International Order & Conflict
Commentary

Since The U.N.’S Organizational “Reboot”

In 1988, the great powers rediscovered the United Nations as an instrument of international security. In 1990, Stimson began its work monitoring and assessing the U.N.’s organizational “reboot” as an element of the emerging new framework for global peace and security.

Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika unlocked the U.N. Security Council to help end Cold War-driven conflicts all over the world. Teams of U.N. military observers were dispatched to watch Russians leave Afghanistan, watch Cubans leave Angola, and verify the end of the bloody, chemical-saturated Iran-Iraq War. Soon, the U.N. began to do more than observe, taking a direct hand in post-conflict reconstruction, at first supervising or certifying national elections or referenda in places like Namibia, Nicaragua, Mozambique and Cambodia. With each new Council mandate, however, U.N. missions were drawn more deeply into local politics – and fights.

It was clear early on that the biggest gaps in knowledge were in the fundamentals: how does this thing work; where does the U.N. get the people and money for its missions; what happens when the Secretary-General gets the order to send people somewhere and keep peace; and, critically, what are the limits of the U.N.’s voluntarily augmented military capacity? Outside New York, the U.S. government had little clue, which showed clearly at the start of the Clinton Administration, when U.S. forces swiftly passed a too-volatile Somali situation into unready U.N. hands. At the time, at most 200 people at U.N. Headquarters were charged with setting up, recruiting troops and police for, managing and supplying the large new operations borne of superpower amity. The U.S. Army uses 200 people to run a battalion and they don’t have to recruit it, train it in the basics, write its doctrine, or find its funding. The Army also spends years building a force; the U.N. has weeks, months if it’s lucky, and it has to ask nicely.

By 1993, Stimson’s work in peacekeeping had become part of its core contribution to the international peace and security field.  By then, upwards of 90,000 U.N. peacekeepers – an eight-fold increase in three years – had been sent to difficult places like Somalia, Angola, Croatia, Bosnia and Rwanda, where asking nicely did not work. The disasters were not long in coming. By the mid-1990s, poor results not only in Somalia but in Angola, Bosnia and especially Rwanda led to sharp drawdowns in U.N. missions. That operational lull was ended in 1999, to the U.N.’s surprise in particular, by large outbreaks of violence in small places on opposite sides of the world that left Kosovo and East Timor temporarily shorn of government. The Security Council moved to fill the gap with U.N. “transitional administrations.” A few weeks later, the Council sent peacekeepers back into the (now Democratic Republic of) Congo for the first time in 30 years to separate supporters and opponents of its shaky self-declared government. At the end of the year, two scathing U.N.-commissioned reports were released on the organization’s handling of the 1994 Rwandan genocide and the 1995 Srebrenica massacre in eastern Bosnia. 

Looking at a future more fraught by the week, Secretary-General Kofi Annan decided to convene a Panel on United Nations Peace Operations to investigate and advise him on how to improve U.N. peacekeeping performance. Its chair was Under-Secretary-General Lakhdar Brahimi, a skilled, patient and politically astute diplomat with long experience handling difficult situations. I was asked to head the writing team. Five months, 200 interviews, and 3 Panel meetings later, a report was submitted to the Secretary-General and sent to member states that led to five years of U.N. peacekeeping reform, more robust capacity and better mission support. It redefined the political character of peacekeeping in cases of internal conflict: “Impartiality for such operations must therefore mean adherence to the principles of the Charter and to the objectives of a mandate that is rooted in those Charter principles. Such impartiality is not the same as neutrality or equal treatment of all parties in all cases for all time….” It also urged that civilian protection be considered a core mission of U.N. peacekeepers and that operations be adequately funded, equipped, and directed for that task.

From the Brahimi Report onward, Stimson became a trusted interlocutor with the U.N. system on peace and security issues. Our subsequent work remained analytic but emphasized policy critique, development and reform. As the reform agenda took hold, that work followed two distinct lines, each of which nurtured a new generation of young professionals whose subsequent careers have spanned academe, the law, and government service. One line has involved ground-breaking work on mitigating violence against civilians and on prevention of and responses to genocide and mass atrocities, leading directly to U.N. policy change.

The second line of research focused on building post-conflict rule of law, mapping the ways in which wartime political networks and peacetime corruption undermine peace and state capacity; proposing cost-effective ways to overcome chronic shortages of capable police for peacekeeping missions; and devising means to deal with accountability deficits that undermine the U.N.’s ability to model to its local hosts the very rule of law that it seeks to promote. From these efforts came UN requests to join efforts to develop new global rules for police peacekeepers and to evaluate the impact of police and justice programming in U.N. peace operations. Most recently we were asked to assess the work of a new U.N. “Global Focal Point” on police, justice and corrections reform that links the U.N.’s peacekeeping and development arms, that is, its ability to deploy people and things quickly and its ability to pull in program funds over time. Working in concert, they can speed program impact and shorten mission time-on-ground – if they can alter their rules and routines to keep worthy innovations from drowning in red tape.

For the work on the U.N. Global Focal Point, we partnered with Dutch and Swedish research colleagues. Indeed, we owe much of our later rule of law work to generous support from the governments of the United Kingdom, Australia, The Netherlands, and Sweden, together with continuing support from the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

International peacekeeping is in greater demand now than at any time in its history, with 120,000 persons deployed in U.N. operations alone, in settings whose open or underlying violence rivals anything the U.N. faced during peacekeeping’s crisis of 20 years ago. That suggests constructive adaptation over time but developed world technology and troops are now minor factors these missions. Moreover, violence that is not of political origin – the violence of drug gangs, human traffickers, and minerals-smuggling militias – rarely triggers a multilateral military or policing response. Both of these issues need addressing and with some urgency. It’s a globalizing world, humanity’s numbers are still growing but the earth isn’t, and it isn’t getting any cooler, either. 

Photo credit: United Nations Photo via flickr

Share on twitter
Share on facebook
Share on linkedin
Share on email
Part of the Peacekeeping Reform Project
Choose Your Subscription Topics
* indicates required
I'm interested in...
38 North: News and Analysis on North Korea
South Asian Voices