Armed Conflict

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The Global Governance Report Card grades international performance in addressing today's most daunting challenges. It seeks to inspire innovative and effective responses from global and U.S. policymakers to address them.

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Subject

  • Average

    Conflict Prevention and Mediation

    As the only organization with a global mandate to prevent armed conflict, the United Nations (UN) played an indispensable role in the international conflict management regime. Working with regional organizations, the UN successfully facilitated nonviolent elections in Ghana, the Maldives, Lesotho, Madagascar, and the Solomon Islands, among other states. It also worked with military leaders in Guinea, Togo, Guinea-Bissau, and Niger to support the peaceful transfer of political power to civilian authorities. Within the UN Secretariat, the UN Department for Political Affairs (DPA) is charged with an early warning mandate to "identify potential or actual conflicts in whose resolution the United Nations could play a useful role." In 2008, the DPA established its standby team of mediation experts to improve preventive diplomacy. By 2011, reflecting increased demands for assistance, these experts were deployed more than fifty times to support mediation efforts in over twenty countries, including Libya, Yemen, Somalia, and Kyrgyzstan. In Yemen, for example, the team assisted in negotiations that led to a historic presidential transition, ending the thirty-three-year reign of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. Nevertheless, DPA remained both underfunded and understaffed, with fewer than three hundred full-time personnel.

    Regional organizations also increased efforts to create and institutionalize early-warning mechanisms, although their rapid-response capabilities remained limited. The European Union (EU) and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) were the standouts in this field—both possess relatively sophisticated warning systems. As of March 2012, the EU maintained thirteen ongoing crisis management operations, ranging from Kosovo to the Palestinian territories. For their own parts, the Organization of American States (OAS) and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) mediated border disputes between Belize and Guatemala, and Cambodia and Thailand, respectively. In 2011, in the aftermath of the extra-constitutional crisis in Honduras, OAS member states proposed a formal early-warning system to prevent coups, although plans have yet to move forward. In Africa, the African Union, the Economic Community of West African States, and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development maintained inchoate early-warning units.

    On balance, however, international institutions remained reactive to armed conflict, despite efforts from NGOs to draw attention to potential flash points. Generally speaking, it proved difficult to muster requisite political will and resources to address problems that have yet to materialize and the costs of which may not be readily apparent. Fundamentally, the deep-seated principles of sovereignty and nonintervention presented major obstacles to timely action by the UN Security Council and regional organizations. This was particularly true when such action threatened the strategic interests of one of the P5. Syria was the most recent and high-profile example of this conundrum, with Russia and China vetoing three resolutions calling for more assertive action against the regime of Bashar al-Assad. As a compromise, the UNSC eventually established a joint UN-Arab League Supervision Mission in Syria (UNSMIS)—the first-ever mission led by the Arab League—to monitor the implementation of a peace plan brokered by UN Special Envoy Kofi Annan. However, the Assad regime failed to uphold its commitments, Annan resigned in frustration, and the UNSMIS mandate ultimately failed to receive renewal due to heightening violence. (Annan was succeeded as envoy in September 2012 by the former Algerian diplomat and longtime UN troubleshooter Lakhdar Brahimi.)

    The UN was not alone in facing these problems. Many regional organizations—most visibly the OAS and ASEAN—codified the principle of national sovereignty in their charters, making the possibility of intervention in internal disputes a remote prospect. Likewise, the requirement for unanimity in the OSCE was a major factor in delaying rapid action to prevent and respond to violence in Georgia in August 2008 and in Kyrgyzstan in July 2010. As a result, humanitarian nongovernmental organizations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross—which operates in eighty countries, including Pakistan, Yemen, and Colombia—were often the first responders to assist civilians affected by armed conflict.

  • Average

    Strengthening Peace Operations

    Over the past four years, peacekeeping operations, led by the United Nations (UN) Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO)—which remained the primary institution for coordinating and carrying out such missions worldwide—continued to grow in complexity. The DPKO was responsible for sixteen missions on four continents, with newly refined missions in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) (2010), Abyei (2011), and South Sudan (2011). At the same time, the role of peacekeepers broadened beyond security provision thanks to the 2008 Capstone Doctrine, which mandated that UN peacekeepers play a role in peace-building and security-related programs, such as security sector reform, training of police, and promoting the rule of law. In July 2009, the DPKO launched the New Horizons [PDF] initiative to streamline operations, ensure consistent funding, and achieve consensus on policy matters. These changes—implemented during a time of rising demand for peace operations—demonstrated the DPKO's continued willingness to adapt in spite of declining personnel numbers.

    Despite such initiatives, challenges remained. In May 2010, for example, the UN Security Council provided the DPKO with a new mandate for its stabilization mission in the DRC (UN Organization Stabilization Mission in the DRC, MONUSCO) that expanded its role in the country for peace-building assistance but troublingly restricted its security and good governance mandates to reflect local government prerogatives. Security improvements and political initiatives, however, were underwhelming. An August 2012 massacre in North Kivu, which occurred despite the presence of seventeen thousand UN peacekeepers in the country, underscored the magnitude of the burden placed on peace operations, particularly in a country the size of Western Europe. As UN peace operations expanded and took on greater responsibilities, their effectiveness remained constrained by limited logistical capacity, diplomatic support, and ability to create workable exit strategies, coupled with dwindling personnel and budgetary concerns.

