Peacekeeping Reform Continues, But Have We Learned the Right Lessons?

In UN circles, the Report of the UN Panel on Peace Operations (2000), better known as the Brahimi report, is considered conventional wisdom, if not outright gospel. Seldom can one find a speech, workshop, or conference on peacekeeping where the landmark report is not cited approvingly.

The report takes its name from the former Algerian Foreign Minister, Lakhdar Brahimi, who chaired the high-level panel tasked with assessing and reforming the UN’s peace and security activities. In the wake of disastrous and well-publicized UN peacekeeping failures during the mid-1990s, the panel conducted a thorough review of UN peace operations and presented recommendations for improving the UN’s performance in the field.

Among other key suggestions, the report’s authors argued for more robust rules of engagement, as well as bigger and better-equipped forces; more realistic mandates from the Security Council informed by honest assessments from the UN Secretariat; and the creation of standby and rapid-reaction capacity to enable the deployment of forces within the critical first thirty to ninety days of a crisis.

As the tenth anniversary of the report approaches, the calls for re-reading Brahimi have grown louder. This is for good reason: the Brahimi report and its implementation resuscitated the UN’s most important conflict-management tool––peacekeeping––at a time when all but the most optimistic had pronounced it close to dead. However, Brahimi should be re-read not only to remember its valuable lessons, but also to reexamine its recommendations and how those recommendations have been implemented––or not implemented.

The Brahimi process was necessitated––and in large part informed––by the tragic experiences of Somalia, Rwanda, and Bosnia. The principles enshrined in the Brahimi report apply to many, if not all, UN peace operations; but we must be careful not to take the most tragic experiences as indicative of the entire history of peacekeeping, nor take the wisdom of the Brahimi report as timeless and unquestionable.

The latest effort to renew peacekeeping is a report from both the UN Departments of Peacekeeping and of Field Support: “A New Partnership Agenda: Charting a New Horizon for UN Peacekeeping.” The effort is clearly grounded in the Brahimi principles, but, in at least one case, also recognizes the unintended consequences of past reform.

On the subject of Security Council mandates specifically, the Brahimi report argued that ambiguity in a mandate’s language can have serious consequences in the field, because the mandate can be subject to varying interpretation by different actors in a peace operation.

Nearly a decade later, the New Horizon report agrees that “clear and achievable mandates are the foundation of an effective mission strategy,” but also laments the Brahimi-endorsed specificity that the Council has become so fond of in the past decade. Indeed, the mandate for the UN peace operation in the Congo now includes an overwhelming forty-five plus tasks to be implemented. That cannot be what Mr. Brahimi had envisioned.

Among some peacekeeping experts, the proposed solution to the proliferation of mandated tasks lies in convincing the Council to:
a) scale back the ambition of the tasks it mandates;
b) assign those tasks to specific parties; and
c) prioritize among those tasks or phase-in tasks over time.

The objective, one supposes, is to perfect the art of mandate-making, to create a machine which produces well-crafted, reasonable, staged, and prioritized mandates that include reasoned assessments from the Secretariat and the considerations of all key stakeholders. Leaders of peace operations would benefit from specific instructions and all parties will clearly understand the goals of the mission and how to achieve them.

But did the Brahimi report overstate the detrimental effect of unclear mandates from the Security Council? And, if so, is the answer to this problem more Council involvement? The answers are not obvious and they involve certain trade-offs.

Ultimately, mandates crafted in the Security Council chamber are political compromises made by member states, not technical calculations performed by experts (although hopefully influenced by technical assessments). Many would argue that the role of the Council is to agree on a broad mandate and give sustained political support and international legitimacy to a mission while allowing those on the ground, empowered with this political support from the Council, to define mission priorities.

If this is true, rather than more detailed mandates and micro-management from the Council in New York, what peace operations need are the right leaders given more authority and paired with greater accountability mechanisms. Absent the right leadership in the field, a good or bad mandate is irrelevant. The Special Representative of the Secretary-General (the head of the UN in the field), his or her Deputy, the Force Commander, the Police Commissioner, and the Chief of Staff, all working with empowered leadership in the host nation, are in the unique position to set priorities, identify goals, and craft benchmarks toward creating the conditions for sustainable peace. With a broad mandate from the Council, these teams have the flexibility to do so.

Coalition-of-the-willing and unilateral engagements often succeed due to empowered and unified leadership on the ground, defining and implementing the flexible mandates they have been given. Clear command-and-control and quality leadership in the field are often more important factors of success than the specificity of the mandate from Washington, Canberra, or New York. Many of the most advanced national armed forces pride themselves on the empowered role played by their commanders in the field. Similarly, one can point to relatively successful UN engagements (Namibia, Mozambique, Eastern Slavonia, Cambodia, El Salvador, etc.) where there were broad mandates or where the Council did not frequently impose its will on the management of the mission.

Clearly, it is not only the recommendations of past reform efforts that should be examined, but also how those recommendations have been implemented. As the UN heads out of its sixty-fourth General Assembly aiming to strengthen the UN’s capacity to make, manage, and build peace, it will be confronted with a number of thoughtful proposals for the reform of peacekeeping. Rightfully, these reforms––the New Horizon report in particular––do not only take stock of current ideas and proposals, but also look back to the groundbreaking work of prior years. It is in looking at these prior efforts and their implementation that the secrets to successful reform can often be found. And on issues such as how the Security Council develops mandates, we might want to take a second look.