Events of the Past Year Can Provide Guidance as Peace Operations Enter Uncharted Waters

 In early 2013, peace operations have entered new and uncharted waters that may set the stage for major changes in multilateral conflict management in the years to come. The newly released Center on International Cooperation’s Annual Review of Global Peace Operations 2013 offers valuable insights into the events that influenced policy decisions in cases such as the peace enforcement mission in eastern Congo, the political mission in Mogadishu, and the stabilization operation in Mali. It also illustrates how developments in 2012 have led to a sidelining of the UN’s mediation efforts in Syria. As such, the Annual Review can help readers evaluate developments in 2012 and the challenges posed by the authorization of complex peace operations in early 2013 more effectively.

With debates raging on a plan devised by Russia to place Syria’s chemical weapons under international supervision, the return of the UN to Syria, to oversee the handover and monitoring of weapons, is becoming increasingly likely. While decisions on an agreement still have to be made, it is constructive to review the events that took place during 2012. These serve as a stark reminder of the limits of operations on the ground in the face of political disunity in the Security Council and a precarious security situation. Though the deployment of a UN peacekeeping force in Syria may still be far off, the lessons from the UN Supervision Mission in Syria (UNSMIS) can be applied to any UN operation on the ground.

Chief among these are security risks that in 2012 contributed to the withdrawal of UNSMIS in August 2012 and also affected the mission of the UN inspection team in August 2013. Security issues also present challenges for other peace operations in the region. Following incidents in late 2012 and 2013 in which peacekeepers of the UN Disengagement Observer Force in the Golan Heights came under fire and were subjected to kidnappings, first Japan and Croatia and then Austria, a major troop contributor, withdraw personnel from the mission. In Sinai, the Multinational Force and Observers were attacked on several occasions in 2012, including an attack on the mission’s headquarters.

With ongoing divisions in the Security Council over the use of force in Syria, the presence of guard troops that may use force for protection of observers or weapons’ stockpiles is in question. Furthermore, if the past year is to be a guide, then the continued political divisions over the way forward in Syria will likely thwart efforts on the ground and a resolution to the conflict will remain elusive, particularly with no signs pointing toward renewed efforts to salvage the UN-led peace process.

While the world’s attention was focused on Syria, the UN intervention brigade in the DRC conducted its first offensive operation in August 2013 against the M23 rebel group. After two days of fighting, the intervention brigade, along with the troops of the Congolese army, forced the rebels to withdraw from the front lines. A few days later, the M23 agreed to return to the UN-led peace talks with the Congolese government.

The intervention brigade was deployed following criticism of the UN peacekeeping presence in the DRC over its inability to prevent rebel groups from capturing Goma in November 2012. Though it was approved unanimously, the intervention brigade has nevertheless been heavily debated in the Security Council, with member states raising strong concerns over the UN’s role in peace enforcement. It is too early to say what long-term impact the force will have on stabilizing eastern Congo, particularly amid an increase in hostilities between the DRC and Rwanda. For now the brigade’s military gains have enabled advances on the diplomatic track, a development that was welcomed not least by Mary Robinson, the UN Envoy to the Great Lakes region, who said she fully supported the military offensive. In the meantime, critics of the operation have muted their skepticism. Pending the success of the intervention brigade, some stakeholders may want to apply the model in other protracted conflicts, despite the UN’s assurance that the operation would not set a precedent for peacekeeping operations.

Also widely discussed in 2012 and early 2013 was a military intervention in Mali. In 2012, the UN Security Council raised strong concerns about the operational readiness of African forces to intervene militarily, as requested by ECOWAS and the AU, while the UN Secretary-General expressed apprehension about a UN role in offensive operations in Mali. The prolonged planning efforts around a military intervention at the UN were eventually overtaken by the unilateral French intervention in early 2013 that also triggered the deployment of African troops.

In May, initial hesitations over a UN peacekeeping operation in Mali were overcome by the authorization of the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) to take over the command of the African-led troops, though the UN ruled out the peace enforcement mandate requested by the AU, ECOWAS and key Malian stakeholders. In July, MINUSMA assisted the Malian transitional authority in the holding of widely peaceful elections. As Richard Gowan underlines in his contribution to the Annual Review of Global Peace Operations 2013, the extensive deliberations and planning efforts at the UN and with the AU and ECOWAS preceding MINUSMA’s authorization have shown that there is no consensus on how the UN or regional organizations can adapt to evolving threat environments.

In Somalia in 2012, considerable security gains achieved by a strengthened AU Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) enabled forward movement on the political track and paved the way for the return of the UN Political Office for Somalia to Mogadishu for the first time in seventeen years. Building on momentum in the country, the Security Council authorized a new statebuilding assistance mission, replacing the political office in May 2013. In June, the UN experienced a major set-back when the sparsely guarded compound of the UN Assistance Mission in Somalia (UNSOM) came under attack by militant fighters, killing 22, including eight UN staffers– less then two weeks after the deployment of UNSOM.

Al-Shabaab continues to carry out asymmetric attacks in Mogadishu, restricting the freedom of movement for UN staff and posing a considerable security threat. The UN and the AU are undertaking a jointly-led review of AMISOM that, given the prevailing security situation, will likely lead to an additional increase in its strength and the establishment benchmarks for a possible future UN peacekeeping mission. The attack on the UNSOM headquarters has further underlined the growing challenge that security posed to the work of political missions in 2012, including those in Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Both Mali and Somalia illustrate the growing trend of civilian-led missions and military operations working in parallel. In Somalia, the achievements on the political side, supported by the UN political office, would have not been possible without the significant security gains by the African Union mission in Somalia. In Mali, envoys from ECOWAS that were further supported by the UN facilitated political processes including peace negotiations, while MINUSMA took on stabilizations tasks. In both countries the military presences and civilian actors will likely continue to work side by side for the foreseeable future.

Globally, approximately half of all political missions are operating in parallel with military deployments. There is also a growing trend of peace operations from different institutions deploying alongside each other. The Annual Review of Global Peace Operations demonstrates that over 90 percent of all non-UN peace operations in Africa operate in cooperation with a UN mission in the same country or sub-region.

Driven by ongoing budgetary pressures, debates in 2012 on peace operations at UN headquarters and in national capitals have focused on reductions of troop presences and the consolidation of operations. In fact, the year has seen the first contraction in global peace operations in almost a decade.

However, developments on the ground in 2012 have also shown the continued demand for peacekeeping operations and political missions and have led to new authorizations by regional organizations and the UN in Guinea-Bissau, Syria, Niger, the Sahel and Mali. In the first half of 2013, the Security Council established the post of the Envoy to the Great Lakes region as well as the assistance mission in Somalia. It also authorized the deployment of the intervention brigade in the DRC and the peacekeeping operation in Mali, which at full deployment will be the UN’s third largest mission in Africa. With these deployments, the UN Security Council has already demonstrated the political willingness to launch new missions, including operations that may well shape multilateral crisis management in the years to come.

Photo: The North Kivu Brigade Commander (left), and the Force Commander of MONUSCO, in the trenches of Munigi hill as the Force Intervention Brigade (FIB) launches its first artillery strikes on M23 positions. (UN Photo/Sylvain Liechti)

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Sep 18, 2013
Alischa Kugel