from The Internationalist and International Institutions and Global Governance Program

The Global Response to Armed Conflict: From Aleppo to Kinshasa

February 19, 2014

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As the civil war in Syria rages on, and the United States and its international partners appear unable to mobilize a collective response to stem the bloodshed, CFR’s International Institutions and Global Governance program has launched an update to its Global Governance Monitor: Armed Conflict. The revamped multimedia guide uses a new technology platform to track and analyze recent multilateral efforts to prevent, manage, and respond to armed violence around the globe. Combining stunning images and compelling narrative, it identifies the major successes and failures in global conflict mitigation during 2013.

The Armed Conflict update underscores dramatic changes in international cooperation on conflict prevention and peacekeeping in the past year. While Syria has absorbed most of the international media attention, the United Nations has also launched or bolstered major peace operations in Africa.

“Peacekeeping,” of course, was not even mentioned in the UN Charter, whose World War II architects were preoccupied with preventing and punishing military aggression. Rather, it was an improvisation—something between the peaceful settlement of disputes under Chapter 6 and coercive action under Chapter 7. Initially, these so-called “Chapter 6 and a Half” operations involved the insertion of observers or lightly armed soldiers to maintain ceasefires between warring parties. Over time, however, the scope of peace operations and the number of actors involved expanded dramatically.

In 2013, the UN Security Council authorized assertive mandates for missions in Mali and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). These more robust rules of engagement permitted UN forces to take forceful actions such as neutralizing rebel troops acting as “spoilers” in the respective peace processes. As a result, conditions in both countries markedly improved. The Malian government held presidential and legislative elections without significant levels of violence. In the DRC, the M23 rebel movement agreed to put down its weapons to pursue its goals through purely political means.

This growing willingness to deploy combat-ready troops for peace enforcement is a welcome shift, helping the UN quell violence and instability, rather than assuming the role of passive bystander when conflicts escalate. At the same time, more assertive mandates, such as those adopted in Mali and the DRC, carry inherent risks. The use of force can have unpredictable consequences, threatening the safety of UN personnel. Such missions may involve the UN directly in the conflict, jeopardizing its reputation as an impartial, honest broker. To mitigate potential harm to the UN’s reputation and avoid undermining its objectives, the updated Global Governance Monitor recommends that the UN reframe the concept of “impartiality” to mean equal treatment to all parties working for peace, combined with resolute opposition to spoilers bent on violence. It also calls on the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) to prioritize inclusive dialogue and reach out to representatives from all sides of the conflict.

Another UN innovation during 2013 was to incorporate drone technologies into its peacekeeping missions. In contrast to drones being used by the United States in Yemen, Pakistan, and elsewhere, these are unarmed. They are designed to provide critical surveillance capabilities for UN peacekeeping missions.  The DPKO launched its first unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) in the DRC in December 2013. Considered by many to be the future of warfare, drones may actually enable peacekeepers to carry out their mandates more cheaply, safely, and effectively by providing situational awareness of large swaths of territory.

The biggest disappointment in multilateral efforts to mitigate violent conflict during 2013 was assuredly the civil war in Syria. The UN Security Council’s (UNSC) failure to produce an authoritative resolution that ends the fighting in Syria has allowed violence to continue unabated, with devastating humanitarian consequences and mounting atrocities against civilian populations. Although the UN’s Office of the Special Advisor on the Prevention of Genocide (OSAPG) has called for countries to cease crimes against humanity, the UNSC has failed to catalyze an international response, given deadlock among its permanent members.

International inaction in Syria has undermined, and indeed reversed, consolidation of the evolving norm of the “responsibility to protect” (R2P). In retrospect, the 2011 UNSC-authorized intervention in Libya, which many regarded as a vindication of the principle, appears to have been its high water-mark, as many non-Western countries perceived the action as a façade for facilitating regime change. Security Council dissensus over Syria has cast doubt over the future of R2P as a mainstream international norm and policy guide in situations of mass atrocities.

U.S. and international action are needed to ensure that conflict-prevention, conflict-response, peace-building, and state-building efforts are supported with ample political backing and resources. The Global Governance Monitor: Armed Conflict’s issue brief identifies six other priority steps:

  • Enhance the global and regional architecture for conflict prevention: The United States should work with the United Nations and regional organizations to strengthen crisis prevention capabilities. An immediate objective should be to better integrate conflict analysis and early-warning efforts into organizational decision-making processes. The United Nations and regional organizations must also improve information-sharing, particularly given the rise of “hybrid” missions involving both sets of actors.
  • Rebalance budgets to enhance conflict prevention: Given budgetary constraints, officials tend to prioritize immediate crises and may neglect emerging ones. Where possible, international institutions should allocate a greater proportion of their funding to support preventive measures, including mediation.
  • Improve planning of UN peacekeeping and peace-building missions: The UNDPKO should seek to improve strategic planning and coordination between UN peacekeeping missions and broader peace-building efforts in crisis countries.
  • Clarify UN mandates and exit strategies for peace operations: UN missions too often suffer from unrealistic mandates. The UNSC must return to the principles articulated in the Brahimi Report (2000), by ensuring that mandates are reasonable, appropriate to conflict context, and sustained by adequate funds, troops, and logistics.
  • Develop rapidly deployable U.S. military forces to prevent mass atrocities: The Obama administration has declared the prevention of mass atrocities a national security priority. To add muscle behind this commitment, the president should direct the Department of Defense to develop doctrine, plans, and training to make that mission a Pentagon-wide priority.
  • Create a dedicated U.S. mediation support team: The Obama administration should develop a strategic vision for, fund, and staff a rapidly deployable Mediation Support Unit within the State Department’s Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations.