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Comment & analysis

Counterterrorism in disguise? Does a shift towards 'peace enforcement' spell a death knell for UN peacekeeping?

20 December 2023 Jordan Street Counterterrorism in disguise? Does a shift towards 'peace enforcement' spell a death knell for UN peacekeeping?

This article was originally published by Just Security.

The United Nations Security Council is expected to pass a new resolution this month that would for the first time allow the U.N. to use assessed budget contributions (member dues) to fund African Union peace support operations. After many years of failed attempts, African member States appear to have convinced the United States, a long-standing skeptic of such a resolution, to soften its stance. But the implications of this decision will be far greater than a new funding agreement.

AU peace support missions are primarily “peace enforcement” missions, a model involving the use of force against combatants that usually includes heavy counterterrorism elements, unlike U.N. peacekeeping missions, which are intended to preserve an existing peace or support nascent peace processes. As such, granting core U.N. budget resources to AU missions that at times veer closer to fighting war than to keeping peace, will be a stark departure from current practice. If passed, the resolution could work in tandem with other factors — notably the support for a shift to “peace enforcement” from the U.N. Secretary-General — to spell the beginning of the end of U.N. peacekeeping and further the dramatic rise of counterterrorism within the institution.

Up until now, the U.N. Security Council has understood peacekeeping missions as non-enforcement tools that are designed to create space for a sustainable political solution to crises that would recur otherwise, and that it is not the role of such missions to use military force to restore or “enforce” peace on violent groups or conflict parties. This was a clear conclusion of the High-Level Panel on Peace Operations in 2015 and still rings true today. U.N. Security Council member States that wish to protect the U.N.’s core peacekeeping doctrine, as well as its offerings on peacebuilding, human rights, and the protection of civilians, still have considerable leverage to ensure that a Security Council resolution on financing for AU-led operations does not tilt the U.N. overly towards counterterrorism-oriented peace enforcement.

The AU Push for UN-Assessed Contributions

This resolution comes to the table during an unprecedented year for the United Nations, when the Security Council has been informed by three African host states that the mandated U.N. peacekeeping operations in their countries should depart. The U.N. Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), the U.N. Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO), the U.N. Integrated Transition Assistance Mission in Sudan (UNITAMS) have all been terminated by host nations in 2023, the latter just last month. The reported presence and growing influence of Russia’s Wagner Group in each country has raised questions as to its role in decisions to oust U.N. peacekeeping missions.

It remains unclear how these dynamics may have played into the apparent U.S. shift in position in favor of a resolution to fund AU peace support missions. The Biden administration may see the resolution as a means to further curry favor with influential African States in the context of competition with Russia. Another possibility is that the United States may see the resolution as a way to achieve counterterrorism objectives while offloading operations to the AU.

The AU has long held the view that if the U.N. Security Council mandates (or welcomes) AU peace support operations, then U.N. members also should assure the funding for such missions. Sustainable and predictable financing for peace support missions is viewed as a holy grail by the AU, which in the past has had serious concerns about bilateral donors cutting off funding and troop-contributing countries withdrawing forces.

If the new resolution is passed, the move to using assessed contributions will make it more politically and procedurally difficult to end funding for an AU mission that has lost the confidence of Security Council members. Over the past few years, U.N. member States from Africa have agitated for a Security Council resolution, but the United States has consistently opposed efforts to explicitly agree to fund AU peace support operations, citing concerns about human rights standards, financial transparency, and the conduct and discipline of troops. It is possible that the United States might now be satisfied with recent AU efforts to address their expressed concerns. But it’s also possible that the Biden administration is looking for new solutions to address evolving political dynamics in Africa.

Moving the U.N. Toward AU Peace Support Missions and `Peace Enforcement’

Broader financial strain on the U.N. system may also have influenced a change in rhetoric from U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres, who has been more forceful in his support for African Union-led peace enforcement missions, and more vocal about his views on the limitations of peacekeeping. And in the most significant policy document from the U.N. on peace and security policy in 2023, Guterres’ New Agenda for Peace, he rhetorically elevated the concept of peace enforcement to a level equal with peacekeeping. One of the five main recommendations in this document was “strengthening peace operations and addressing peace enforcement,” with the full wording clearly showing that peace enforcement is central to his vision for the U.N.’s future offering on peace and security. The forthcoming Security Council resolution on AU-led operations would not only reduce the drain on U.N. coffers (If a new generation of AU support missions are mandated and funded by U.N. assessed contributions, then the level of U.N. assessed contributions must stay high), but also may help facilitate a move in that direction.