    Regional organizations also played an increasingly integral role in peacekeeping missions, both individually and in concert with other multilateral organizations and national governments. The African Union (AU), for example, exerted a robust role in the AU-UN Hybrid Mission in Darfur and in the AU Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), with some success. In mid-2011, AMISOM increased its military responsibilities, forcing the retreat of the al-Shabaab militia from the region surrounding Mogadishu. In doing so, it expanded its peacekeeping role beyond the capital city and continued to fulfill technical assistance and peace enforcement roles mandated in 2007. For its part, the European Union (EU) continued to pay the allowances of all of the AMISOM peacekeepers. It also broadened its responsibilities in Kosovo beyond conventional peacekeeping to address socioeconomic, legal, and political issues in the territory. In addition, the EU embarked on a monitoring mission in 2008 in response to the conflict between Georgia and Russia. This mission was limited to observation, but it managed to obtain agreements from the government of Georgia to abstain from aggressive policing tactics in volatile regions of the state populated by separatist groups.

  • Poor

    Preventing and Responding to Mass Atrocities

    Over the past four years, there were normative and substantive steps to address mass atrocities around the world. In 2008, the United Nations (UN) secretary-general created the position of special adviser on the "responsibility to protect" (R2P) to oversee its development and implementation by working with the UN system, regional organizations, and member states. In what was the first application of force under R2P without host-nation consent, the UN Security Council in March 2011 authorized "all necessary measures" and a no-fly zone to protect civilians in Libya. Shortly thereafter, the UN Security Council responded to postelection violence in the Ivory Coast by calling for the transfer of power and reaffirming "all necessary means to protect life and property." In the aftermath of that resolution, robust military intervention by a combination of French and UN peacekeeping troops ensured the departure of Ivorian strongman Laurent Gbagbo and prevented major civilian casualties.

    But such efforts were overshadowed by recent events, particularly the escalating civil war in Syria. By December 2012, approximately sixty thousand Syrians had been killed—many of them unarmed civilians—and more than three hundred thousand had fled the country (with more than one million remaining internally displaced in Syria itself). Despite the steady increase in violence, stronger action against the Bashar al-Assad regime by the UN Security Council faced repeated vetoes from Russia and China. At the same time, atrocities continued elsewhere. Before Sri Lankan forces defeated the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in 2009, thousands of civilians were killed. In the DRC, conflict resurged in November 2012 when the armed rebel group M23 mounted an offensive on Goma—reportedly supported by the governments of neighboring states. The UN charged both M23 and government forces with committing serious human rights abuses including raping and killing civilians. Finally, civilians continued to bear the brunt of fighting in the hotly-contested regions of Abyei and the Nuba Mountains in Sudan.

    The divergent responses to Libya and Syria, in particular, produced a number of competing international initiatives. In May 2012, a UN General Assembly resolution on the "responsibility not to veto" led by the so-called Small Five (S5)—Costa Rica, Jordan, Liechtenstein, Singapore, and Switzerland—called on permanent members to refrain from using their veto power in cases of mass atrocities. (The resolution was ultimately withdrawn.) On the other end of the spectrum, Brazil spearheaded the concept of "responsibility while protecting" [PDF], which would impose stricter criteria for the use of force and demand greater accountability and monitoring once force has been authorized. Although both initiatives did not gain serious traction, the different approaches highlighted the unresolved tension over R2P in multilateral forums, particularly the UN Security Council.

  • Incomplete

    Peace-building and State-building

    Peace-building refers to international and national efforts to support recovery from armed conflict by building the foundations of shared economic growth, accountable governance, human security, and the rule of law. In a similar vein, state-building is the idea that development, good governance, security, and justice can best be achieved by bolstering state institutions. Over the last four years, Iraq and Afghanistan received the greatest peace-building and state-building resources and attention. In both of those cases, the United States—working closely with multilateral entities including North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), agencies of the United Nations (UN), and the World Bank—played a major leadership role, not least in the security sphere. In Iraq, the drawdown and eventual end to the U.S. military operation, mandated previusly to keep peace and train the Iraqi military forces, produced mixed results, as the security situation in the country remained volatile even after a decade of military operations and investment. However, there was still a vast international civilian presence seeking to advance development and good governance in Iraq. Although the George W. Bush administration initially sidelined UN involvement in Iraq, the UN later became a valuable partner for the United States and coalition members. The UN Assistance Mission for Iraq, which continued operating after U.S. withdrawal, helped to facilitate election support, justice reform, rule of law reform, and political dialogue between ethnic and sectarian groups.

    In Afghanistan, multiple international organizations and foreign governments played a major role from the outset, alongside the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). ISAF's mandate explicitly states the importance of robust military capabilities to provide security for sustainable socioeconomic development. The UN Assistance Mission for Afghanistan, like its counterpart in Iraq, played an influential political role. This included convening and monitoring the "Bonn process" and helping develop long-term strategies for civilian security and social and economic development. The Bonn process also provided an essential vehicle for mobilizing pledges of international aid and setting development priorities for Afghanistan through the International Contact Group for Afghanistan and Pakistan, an ad hoc coalition of state and nonstate actors. The group demonstrated the utility of convening interested parties by taking the lead in multilateral efforts to coordinate multiple bilateral projects and funding streams including the recent Bonn+10 conference.

    In spite of enormous investment by the United States and its NATO partners, both Iraq and Afghanistan struggled to mitigate armed conflict within their borders, stave off interference from neighboring states, and perhaps most important, provide sustained security to their citizens. Insecurity was further exacerbated in Afghanistan by entrenched government corruption among senior leadership, the civil service, and Afghan security forces, particularly the police. The resulting lack of accountability severely undercut the effectiveness of reconstruction efforts and weakened trust between the government and its population.

