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The Pitfalls of UN Nation-building

Author: Robert McMahon, Editor
Updated: July 24, 2008
This publication is now archived.

Introduction

The United Nations, founded after World War II to maintain peace and international security, has evolved into the world's central nation-building body. UN peacekeeping missions over the years have increasingly taken on a leading role in rebuilding conflict-shattered states from El Salvador to Liberia to Cambodia to the Balkans. Results, however, often are mixed. A recent case study is East Timor, whose continuing struggles tarnish what had once been considered one of the few recent successes in UN nation-building. The United Nations shepherded the former Portuguese colony turned Indonesian province to statehood after violence erupted in the aftermath of an independence referendum in 1999. But most of the 11,000-member international presence was gone by 2006. The UN's experience since then, including the February 2008 shooting of President Jose Ramos-Horta, highlights the difficulties in following through on nation-building projects, no matter how small. Experts say the UN Peacebuilding Commission could provide more consistency and sophistication in stabilizing post-conflict societies. But they are doubtful of long-term success without major actors' involvement.

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What went wrong in East Timor?

In the aftermath of East Timor's violent separation from Indonesia in 1999, a UN administration, initially backed by an Australian-led peacekeeping force, guided the province to elections, a constitution, and formal statehood in 2002. A UN force of military observers, police, and five thousand soldiers remained until 2003 to maintain stability. The last peacekeepers left in 2005 amid growing concerns that their departure was premature. After the government sought to dismiss nearly six hundred soldiers from the army in April 2006, violence flared and degenerated into gang warfare in the streets of the capital, Dili. At one point, more than 100,000 people were displaced in the unrest and an Australian-led force returned in 2006 to help restore order.

Experts cite the following as causes of the instability:

  • Economic hardship. The economy, Asia's poorest, is based mainly around coffee and oil and gas exports that do not provide ample employment for the fast-growing population. The unemployment level is about 40 percent and per capita income is about $840, according to the World Bank figures from 2006, the last year available. Frederick Barton, a former UN deputy high commissioner for refugees and now codirector of the Post-Conflict Reconstruction Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says the international system is still not sure how to handle an emerging state like East Timor. "This is an incredibly impoverished country that doesn't have any real rationale. There's no economic argument for its existence as a totally independent place, so it confuses us," Barton says. Barton and Seth Jones, a nation-building expert at the RAND Corporation, say countries like East Timor and Afghanistan are essentially at "ground zero" in terms of development and require a long period of nurturing. "You can't expect a society in three to four years to make real significant progress on basic economic and social conditions," says Jones.

    UN Peacekeeping Chief Jean-Marie Guéhenno said in a 2006 briefing at CFR that the international community has struggled to implement economic revitalization programs in post-conflict zones in a timely manner. "We see, whether it's Afghanistan today after the new parliament or Haiti once the new authorities have been elected, there's a window that opens, but if in the next 24 months people do not see progress and do not have jobs [the mission] will be in trouble," Guéhenno said.
  •  Incomplete security sector reform. East Timor embarked on security sector reform in 1999 with virtually no police force. "They were largely Indonesian and once you had this major Indonesian exodus at the end of 1999 the UN had to begin basically from scratch," says Jones. "It just takes a long time to train and then to get competent police officers." The military is reportedly beset by regional rivalries. The roughly six hundred soldiers who instigated the protests in spring 2006 came mostly from the country's west and had complained of discrimination by members from the east in the national army.
  •  Weak political institutions. Domestic critics say East Timor's government has been marred by corruption and favoritism since independence was won. Local government and the judicial system are seen as weak.
What are some current major UN nation-building projects?
  • Kosovo. The United Nations mission (UNMIK) ran the Serbian province as a virtual protectorate from 1999 until its independence declaration in February 2008. Backed by NATO-led forces and international peacekeepers, the UN mission has generally retained stability but local Kosovar officials moved to assume more control of UN functions in June 2008. That, coupled with moves by Kosovo Serbs to boycott institutions led by ethnic Albanians "contributed to creating a profoundly new reality in which UNMIK can no longer perform as effectively as in the past the vast majority of its tasks as an interim administration,” said Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in July 2008.
  • Afghanistan. NATO and U.S. forces patrol the country under a UN mandate. The UN mission there guides relief, recovery, and reconstruction and provides political advice to Afghan leaders. The country has held successful presidential and parliamentary elections but its control extends to few places beyond Kabul. A resurgent Taliban has triggered some of the fiercest fighting this spring since their expulsion in late 2001.
  • Liberia. Nearly fifteen thousand UN peacekeepers support a mission charged with carrying through a three-year-old peace process that ended a devastating civil war. The mission also assists in police training, forming a new military and human rights activities.
Can the new UN Peacebuilding Commission help?

The thirty-one-member commission was created by the UN General Assembly with the aim of ending the ad hoc international approach to nation-building. It seeks to bring together development, security and other actors to provide a cohesive approach to reconstruction and institution building in post-conflict zones.

Experts welcome the body but are concerned about its viability. "The peacebuilding commission is a useful concept," says Jones. "Whether it actually makes its way into substantive changes on the ground [is] too early to tell partly because for the UN to be successful, including in peacekeeping and peacebuilding operations, [it] requires cooperation among major powers that are contributing." Barton says it will be a challenge for the agency to thrive in the UN bureaucracy. The commission, he says, "will have to have an extraordinary amount of leeway, a very entrepreneurial leadership and great flexibility in funding and human resources models and real operational agility to be successful."

What have been notable UN nation-building failures?
  • Somalia. In the early 1990s, the UN Security Council authorized a U.S.-led force to establish a safe zone for assisting civilians, in reaction to a massive humanitarian crisis and a civil war. The effort spared hundreds of thousands of lives threatened by famine but was undermined by Somali militias. One attack in June 1993 killed twenty-five Pakistani peacekeepers and an Oct. 3, 1993 ambush killed eighteen U.S. soldiers and left nearly 1,000 Somalis dead. U.S. troops withdrew and the UN mission followed two years later. The country today is regarded as a failed state and fighting among various warlords continues.
  • Haiti. The United Nations and the Organization of American States imposed sanctions on Haiti following a 1991 military coup against the democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. The UN Security Council authorized a U.S.-led multinational force, which entered the country in 1994, forcing out the leader of the military junta, Raoul Cedras, and restoring Aristide to the presidency. International efforts to improve the situation followed, but long-term reform of Haiti's political institutions stalled. Since the election of President Rene Preval early in 2006, there is hope that the country—the poorest in the Americas—will be able to revive efforts at economic and political reform. A UN stabilization mission of more than eight thousand is in the country.
Where has the UN been successful?
  • El Salvador. UN mediation helped end the civil war that ravaged the country through the 1980s and a UN mission from 1991 to 1995 helped reform and reduce the size of the armed forces, create a new police force, and reform judicial and electoral systems. The United States has been a key contributor to judicial reforms.
  • Eastern Slavonia. Though not a full-scale nation-building project, the easternmost province of Croatia was placed under UN administration in 1996 after the war between Serbs and Croats. The UN mission oversaw the successful integration of the majority Serb area into Croatia, demilitarizing the region and ensuring the safe return of refugees to their homes as well as organizing elections.
  • Bosnia. The former Yugoslav republic witnessed one of the UN's worst peacekeeping debacles, but since the Dayton Accords in 1995 the three previously warring ethnic groups have lived in relative peace. A UN mission completed a large police restructuring project in 2002 and NATO-led forces handed over security patrols to an EU-led force in 2004.

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