Another key part of the story is the rise of counterterrorism within the U.N. during Guterres’ tenure. In 2020, I noted with a co-author for my peacebuilding organization, Saferworld, that based on trends at the time, counterterrorism could become the fourth pillar of the United Nations, after the three founding pillars of peace and security, human rights, and development. Arguably, that has already happened. As a former colleague outlined on this site, the U.N. Office of Counterterrorism, in just the six years since its founding, has dramatically expanded its influence. If member States approve the proposed U.N. budget at the end of this year, the U.N. Office of Counterterrorism will have 57 staff members in the U.N.-assessed budget in 2024, compared with just 7 centrally funded staff positions when the office was formed in 2017. It soon will be three times the size of the U.N.’s Peacebuilding Support Office (with 17 staff positions).

With Guterres’ embrace of peace enforcement, the concern about a fourth pillar might instead be replaced by the U.N. counterterrorism architecture muscling in on the organization’s wider peace and security pillar. If the Security Council resolution passes and U.N. funding begins to flow to AU peace enforcement missions with counterterrorism mandates, the argument might well be made by U.N. leadership to bolster the U.N.’s own resources, capacities, and capabilities to support the AU. Indeed, in the aforementioned New Agenda for Peace, a specific recommendation calls for the “appropriate expertise to support counterterrorism operations through the creation of strategic action groups with support from the United Nations Global Counter-Terrorism Coordination Compact.”  Whilst the U.N. Office of Counterterrorism does not currently have the mandate, staffing structure, or expertise to provide support to AU peace enforcement operations, it is not out of the realm of possibility that the office will argue for that in future budget requests.

Is Peace Enforcement Compatible with U.N. Doctrine?

It is true that the U.N. has, on occasion, strayed into peace enforcement territory – notably through the Force Intervention Brigade (FIB) in the Democratic Republic of Congo in the MONUSCO mandate. Yet most peace enforcement missions have been led by either individual states (France’s Operation Barkhane in Mali), regional organizations (ECOWAS in Liberia) or coalitions of states (The G5 Sahel Force across the Sahelian region of West and Central Africa). The U.N.’s closest flirtation with support for AU peace enforcement missions was in Somalia. In 2007, the Security Council mandated the AU Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and provided operational support for the mission to carry out its mandate.

Supporters of “peace enforcement” suggest that U.N. peacekeeping missions are not suited to address trends emerging in conflicts across Africa. U.N. peacekeeping doctrine is incompatible with counter-terrorism, for example, making many current conflicts featuring violent groups using terror tactics beyond the reach of traditional U.N. deployments. U.N. peacekeeping doctrine is founded on the consent of host states, impartiality, and non-use of force, which would be contradicted by any offensive mandate. Maintaining impartiality is of fundamental importance if the goal is to promote sustainable political solutions that prevent further cycles of violence. Peace enforcement, with its coercive dimension, jeopardizes the impartiality needed to achieve this goal.

Further, if the U.N. embraces the use of force to combat “terrorist” groups, the risk of aiding a mission responsible for human rights violations is high. By financing these operations, the U.N. could indirectly perpetuate or exacerbate conflict in the same manner as many international counterterrorism responses have over the past two decades. Even limited support to non-U.N. counterterrorism and military missions with funding, logistics, or intelligence risks making the U.N. a conflict driver and complicit in any resulting human rights abuses. The U.N. should also be extremely careful about how conflict actors are labeled and targeted in peace support operations, given that many States have branded groups as “terrorist” in bad faith, in order to crack down on civil society and open debate. If unmitigated, this pattern risks “blue-washing” State-led counterterrorism actions that abuse human rights and foment further violent conflict.

Even if U.N. leadership feels that it can navigate these risks, they should understand the perils of providing U.N. funding to a non-U.N. force. AU operations are not guided by the same robust human rights due diligence policy, civilian protection mandate, or Code of Personal Conduct for Blue Helmets. While the AU has taken steps to make progress on these core issues at a policy level, some argue there is still a considerable challenge in implementation. Additionally, AU operations are not guided by the same transparency and reporting requirements as their U.N. counterparts. Incidents of U.N. peacekeeping casualties and fatalities are publicly released, but for AU operations, this responsibility is passed onto individual troop-contributing countries. In practice this means figures are rarely released. There are no public assessments, for instance, detailing how many AU troops were injured or killed in Somalia during the AMISOM years.