    In Libya, the absence of postintervention strategies underscored the importance of a robust peace- and state-building mission. After NATO coalition troops exited the country in November 2011, Libya faced political turbulence and citizen insecurity, largely fueled by the presence of powerful armed militias. In addition, the spillover of arms from Libya into neighboring countries, including Mali, has had profound implications for regional security and stability.

    Elsewhere, the UN continued to be heavily involved in peace-building, particularly through multi-dimensional peacekeeping operations and integrated political missions that involve close coordination among UN agencies, which were active in over thirty countries. The UN Development Program managed conflict mitigation and development projects in multiple fragile states, and through the UN Development Group, coordinated UN conflict- and development-related activities on the ground. The role of the UN Peacebuilding Commission remained limited, having operated in only six countries over the past four years.

    The World Bank, meanwhile, continued to expand its analytical and programmatic involvement in fragile and conflict-affected states, recognizing that such countries represent the hard core of the global development challenge. Its innovative 2011 World Development Report highlighted the devastating impact of armed conflict on efforts to alleviate poverty, meet basic human needs, and foster good governance. The World Bank was involved in peace-building and state-building efforts in more than seventy countries. From 2008 to 2012, the bank disbursed $115 million to programs through its State and Peace-Building Fund that replaced its Post-Conflict and Low Income Countries Under Stress Funds.

Leader

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UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations

North Atlantic Treaty Organization

Gold Star

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UN Department of Political Affairs

European Union

International Crisis Group

Most Improved

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Economic Community of West African States

African Union

Arab League

World Bank

laggard

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UN Peacebuilding Commission

Truant

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Association of Southeast Asian Nations

Detention

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UN Security Council

Class Evaluation

The United Nations (UN) Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) merit special commendation for their leadership over the past four years. The UN DPKO conducted fifteen peacekeeping and observer missions across four continents involving one hundred thousand personnel.

As part of the New Horizons [PDF] initiative launched in 2008, the DPKO liaised closely with the newly-created Department of Field Support (DFS), and it significantly enhanced its capacity to help governments achieve security sector reform, support elections, and aid efforts to disarm, demobilize, and reintegrate former combatants. To streamline and coordinate operations, the DPKO worked with the DFS and the Office of Rule of Law and Security Institutions to integrate military, police, policymaking, and administrative roles into coherent national strategies.

NATO continued to play a critical role in conflict management in the Balkans, Afghanistan, and most recently Libya, by enforcing a no-fly zone to prevent civilian casualties—an operation that ultimately aided in overthrowing Muammar al-Qaddafi. It also engaged in new missions such as counterinsurgency and counterterrorism campaigns, as well as antipiracy efforts off the coast of Somalia. Although NATO faced existential questions regarding how to adapt to the twenty-first century security environment, it remained the premier collective defense alliance.

The UN Department of Political Affairs (DPA), European Union (EU), and International Crisis Group (ICG) earn gold stars for their contributions to mitigating armed conflict. Through its quality field operations and offices, UN DPA was an increasingly critical player in peace-building, peacekeeping, and preventive diplomacy. In the past four years, it established a standby team of mediation experts and created forty-nine additional posts related to conflict management and governance in its regional offices. In addition, DPA liaised with thirteen active political and peace-building missions focused on objectives beyond the provision of security. Its own internal economic difficulties notwithstanding, the EU achieved notable gains in the past four years. It established a fund for postconflict recovery; supported the EU African Peace Facility; launched a public-private peace-building partnership; created the position of commissioner for the European Community's Humanitarian Office in 2010; established a monitoring mission in Georgia in 2008; and deployed a peacekeeping mission to Chad. Finally, the ICG continued to produce critical analysis, prescriptions, and advocacy campaigns that have become increasingly important to U.S. government and international officials. Its demonstrated ability to draw attention to conflicts through country-level and context-specific assessments and to monitor macro-level conflict trends across regions carries significant early-warning and policymaking value.

The subregional organization Economic Community of West African States earns recognition as most improved for playing an increasingly proactive and integral role in West Africa, particularly in Guinea-Bissau, the Ivory Coast, and most recently Mali, where it authorized the deployment of three thousand soldiers to drive back Islamic extremists. The African Union (AU) continued to undergo institutional renovation and lay the groundwork for a continental peacekeeping and peace-building capacity. The AU managed important peacekeeping missions in Darfur and Somalia, where it received accolades for repelling al-Shabaab militants from the capital city of Mogadishu. Although it often struggled to translate its new paper mandates into effective action, the AU slowly expanded its institutional capacity to address conflict. For its part, the Arab League broke with its longstanding tradition of noninvolvement in the internal affairs of member states. It has shown signs of increasing dynamism by supporting the ouster of Muammar al-Qaddafi, helping to negotiate a presidential transition in Yemen, and playing an active role in mobilizing international pressure against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad—even sending a joint UN-Arab League observer mission to Syria to monitor a cease-fire (that ultimately failed).

Over the same period, the World Bank undertook unprecedented efforts to identify and address the root causes of armed conflict in fragile and conflict-affected states. It established the State and Peace-Building Fund in 2008 and, in its seminal 2011 World Development Report, called international attention to the central role that security plays in development and the need for evidence-based policymaking. In addition, the World Bank increasingly integrated conflict assessments and conflict mitigation approaches into its Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers that accompany the vast majority of the loan programs it administers alongside the International Monetary Fund.

The UN Security Council (UNSC) sits in detention. Despite some notable progress and successes in the Ivory Coast, Libya, Sierra Leone, and Liberia, the UNSC often found itself hamstrung by internal political differences, particularly among its permanent five members (P5), over how to respond to complex emergencies and mass atrocities. As Syria demonstrated, the veto power enjoyed by the P5 served as a recipe for decision-making gridlock. When an impasse arose among permanent members, the only remaining choices were acting outside of the institution or taking no action at all.

Among the biggest disappointments of the past several years is the UN Peacebuilding Commission (PBC). The PBC has been restricted to a handful of client countries in relatively benign situations in Burundi, Guinea-Bissau, and Sierra Leone, and yet it has had few long-term successes. Its disappointing performance reflects not only political differences among UN member states, but also a general deficit of technocratic expertise and sustained funding that could have permitted long-term analysis and coordination for client country projects.

Meanwhile, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has remained largely disengaged from conflict management activities, hewing to the venerable "ASEAN way" that prohibits involvement in the internal affairs of its members. Although the grouping recently established a Political Security Committee (PSC), that body failed to acknowledge armed conflict within (and between) ASEAN member states. In fact, the PSC's debut at the fourteenth annual ASEAN summit in 2009 was overshadowed by ongoing conflicts in Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, and East Timor. Though the PSC's plan of action highlights conflict prevention, conflict resolution, and peace-building, ASEAN barely utilized such tools. Most recently, it failed to address the simmering sovereignty issues in the South China Sea, despite the high stakes for numerous members and implications for regional security, due to internal divisions among its membership.

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Introduction

Although armed conflicts and mass atrocities received unprecedented, and often real-time, attention from states, nongovernmental organizations, faith-based organizations, and international organizations, efforts to prevent them continued to be inadequate. Each year, an estimated 250,000 people die in armed conflicts and mass atrocities. Over the past four years, the number of armed conflicts—or the use of force between two parties (at least one of which is a government) that results in at least twenty-five battle-related deaths—remained constant at thirty-seven—of which six (Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen) were classified by Uppsala University as "wars" (resulting in at least one thousand battle-related deaths). These data omit armed conflicts in 2012, such as the Syrian uprising, that were not included in the Uppsala Conflict Data Program database. In addition to its human and financial costs, armed conflict carried innumerable negative consequences for national, regional, and global stability. These include, among other things, the breakdown of effective and legitimate domestic institutions; the spread of transnational crime, including the illicit weapons trade; and the creation of conditions conducive to political extremism, such as the harboring of terrorist organizations.

International institutions took some concrete steps to improve their capacities to prevent and mitigate armed conflict. In 2009, the United Nations (UN) Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) updated its peacekeeping procedures, guidelines, and training requirements as part of its New Horizons initiative to better reflect the multifaceted and complex nature of modern peace missions. The DPKO also increasingly cooperated with and received support from the new Department of Field Support (DFS). At the same time, the UN Department of Political Affairs (DPA) expanded its smaller political missions and regional offices and deployed mediation experts in regional flash points like Yemen and Libya. Regional and subregional organizations improved their capacities for crisis prevention and management, in particular the foundations for early warning. The World Bank augmented its capabilities, too. After establishing a State and Peace-Building Fund in 2008, it played a much more active role in postconflict recovery and development. This role included using its pathbreaking 2011 World Development Report to highlight the challenge of armed conflict.

Despite these new initiatives, collective efforts to support international conflict management continued to depend on the mobilization of political will and provision of timely and adequate resources—both of which were often in short supply. In many cases, devotion to the principles of national sovereignty and nonintervention thwarted or delayed effective, timely international action. Most recently, the complex and variable relationship between norms of sovereignty and humanitarian intervention affected UN Security Council decision-making in the cases of Ivory Coast, Mali, Libya, and Syria, resulting in uneven responses and actions. Moreover, the demand for peace operations grew even as the number of peacekeeping personnel decreased; 2011 alone witnessed new missions in Libya, South Sudan, and Syria, as well as expanded operations in Somalia. The UN and the African Union (AU) found themselves increasingly overstretched, often in the pursuit of unrealistic and lengthy mandates from the UN Security Council. Finally, the decidedly mixed experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, which occupied the overwhelming focus of U.S. military operations over the past decade, provided cautionary tales of the difficulties and frustrations of the peace-building and state-building enterprise.

This review identifies two major areas for improvement. First, member states should devote greater funding to the UN and regional organizations in order to develop and improve these institutions' rapidly deployable capabilities for conflict prevention, mitigation, and response. Second, states, through the multilateral forums in which they are members, should make a more concerted effort to distill lessons learned and best practices from their recent peace-building experiences to create a pragmatic body of doctrine that can be applied to future contingencies.

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Background

Preventing armed conflict, maintaining the peace, and preventing mass atrocities are among the most fundamental and difficult challenges facing humanity.

Some two decades ago, then UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali released the landmark report An Agenda for Peace [PDF] (1992), which envisioned a revitalized UN role in international conflict prevention and mediation, peacekeeping, and peace-building. Following mass atrocities in Rwanda and Bosnia-Herzegovina, the UN, regional organizations, and private actors began to mobilize their capacities to better prevent and respond to armed conflict, gleaning lessons from on-the-ground experiences in Angola, Cambodia, Somalia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Partly resulting from these efforts, the number of armed conflicts has declined by 40 percent [PDF] since 1992.

Despite these positive trends, however, armed conflicts persist and fresh challenges continue to emerge. Although no major power has fought a war against another for six decades—the longest period of major power peace in centuries according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute—militarized hedging behavior continued to loom in the background. Moreover, the number of intrastate armed conflicts remains stubbornly high, and such conflicts are increasingly intractable; a state recovering from armed conflict has a 44 percent chance of sliding back into violence within five years.

