Review of Political Missions 2010

from Center on International Cooperation
Published on 01 Oct 2010 View Original
Strategic Summary

Richard Gowan

Overviews of international engagement in conflict-affected states typically focus on military peacekeeping and the economics of postconflict peacebuilding. This excludes an array of primarily civilian missions deployed by the United Nations (UN) as well as other multilateral institutions in countries and regions that are at risk of, experiencing or emerging from violence. The hallmark of these missions is political engagement with governments, parties and civil society aimed at averting, mitigating or stopping conflict.

There is not even a satisfactory collective term for these mechanisms. This volume's title nods to the phrase "Special Political Missions" used by the UN, but this is a budgetary category. It also covers the "field presences" of the Organization of the Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and a variety of "offices" and "centers" launched by other organizations. Such titles give very little idea of what these missions really do.

Yet, as this volume shows, they are doing a great deal. Over fifty active missions (and some that have closed in the last one to two years) are described in the pages that follow.

They include the UN's assistance missions in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as a variety of OSCE and European Union (EU) presences in the Balkans, but are spread as far apart as Belize and Nepal. They range in size from a handful of staff to operations involving hundreds of international and locally-employed personnel. Some have clear mandates to guide and sustain mediation processes (such as the UN's long-running efforts to make peace in Somalia). Others are tasked with indirectly contributing to stable and sustainable politics such as promoting good governance, justice or security sector reform.

The majority of missions we cover focus on individual countries, although there are a small number of regional offices and representatives (discussed in the next section). Multilateral political missions dealing primarily with bilateral conflicts are very rare, reflecting the general trend by international organizations to focus on internal conflicts.

Most current political missions are in states that have experienced serious conflict (like Bosnia and Herzegovina) or narrowly avoided it (like the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Kenya). Some are in countries experiencing ongoing combat (such as Iraq) or going through escalations in violence (from Afghanistan to the Central African Republic and Kyrgyzstan). Few missions play a purely preventive role, but many are involved in efforts to prevent escalations to violence or returns to war after peace deals.1

Many political missions exist in a grey area between humanitarian action, human rights monitoring, development work, peacebuilding and traditional diplomacy. Rather than attempt to define its subject-matter narrowly, this volume casts its net broadly. It includes, for example the EU's Special Representatives, envoys who often have very limited staffs - or are even based in Brussels rather than the countries that they deal with.

Does it make sense to treat these operations as a coherent category? As the next section of this summary underlines, clusters of missions have tended to emerge in certain regions for historically specific reasons, such as the web of OSCE presences in the Balkans launched in the later 1990s. Many missions are descended from, or accompaniments to, large peacekeeping operations or military deployments (as in Iraq and Afghanistan).

Yet, for all their differences, the mechanisms this book groups under the headline of political missions do have certain characteristics in common. Ian Johnstone argues that it is even possible to discern the basis for an emerging doctrine for such operations.

For the purposes of this overview, however, it is possible to identify three central factors.

- Political origins: these missions derive authority from multilateral decision-making in political forums such as the Security Council, the EU Council and OSCE Permanent Council. This distinguishes them from, for example, parallel field presences governed by the UN Development Programme board.

- Political means: while many of the missions addressed here conduct humanitarian, economic and other tasks - with associated leverage - they rely on political persuasion as a primary means of achieving their goals. These missions' credibility rests on their relationships with domestic political actors.

- Political goals: in spite of the multiplicity of tasks they undertake, the missions share the aim of launching and supporting political processes.

This does not preclude focusing on other priorities such as justice and development. But these other goals are pursued in the context of fostering sustainable political settlements.

These are rough criteria, and raise further complications. What, for example, do we mean by a political process? Does it necessarily imply the high-level implementation of a peace agreement, as in the UN operation in Nepal? Or can it also embrace long-term efforts to include minorities in municipal politics, a focus for the OSCE in the Balkans?

Ultimately, this volume does not try to resolve these terminological issues. Instead, it aims to map a variety of missions and learn from their actual activities on the ground. A number of common problems and patterns emerge from this mapping.

These suggest that, although hard to define, political missions are a distinct form of multilateral activity - and that they play a greater role in international security than is commonly recognized.

Go to the full volume on-line at the Center on International Cooperation.