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The UN we need?

Is UN Peace Operations adapting fast enough to remain relevant in today’s rapidly changing global landscape?
The image shows a UN peacekeepier

PREPARATIONS: A Nigerian peacekeeper with the United Nations-African Union Hybrid Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) photographed as he and his battalion prepare for a night patrol through Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps in El Geneina, the state capital of West Darfur, Sudan.

Photo: UN Photo/Creative Commons/CC BY NC-ND 2.0

PREPARATIONS: A Nigerian peacekeeper with the United Nations-African Union Hybrid Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) photographed as he and his battalion prepare for a night patrol through Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps in El Geneina, the state capital of West Darfur, Sudan.

Photo: UN Photo/Creative Commons/CC BY NC-ND 2.0

Peacekeeping is the flagship enterprise of the United Nations. It is the most tangible example of international cooperation to prevent conflict or to manage peace process. 

Peacekeeping is also under severe pressure.

UN peacekeepers are operating in more complex and dangerous environments than ever before, and this has raised questions as to whether UN peacekeeping is still fit for purpose.

24 October marked United Nations Day 2017. Senior Research Fellows Cedric de Coning and John Karlsrud, two of NUPI's experienced experts in the fields of UN, peacekeeping and peace operations, addressed how UN peacekeeping is adapting to a changing security landscape in a presentation for the Norwegian Defence International Centre (NODEFIC).

In January 2017, a new Secretary-General, António Guterres, assumed office. Marking UN Day, we here publish de Coning's remarks on global challenges facing the new Secretary-General. De Coning explores some of the key issues Guterres will need to address to ensure that the UN remain relevant in today’s fast changing global landscape:


The previous Secretary-General of the United Nations (UN), Ban Ki Moon, referred to peacekeeping as the flagship enterprise of the UN. However, he also recognised that UN peacekeeping is under severe pressure. On the one hand peacekeeping numbers and costs are at all-time highs. As of early 2017, the UN is responsible for approximately 40 peace operations, including 15 peacekeeping operations and 25 special political missions. In total the UN deploys approximately 110,000 personnel to these missions at a cost of approximately US$7 billion.

On the other hand, UN peacekeepers are operating in more complex and dangerous environments than ever before. A decade ago, most UN peacekeepers were engaged in post-conflict peace agreement implementation missions in countries like Sierra Leone, Burundi, Liberia and Sudan. Today, approximately two thirds of the UN’s peacekeepers are deployed amidst on-going conflict in countries like the Central African Republic (CAR; the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Mali and South Sudan. Over this same period, the UN has developed a significant operational political capacity. As a result, a division of work has emerged where UN peacekeeping missions are increasingly limited to containing violence, whilst UNspecial political missions and special envoys are tasked to pursue to political solutions. UN peacekeeping mandates and operational conditions have thus significantly changed over the last decade.

This has raised questions as to whether UN peacekeeping is still fit for purpose. In 2014, Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon appointed Nobel Peace Laureate and former President of Timor Leste, José Ramos-Horta, to head a High-level Independent Panel on UN peace operations (HIPPO). The Panel submitted its report on 16 June 2015. The HIPPO report found that UN peace operations have proven highly adaptable and contributed significantly to the decline in the number of conflicts over the last two decades. However, in the recent past there has been an upswing in the number of conflicts and a concern that changes in the nature and scope of conflict may outpace the ability of UN peace operations to respond. The Panel found that there is a widening gap between what is being asked of UN peace operations and what they can deliver. 

With the current generation of conflicts proving difficult to resolve – several large missions like the ones in Darfur, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Haiti and Somalia have been deployed for a decade or more – and with new ones emerging, the Panel recommended that it is essential that UN Peace Operations, along with regional partners like the African Union (AU) and others, combine their respective comparative advantages. This theme is reflected in the title of the Panel’s report: “Uniting our strengths for peace – politics, partnerships and people”.

In response to these challenges, the HIPPO report recommends four essential shifts. The first shift is that politics must drive the design and implementation of peace operations. The Panel found that UN peace operations have too often been preoccupied with military and technical considerations. It emphasised that political solutions should always guide the design and deployment of peace operations. Political primacy rests with national actors. It therefore recommended that the main effort of any peace operation must be to focus international attention, leverage and resources on supporting national actors to make the choices required to restore peace, address underlying conflict drivers and meet the legitimate interests of the wider population.