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Class Evaluation

As part of the New Horizons [PDF] initiative launched in 2008, the DPKO liaised closely with the newly-created Department of Field Support (DFS), and it significantly enhanced its capacity to help governments achieve security sector reform, support elections, and aid efforts to disarm, demobilize, and reintegrate former combatants. To streamline and coordinate operations, the DPKO worked with the DFS and the Office of Rule of Law and Security Institutions to integrate military, police, policymaking, and administrative roles into coherent national strategies.

NATO continued to play a critical role in conflict management in the Balkans, Afghanistan, and most recently Libya, by enforcing a no-fly zone to prevent civilian casualties—an operation that ultimately aided in overthrowing Muammar al-Qaddafi. It also engaged in new missions such as counterinsurgency and counterterrorism campaigns, as well as antipiracy efforts off the coast of Somalia. Although NATO faced existential questions regarding how to adapt to the twenty-first century security environment, it remained the premier collective defense alliance.

The UN Department of Political Affairs (DPA), European Union (EU), and International Crisis Group (ICG) earn gold stars for their contributions to mitigating armed conflict. Through its quality field operations and offices, UN DPA was an increasingly critical player in peace-building, peacekeeping, and preventive diplomacy. In the past four years, it established a standby team of mediation experts and created forty-nine additional posts related to conflict management and governance in its regional offices. In addition, DPA liaised with thirteen active political and peace-building missions focused on objectives beyond the provision of security. Its own internal economic difficulties notwithstanding, the EU achieved notable gains in the past four years. It established a fund for postconflict recovery; supported the EU African Peace Facility; launched a public-private peace-building partnership; created the position of commissioner for the European Community's Humanitarian Office in 2010; established a monitoring mission in Georgia in 2008; and deployed a peacekeeping mission to Chad. Finally, the ICG continued to produce critical analysis, prescriptions, and advocacy campaigns that have become increasingly important to U.S. government and international officials. Its demonstrated ability to draw attention to conflicts through country-level and context-specific assessments and to monitor macro-level conflict trends across regions carries significant early-warning and policymaking value.

The subregional organization Economic Community of West African States earns recognition as most improved for playing an increasingly proactive and integral role in West Africa, particularly in Guinea-Bissau, the Ivory Coast, and most recently Mali, where it authorized the deployment of three thousand soldiers to drive back Islamic extremists. The African Union (AU) continued to undergo institutional renovation and lay the groundwork for a continental peacekeeping and peace-building capacity. The AU managed important peacekeeping missions in Darfur and Somalia, where it received accolades for repelling al-Shabaab militants from the capital city of Mogadishu. Although it often struggled to translate its new paper mandates into effective action, the AU slowly expanded its institutional capacity to address conflict. For its part, the Arab League broke with its longstanding tradition of noninvolvement in the internal affairs of member states. It has shown signs of increasing dynamism by supporting the ouster of Muammar al-Qaddafi, helping to negotiate a presidential transition in Yemen, and playing an active role in mobilizing international pressure against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad—even sending a joint UN-Arab League observer mission to Syria to monitor a cease-fire (that ultimately failed).

Over the same period, the World Bank undertook unprecedented efforts to identify and address the root causes of armed conflict in fragile and conflict-affected states. It established the State and Peace-Building Fund in 2008 and, in its seminal 2011 World Development Report, called international attention to the central role that security plays in development and the need for evidence-based policymaking. In addition, the World Bank increasingly integrated conflict assessments and conflict mitigation approaches into its Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers that accompany the vast majority of the loan programs it administers alongside the International Monetary Fund.

The UN Security Council (UNSC) sits in detention. Despite some notable progress and successes in the Ivory Coast, Libya, Sierra Leone, and Liberia, the UNSC often found itself hamstrung by internal political differences, particularly among its permanent five members (P5), over how to respond to complex emergencies and mass atrocities. As Syria demonstrated, the veto power enjoyed by the P5 served as a recipe for decision-making gridlock. When an impasse arose among permanent members, the only remaining choices were acting outside of the institution or taking no action at all.

Among the biggest disappointments of the past several years is the UN Peacebuilding Commission (PBC). The PBC has been restricted to a handful of client countries in relatively benign situations in Burundi, Guinea-Bissau, and Sierra Leone, and yet it has had few long-term successes. Its disappointing performance reflects not only political differences among UN member states, but also a general deficit of technocratic expertise and sustained funding that could have permitted long-term analysis and coordination for client country projects.

Meanwhile, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has remained largely disengaged from conflict management activities, hewing to the venerable "ASEAN way" that prohibits involvement in the internal affairs of its members. Although the grouping recently established a Political Security Committee (PSC), that body failed to acknowledge armed conflict within (and between) ASEAN member states. In fact, the PSC's debut at the fourteenth annual ASEAN summit in 2009 was overshadowed by ongoing conflicts in Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, and East Timor. Though the PSC's plan of action highlights conflict prevention, conflict resolution, and peace-building, ASEAN barely utilized such tools. Most recently, it failed to address the simmering sovereignty issues in the South China Sea, despite the high stakes for numerous members and implications for regional security, due to internal divisions among its membership.

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U.S. Performance & Leadership

B minus

Over the past four years, the United States had an uneven record in contributing to the international management of armed conflict.

