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U.N. Peacekeepers atop an armored vehicle in South Sudan. Peacekeepers from the United Nations Mission in South Sudan in Bentiu, South Sudan, June 18, 2017 (AP photo by Sam Mednick).

Is the U.N. Security Council Marginalizing Itself Over Peacekeeping?

Monday, Feb. 25, 2019

Did the U.N. Security Council squander a chance to strengthen peacekeeping in December? 2018 was meant to be a big year for intergovernmental talks on how to improve U.N. operations. Yet Russia and the U.S. joined forces to torpedo a council resolution on potential reforms as the year ended. Why?

Technical issues like reforming peace operations might already appear less pressing, given the council’s torrid start in 2019. Its permanent members are split over how to respond to the escalating crisis in Venezuela. Headaches from Iran to North Korea are likely to dominate the agenda this year.

Nonetheless, a new report from Security Council Report, an independent think tank, raises uncomfortable questions about the council’s oversight of blue-helmet missions. The story of this otherwise overlooked diplomatic spat offers interesting lessons about the state of politics at the U.N., and perhaps the U.N.’s relevance to international security more generally.

Almost everyone in and around the U.N. agrees that peacekeeping needs an overhaul. The organization’s missions in trouble spots like Mali and Sudan are entangled in complex conflicts, attempting to implement ambitious, lengthy and meandering mandates hashed out in New York.

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In March 2018, Secretary-General Antonio Guterres took the council to task, pointing out that the operation in South Sudan has over 200 mandated tasks. “By attempting too much,” he warned, “we dilute our efforts and weaken our impact.” With that, he kicked off nine months of negotiations on a new Action for Peacekeeping agenda, or A4P, to boost support for U.N. missions.

A4P focused on all aspects of peacekeeping, rather than mandates alone. As I noted at the time, the process generated few original ideas, but did get diplomats and U.N. officials talking about peace operations in a constructive and collegial fashion. This was no mean feat, as most U.N. talks on peacekeeping tend to be poisoned by rows over budgets and, more recently, sexual abuse by peacekeepers.

The first phase of the A4P process culminated in September, when leaders and ministers from over 100 nations endorsed a statement of shared commitments to peacekeeping. The number of governments endorsing the statement has since risen to over 150.

The declaration is a solid enunciation of proposals for bolstering missions, ranging from steps to improve training to better reporting from the secretary-general. Though nonbinding, it was a diplomatic win in its own right. Yet throughout the negotiations, many U.N. members had argued that the Security Council should also enshrine A4P in a resolution. There were two reasons for this. One is simply that the council’s resolutions carry additional political and legal weight. The other is that a lot of states don’t trust the council.

More specifically, a lot of U.N. members place the blame for many of peacekeeping’s woes, and especially the generation of impossible mandates, at the feet of its permanent five members. The P-5, as they are known—particularly Britain, France and the U.S.—dominate the mandate-making process, to the frustration of powers like India and Pakistan, which deploy thousands of personnel in U.N. missions.

For all their divisions over issues like Syria, the permanent five members of the U.N. Security Council will not cede an iota of their institutional privileges to others.

For many troop contributors and other U.N. members, it was thus crucial that the P-5 should make some sort of pledge to include broadened discussions of mandates as part of A4P. The September declaration, which all the P-5 more or less supported, included a call for more “clear, focused, sequenced, prioritized and achievable mandates by the Security Council matched by achievable resources.”

This might not sound controversial to any normal person. But to aficionados of U.N. terminology, it looks awfully like a demand that the P-5 should accept some limits to their prerogatives as the leading members of the council. It was never clear that the veto-wielding quintet would be willing to back this up with a resolution. Nonetheless, Cote d’Ivoire and the Netherlands, both temporary council members last year, tabled a draft text following up on A4P in November.

The timing was not especially propitious. Ethiopia, another temporary member, was pushing a separate resolution calling for the U.N. to fund peace operations launched by the African Union. Debates over this resolution, which the Trump administration rejected on budgetary grounds, took up diplomatic time in December and left negotiators in a petulant mood. The Ethiopians eventually retreated when Washington threatened to veto their text. While this did not relate directly to A4P, it probably reduced the chances of compromise on the Dutch-Ivorian proposal.

Security Council Report’s new analysis completes the story. Russia, which had consistently complained that A4P gave too much weight to human rights concerns, refused to engage on the draft. It found an unlikely ally in the U.S., which argued that the text threatened to curtail the P-5’s “freedom of maneuver” in negotiating mandates. While most elected members of the council backed the initiative, “other permanent members also raised questions about the need for a resolution on the mandating process,” resulting in the process being put on ice at the end of 2018.

While the Netherlands has since left the council, Cote d’Ivoire could still revive its initiative with a new partner or partners. A number of other current council members, such as Belgium, Germany and Indonesia, were early endorsers of the A4P declaration and have questioned the P-5’s approach to mandating. German officials were reportedly irked when France refused to let them help draft mandates on Mali this year, even though Berlin is a major aid donor to Bamako.

So the Dutch-Ivorian resolution may fly again with new sponsors, but it is not clear that it will have a much higher chance of success. Last December’s negotiations reaffirmed a basic truth about Security Council politics: For all their divisions over issues like Syria, the P-5 will not cede an iota of their institutional privileges to others. In a period of shifting geopolitics, Russia, China and their fellow veto-wielders gain a certain sense of security from their privileged place in the council.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that the council cannot make incremental improvements to how it mandates and oversees peace operations. As I note in a short paper for the Challenges Forum—a peacekeeping-focused think tank—that also came out last week, Guterres could revitalize council negotiations by shaking up the U.N.’s uninspiring political reporting practices. If, as Adam Day noted in WPR last week, blue-helmet operations can get better at using data to track their performance and impact, they could make the P-5 think a bit harder about mandates.

The elected council members that complain about the P-5’s behavior could also reconsider their own contributions to mandate negotiations. P-5 diplomats counter many criticisms by arguing that their temporary counterparts often talk more about process than substance, and often do not have concrete ideas about how to improve the mandates they criticize. If elected members could raise their game in talks on specific peace operations, they might gain leverage.

Nonetheless, it is hard not to see December’s impasse over A4P in the Security Council as a sign that the body is unlikely to rejig the way it handles peace operations anytime soon. And the more the P-5 refuse to share their authority over mandate issues, the more other powers will look for ways to respond to crises through mechanisms other than the U.N.

Richard Gowan is a senior fellow at the United Nations University’s Centre for Policy Research. He is also a fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations and NYU’s Center on International Cooperation, and teaches at Columbia University. His weekly WPR column appears every Monday. Follow him on Twitter at @RichardGowan1.

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