The second is that the sharp distinctions between peacekeeping operations and special political missions should give way to a full spectrum approach to peace operations. The third is that a stronger global-regional peace and security partnership is needed to respond to the emerging challenges, underpinned by mutual respect and shared responsibilities. The fourth shift recommended by the Panel is that the UN Secretariat must become more field-focussed and UN peace operations must become more people-centred.

Considering the challenges highlighted earlier, the HIPPO report’s guidance on the use of force in peacekeeping was eagerly anticipated. The Panel recognized that the UN Security Council has the prerogative to deploy peace operations with enforcement tasks, but its advice is that such mandates should be given with extreme caution because the UN is not well suited for combat operations. The Panel also recommends that UN troops should not undertake counter-terrorism operations. It specifies that where a parallel non-UN force is engaged in offensive combat operations (for instance the French operation Barkhane in Mali) it is important for the UN to maintain a clear division of labour and distinction of roles. Ultimately, the Panel argues, force can only be meaningfully applied in a peace operation context if it is part of a political strategy to achieve peace.

At the same time the Panel recognises that protection of civilians is a core obligation of the UN and argues that the organization must find more effective ways of protecting civilians in the face of imminent threats. However, the UN must also recognise its limits, and thus more needs to be done to match expectations and capabilities through improvements in assessments, planning capabilities, timely information and communication, leadership, training and more focussed mandates.

The key recommendations of the HIPPO Panel were thus the political solutions should always guide the design and deployment of peace operations; the UN must improve the methods it utilises to protect civilians, but the UN must also resist the pressure to undertake combat operations; instead it should invest in strategic partnerships with the African Union and other regional organisations; and it must place people firmly at the centre of its peace operations.

At almost the same time that the HIPPO Panel undertook their review of UN peace operations, a ten-year review of the UN peacebuilding architecture was taking place, as well as a review of the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security. The review of the peacebuilding architecture was undertaken by an advisory group of experts (AGE) and their report echoed the HIPPO recommendations in the emphasis it placed on the importance of inclusive national ownership for the sustainability of peace processes.

On April 27, 2016, the General Assembly and the Security Council passed concurrent resolutions adopting most of the AGE findings and recommendations, including the ‘new’ concept of sustaining peace. The preamble of the dual resolutions defines sustaining peace as including “activities aimed at preventing the outbreak, escalation, continuation and recurrence of conflict, addressing root causes, assisting parties to conflict to end hostilities, ensuring national reconciliation, and moving towards recovery, reconstruction and development”. As Youssef Mahmoud and Andrea Ó Súilleabháin have noted, this new expansive definition recognizes that sustaining peace is an inherently political process that spans prevention, mediation, conflict management, and resolution. They argue that with the sustaining peace concept, the UN approach to peacebuilding now puts UN member states and their populations in the lead; it further puts politics and political solutions front and centre, gives prevention an uncontested home, and leverages the UN’s three pillars—human rights, peace and security, and sustainable development—in a mutually reinforcing way (Mahmoud, Y. & Ó Súilleabháin, 2016).

The New Secretary-General

In January 2017, a new Secretary-General, António Guterres, assumed office. The new UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, has introduced a number of changes to the way the UN is managed and coordinated. Many of these ideas have been inspired by the recommendations of the peace operations, peacebuilding and 1325 reviews. He has opted for a cabinet-style Executive Committee to oversee the day-to-day management of the UN. He has appointed a special advisor on prevention and re-organised the executive office of the Secretary-General so that it can better serve as a central coordinating hub for the UN system. He has also instructed the geographical desks of the departments that deal with prevention, mediation and peacekeeping, as well as the department that supports such operations and missions, to co-locate. He has put together a special team to specifically look into the recommendations of the three reviews, and to advise him on how best to implement their recommendations. This team has produced a report in June, and on the basis of its recommendations the Secretary-General has put forward a reform package that will significantly adapt the UN’s peace and security pillar, with a view to it becoming more integrated and harmonized. Over the same period he has also announced management and development system reform packages. Taken together, these various reforms represent a significant system-wide effort to enhance the effectiveness and efficiency of the United Nations. It is unlikely that he would have been able to introduce such sweeping changes to the way the UN system is managed and coordinated, if the ground work was not already done through the peace operations, peacebuilding and 1325 reviews, and the subsequent political direction from UN member states reflected in the sustaining peace resolutions.

