Reservations for Five:   Building Confidence in the UN’s Peacekeeping Response

5 Jul

GAPW was fortunate to be present in Conference Room 1 on July 3 for a special panel “United Nations command and control arrangements: Progress, opportunities and challenges,” for an audience consisting largely of senior diplomats and military advisers.

The meeting featured Ambassadors from Ireland (the Sponsoring Government) Pakistan (a frequent contributor to PKOs) and Rwanda (current Security Council president) along with USG Henri Ladsous and Lieutenant General Joseph Owonibi, a former field commander from Nigeria.   These five shared perspectives on the range of responsibilities now undertaken by PKOs and how command and control (C2) structures must further adjust if they are to be trusted to meet those challenges.

In many ways the tone of the discussion was framed by USG Ladsous and General Owonibi.  Ladsous had the fewest ‘reservations,’ taking the view that peacekeeping operations are mostly functioning as they should.  He expressed particular pleasure (as he has done in the past) with the Force Intervention Brigade, part of MONUSCO’s operation in the DRC.   As much as we hold DPKO in high regard and have expressed great admiration for its capacity to navigate increasingly complex and demanding mandates with limited resources, we continue to have our own reservations about the implications of the Brigade, about the lack of a robust, preventive architecture at the UN, as well as some of the specifics regarding how the Security Council discharges its ‘business’ of formulating, issuing and assessing peacekeeping mandates.

As the one panelist with significant field experience (and given that there were few contributions from the audience), it was largely up to General Owonibi to provide a dose of ‘field reality.’   Owonibi admitted that PKO demands and challenges have increased since he was in the field, and he was thus properly modest in his assessment of DPKO’s level of response to such demands. Nonetheless, he was able to pinpoint some of the communications problems, mandates inconsistencies, and layers of Troop Contributing Country (TCC) resistance that combine to hamper PKO effectiveness.

One issue that came up was related to training, or more precisely its absence.   Owonibi and others described the almost unimaginable scenario of field commanders responsible for troops with whom they have not previously trained.   To summon up what for some might be a compelling, current analogy, this would be like a football coach sending a team onto the pitch without anyone having a clue regarding the strengths, limitations, career backgrounds, playing habits, etc. of his/her players.  In the life or death scenarios increasingly faced by PKOs, such knowledge limitations can be deadly for troops and civilians alike.

For all of the welcome references to the need for C2 flexibility to respond effectively to new and often sudden security emergencies (such as those emanating from terrorists), Owonibi also communicated the concern that field commanders too often operate in a bit of a policy vacuum, with little access to clear evaluations that can help commanders implement mandates (and protect troops from needless danger) more effectively. Authority, he noted, can be delegated, but it should not be divided.   He might also have added that the application of authority can and must be flexible, but the sources of that authority should be clear, consistent and, as noted by Pakistan, readily available for consultations and assessments as needed.

Another critical issue raised several times during the panel is that of national caveats, TCCs that identify ‘conditions’ for mission participation that become part of the equation that drive responses from field commanders, putting them in the position of not only responding to threats but attempting to do so in a way that does not undermine agreements with contributing countries.  Again, a football analogy is in order here – the puzzling scenario wherein coaches must take into account the contracted limitations of players before deploying them in the match.  While no specific troop or equipment-related caveats were stated by panelists, the need to reduce such caveats within Memorandum of Understanding has been recognized for some time (see for instance  It is challenging enough to find commanders who can lead effectively in multinational security environments. Reducing caveats that can complicate C2 and potentially deflect attention from compelling external contingencies (including civilians under siege) would seem to be the highest priority.

It should be noted that the ‘caveat’ problem was attributed by Owonibi to ‘national interest’ which of course is a persistent and anticipated component of any seconded force.   But perhaps ‘national interest’ as the singular rationale for caveats needs a bit of interrogation in its own right.  Perhaps it would also be wise to take more seriously the logistical and policy impacts when national contingents are deployed in dangerous situations under highly complex mandates with insufficient training and limited equipment, all of which are ‘authorized’ by permanent Security Council members whose direct involvement in PKO command and control is limited at best.  Such scenarios would legitimately raise ‘reservations’ for military leaders from many national contexts.  Clearly, if we want fewer of these ‘reservations,’ we need to demonstrate more sensitivity to their origins.

For many reasons, these are the sorts of briefings that ought to happen more often at UNHQ.   At the UN, among NGOs and within individual missions, there seems to be only modest interest in the logistical successes and challenges of PKOs.   Given how many diverse responsibilities are being heaped on PKOs, the deficiencies attributed to inadequate resources, and the impact of PKO success and failure on the public’s general assessment of the UN’s institutional legitimacy, more system-wide attentiveness inspired by events such as this one would seem to be in order.

Dr. Robert Zuber


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