacekeeping missions seemingly labouring on like the undead, mindlessly functioning without impetus or drive but incapable of being finally closed for want of some legal instrument finally putting them to a much overdue death.

The United Nations needs to be more dynamic. It has only limited resources. Once the UN can do no more in a crisis, it should be pro-active in directing the resources being used towards something else in respect of which it can play a useful function. The United Nations cannot change the world. Like all of us, it can just make a piecemeal difference, one crisis at a time, through the periodic confluence of inspired UN officials and clear Great Power interests. If the United Nations were to show acceptance of this limitation with due humility, then it might improve its diminished reputation amongst the peoples of the world it is surely mandated to serve.

Matthew Parish is an international lawyer based in Geneva, Switzerland and a former UN peacekeeper. He has published two books and over 250 articles on the subject. In 2013 he was elected as a Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum and he has was listed as one of the three hundred most influential people in Switzerland. He is currently a preferred candidate of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland for appointment to a position of Under Secretary General of the United Nations with an agenda for institutional reform.

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of TransConflict.

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