In particular, the new Secretary-General has made prevention and sustaining peace a central theme of his office. In his first statement to the UN Security Council on 10 January 2017 he noted the strong support for an integrated approach that connects development, human rights and peace and security in both the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the General Assembly and Security Council resolutions on sustaining peace. He stated that the challenge is now for the UN system to make the corresponding changes to its culture, strategy, structures and operations. He emphasized that the UN must rebalance its approach to peace and security, away from a focus on responding to conflict. He argued that “for the future, we need to do far more to prevent war and sustain peace” (Guterres, 2017).

There are several challenges that the new Secretary-General will have to address in the area of peace operations, and many of these have already been identified by the HIPPO Panel. I will highlight three in this section: (1) finding the balance between prevention and peacekeeping, (2) adapting peacekeeping to protection and stabilisation, and (4) managing the pressure from the new Trump administration in the United States to reduce its contributions to the UN, including to peacekeeping.

Prevention & Peacekeeping

As mentioned in the previous section, the new Secretary-General has made prevention a central theme of his term of office, and he has signalled that to implement the decision reached in the Security Council and the General Assembly on sustaining peace, as well as to pursue Agenda 2030, the challenge is now for the UN system to make the necessary changes to its culture, strategy, structures and operations.  This means that the UN system, and especially the Secretariat will have to identify and address those aspects of its culture, structures and operations that hinder prevention and that incentivise peacekeeping.

The most important structural impediment to prevention is the way the assessed contribution system is managed, which means that it is mainly available for peace operations that have a military component. This means that any peacekeeping operation authorised by the Security Council is automatically funded via the assessed contribution system, but if the Security Council authorises a Special Political Mission, or dispatch a special envoy, the costs must be covered by the regular budget or from voluntary funding. As a result, the UN system has turned to peacekeeping as its instrument of choice.

However, according to the principles of peacekeeping and the UN peacekeeping doctrine, missions should only be deployed once a peace agreement has been reached. This implies that peacekeeping can only be deployed in reaction to crisis. A more recent trend has been to deploy missions with a protection mandate, even when no peace agreement is in place, and although these missions aim to prevent violence against civilians, they tend to be deployed in response to an outbreak of violent conflict. As discussed earlier, they also tend not to have a political mandate. The way the system is being implemented thus serve as an incentive to deploy UN peacekeeping operations that respond to conflict, not other instruments that can work to prevent conflicts.

The peacekeeping budgeting culture links the amount of funding available for analysis, planning, prevention, peacemaking, unarmed strategies for prevention, civilian stabilisation tasks and peacebuilding, to the number of troops deployed to a mission. The more troops, the larger the mission, and the more funding there is available for the civilian tasks mentioned. The incentive is thus to deploy peacekeeping missions with large military contingents, because this is how money becomes available for the civilian political, prevention, stabilisation and peacebuilding tasks.

As a result, the UN has a peacekeeping budget of approximately US$ 7 billion in 2017/2018, whilst less than USD$ 1 billion is allocated to prevention, mediation and peacebuilding related tasks. If the UN member states are serious about prevention and sustaining peace this must change. For instance, the assessed contribution system could be utilised for all peace and security related tasks authorised by the UN Security Council. Most large financial contributors to the assessed contributions budget are concerned that such a move will increase the overall budget. However, a counter-argument is that if more funding is directed to prevention and sustaining peace there will be less need for peacekeeping, and the overall budget could in fact be reduced. Decisions regarding financial contributions to the UN are in the hands of the member states, but the Secretary-General will have to make the case for directing more funds to prevention – as he is already doing - and spell out the options for member states for how best they can do so.

Adapting peacekeeping to protection and stabilisation

As highlighted by the HIPPO Panel and mentioned earlier, there is a widening gap between what UN peacekeeping has been designed for – as reflected in its doctrine and how most Troop Contributing Countries prepare for, deploy and equip their peacekeepers – and what it is being tasked to do. The HIPPO report found that 98% of UN peacekeepers are deployed in missions that have a mandate to protect civilians.

