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UN’s African peacekeeping missions face legitimacy crisis

Pretoria News logo Pretoria News 2022/08/07 Opinion

By Njali Dayal

Last week, at least 15 people died in protests demanding that UN peacekeepers leave the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The week before, the military junta ruling Mali halted troop rotations for the UN mission there and ejected the mission’s deputy spokesperson.

These incidents highlight the deep-seated crises of consent and legitimacy unfolding in these missions. The UN mission in the DRC – Monusco (Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo) – has the government’s weak consent to operate and wield force, but it has failed to build legitimacy and consent among the ordinary people who are most affected by the conflict.

The government has been trying to get the mission to leave since 2010, and the UN has been in the process of drawing the mission down since 2020. Protesters, meanwhile, say they want the UN to leave because it has failed to protect civilians.

This week, UN peacekeepers returning to the mission from their home country opened fire on a crowd, killing two people and injuring others – a serious incident that drew the UN Secretariat’s outrage and seems likely to accelerate demands for the mission’s departure.

In Mali, government consent for the Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (Minusma) that began in 2013 soured following a 2020 military coup. A recent mandate renewal initially stalled over how freely the mission could move in the country, and over how to manage the reported increase in the Malian armed forces’ alleged human rights violations.

Blue helmets in Mali today are operating in a political context that their mandate is not suited for, with decreasing benefit to the civilian population and at great risk to themselves: for eight consecutive years, Minusma has been the deadliest mission in the world for peacekeepers.

Protests in the DRC highlight how the consent of people, not just the state, is central to UN peace operations’ effective work, while turmoil over the terms of Minusma’s deployment highlights how political questions, not the exercise of force, remain at the heart of peace operations.

If UN member states want multidimensional peacekeeping operations to survive the next few decades, then they should authorise peace operations that build consent and support for peace and for their presence and goals at multiple levels – including the state and its people – and draft mandates that are anchored in meaningful, context-sensitive political processes that centre diplomatic and humanitarian goals.

UN peace operations are the most prominent contemporary tool for multilateral conflict management worldwide, and historically they’ve distinguished themselves from other kinds of military interventions by adhering to three core principles:

* Consent of the warring parties.

* Impartiality.

* The limited use of force.

Monusco and Minusma, as well as Minusca, the UN mission in the Central African Republic (CAR), are robust peace operations with stabilisation mandates. Unlike older missions that focus on upholding peace agreements between warring parties, Monusco, Minusma, and Minusca are all charged with helping the state government manage violent challengers and assert its primacy.

In these missions, the UN is explicitly intervening on the side of the state, and peacekeepers are charged with using force in defence of state authority. As Mona Ali Khalil argues, peace operations that undertake offensive military action challenge the principles of impartiality and the limited use of force, leaving only consent to distinguish UN operations from other kinds of military interventions.

Consequently, whose consent matters a great deal. Traditionally, consent is based on the approval of the host government, even when the state is a prominent violator of its population’s human rights. While Monusco today operates with the Congolese government’s consent, whether the Congolese people consent is less clear.

The mission has failed to address the security concerns of people in the Eastern DRC – as Edgar Mateso, a civil society leader from North Kivu, told The New Humanitarian last month, “for decades, we have known several international forces deployed in Congo in the context of peacekeeping operations… (Yet) nothing has changed on the ground”.

Aspirationally, the UN’s interventions are undertaken in service of people, not just states. In one interpretation, a whole body of international obligations descends from the UN charter’s declaration that the peoples of the UN, not the states, enter into a compact to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.

In this interpretation, the UN’s work is not simply about upholding the sovereignty and preferences of member states, but about the safety, dignity, and protection of people – ideas that are reflected in the mandate to protect civilians that each multidimensional mission authorised since 1999 has received.

Practically, local activists and scholars alike have argued that peace only takes root when international actors invest in local communities, and when political solutions that centre the concerns of local people have space and time to develop.

Missions that centre the state’s security instead of the will and safety of people make these local solutions more distant, and explicitly make peacekeepers yet another potential source of violence in places already rife with threats to ordinary people.

