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New book: UN Peace Operations in a Changing Global Order

In this book launch interview, editors Mateja Peter and Cedric de Coning reflect upon findings from their most recent book, identifying four global transformations and their implications for UN peace operations.
Bildet viser en FN-soldat i Mali
Foto: UN Photo
Foto: UN Photo

NUPI: The first transformation described in this book is: How is the rebalancing of relations between states of the global North and the global South impacting the UN’s decision-making, financing and ability to design operations that go beyond the minimum common denominator? Can you briefly explain what is meant by this rebalancing of these relations and provide a short answer to the question posed here?

MP: The beginning of the 21st century has been strongly influenced by a transition from a unipolar to a multipolar world. Only two decades ago countries of the global South were seen primarily as sources of instability and therefore recipients of peacekeeping missions or as providers of troops. Today many of these countries are demanding a bigger say in the decision-making in the UN Security Council, influencing also the design of UN peace operations. States from the global South also use regional organisations to amplify their voices. We can speak of several centres of power and these are not uniquely concentrated in the global North anymore. Such diffusion of power brings more diverse positions to the table, making it more difficult to agree on expansive post-conflict mandates which marked the early post-Cold War era. Liberal peacebuilding is on retreat and we’re seeing more pragmatic operations, focusing on basic security and protection of civilians.  

CdC: To illustrate Mateja’s point, at the end of the 20th century, most UN peacekeepers were engaged in implementing comprehensive peace agreements, which typically included initiatives aimed at democratizing the political process, introducing civilian control over security services and aligning constitutions, legislation and public institutions with human rights. Today, only a decade and half into the 21st century, most UN peace operations – including those in CAR, DRC, Mali and South Sudan - have undergone a significant phase-shift and are now focused on stabilisation and protection of civilian roles.

NUPI: You relate the second transformation to the rise of regional organisations as providers of peace. Do you have an example to illustrate this rise? And what implications does this have for UN and UN peace operations?

CdC: The two most striking examples are the African Union and the European Union. Both have invested in strengthening their ability to deploy mediators and special envoys, and their ability to deploy peace support or crisis-management operations. In the process both have developed their own unique approaches to peace operations. In Africa the emerging model is that the African-led operations act as first responders whilst UN peacekeeping follow-up with peace consolidation missions. The EU tend to specialize in Security Sector Reform, train-and-equip and Rule of Law missions.

Typically, some form of AU, EU and UN operations co-exist, and it is not uncommon that there may also be other forces active in the same country, such as the French and G5 Sahel in Mali or the USA in Somalia.  These adaptations of the UN peacekeeping model are contributing to an evolution of the international peace and security architecture. In the past, the UN was the sole internationally recognised actor when it came to maintaining international peace and security. In the future, regional organisations like the AU and EU are likely to take primary responsibility for maintaining peace and security in their own regions and immediate neighbourhood. The implication is that a new global peace and security architecture is emerging, where the UN, together with regional organisations, where they exist and are capable, are co-managing international peace and security.

MP: Over the last two decades, due to both stalemates in the UN Security Council and the changing nature of conflicts, regional organisations, both from the global North and South, frequently became the first responders. The most striking of these is still the 1999 intervention in Kosovo, where the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) responded to an escalating humanitarian crisis despite objections from Russia and China.

Other regional organisations’ missions, from Somalia to the Central African Republic and Mali, as a rule, received prior authorisation from the UNSC. With a notable exception of Libya, the UNSC authorisation now tends to follow a host state invitation to a regional organisation. The host states are often not seeking an impartial actor, but one that can deal with their internal problems efficiently. Responses to contemporary conflicts are increasingly robust and regional organisations are better equipped than the UN to execute them. But more and more it is not just the efficiency but also the legitimacy of the regional organisation over the UN that plays the role in the determination of an intervening actor. Sudan, for example, refused a deployment of a pure UN peacekeeping operation to Darfur and instead agreed to a joint United Nations–African Union Mission in Darfur. What this means for the primacy of the UN, as enshrined in the UN Charter, remains to be seen.

NUPI: How have violent extremists and fundamentalists changed UN Peace operations? If relevant:  What may be the implications of this change for civilians living in peace operations areas?

MP: UN peace operations are increasingly deployed to areas populated by what are deemed as illegitimate non-state actors. Groups such as ISIS in Iraq and Syria, Al-Shabaab in Somalia, al-Qaeda−affiliated groups in northern Mali, Boko Haram from Nigeria, the Lord’s Resistance Army from Uganda or the M23 militia in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) are rewriting the rules of war. These groups are not seen only as spoilers of peace agreement (a term coined by S.J. Stedman in 1997). They are seen as – what I call –  antithetical to peace agreements: neither they nor the broader international community are interested in peace agreements that would include them.

The scale and nature of their atrocities in their regions of origin and the fact that many of them have a global reach through terrorist activities, makes the UN Security Council, unlikely to allow them any legitimate claims. However, the Council is often at odds about the kind of action that should be taken to address their rise, something we have best seen in Syria. In other regions, where the permanent members of the UNSC have less polarising positions, UNSC responses indicate a new trend in interventions. Whether conducted through UN peacekeeping operations, such as in Mali, the DRC and the CAR, or through regional organisations, such as in Somalia or through the Multinational Joint Task Force against Boko Haram, international responses are increasingly robust.