Many of the largest UN missions, e.g. those in the CAR (MINUSCA), the DRC (MONUSCO), and Mali (MINUSMA) are stabilisation operations, that further reflect the nature of the ongoing conflict situations they find themselves in. Others, such as the missions in Darfur (UNAMID) and South Sudan (UNMISS) have protection mandates, amid ongoing conflicts, where government forces, and militias allied to the government of the day, are also placing civilians at risk and have been implicated in harm. This creates a dilemma where the UN, on the one hand, needs to maintain the consent of the host nation for its ongoing deployment in the country, whilst on the other hand the mission is tasked to protect civilians, with the use of force if necessary, including from government forces and militias. An important task for the new Secretary-General over the coming months and years will be to guide the UN Secretariat through the process of adapting its doctrine and guidance to these new realities.

Rightsizing the cost of peacekeeping

As reflected earlier in this section, the new Secretary-General has decided to make prevention one of the key themes of his term of office, and he has called for the restructuring and reorganisation of the UN system to reflect this primacy of prevention. One of the implications is that more funding should be directed to prevention, and as it is unlikely that member states will agree to a significant increase in the UN budget, this most probably implies that there will have to be reductions in other areas of the UN system. As peacekeeping make up the bulk of the contributions member states make to the UN it is most likely that savings will have to come from the peacekeeping budget. As I argued earlier in this section, one argument is that more effective prevention should result in less demand for peacekeeping, and money spent on prevention should result in reducing the peacekeeping budget. However, it remains to be seen if the member states, and especially the large financial contributors are willing to take that risk and agree to an overall increase in the assessed contribution budget, on the premise that more money invested in prevention will reduce the need for costly peacekeeping missions and thus reduce the overall assessed contribution budget. They are more likely to insist on funding prevention through upfront savings from peacekeeping expenditure.

In addition to this internal logic for reducing peacekeeping expenditure, the new Trump administration in the United States (US), and some members of the newly elected US Congress, have signalled that they want to significantly reduce the US contributions to the UN. The new US Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, has indicated that the US wants to review all UN peacekeeping operations with a view to determining their value and cost efficiency. This has resulted in pressure to downsize, drawdown and close some UN missions.

As the US contributes 28.6% of the cost of all UN peacekeeping missions in 2016, it has considerable influence on determining the scope for peacekeeping missions. The US, together with the other permanent members of the Security Council also has a veto that it can use, or threaten to use, to reduce the size and thus cost of missions. Among the other permanent members, in 2016, China contributed 10.3%, France 6.3%, the UK 5.8% and Russia 4%. Other large contributors include Japan 9.7% and Germany 6.4%. The scale of assessment is based on the size of the economies of member states.

A medium-term goal for the UN should be to develop a more sustainable burden-sharing model that does not make the international body so vulnerable to the inconsistent interests of one member state. For instance, in the African Union (AU), no member state can contribute more than 12.9%, which in effect means that approximately 7 countries, representing the largest economies in Africa, share the bulk of the burden of the AU budget. In the short-term, however, the result of the Trump administration’s effort to reduce its contributions to the UN is likely to lead to a decrease in peacekeeping spending by reducing the size of some of the current missions and by drawing down and closing others.

These twin drivers will challenge the new Secretary-General to balance the pressure to reduce costs with a credible plan for right-sizing UN peacekeeping, without leaving civilians the UN is mandated to protect exposed to greater risk, or without risking a relapse into violent conflict that could result in even greater costs for the UN downstream. Either of these outcomes – exposing civilians that need protection to greater risk or a relapse into violent conflict - will defeat the purpose of reducing the cost of peacekeeping in order to enhance prevention. 


Guterres, A. 2017. Remarks of the Secretary-General to the Security Council Open Debate on "Maintenance of International Peace and Security: Conflict Prevention and Sustaining Peace", 10 January 2017.

Mahmoud, Y. & Ó Súilleabháin, A. 2016. With New Resolutions, Sustaining Peace Sits at Heart of UN Architecture. IPI Global Observatory, accessed on 6 February 2017.

See also:


  • Peace operations
  • Conflict
  • International organizations
  • United Nations