This more securitised, coercive version of peace operations runs against the vision of UN peacekeeping and peacebuilding that emphasises the “primacy of politics”.

The missions to DRC, Mali, and CAR, on the other hand, act with the host state’s consent explicitly in order to uphold and extend the state’s power, often working alongside state forces to counter groups that the state has identified as insurgents.

In Mali, Minusma’s sustainability was in question long before the military coups: as the UN Secretary General’s 2018 report noted, an independent review of the mission that year concluded it “faced a dilemma between the need to reform and reconstitute the Malian defence and security forces and simultaneously support the existing forces in addressing the current situation of stability,” and that only a “key regional political framework” made the mission’s goals achievable.

Today, the mission cannot move freely; investigate alleged human rights atrocities; or rotate troops, and while an underlying political process exists on paper, it is fraught in practice.

Moreover, the instability of regional security arrangements raises further questions for the mission’s ability to implement its mandate. Minusma has depended on and contributed to formal French, European, and African counterterrorism operations in the Sahel – “a unique ecosystem of external forces” with more than 21000 uniformed troops deployed across the region.

This ecosystem is in flux, having proven to be ineffective and locally unpopular. Mali is not the first host state to be hostile toward peacekeepers. Perhaps the most well-known example is the UN operation in Sudan in the early 2000s, done without the consent of the Sudanese government.

Yet Minusma’s state stabilisation mandate makes the situation unusual: blue helmets are on the ground to help the Malian government combat jihadists and terrorists while being no longer welcome by the very government they are supposed to be helping. The political context has changed so much that Minusma’s mission may no longer be feasible on its own terms.

This year’s renegotiations of the mandate at the UN Security Council proved tricky as well – the transitional government and Russian mercenaries have been implicated in atrocities against civilians, and Russia initially objected to draft language addressing human rights violations and local restrictions on Minusma’s movements.

The UN Security Council tends to simply renew mandates and repeat language and terms of engagement whenever possible, preferring to shift mission logistics at the margins instead of having to fully renegotiate the terms of an intervention, and this approach favours settled, context-invariant solutions over dynamic political solutions.

In the Malian case, this strategy risks repeatedly placing peacekeepers in an increasingly hostile environment with little clear benefit. As Nina Wilén and Paul D Williams have argued, this leaves two potential options for Minusma: “go big” or “go home” – in other words, to be reauthorised as a more powerful, capable mission, or to draw down and exit the country.

A third option involves prioritising the protection of civilians and documenting human rights violations, tasks that would require consent the government is clearly, demonstrably reluctant to give.

Even amid real divisions at the UN Security Council, readjusting Minusma’s goals to better reflect the political situation – even if this means drawing down the mission – is vital. Last week’s protests in the DRC raise questions about who the UN’s peace operations are for, aspirationally and practically; whose expectations of peace operations matter; and whose expectations of peace operations should matter.

Missions cannot do their work when local people do not want them there, and UN operations without the consent of the people are bare exercises in upholding state sovereignty, not efforts to build lasting peace. And operating in dangerous circumstances without host state consent or the ability to protect people from state violence or a clear peace to uphold, as the UN is doing in Mali, risks damaging the UN’s standing as a peacemaking organisation even further.

Building consent at multiple levels is key for the enduring success of UN peace operations, and key to finding lasting political solutions to conflicts. The UN has tools and techniques to foster local peacebuilding efforts, and centring these tools and techniques to build consensus and consent around the UN’s presence in local communities should be a key part of every mission.

And, where host state consent isn’t possible, humanitarian and diplomatic goals – not security goals – should be the central plank of the UN’s efforts in conflict. Otherwise, UN peace operations risk being continually mired between unachievable goals to protect people and impossible efforts to solve security problems, at great cost to both the larger enterprise and the people experiencing violence.

* Dayal is Assistant Professor of International Politics in the Political Science Department at Fordham University, New York.

* This is an edited version of the article first published on theglobalobservatory

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