Taking Stock of Recent Operational Reform and Adaptation in UN Peacekeeping

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Several United Nations peacekeeping missions are deployed in highly complex environments, marked by stalled political agreements, significant protection challenges, direct threats to the security of peacekeepers, vast theaters of operations, and a range of partners. Many of the challenges faced by these missions underscore how contemporary armed conflict is evolving. In response, peacekeeping has had to evolve.

On October 28th, IPI, with cosponsors the Permanent Missions of Sweden and Egypt to the UN, held a virtual panel discussion on how the operational capabilities of contemporary UN peacekeeping are changing; whether these reforms are yielding the desired effects; what impact these changes have on peace operations’ ability to effectively deliver on their mandates; and what more needs to be done to maintain momentum for reform.

Anna Karin Enestrøm, the Permanent Representative of Sweden to the UN, acknowledged that “significant efforts” were already underway to reform peacekeeping in doctrine and in resourcing missions with funding, personal equipment, and technology. But lagging behind, she said, were actions expanding the participation of women. “We must act now to increase the number of civilian and uniformed women in peacekeeping at all levels and in key positions. As of May 2020, only 5.4 % of the United Nations military and 15.1% of the police personnel were women, compared to 3% and 10%, respectively, in 2015. This pace is simply too slow. We must redouble our effort to implement the Women, Peace and Security agenda in peacekeeping.”

Mohamed Fathi Ahmed Edrees, Permanent Representative of Egypt to the UN, spoke of how the COVID-19 pandemic had impacted peacekeeping and made even more urgent the need for reforms. “The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the peacemaking reality and worsened the already complex environments where peacekeepers are deployed. This new reality requires collective efforts from all peacekeeping stakeholders to adapt and further advance A4P (Action for Peacekeeping) implementation.”

General Dennis Gyllensporre, Force Commander, UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) said there were two rationales behind the adaptation in his mission. “The first one is the threat situation that we experience in the country to the civilian population, but also to the personnel of MINUSMA, where we are a target for some of these illegal armed groups, and also more recently, the very fluid situation that we have at the political level with the coup in August, translating, in some respects, to unrest on the ground.

“The second reason why the adaptation was necessary for us was the fact that the Security Council decided in its most recent mandate renewal that we would have another additional strategic priority to focus on the center of the country in addition to supporting the implementation of the peace accord. Basically, we have to do more with the same resources because there was no added resource that came with this priority. The Security Council also outlined the need for doing a mission-wide adaptation, and it’s not just the military part, but all the pillars of the mission. And now we are in the process of implementing the COVID-19 situation—obviously an obstacle, a delaying factor. Nevertheless, we’ve taken steps forward.”

He explained that those steps dealt with the three pillars: protection, posture, and partnering. On the posture, he reported that in addition to performing its traditional peacekeeping role with infantry battalions providing area coverage and trying to understand what’s happening on the ground, the mission had added a mobile component to the force so it could concentrate forces in certain areas for limited periods. “From that point of view, we are also in the process of generating and getting new capabilities, more aviation, more intelligence collection assets to make sure the composition reflects this new posture.” General Gyllensporre said that in addition to the change in composition, this represented “a change in mindset for us to conduct our operations more proactively and engaging with the population, engaging with other stakeholders, and leading the way if needed.”

As for protection, he said the mission had an approach that was more “population-centric.” In military terms, he explained, that meant acting from temporary operating bases to ensure that there are soldiers present continuously in the vicinity of exposed villages and areas where the threat to the population is thought to be imminent. “And we also make sure that we employ intelligence as a driving factor for operations. The ability to protect has to start with a good intelligence assessment from all components of the mission.”

On the subject of partnering, he said, “This is the way to leverage the efforts of the mission, making sure that the Malian authorities, civilians and military, are stepping up and extending their responsibilities in the areas that are threatened.” He added that the mission had a mandate to provide support for “partner forces” like the Malian armed forces and the G5 Sahel. He said that though the reform process was in its early stages, he was encouraged by the positive response from the local population and local leaders. “When we are able to come in quick, insert soldiers and provide some assistance, that is a good indicator that this adaptation is indeed the right way to go.”

Rania Dagash, Chief of the Policy and Best Practices Service, Department of Peace Operations, shared details of adaptations at three UN missions. She said that MINUSMA had developed an SOP (Standard Operating Procedure) on early warning and rapid response, “two mechanisms that help us respond better. A rapid verification and dissemination of early warning information is critical based on what the Force Commander just said about the constantly shifting nature of the threat.”

She said that MINUSCA, the UN mission in the Central African Republic, has created joint special security units to demobilize armed group combatants. “What this joint special security unit does is establish mixed units, including CAR’s military and armed group elements to jointly carry out security. The training of these units has been completed, and they have already been dispatched to boost protection.” In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, she said, MONUSCO has increased connections between its far-flung field offices. “What this has led to is increased coordination on threat analysis and response between field missions, and a senior management group on provincial protection was held.”

Major General Jai Shanker Menon, Director, Office for Peacekeeping Strategic Partnerships, pointed out that the reforms decentralize the management of resources to senior managers in the field who have mandate implementation responsibilities and direct responsibility for the safety and security of peacekeepers. He pronounced this “a positive development that can have an impact on the ground.

Now, for this to be effective, definitely the mindset of those in UN headquarters needs to shift from one of directing missions to one of truly acting in a support role to the missions.”

General Menon said his own experience of commanding missions had taught him the value of leadership and decisive decision-making. “In my opinion, there should be absolutely no procrastination. Decisions must be given after due thought, but they must be capped with the limit of time and information. A bad decision may be better than no decision at all. In my present job, I often see a lot of systemic issues in the mission like trauma care, base defense, integrated offices not working together, and these often stem from a lack of giving simple and clear-cut decisions.”

The two essential talents that UN mission leaders must have, he said, were “political acumen” and managerial ability. “Leaders must be multi-skilled to run a multi-dimensional peacekeeping operation and must possess managerial skills. Leaders must preferably have previous UN experience to understand the organization, its functioning, and the myriad policies, rules and regulations. Trust me, it can be overwhelming the number of policies, rules and regulations that come flying at you when you’re trying to run a mission.” He lamented that the UN didn’t have enough job mobility and clear career paths to better develop more seasoned leaders and weed out potential failures.

Ihab Awad, Deputy Foreign Minister of Egypt, chose to focus on MINUSMA where Egypt is a major troop-contributing country. “The MINUSMA adaptation plan was an important step forward to reorient the focus and operational capabilities of the mission, but it’s still a work in progress and, given the recent turmoil in Mali following the election, perhaps there is a need to continue to ensure that the adaptation plan is actually adapted to the emerging political and operational challenges facing the mission. So while there is a plan in place, I would like to really call on adapting this adaptation to the version of the realities.”

Ambassador Awad brought up the great variances in the country contexts in which UN missions operate. “This is where the reforms of peacekeeping will actually make a difference, and those are different contexts that require different context-specific adaptation of both the mandate, operation capabilities, and resources.”

In the question and answer period, General Menon had what sounded like the last word. “What the organization, what we need to do is to adapt faster. More flexibility, more adaptability. We need to get the capabilities faster, otherwise the situation and the environment will keep changing. And your force adaptation plan, like someone said, will have to be further adapted.”

Moderating the discussion was Jake Sherman, IPI Senior Director of Programs.