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Comment & analysis

Incompatible Bedfellows: UN Peace Operations and Counter-terrorism

29 September 2020 Larry Attree and Jordan Street Incompatible Bedfellows: UN Peace Operations and Counter-terrorism

A version of this comment piece was originally published in IPI Global Observatory.

Predictions of the demise of United Nations peacekeeping have so far been premature. As others have reflected, the world is adrift in a sea of volatility. Current trends—including rising conflictauthoritarianism, and heavy-handed security practices—mean there will be plenty of “peace” for UN operations to keep in the next decade.

But this will bring with it existential dilemmas: will these operations be keeping peace or rather be protecting unpalatable regimes and helping to combat the “terrorists” or “aggressors” that oppose them, as the UN has increasingly found itself doing in contexts such as MaliSomalia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo in recent years?

The answer will have profound implications for the UN and its critical role in promoting peace, rights, and human security in conflict zones. Current orthodoxy requires peace operations to be impartial and focus on the political resolution of conflicts. But a dysfunctional UN Security Council in which more nationalistic or authoritarian powers are increasingly assertive is likely to push peace operations towards more “robust” counterterror or stabilization mandates which involve taking sides, backing problematic regimes and military operations, and turning a blind eye to their abuses.

The UN’s long-standing role in supporting negotiated solutions to conflict has not yet been squared with its simultaneous embrace of counter-terrorism – which typically keeps dialogue and peace processes with proscribed groups and individuals off the table. Its uneasy accommodation of militarised responses to conflict under the rubric of counter-terrorism and stabilisation has meant at times neglecting prevention and peacebuilding priorities and methods. Too often parties to the global war on terror have reinforced corruptionrepression, and conflict through short-sighted partnership with troublesome “allies” that are often centrally responsible for creating conditions conducive to the emergence of violent groups, thereby driving violent conflict domestically and transnationally. These securitised approaches to conflicts are also feeding into the global strangulation of civil society, limiting its enormous potential to promote peaceful change.

For all these reasons the UN’s growing embrace of counter-terror policies and methods puts at risk its potential contribution to peace and stability, gender equality, and human rights protection. Although many hoped that the countering/preventing violent extremism (C/PVE) agenda might be able to shift focus away from harmful hard security strategies and instead towards efforts that prevented and addressed the root causes for the emergence of violent groups, C/PVE’s report card has not been favourable. The UN’s welcoming of C/PVE as a comfortable middle ground between hard counter-terrorism and peacemaking carries important (but seldom openly acknowledged) risks of undermining human rightspeacebuilding, and humanitarian efforts.

Faced with damning evidence on the track record of counter-terrorism and C/PVE, there is a strong case for distancing UN peace operations and other engagement from them. To steer UN peace operations towards future sustainability and effectiveness in tomorrow’s choppy seas, UN leaders will need to be astute in countering five of the most common claims made in favor of a more “robust” approach:

Claim 1: The UN Can Only do What Member States Want

UN leadership should heed the advice of former UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld, who held the firm conviction that “any result bought at the price of a compromise with the principles and ideals of the organisation, either by yielding to force, by disregard of justice, by neglect of common interests or by contempt for human rights, is bought at too high a price.” In relation to the future of UN peace operations, UN leaders should also recognise that “a compromise with principles and purposes weakens the [UN] in a way representing a definite loss for the future that cannot be balanced by any immediate advantage achieved.” UN leaders should recall this as they reassert the impartiality principle underpinning peace operations, and Security Council members and troop-contributing countries must be reminded that there is too much to be lost, and too little to be gained, by asking blue helmets to take sides.

Claim 2: The UN Has to Maintain Relevance by Getting Involved

It is in the interest of people all around the world, especially those who are disenfranchised, marginalised, and excluded, for the UN to remain relevant, given its powerful norm-setting role on issues like women, peace, and security, and its vital humanitarian, peace, and development work. Despite being predicated on the urgent need to protect civilians, missions with counter-terror or stabilisation mandates do not have a strong track record when it comes to supporting long-term security for those in affected contexts. Militarised counter-terror and stabilisation operations have comprehensively shown their pitfalls in recent years, and pursuing them will fast undermine the UN’s relevance and standing with the people who need it most. Only by advocating for peacebuilding and mediation approaches in all phases of conflict, rather than securitised regime protection or counter-terrorism responses, can the UN make the strongest possible case for its relevance and added value as the indispensable custodian and broker of international peace and security.

