This past summer, the United Nations delivered a review of its peacekeeping operations, 15 years after the previous report. A lot has happened since 2000, and peacekeeping has had occasional successes but lots of failures. In addition to the ongoing development of “best practices” by the policy community, researchers have learned a great deal about what makes a peacekeeping operation successful and how to better protect civilians.
U.N. reviews do not happen very often. Many in the academic and policy communities hoped that this once-in-a-decade moment would integrate this research to put peace operations on more solid ground.
What was in the report?
Unfortunately, the review included a lot of old ideas and a few new ones, and it all but neglected some key findings of the academic literature. The review pointed to chronic problems like the need to improve funding, to start up peacekeeping operations more quickly, and to keep them better supplied and staffed. It included some novel recommendations, such as shifting attention to preventing conflict, avoiding anti-terrorism measures, and being willing to use force to protect civilians.
To show support, the White House helped to host a peacekeeping summit on Sept. 28. It was a combination of testimonials and a pledge drive. Member states voiced approval of many proposed reforms and even offered specific contributions. If even half of its recommendations get accepted, and member states actually make good on their pledges, peace operations will undoubtedly improve.
More important, what wasn’t in the report?
But can money, staffing, and resources really improve the effectiveness of peacekeeping, if nothing else changes? Not as much as you would think.
Simply put, the U.N. needs to change its relationship with those whom it aspires to help. U.N. officials can become part of the problem when they treat local people as simply additional sets of eyes and ears on the ground, or as subcontractors, or as consumers who need to be persuaded by what peacekeeping are selling.
Success won’t come if U.N. officials continue to think of operations as “us” doing more for “them.” It will require recognizing that there are powerful domestic forces that are in the driver’s seat, who have their own preferences, and whose cooperation and goodwill are needed for any chance for success.
Here are the three changes necessary for peace forces to actually build peace
1. Bargain instead of selling.
Instead of peddling, marketing and policing, peacekeeping needs to start with bargaining. Three things will result.
First, international peacebuilders will have to compromise on their more ambitious goals, like liberalizing and democratizing the society. Those aren’t the local elites’s goals. They generally want to preserve power, not share it. After having survived a war, they are reluctant to test their popularity at the ballot box. The best that can be gotten is something like “status quo plus.”
Second, stop imagining that pouring in more money and peacekeepers will change the outcome. The money is often used to shore up local elites. Peacekeepers don’t have the resources to buy the reforms they want, and they don’t have the sticks, either. External peacekeepers are not prepared to use force to implement those aspects of the mandate that might put them at odds with local powerbrokers.
Third, peacebuilders have the bargaining power to liberalize society only if local elites themselves want the reforms, and if peacekeepers are ready to be patient and stay in country for as long as it takes. That happens rarely.
Peacebuilders and local elites have different internal clocks. Local elites are prepared to play the long game. They are in the game for keeps, and are reluctant to listen to peacebuilders lecture on reform. The moment they arrive, peacekeepers often start counting the days until they leave. That means they have few instruments to force local elites to share power with others.
2. Lose the superiority.
If U.N. forces started asking “how can we help” and treating local people (and not just those with the guns) as partners whose preferences and ideas must be acknowledged, they also might be more likely to lose the paternalism that is widely cited as a reason for failure.
All studies of peace and humanitarian operations insist that these interventions must be done with, and not for, the local populations. All academic postmortems cite paternalism as a serious problem. International experts do not know nearly as much as they think they do.
Severine Autesserre’s pathbreaking “Peaceland” provocatively concludes that local actors often resist international initiatives not because they oppose the policies — but because they hate outsiders’ high-minded attitudes and sense of superiority. By alienating the locals, peacebuilders make their job much more difficult and are much less likely to succeed.
3. Be accountable. Really.
The third area omitted in the review is accountability to the local populations. Study after study demonstrates that local populations have little ability to make their voices heard and to control the U.N. officials who have substantial power over their lives. U.N. officials who are responsible for failures that cost local lives rarely, if ever, lose their jobs as a result.
Various studies conclude that the absence of accountability leads to both practical and political problems. Improving the U.N.’s accountability would improve its learning, increase its efficiency and effectiveness, and make it less likely it kept repeating the same mistakes, over and over.
Accountability can also improve the operation’s legitimacy. U.N. forces are frequently accused of failing to do their job and even harming the people they are supposed to help. Many U.N. troops routinely exploit or assault women. The United Nations knows that it has this problem. It has known for decades, thanks in part to a 1996 report. But it has failed to take action.
After a recent set of scandals, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon vowed that the United Nations would get serious about sex crimes and make sure that offenders are punished. Unfortunately, these statements have accompanied every single publicized offense.
To some extent the problem is not the United Nations’ but rather that of the states that supply the troops, but the United Nations has the power to clean up its act. We will see if the United Nations replaces its policy of tolerance with zero tolerance.
The United Nations’ practice of impunity with immunity extends to many of its activities on the ground. Consider, for example, its unwillingness to answer for its peacekeepers’ introduction of cholera to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. More than 7000 Haitians died, but still the United Nations refuses to even have a meeting with the affected population.
In sum, recent discussions on how to improve peacekeeping predictably focus on the need for a better-oiled and brawnier machine. But if the United Nations wants to be part of the solution and not part of the problem, it needs to change how it works with the very people it pledges to assist.
Michael Barnett is university professor of international affairs and political science at George Washington University. Songying Fang is associate professor of political science at Rice University.