In August 2009, President Obama declared, "One of the best ways to lead our troops wisely is to prevent the conflicts that cost American blood and treasure tomorrow." To that end, the Obama administration spearheaded a number of institutional initiatives that elevate preventive efforts within the U.S. government and military. In November 2011, the State Department created the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations (CSO), dedicated to conflict prevention and postconflict recovery. The CSO is now working in more than twenty countries, including Syria, Kenya, Honduras, and Myanmar. Moreover, the Obama administration, seeking to institutionalize atrocities prevention as a U.S. national security priority, established in April 2012 the Atrocities Prevention Board (APB), which was charged with coordinating and streamlining U.S. interagency efforts to monitor, respond to, and prevent mass atrocities. In addition, the release of the U.S. National Action Plan on Women, Peace, and Security [PDF] in December 2011 mandated that a gendered perspective be integrated throughout all U.S. efforts to help prevent and resolve armed conflict and rebuild in its aftermath.

The U.S. military also played a critical role managing armed conflict on the ground. In March 2011, the United States joined British and French forces to enforce UN Security Council Resolution 1973 authorizing "all necessary means" to protect Libyan civilians, an operation that eventually included NATO and several Arab League partners. The ensuing seven-month campaign ultimately helped to overthrow Muammar al-Qaddafi, considered by many a necessary step to protect civilians. Several months later, the U.S. military also sent its advisers to Central Africa to support regional efforts to dismantle the Lord's Resistance Army.

At the same time, the United States actively led multilateral efforts to prevent or mitigate conflict diplomatically. It helped broker negotiations that safeguard the comprehensive peace agreement between Sudan and South Sudan (as well as the successful independence referendum in the latter) and mediated talks between the Philippine government and a major rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, after three decades of fighting on the southern island of Mindanao.

The United States also continued to invest in international conflict management efforts more broadly. It provided 27 percent of the annual budget for UN peacekeeping—or some $2.2 billion per year—and contributed additional funding for peace operations in countries like Lebanon and Somalia. The Obama administration also cleared hundreds of millions of dollars in arrears to the UN accumulated by its predecessor, as part of an effort to restore U.S. credibility for multilateralism within the world body. Although few U.S. troops serve in UN peacekeeping missions, the United States continued to train foreign military and police forces as part of its Global Peace Operations Initiative—its contribution to the Group of Eight (G8) Action Plan to expand global capacities for peacekeeping.

These promising initiatives and developments, however, must be weighed against the decidedly mixed legacies of peace-building and state-building in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the ongoing civil war in Syria. The last U.S. troops exited Iraq in December 2011, ending a nine-year mission that killed 4,487 U.S. soldiers and wounded more than 30,000, as well as cost the lives of more than 100,000 Iraqis and an untold number of wounded. While the precise financial cost to the United States remained contested, the price tag well exceeded $1 trillion. In Afghanistan, the United States signed a strategic partnership agreement with the government that committed a complete drawdown of U.S. troops by the end of 2014; meanwhile, the casualty toll continued to rise. As of December 2012, a total of 2,043 U.S. troops died and so-called insider attacks by members of the Afghan military against NATO forces increased exponentially.

Despite such massive investment of U.S. lives and resources in Iraq and Afghanistan, the sustainability and long-term impact of U.S. achievements remained uncertain. Iraq continued to be mired in sectarian violence and political discord. Meanwhile, the Afghan national government and military forces faced grim circumstances: endemic corruption; ineffective and illegitimate governance outside of Kabul; weak security; and unknown implications of the drawdown of forces—especially given Afghanistan's inability [PDF] to fund its own security forces after U.S. withdrawal. In short, in neither country did the United States realize its goals of human security, political stability, representative democracy, and rebuilding the social compact between government and population. The results of these U.S. operations—combined with evidence from other international efforts—underscored the challenges facing external actors who seek to advance peace-building and state-building in highly divided societies.

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Conflict Prevention and Mediation

Average

As the only organization with a global mandate to prevent armed conflict, the United Nations (UN) played an indispensable role in the international conflict management regime. Working with regional organizations, the UN successfully facilitated nonviolent elections in Ghana, the Maldives, Lesotho, Madagascar, and the Solomon Islands, among other states. It also worked with military leaders in Guinea, Togo, Guinea-Bissau, and Niger to support the peaceful transfer of political power to civilian authorities. Within the UN Secretariat, the UN DPA is charged with an early warning mandate to "identify potential or actual conflicts in whose resolution the United Nations could play a useful role." In 2008, the DPA established its standby team of mediation experts to improve preventive diplomacy. By 2011, reflecting increased demands for assistance, these experts were deployed more than fifty times to support mediation efforts in over twenty countries, including Libya, Yemen, Somalia, and Kyrgyzstan. In Yemen, for example, the team assisted in negotiations that led to a historic presidential transition, ending the thirty-three-year reign of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. Nevertheless, DPA remained both underfunded and understaffed—with fewer than three hundred full-time personnel.

Regional organizations also increased efforts to create and institutionalize early-warning mechanisms, although their rapid-response capabilities remained limited. The EU and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) were the standouts in this field; both possess relatively sophisticated warning systems. As of March 2012, the EU maintained thirteen ongoing crisis management operations, ranging from Kosovo to the Palestinian territories. For their own parts, the Organization of American States (OAS) and ASEAN mediated border disputes between Belize and Guatemala, and Cambodia and Thailand, respectively. In 2011, in the aftermath of the extra-constitutional crisis in Honduras, OAS member states proposed a formal early-warning system to prevent coups, although plans have yet to move forward. In Africa, the AU, ECOWAS, and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) maintained inchoate early-warning units.

