Justice League:  The UN Hesitantly Manages its Peacekeeping Expectations, Dr. Robert Zuber

26 Feb

justice-league

That was the thing about the world: it wasn’t that things were harder than you thought they were going to be, it was that they were hard in ways that you didn’t expect.  Lev Grossman

Expectations are dangerous when they are both too high and unformed.  Lionel Shriver

When I was a child, far back in the last century, I was enraptured by the exploits of a group of superheroes known as the Justice League.   This formidable group – from Wonder Woman and Green Lantern to Batman and the Flash – kept us on the edge of our chairs as they battled the forces of evil, sometimes alone, sometimes together, but almost always successfully.

In retrospect, what made these imaginary heroes so compelling is their complement of imaginary attributes.   They were mighty.  They essentially answered to no one.  They were kind to all but the evil doers.  They responded to crises without hesitation.  They possessed extraordinary skills allowing them to simultaneously fight the “bad guys,” repair damaged infrastructure and reassure nervous populations wondering if the values their make-believe parents taught them any longer had relevance in their make-believe world.

Our real world of “evil doers” is considerably more complex.  The lines that separate the “good guys” and “bad guys” are less obvious than our governments and media make it seem.   We tend to replicate the behaviors of our adversaries more than renounce them, fighting bombs with bombs, offering threatening rhetoric in response to threatening rhetoric,  demonizing those who demonize us.  And when we do renounce this pattern, our collective responses (such as through the UN) are often far slower than is optimal, based on preparations that are political as much as technical, that are often more about “what we can do with what we have at hand” rather than what is actually needed.

In real life, there is no Justice League available to resolve our conflicts, no heroes in costume with power on permanent standby, determination in their hearts and kind smiles on their faces.

We have written often in this space about the need for the UN to better manage the full complement of its expectations, which far too often run apace of any relevant strategies or capacities to end conflict and/or sustain peace.  Our public relations pitches, our Security Council mandates, our Commissions and Committees, all seem designed to convince the public (and perhaps ourselves as well) that we actually have what it takes – on hand right now – to discharge fully and successfully the weighty responsibilities to which we have been entrusted.

Within the UN, this burden of expectation falls heavily on peacekeeping operations, the most expensive of UN operations but also the operations that bear grave field responsibilities that are essential both to the UN’s peace and security reputation and to the successful implementation of other UN country team activities – from development to mediation.

Others more focused and knowledgeable on peacekeeping matters have written extensively about the extraordinary and widening responsibilities now laid at the feet of peace operations – seeking out “spoilers,”  interfacing with terror threats, rebuilding entire sectors of states under siege,  enabling access points for humanitarian assistance,  offering protective services to threatened civilians.

And defending human rights, a complex matter under the best of circumstances, but certainly for peace operations facing threats from insurgents in “ungoverned spaces,” staffed by recruits from Troop Contributing Countries” with limited knowledge of (or at times interest in) the intricate political and social circumstances of the places they are mandated to “defend,” seeking to fulfill expectations both robust and multifaceted,  expectations that more than a few commentators would call “unfeasible.”

An example of this “heaping” of responsibilities on peace operations is the last Security Council renewal (2323/2016) of the UNSMIL mandate, the peacekeeping and special political mission in Libya.  Despite a security situation that is so dangerous and unpredictable that many key UN functions (ICC, UNMAS) must operate largely from outside the country, UNSMIL peacekeepers are somehow expected to

  • help consolidate governance, security and economic arrangements of the Government of National Accord;
  • provide support to key Libyan institutions;
  • provide support, on request, for the provision of essential services, and delivery of humanitarian assistance and in accordance with humanitarian principles;
  • monitor and report on human rights;
  • secure uncontrolled arms and related materiel , and counter their proliferation;
  • coordinate the provision of advice and assistance to state-led efforts to stabilize post-conflict zones, including those liberated from Da’esh.

Faced with such daunting difficulties — and this mission’s mandate is not unique — it is miraculous that peacekeepers can be assembled with even a reasonable chance of successful outcomes.   I wonder if even the mythical Justice League would have signed on to such obstacle-laden responsibilities.

This week, in the margins of the (C-34) Special Committee on Peacekeeping Operations, some of the inconsistencies of Peace Operations associated with our sometimes grandiose mandates came to the fore.   During an excellent briefing on “human rights at work in peace operations,” Sweden’s Vice Minister for Foreign Affairs noted the many places worldwide in which “dignity is now under pressure,” urging a higher level of rights consciousness in peace operations. A peacekeeper from Somalia cited the damage to the UN when peace operations commit (or fail to respond) to rights abuses, including (as noted by a peacekeeper in the DRC) those committed by host governments.   And, echoing a theme highlighted later in the week at another superb peacekeeping side event, this time hosted by Indonesia, several speakers urged higher levels of women’s involvement in peacekeeping in part to help open new pathways to community communication that could meet Sweden’s request for clear and “early warnings” of impending violence and the rights abuses which so often follow.

The promotion and protection of human rights is an indispensable pillar of UN activity.  And yet, we find that peacekeepers lack sufficient training in these responsibilities, nor are they equipped to manage the sometimes tragic dilemmas for which peacekeeping operations must find a way forward.   Perhaps the most challenging of these dilemmas was mentioned this week by both ASG (DPKO) Wane and ASG (DPA) Zerihoun who cited difficult ethical dilemmas faced by mission command – having to temper actions to defend human rights in order to preserve access granted by the host state; and having to engage in reconstruction activities – including security sector reform and civilian demobilization and disarmament – alongside persons who have themselves committed severe rights abuses.   Coupled with the ongoing tragedy of civilians in the field abused by the very persons (peacekeepers) tasked with protecting them, it is clear that peace operations continue to face human rights challenges that, one after the other, threaten to compromise expectations and undermine our collective credibility.

Our peacekeepers are not superheroes; nor are the government officials that create their mandates, fund their operations and raise (often excessively) expectations.   Given this, we would advocate for more attention to the front end of expectation management rather than the back end — when the unpredictability of politics and conflict intervenes to complicate and restrict performance in ways that, once acknowledged as they were in the C-34 this week, sound a bit too much like excuses for failure.

This past Thursday, a female Indonesian peacekeeper made reference to the “power of smiles” in peacekeeping operations, a power that can in its own way help expand community “access and acceptance” beyond what is granted through formal “status of forces” agreements and other political arrangements.   Perhaps this is one mostly-missing ingredient towards a more realistic merger of expectations and performance within the realm of our peace and security responsibilities?   At the very least, it’s a start.

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