CdC: In this book, John Karlsrud, argues that the UN is neither principally nor operationally set up to fight terrorist groups by force. The 2015 High Level Peace Operations Panel found that UN peacekeeping missions, due to their composition and character, are not suited to engage in military counter-terrorism operations. They lack the specific equipment, intelligence, logistics, capabilities and specialized military preparation required, among other aspects. Kari Osland also points out in her chapter that the UN may be better served with a greater emphasis on trust-building in the local police rather than continued focus on the security aspects of their task. Coalitions of the willing, and in some instances regional organisations, seem to be the only mechanisms with the requisite political will, capabilities and staying power to conduct counter-terrorism operations. The comparative advantage of the UN lies in its convening power and impartiality, and its ability to provide and coordinate comprehensive support across the spectrum from its peace and security, development, and human rights pillars. The implications for the future of UN peace operations are that they are likely to be deployed in countries and regions where violent extremism and transnational organised crimes are dominant features of the security landscape. However, it is unlikely that UN peace operations will be mandated to undertake counter-terror operations.

NUPI: The book mentions a more pragmatic era of UN peace operations. What does this mean in practice? Can you give an example on such more pragmatic UN peace operations? Does this change of direction have any positive/negative consequences?

CdC: In the unipolar era, UN peacekeeping were used as a tool to promote a specific type of neo-liberal state. We argue that it is unlikely, in the context of a changing global order, that the member states of the UN will agree on a common normative approach. In future, UN peace operations are more likely to encourage home-grown or self-determined models for peace- and state-building. It is also likely that UN peace operations will be tasked to concentrate more on physical security, law and order and the political dimensions of conflict management, and this trend is already underway.

MP: UN peace operations deployed over the last decade have less normative, transformational ambitions than those deployed two decades ago. Operations are focused on basic security and protection of civilians, many are also supporting governments which would likely collapse without them. UN peacekeeping today is all about managing the conflict, not resolving it. We say in the book that conflict resolution has given way to conflict management. This is not to say that the international community and the UN are not involved in attempting to find political solutions for contemporary crises, although these often result in great disagreements. But UN peacekeeping missions are moving away from their liberal peacebuilding model, which was premised on the idea that strengthening states and their institutions will lead to entrenchment of peace in the long run. One direct consequence of this shift is that exits for these missions will be more difficult.  

NUPI: In the book, you discuss how the struggle between the promotion of liberal international norms and realist security concerns is shaping contemporary UN peace operations. Could you elaborate on the tension between people-centred approaches and state-centred ones? How is the UN balancing the two?

MP: This question is in my mind the core dilemma that the United Nations will need to resolve if it wants to remain relevant for member states and at the same time legitimate in the eyes of the people, both in areas of intervention and beyond. In an ideal world, what is good for the states would be the same as what is good for the people and people-centred approaches would not have to live in a tension with state-centred ones. The fear – and not an unwarranted one – today is that UN peace operations are primarily deployed to contain conflicts to their regions of origin. Peacekeepers therefore become dependent on governments who don’t necessarily prioritise the wellbeing of their people, which in turn makes it more difficult for UN peacekeepers to prioritise people themselves. While liberal peacebuilding was in many ways flawed as it tried to build sustainable peace through fixing the institutions, it at least promoted the idea that state institutions need to be accountable to the people they serve.

We as individuals have also come to expect that international interveners should promote human security, not just that of states. Protecting civilians, including from state authorities, should now not be negotiable for peacekeepers. That is the bare minimum and if UN peace operations systematically fail in this task, they will lose their legitimacy. Beyond that, there is an increasing recognition that sustainable peace requires a broader buy-in from local communities and ordinary citizens. Community engagement – which is central for a long-term success – is today not seen as a strategic priority for the UN Security Council. In practice, it therefore tends to be sacrificed for stability, which might include strengthening and extending authority of unaccountable states. The balance in peacekeeping mandates now strongly tips towards state-centric approaches, and that to me is a folly, both on a human and a strategic level.      

CdC: In addition, I would add that as Youssef Mahmoud points out in his chapter in this volume, reaching out to people and engaging with local communities and ordinary citizens are common practices in many peace operations. However, these practices tended to take the form of ad hoc activities, without sufficient strategic focus or intent. There is now a growing recognition at the UN that for peace to be self-sustainable, it has to emerge from local social processes and it has to build on the social resilience that is already present in societies and communities. UN peace operations thus have to develop new tools and capacities to engage not only with the state, but also with societies, communities and individual people.

The pressure on UN peace operations to become more people-centred are thus likely to be irreversible and relentless.  There are many ways in which UN peace operations can become more people-centred, including by involving representative advisory groups from civil society and local communities in assessments, analysis, planning, implementation, and evaluation, so as to ensure continuous direct input and feedback from the society on the work of the peace operation.

NUPI: Where should and will UN peace operations go from here?

CdC: In light of the uncertainty that the turbulence of a changing global order generates, and the lack of global trust that other security regimes like NATO suffer from, the UN Security Council and UN peace operations, despite their shortcomings, are likely to remain the most credible and reliable international instruments for maintaining international peace and security. I recently returned from South Sudan and I was struck by how, despite all the tensions globally, in the UN mission peacekeepers from China, America, Russia, Ukraine, India and Pakistan, to name a few, worked side-by-side for peace in South Sudan. UN peacekeeping is a powerful reminder, of what global cooperation means in practice. More than a million women and men from more than 125 countries have served in UN peacekeeping operations over the past 70 years. The changes we experience in the global order are likely to only increase the importance of the UN and of UN peacekeeping.


  • Peace operations
  • Conflict
  • International organizations
  • United Nations