Claim 3: Pressure on Budgets Requires UN Peace Operations to Embrace New Roles

There are some worrying indications from traditional donors that contributions to the UN will continue to decline, and the oncoming recession will poke further holes in peacekeeping budgets. But the 2007 downturn did not lastingly reduce UN peace operations budgets, the demand for which will only increase given current trends. It is true that there is money behind counter-terrorism at present, but most financial contributions to UN counter-terror efforts are contributed by two UN member states with extremely checkered approaches to counter-terror and human rights.

To protect and build its assessed budget, the UN should not embark on risky programmes backed by authoritarian regimes. Instead it should concentrate on its norm-setting role and continuing to prioritise what works. UN peace operations could be improved in many areas, but their positive contribution in many contexts has been well documented. The same can be said of the UN’s human rights monitoring, development, and humanitarian efforts. Not only does it not make sense to accept missions and mandates where the UN is ill-equipped, inexperienced, and has good reason to foresee major risks of doing harm, but it does not represent good value for money and puts future funding in grave danger. Remaking the case for all donors to resource what has worked best in the past would be a more successful funding strategy for peace operations in the long term.

Claim 4: With Multilateralism Faltering, the UN Must Do Whatever States Can Agree On

Multilateralism is at risk from nativist, insular, and autocratic governments. But embracing heavily securitised, high-risk agendas does little to protect the function of multilateralism, which is to save the world’s people from the scourge of war and facilitate effective, collaborative responses to shared challenges. Future UN peace operations should not be handed doomed mandates merely to preserve the entente between bickering Security Council members. There are no easy fixes to declining multilateralism, and states and UN leadership should not fall into traps that will further unravel it.

Claim 5: If the UN Washes its Hands, Other Actors Will be Free to Do Their Worst

There is a real risk that other actors engaging in counter-terror and stabilisation will have lower standards than the UN—two decades of war on terror attest to this. Yet this does not require the UN to follow suit. The UN can best advance peace, rights, and development if it remains a principled champion of these priorities in all contexts and assiduously The Human Rights Due Diligence Policy (HRDDP) requires the UN to withdraw support when the risks are too high. This is a fine line to walk, but the UN should never engage solely for the reason that if others are involved, they will do more harm. Allying the UN with high-risk securitised approaches is no clear strategy for improving them.

Crafting Future Peace Operations to Retain Influence

For UN peace operations of the future, the challenging yet ultimately most effective path to influence will remain impartial engagement, political solutions, human rights monitoring, protection of civilians, relief and development efforts, and working with communities to address the drivers of conflicts. Demonstrating what can succeed, and remaining the consistent voice of reason as more militarised approaches reveal their flaws, is the path to positioning the UN as the most influential and successful peacemaking institution in the world in 2030. Getting there will not be easy, but will require three steps.

The first is for the UN to reaffirm clear boundaries under a new peace doctrine. The UN should recommit to achieving impartiality in practice by carefully separating all UN agencies, funds and programmes from specific states’ war aims and hard security strategies. Dialogue should be renewed among member states as to the evidence and rationale for such commitments.

The second is to create clearer operational guidelines. A new doctrine should contain clear guidelines, spelling out how peace operations engage with all conflict parties and understand controversial terms such as “terrorism,” “extremism,” and “radicalisation.” Building on the HRDDP, the doctrine should commit to strengthening integrated human rights components and maintaining clear boundaries on what support the UN system is prepared to provide to governments that fail to curb abuse, corruption, and exclusion—withdrawing support from state institutions and redefining mandates where necessary.

The third is the development and deployment of new capabilities. This will ensure UN peace operations are able to perform newly-defined tasks and operations, including building greater civilian capacity to work on addressing conflict drivers, protecting civilians, transforming harmful gender norms, and integrating community security approaches as a central component of future strategy.

A new doctrine configured on such improvements can help safeguard UN peace operations from experiencing a lost decade of failed experiments in militarised stabilisation, counter-terrorism and regime protection.

Photo: Peacekeepers on patrol in Abyei, Sudan. (UN Photo/Stuart Price)