A year of complex challenges for UN peace operations 2010 was in many ways a watershed one for UN peace operations.
Several long-standing peacekeeping missions, including in Liberia and Timor-Leste, took decisive steps towards extending initial stability and security gains into longer-term peacebuilding, allowing UN peacekeepers to begin to withdraw or to plan to do so. In other theatres of operations such as Chad, Darfur and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, political and operational factors have made it harder for the peacekeepers to live up to expectations. The year ended with thousands of peacekeepers caught in the middle of a tense stand-off in Côte d’Ivoire following contested presidential elections.
While there may be a reduction in the numbers of peacekeepers in 2011, peacekeeping will be no less crucial. And the political role of the UN, through its political field missions and special envoys conducting peacemaking, preventative diplomacy and peacebuilding, is bound to grow even more.
As Sudan prepared for the historic referendum that would decide if the largest country in Africa splits into two, the UN Mission in Sudan (UNMIS) assisted and supported the national authorities in planning for and carrying out this critical poll.
Limited consent from the national authorities and differences within the international community regarding strategy necessitated the downsizing and eventual closure of the UN peacekeeping mission in Chad and the Central African Republic (MINURCAT).
Despite continued insecurity in the east, over 1,500 blue helmets began to pull out of the Democratic Republic of the Congo as the operation transformed into a stabilization mission known as MONUSCO. And following the earthquake of 12 January 2010, the UN Mission in Haiti – itself horrifically affected by the tragedy –began the process of undertaking an entire new set of stabilization tasks.
After a decade of surge in demand for UN blue helmets, it appears that peacekeeping may now be headed towards a period of consolidation and even contraction. But the new environment promises to be complex, the tasks daunting and the work dangerous. Any reduction in numbers of peacekeepers in no way indicates that the challenges are diminishing.
To better service its operations, the UN Secretariat has been developing its global field support strategy, transforming recruitment processes and strengthening regional hubs to further systemize and economize support to peace operations and political missions and to better cope with logistical challenges.
Yet peacekeeping continues to confront a range of substantive challenges and issues. These include maintaining the consent of the parties to a peacekeeping operation; trying to keep peace when there is no peace to keep; upholding UN impartiality; and deciding when to use force within the scope of a mission’s means and mandate.
The fundamental requirement that peacekeeping must sustain international political support throughout the entire lifespan of the mission, and that it must accompany but not substitute for a vibrant and inclusive political process, also remain critical to success.
UN peacekeeping operations continue to deploy to inhospitable environments that are remote and dangerous with scant resources and considerable logistical challenges.
The numbers of peacekeepers on the ground may be shrinking, but both the expectations and the complexity of mandates continue to grow. While some missions retain the traditional ceasefire support, observation and monitoring tasks, today’s operations are increasingly called upon to perform a wide range of multi-dimensional and exceptionally sensitive tasks–such as supporting peace processes, building sustainable institutions of governance, reforming security sectors and building the rule of law, protecting civilians, combating sexual and gender-based violence, assisting national elections, promoting security of UN staff and helping to nurture the often fragile seeds of peace. In the immediate aftermath of conflict, peacekeepers are increasingly peacebuilders.
In a complementary development, the UN Secretariat and Security Council have put new emphasis on preventative diplomacy as a low-key, long-term and cost-effective way to encourage peace and stability.
The UN Department of Political Affairs has been expanding its presence in the field, in the form of regionally-focused political offices.
UN political missions are operating in obvious hotspots such as Afghanistan, Iraq and the Middle East, but also in areas that are not in the headlines but where the potential for conflict remains constant, such as West Africa,
Central Asia and soon Central Africa. The UN’s 12 political missions range from small mediation teams to large and multi-faceted field operations–all deployed with the belief that lasting political solutions are the ultimate necessity for peace.