On balance, however, international institutions remained reactive to armed conflict, despite efforts from NGOs to draw attention to potential flash points. Generally speaking, it proved difficult to muster requisite political will and resources to address problems that have yet to materialize and the costs of which may not be readily apparent. Fundamentally, the deep-seated principles of sovereignty and nonintervention presented major obstacles to timely action by the UN Security Council and regional organizations. This was particularly true when such action threatened the strategic interests of one of the P5. Syria was the most recent and high-profile example of this conundrum, with Russia and China vetoing three resolutions calling for more assertive action against the regime of Bashar al-Assad. As a compromise, the UNSC eventually established a joint UN-Arab League Supervision Mission in Syria (UNSMIS)—the first-ever mission led by the Arab League—to monitor the implementation of a peace plan brokered by UN Special Envoy Kofi Annan. However, the Assad regime failed to uphold its commitments, Annan resigned in frustration, and the UNSMIS mandate ultimately failed to receive renewal due to heightening violence. (Annan was succeeded as envoy in September 2012 by the former Algerian diplomat and longtime UN troubleshooter Lakhdar Brahimi.)

The UN was not alone in facing these problems. Many regional organizations—most visibly the OAS and ASEAN—codified the principle of national sovereignty in their charters, making the possibility of intervention in internal disputes a remote prospect. Likewise, the requirement for unanimity in the OSCE was a major factor in delaying rapid action to prevent and respond to violence in Georgia in August 2008 and in Kyrgyzstan in July 2010. As a result, humanitarian nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) such as the International Committee of the Red Cross—which operates in eighty countries, including Pakistan, Yemen, and Colombia—were often the first responders to assist civilians affected by armed conflict.

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Strengthening Peace Operations

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Over the past four years, peacekeeping operations, led by the UN DPKO—which remained the primary institution for coordinating and carrying out such missions worldwide—continued to grow in complexity. The DPKO was responsible for sixteen missions on four continents, with newly refined missions in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) (2010), Abyei (2011), and South Sudan (2011). At the same time, the role of peacekeepers broadened beyond security provision thanks to the 2008 Capstone Doctrine, which mandated that UN peacekeepers play a role in peace-building and security-related programs, such as security sector reform, training of police, and promoting the rule of law. In July 2009, the DPKO launched the New Horizons [PDF] initiative to streamline operations, ensure consistent funding, and achieve consensus on policy matters. These changes—implemented during a time of rising demand for peace operations—demonstrated the DPKO's continued willingness to adapt in spite of declining personnel numbers.

Despite such initiatives, challenges remained. In May 2010, for example, the UN Security Council provided the DPKO with a new mandate for its stabilization mission in the DRC (UN Organization Stabilization Mission in the DRC, MONUSCO) that expanded its role in the country for peace-building assistance but troublingly restricted its security and good governance mandates to reflect local government prerogatives. Security improvements and political initiatives, however, were underwhelming. An August 2012 massacre in North Kivu, which occurred despite the presence of seventeen thousand UN peacekeepers in the country, underscored the magnitude of the burden placed on peace operations, particularly in a country the size of Western Europe. As UN peace operations expanded and took on greater responsibilities, their effectiveness remained constrained by limited logistical capacity, diplomatic support, and ability to create workable exit strategies, coupled with dwindling personnel and budgetary concerns.

Regional organizations also played an increasingly integral role in peacekeeping missions, both individually and in concert with other multilateral organizations and national governments. The AU, for example, exerted a robust role in the AU-UN Hybrid Mission in Darfur and in the AU Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), with some success. In mid-2011, AMISOM increased its military responsibilities, forcing the retreat of the al-Shabaab militia from the region surrounding Mogadishu. In doing so, it expanded its peacekeeping role beyond the capital city and continued to fulfill technical assistance and peace enforcement roles mandated in 2007. For its part, the EU continued to pay the allowances of all of the AMISOM peacekeepers. It also broadened its responsibilities in Kosovo beyond conventional peacekeeping to address socioeconomic, legal, and political issues in the territory. In addition, the EU embarked on a monitoring mission in 2008 in response to the conflict between Georgia and Russia. This mission was limited to observation, but it managed to obtain agreements from the government of Georgia to abstain from aggressive policing tactics in volatile regions of the state populated by separatist groups.

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Preventing and Responding to Mass Atrocities

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Over the past four years, there were normative and substantive steps to address mass atrocities around the world. In 2008, the UN secretary-general created the position of special adviser on the "responsibility to protect" (R2P) to oversee its development and implementation by working with the UN system, regional organizations, and member states. In what was the first application of force under R2P without host-nation consent, the UN Security Council in March 2011 authorized "all necessary measures" and a no-fly zone to protect civilians in Libya. Shortly thereafter, the UN Security Council responded to postelection violence in the Ivory Coast by calling for the transfer of power and reaffirming "all necessary means to protect life and property." In the aftermath of that resolution, robust military intervention by a combination of French and UN peacekeeping troops ensured the departure of Ivorian strongman Laurent Gbagbo and prevented major civilian casualties.

But such efforts were overshadowed by recent events, particularly the escalating civil war in Syria. By December 2012, approximately sixty thousand Syrians had been killed—many of them unarmed civilians—and more than three hundred thousand had fled the country (with more than one million remaining internally displaced in Syria itself). Despite the steady increase in violence, stronger action against the Bashar al-Assad regime by the UN Security Council faced repeated vetoes from Russia and China. At the same time, atrocities continued elsewhere. Before Sri Lankan forces defeated the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in 2009, thousands of civilians were killed. In the DRC, conflict resurged in November 2012 when the armed rebel group M23 mounted an offensive on Goma—reportedly supported by the governments of neighboring states. The UN charged both M23 and government forces with committing serious human rights abuses including raping and killing civilians. Finally, civilians continued to bear the brunt of fighting in the hotly-contested regions of Abyei and the Nuba Mountains in Sudan.

