Structural Barriers to Military Effectiveness
In a written submission to the HIPPO in March 2015, some twenty former UN Force Commanders offered a series of detailed recommendations whose implementation would, in their view, help ensure “success in future peace operations
.” Penned by Robert Mood, a respected officer with extensive UN experience, the letter stressed the need for “strengthened command and control, improved preparedness and mission design, use of modern technology, enhanced capabilities, improved mission information, and strengthened logistics and support” (Mood 2015). Designed to address long-standing capacity gaps and impediments to operational effectiveness, the proposals ranged widely. Unsurprisingly, given the breath of experiences shared by the signatories to the letter, the recommendations also made good operational sense.
To any long-time observer of UN field operations, however, very few of the deficiencies that the letter sought to address were fundamentally new. The haphazard and unreliable provision of key capacities and force enablers, notably in logistics, intelligence
, engineering, aviation support, and reserves; the persistence of complex and cumbersome regulations governing finance, procurement, and human resources; the challenges of force generation and speed of deployment; and the “dysfunctional” nature of relations between the UN in New York and field headquarters, have all long plagued UN peacekeeping
.Footnote 5 They have also proved remarkably resistant, if not entirely impervious, to substantive reform. The UN’s system of human resources management—a distinctly unglamorous but nonetheless critically important area if one is
genuinely concerned about improving the effectiveness of UN field operations—illustrates the nature of the problem.
The system was originally set up to cater for a largely static and headquarters-oriented organisation, employing career civil servants primarily engaged in providing administrative support for conferences and meetings among member states. In short, it was emphatically not designed for an organisation where, at present, more than 50 percent of secretariat staff is
deployed on operations, many of which require a diverse and complex mix of technical expertise. And yet, the original model and the rules and regulations that go with it, have “never been fundamentally overhauled” (Chandran and von Einsiedel 2016, p. 3). In the words of Chandran and von Einsiedel, seasoned observers of the UN scene, “it has proven impossible, again and again, to design a recruitment system that can both satisfy the process requirements for UN headquarters recruitment, while also supporting large, fast-moving field operations.”Footnote 6 The failure to address these challenges, then, is
not new, nor is
there a shortage of ideas about how best to tackle them. The problem lies elsewhere: the bureaucratic and, above all, political obstacles to meaningful reform have simply proved too powerful. Indeed, according to the HIPPO, “in operating environments that demand more tailored and flexible UN peace operations
it appears that human resources policies may be moving in the opposite direction” (UN 2015, para. 296).
None of this is
to suggest that practical efforts to improve the machinery and the effective functioning of UN peacekeeping
should be abandoned, nor is
it to suggest that previous reform initiatives have all come to naught. Following the recommendations of the Brahimi Panel in 2000, for example, the Secretariat was given greater authority to spend money early in the planning stages of a mission, and important steps were taken to pre-position strategic stocks to ensure more rapid deployment of peacekeepers to the field (Durch et al. 2003). Both were genuinely valuable steps aimed at improving the day-to-day running and conduct of operations. Even so, there remains a natural limit—insufficiently recognised in much of literature on UN reform
SeeAlsoSeeAlsopeace operations funding
, including that generated by the Secretariat itselfFootnote 7—to which the weaknesses and deficiencies that have historically characterised UN field operations can ever be more than partially mitigated, let alone overcome. The reason for this lies, as noted above, with the intergovernmental and intensely political nature of the organisation, which will always limit the degree to which a UN Force can work as a truly integrated, cohesive, and effective military force. The implications for the conduct of operations are best illustrated by the perennial challenge of command and control in UN operations.
In their submission to the HIPPO, the former Force Commanders stressed the importance of “One mandate – one mission – one concept,” noting that the key to mandate implementation lay in “unity of command under the authority of the SRSG
/Head of Mission” (Mood 2015). This insistence on a single chain of command and on maintaining the international character of any UN Force, is
not new; indeed, it has been presented as a sine qua non of effective UN peacekeeping
since its beginning in the 1950s. And yet, it has always come up against the reality of conflicting national priorities, risk-aversion among troop-contributing countries (TCCs), and uncertain loyalty from contingents, factors that have translated into the adoption, spoken or unspoken, of national caveats and a penchant for interfering in the UN chain of command. This has been the case especially when the perceived risks to peacekeepers have been high, and when questions regarding the use of force have been involved. Even so, as long as the peacekeeping
environment has proved generally benign, and support from a united Security Council has been in place, UN missions have historically been able to function (with greater of lesser degree of effectiveness) notwithstanding continuing capacity gaps and weaknesses in command and control. Managing such inherent tensions has been a major role of Force Commanders and heads of mission. Indeed, their ability—through improvisation, ingenuity, and flexibility in mandate interpretation—to surmount and work around challenges thrown up by limited resources and a less than optimal system of administrative, managerial, and political support, is
among the most important (and under-appreciated) qualities of mission leadership in UN operations.Footnote 8
Developments over the past decade and a half, however, have placed altogether new strains on UN peacekeeping
, posing challenges not only for mission leadership but to the very viability of missions themselves. A cursory survey of the five largest UN missions underway in early 2017—accounting for more than 80,000 out of a total of some 115,000 peacekeepers deployed on 16 missions worldwide—shows that operating environments are now, as a general rule, anything but stable and benign.Footnote 9 Instead, they typically include a combination or all of the following characteristics: the absence of clear front lines; vast geographical distances amidst war-ravaged, even non-existent, infrastructure; the presence of large numbers of internally displaced; numerous armed groups, often poorly controlled and prone to preying on civilians; and persistent insecurity and on-going violence fuelled by both predatory political economies and power struggles among political elites. Now, the deployment of peacekeepers with a mandate to protect civilians and the authority to engage in robust peacekeeping
conditions, have had two, partly conflicting, consequences.
