Strengthening community engagement in United Nations peace operations: opportunities and challenges

Published: 15 Nov 2016

Strengthening and deepening engagement with communities in United Nations (UN) peace operations has emerged as a key priority among high-level reviews of the UN system. The report of the High-level Independent Panel on Peace Operations (HIPPO), the report of the Advisory Group of Experts (AGE) for the Review of the UN Peacebuilding Architecture, the Global Study on the Implementation of Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security, as well as the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, have all emphasised the need to develop bottom-up, people-centred approaches. Across the board, there is a renewed commitment to support constructive state-society relations through inclusive, nationally and locally owned, broad-based, consultative processes.

This consensus has come to the fore amidst growing criticisms that the UN remains too state-centric, that it applies predefined peacebuilding templates to diverse contexts and that it increasingly leans on military solutions over political ones. Existing practices often alienate and marginalise the local people whom missions are mandated to serve, and risk “perpetuating exclusion”.1 The renewed resolve to “put people first” is a welcome commitment on the part of the UN, but as a policy commitment, it represents nothing new. What the review processes revealed is that the UN is still not doing enough to ensure local people play an active role in deciding the roadmap to peace. This article highlights the opportunities, challenges and trade-offs peacekeepers have to face when deciding when, who and how to engage with people effectively at the field level. It argues that by integrating bottom-up and people-centric approaches as a core strategy in peace operations, UN practices can be more sensitive and responsive to local people. This will be more realistic if existing practices are incorporated into a coherent strategy, and if communities are involved systematically in decision-making.