Notwithstanding the incompatibility with peacekeeping doctrine or the concerns with AU operational conduct, perhaps a more significant issue is that evidence clearly shows that peace enforcement has had very limited success. Recent research by the peacebuilding organization Interpeace found that despite their stated intentions, the peace enforcement components of stabilization interventions regularly result in increased violence against civilians, through both indirect (i.e. blowback by violent groups) or direct (as a result of state or international counterterrorism operations) impact. One need not look beyond the international response to violent conflict in the Sahel to find an illustrative example of these failings.

The poor track record of peace enforcement missions and their limitations should not be glossed over by the U.N. Secretary-General when calling for a “new generation of peace enforcement missions.” Further, while it is clear there are limitations for U.N. peacekeeping, peace enforcement missions are by no means a panacea. In fact, contrary to persistent public criticism, research on U.N. peacekeeping operations shows how effective they have been over the past few decades in bringing armed groups to the negotiating table and proactively protecting civilians from mass atrocities. Rather than looking elsewhere, U.N. leadership should put more energy into making the case for U.N. peacekeeping.

Potential Guardrails Amid Acceleration?

Regardless of whether the upcoming draft resolution passes or not, the practice of peace enforcement will not replace peacekeeping immediately, nor will the U.N. Office of Counterterrorism be elevated to the level of the U.N. Department of Peace Operations overnight. In fact, given many within the U.N. Department of Peace Operations have already advised leadership against the embrace of peace enforcement, it is likely that it will continue to receive internal pushback. Other influential voices within the U.N. system, such as the former U.N. Special Rapporteur on protecting human rights and countering terrorism, have focused attention on making the case for the U.N. to protect its peace agenda in the context of mission creep from the counterterrorism architecture. Yet, with the Secretary-General’s embrace of the term in his New Agenda for Peace, the course is set to tilt the U.N. further in that direction over time. A new Security Council resolution may solidify or accelerate that shift, opening opportunities for further U.N. resources to be used indirectly to further the peace enforcement agenda.

There are still ways for States to protect against this unwanted shift. First, States can insert a strong reassertion within the resolution that the U.N. Security Council remains committed to protecting the core peacekeeping doctrine. The language should further note that the U.N. itself should not conduct peace enforcement or counterterrorism operations. Second, States can limit funding to AU peace support operations only to U.N. Security Council-mandated operations, with the condition that funding can and will be suspended unless the operations are fully consistent with the U.N.’s guiding principles and policies, including adherence to the Human Rights Due Diligence Policy and the presence of a political strategy for each mission. Finally, a sunset clause (a time-bound period of 2-5 years for the resolution to be enforceable) should be inserted in the new resolution. This would allow a trial period for financing of AU peace support operations but allow for a break if the arrangement becomes undesirable or the AU does not live up to its side of the bargain. A sunset clause could help ward against the encroachment of peace enforcement into U.N. policy and practice, if matched with a strong reassertion on the primacy of U.N. peacekeeping doctrine.

As a contribution to the U.N. Department of Peace Operation’s Future of Peacekeeping project in 2021, Larry Attree and I argued that U.N. leadership needed to reassert a strong peacekeeping doctrine to define a role for the U.N. that is transparent about what the operational boundaries are to maintain separation from counterterrorism activities, but which carves a needed role as a peacebuilder, -maker and -keeper. U.N. Security Council acceptance of funding for AU peace support operations and a wider shift at the U.N. towards peace enforcement risks the realization of concerns that the U.N.’s offering on peace and security becomes a series of lowest-common denominator efforts to support regional stabilization, regime protection, and counterterror missions, in cooperation with illiberal and abusive partners. It is incumbent on current U.N. Security Council members to take steps to avoid this, and for the wider U.N. membership to push back against other efforts to bring peace enforcement into the U.N.’s offering on peace and security.

Photo: Peacekeepers from Niger serving with MINUSMA provide security in Mali. UN Photo/Harandane Dicko