The divergent responses to Libya and Syria, in particular, produced a number of competing international initiatives. In May 2012, a UN General Assembly resolution on the "responsibility not to veto" led by the so-called S5—Costa Rica, Jordan, Liechtenstein, Singapore, and Switzerland—called on permanent members to refrain from using their veto power in cases of mass atrocities. (The resolution was ultimately withdrawn.) On the other end of the spectrum, Brazil spearheaded the concept of "responsibility while protecting" [PDF], which would impose stricter criteria for the use of force and demand greater accountability and monitoring once force has been authorized. Although both initiatives did not gain serious traction, the different approaches highlighted the unresolved tension over R2P in multilateral forums, particularly the UN Security Council.

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Peace-building and State-building

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Peace-building refers to international and national efforts to support recovery from armed conflict by building the foundations of shared economic growth, accountable governance, human security, and the rule of law. In a similar vein, state-building is the idea that development, good governance, security, and justice can best be achieved by bolstering state institutions. Over the last four years, Iraq and Afghanistan received the greatest peace-building and state-building resources and attention. In both of those cases, the United States—working closely with multilateral entities including North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), UN agencies, and the World Bank—played a major leadership role, not least in the security sphere. In Iraq, the drawdown and eventual end to the U.S. military operation, previously mandated to keep peace and train the Iraqi military forces, produced mixed results, as the security situation in the country remained volatile even after a decade of military operations and investment. However, there was still a vast international civilian presence seeking to advance development and good governance in Iraq. Although the George W. Bush administration initially sidelined UN involvement in Iraq, the UN later became a valuable partner for the United States and coalition members. The UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI), which continued operating after U.S. withdrawal, helped to facilitate election support, justice reform, rule of law reform, and political dialogue between ethnic and sectarian groups.

In Afghanistan, multiple international organizations and foreign governments played a major role from the outset, alongside the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). ISAF's mandate explicitly states the importance of robust military capabilities to provide security for sustainable socioeconomic development. The UN Assistance Mission for Afghanistan (UNAMA), like its counterpart in Iraq, played an influential political role. This included convening and monitoring the "Bonn process" and helping develop long-term strategies for civilian security and social and economic development. The Bonn process also provided an essential vehicle for mobilizing pledges of international aid and setting development priorities for Afghanistan through the International Contact Group for Afghanistan and Pakistan, an ad hoc coalition of state and nonstate actors. The group demonstrated the utility of convening interested parties by taking the lead in multilateral efforts to coordinate multiple bilateral projects and funding streams including the recent Bonn+10 conference.

In spite of enormous investment by the United States and its NATO partners, both Iraq and Afghanistan struggled to mitigate armed conflict within their borders, stave off interference from neighboring states, and perhaps most important, provide sustained security to their citizens. Insecurity was further exacerbated in Afghanistan by entrenched government corruption among senior leadership, the civil service, and Afghan security forces, particularly the police. The resulting lack of accountability severely undercut the effectiveness of reconstruction efforts and weakened trust between the government and its population.

Elsewhere, the UN continued to be heavily involved in peace-building, particularly through multi-dimensional peacekeeping operations and integrated political missions that involve close coordination among UN agencies, which were active in over thirty countries. The UN Development Program managed conflict mitigation and development projects in multiple fragile states, and through the UN Development Group, coordinated UN conflict- and development-related activities on the ground. The role of the UN PBC remained limited, having operated in only six countries over the past four years.

The World Bank, meanwhile, continued to expand its analytical and programmatic involvement in fragile and conflict-affected states, recognizing that such countries represent the hard core of the global development challenge. Its innovative 2011 World Development Report highlighted the devastating impact of armed conflict on efforts to alleviate poverty, meet basic human needs, and foster good governance. The World Bank was involved in peace-building and state-building efforts in more than seventy countries. From 2008 to 2012, the bank disbursed $115 million to programs through its State and Peace-Building Fund that replaced its Post-Conflict and Low Income Countries Under Stress (LICUS) Funds.

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Areas for Improvement

  • Amid a global economic recession, international institutions are increasingly pressured to do more with reduced funding and personnel. In such a resource-constrained context, the international donor community should devote a greater proportion of its limited funding to bolstering the conflict-prevention and rapid-response capabilities of the UN and regional organizations, reducing the likelihood that flash points will degenerate into full-blown conflicts. Resources can be redirected from official development assistance targeted for fragile states, which may also be in need of greater conflict prevention efforts. The United States should also push for a recalculation of annual assessments for UN peacekeeping prorated to national gross domestic product (GDP) levels to leverage increased contributions from rising powers.

  • To improve the long-term effectiveness of multilateral state-building and peace-building projects, the UN Security Council should mandate a coordinated review of lessons learned and best practices. This initiative, coordinated by the DPKO's Best Practices Unit, should include inputs from across the UN system (including DPA's Policy Planning Unit and the Peacebuilding Support Office), as well as from the World Bank and major UN member states, including the United States, United Kingdom, and others. The uneven planning and implementation of peace- and state-building missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the lack thereof in Libya, highlight the need for more robust and effective strategies.

Credits

Produced by the Council on Foreign Relations and Threespot

  • Executive Producer: Stewart Patrick
  • Web Producer: Andrei Henry
  • Producer / Writer: Farah Faisal Thaler
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