First, these conditions have plainly heightened the operational importance of ensuring that UN missions actually do function as cohesive and integrated formations, properly resourced and with the most critical weaknesses—in the areas of tactical mobility, logistics support, and intelligence
capacity—addressed. Of these weaknesses, arguably the most urgent requirement, given the non-permissive and volatile nature of contemporary peacekeeping
environments, has proved to be the need for more systematic intelligence
collection, assessment, and conflict analysis capacities by UN missions, the lack of which in zones of conflict has critically undermined attempts to grapple with underlying political economies of conflict and the way in which these often drive violence and encourage predation against civilian populations.Footnote 10 As noted above, however, plugging such capacity gaps has proved difficult to achieve even in the best of circumstances. The result when it comes to POC, as the Brahimi Panel Report perceptively foresaw back in 2000, has been to create a very “large mismatch between desired objective and resources available to meet it,” as well as to guarantee “continuing disappointment with United Nations follow through in this area [of civilian protection]” (UN 2000, para. 63).
Second, these very conditions have also heightened differences among TCCs about how mandates should be interpreted and, specifically, over attitudes to the use of force. This, again, has further undermined efforts to achieve Force cohesion and unity of purpose, in many cases pushing the mission beyond the “outer limits for UN peacekeeping
[as] defined by their composition, character and inherent capability limitations” (UN 2015, p. x). Significantly, TCCs that now provide the bulk of peacekeepers, India
, and Pakistan
, as well as many contributors from Latin America
, remain deeply sceptical of the trend in favour of more robust use of force by UN peacekeepers (Modi 2015).
Limitations to the Third-Party Use of Force in Conditions of Civil War and Internal Conflict
The second set of limitations to the use of force connects still more directly to the context of internal conflict. A UN peacekeeping
force that is
deployed within the jurisdiction of a sovereign state where the host government is
faced with internal challenges to its authority will, over time, find it increasingly difficult to remain above the domestic political fray, however much it may formally aspire to do so. Alan James, writing about the UN’s involvement in Congo in the early 1960s, pinpointed the elemental reason for this: “On an internal scene a government is but one of the actors; in one degree or another the political balance is
likely to be in constant movement; and the way in which a UN force responds may well have some impact on the balance, or – which in effect comes to the same thing – be seen as shifting the balance” (James 1994, p. 46). For UN peacekeepers to take the initiative in the use of force—especially, but not merely, when force is used in support of the host government—cannot but have an impact on that political balance, and will also affect the military and political calculations of other conflict actors. As such, it runs the risk of undermining the UN’s chief asset as an interlocutor in internal conflicts and the search for political solutions: its perceived impartiality in relation to major disputants. In the words of Jean Marie Guéhenno
, reflecting on the UN’s post-Cold War experience in Congo:
…if the UN becomes the auxiliary of a government
and representativeness is
still questioned, it may lose not only its military but its political legitimacy
, putting at risk what is
potentially it most valuable contribution: the capacity to foster compromise among various groups as the indispensable base of lasting peace. (Guéhenno 2015, p. 147)
The UN’s Congo experience highlights another inescapable risk associated with the enforced and prolonged proximity of UN missions to host governments in situations of on-going internal conflict. In all such cases, even if consent for the UN’s presence remains formally in place, relations between missions and host governments have tended to deteriorate as host governments—often weak and beset by internal challenges, suspicious of outside meddling and protective of their sovereign rights—become ever more resentful of obstacles to their unfettered control over internal affairs. When, as is
now overwhelmingly the case, the mandates given to UN missions are themselves politically intrusive and include potentially conflicting objectives, tensions have only been further heightened, with the result that both the credibility and leverage of UN missions have dwindled over time. Perhaps nowhere has this dynamic been more evident than in the DRC
and South Sudan
where the UN has been charged with protecting civilians as well as with monitoring government observance with human rights obligations and supporting security sector reform
, and yet where, in both cases, government security forces have proved to be major sources of violence against civilians. Indeed, according to the UN’s own reporting “the Congolese state was responsible for roughly 65% of the human rights violations [in 2016], and in many parts of the country the army is
seen by local communities as the most dangerous armed group
” (Day 2017, p. 2). Reviewing the period before the eruption of full-scale civil war
in December 2013, an assessment of the UN Mission in South Sudan
(UNMISS) concluded that “intractable problems, near-impossible dilemmas and difficult trade-offs will be a constant, especially given its decision to take on multiple, at times, conflicting roles” (Hemmer 2013, p. 8; da Costa and de Coning
2015). It is
a finding equally applicable to other operations where the UN is
deployed in intrastate settings in the absence of a viable political process.