from The Internationalist and International Institutions and Global Governance Program

The Good, the Bad, and the Sad of the High-Level Report on UN Peace Operations

Helmets belonging to soldiers of the Nigerian army are seen as part of preparations for their deployment to Mali.
Helmets belonging to soldiers of the Nigerian army are seen as part of preparations for their deployment to Mali.

July 28, 2015

Helmets belonging to soldiers of the Nigerian army are seen as part of preparations for their deployment to Mali.
Helmets belonging to soldiers of the Nigerian army are seen as part of preparations for their deployment to Mali.
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The following is a guest post by Charles T. Call, associate professor in American University’s School of International Service and author of Why Peace Fails: The Causes and Prevention of Civil War Recurrence (Georgetown University Press, 2012).

Last month, an independent panel of experts released a much-anticipated review of United Nations peace operations—and not a moment too soon. The panel was the first to examine the future of UN peacekeeping since the landmark Report of the Panel on United Nations Peace Operations, commonly known as the Brahimi Report, published in 2000.

Appointed by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in October 2014 amidst questions about the effectiveness of UN peacekeeping operations, the panel was charged with evaluating the current state of peace operations and their future needs. UN peacekeepers routinely confront new security challenges even as peacekeeping operations have grown to over one hundred thousand troops at a cost of $8.2 billion per year.

The report combines sound analysis of the current problems of peacekeeping with a comprehensive package of specific recommendations concerning conflict prevention, protecting civilians, and more effective use of UN troops in the face of diverse security challenges. In contrast to most prior UN reports, however, the panelists acknowledge that the main problems of peace operations lie with the political and budgetary jockeying of member states. The report criticizes stingy Western countries that focus on overly militarized solutions, repressive governments that endanger UN troops, and irresponsible troop-contributing countries that turn a blind eye to abuses.

Below is a tour d’horizon of the good, the bad, and the sad of the report.

The Good

Adapting to New Strategic Contexts

In recent decades, the conditions in which peacekeepers operate have undergone dramatic changes. The report makes apt distinctions between traditional ceasefire missions, post-Cold War peace implementation missions, and post-9/11 “conflict management” missions. All three types confront unique challenges, but the latter are especially difficult: oftentimes, peacekeepers are deployed to places where there is no peace to keep, are threatened by terrorists, or are given unclear mandates in the absence of a political process. Increasingly, the UN is pressed to assume a counterinsurgent or counterterrorist role alongside Western forces, contradicting the principle of neutrality.

The report strikes a balance between cautioning against peacekeepers becoming combatants, while supporting offensive actions so long as a political process is being pursued. Investing in civilian state-building in the absence of a viable political process is indeed wasteful. The report suggests new combat capabilities, but doesn’t offer a full vision for effective involvement in thorny Middle East situations—one of the reasons the panel was formed in the first place. Stating that UN peacekeeping missions are “not suited to engage in military counterterror operations,” the report seeks to preserve the legitimacy of the UN and its security, but in doing so, glosses over the political realities that future missions are likely to confront.

The report’s emphasis on conflict prevention is refreshing and overdue. The panelists write that the “avoidance of war rather than its resolution should be at the centre of national, regional and international effort and investment.” They call for marshaling all of the UN’s tools—going beyond reactive peacekeeping missions toward strengthening diplomatic and preventive political missions, elections support, human rights work, peacemaking and mediation support, and postwar peacebuilding efforts.

Tough words

The report has tough words for multiple constituencies, from the Secretariat and the Security Council to troop-contributing member states that fail to hold their troops accountable for sexual exploitation and abuse. The panelists highlight the shortcomings of “headquarters-focused policies, administrative procedures and practices” that are often unresponsive to the quick-changing needs of field offices. The panel also takes the P5 to task for mandating peace operations as a substitute for addressing underlying causes of mass violence where entrenched parties have links to one or another member of the P5.

The report also includes a welcome call for greater accountability all around. The panelists highlight the outrageous lack of accountability for sexual exploitation and abuse by UN personnel, UN member states that obfuscate and drag their feet, and a Secretariat that takes sixteen months on average to investigate complaints. Moreover, they call on the Secretariat to bar troop-contributing member states that do nothing to hold their peacekeepers accountable for sexual exploitation, rape, and other abuses.

Flexible Funding

The review recognizes that peacekeeping does require some money to actually do programs on the ground. The panel thus calls for permitting some resources from the assessed budget be used to support mission mandates that the Security Council has already deemed important. Peacekeeping desperately needs this flexibility. The report also makes a welcome call for UN missions to buy goods from national markets and producers to strengthen, rather than undermine, local economies.

The Bad

Too Military-Centric

The Security Council and most troop-contributing countries have focused on the military component of peacekeeping as the main instrument of influence, rather than as the security umbrella under which national actors—with external civilian expert support—can safely do the work of forging sustainable peace in their country. This problem plagues the U.S. approach to peacebuilding and stabilization more broadly. The report could have emphasized the need for greater civilian focus and civilian expertise in supporting political settlements in conflict-affected states. Unfortunately, despite calls for enhanced unarmed actions to protect civilians and a more preventive approach, the report does not shift away from this military-centric model.


The report may include “people” in its title, but it doesn’t adequately place local populations at the center of its vision for peace operations. Instead, the report focuses predominantly on fixing the internal UN machinery. The report acknowledges how hard it is for quick-moving peace operations to engage in participatory methods in the field, but the UN must go further and institutionalize methods to involve local populations.

Though it should go without saying, successful approaches to include local populations require women’s inclusion. The report’s recommendations advocate the role of women and gender, although mainly in the context of UN structures and staffing. It could have gone beyond the UN bureaucracy itself to consider how the UN engages with, supports, and empowers local women in decisions and processes and incorporates gender into its programs.

Deeper Changes to Leadership and UN Agencies

On leadership, there are sound calls (with lengthy precedent elsewhere) for merit-based selection, more orientation up front, and greater empowerment of field leadership. But the underlying problem of incentives is not directly addressed. The selection, performance reviews, and promotion of UN peacekeeping and development officials should involve greater emphasis on peace and security issues.

The Sad

The above criticisms notwithstanding, the report should be lauded for grappling with the complex challenges facing peace operations in a thoughtful and honest fashion. The panelists don’t shy from recognizing the “root causes” of the issues at hand, and governments from Washington to Khartoum to New Delhi are bound to find something to dislike. Most experts will concur with the panel’s exhortation for more of just about everything—more recognition that peacekeeping and peacebuilding require political solutions rather than military ones; more effort to improve coordination, anticipate crises, act preventively, protect civilians, and work with regional organizations; and more attention to the voices of local populations, particularly those of women. At the same time, the panel recognizes member states’ persistent shortsightedness in failing to dedicate the time and resources necessary to prevent armed conflicts and to adequately respond to them when they do break out. The report skims over this contradiction.

The sad fact is that without some force majeure, member states are unlikely to adopt most of the panel’s recommendations—just as they did with the Brahimi Report fifteen years ago. Many real dilemmas are unlikely to be resolved. For instance, how can the Secretariat bar unaccountable member states from contributing troops when the UN is in desperate need of more personnel? How can the UN devote more resources to conflict prevention when doing so could anger the host government in question?

The panel’s new report has plenty to commend. It could go further in addressing the underlying challenges of building sustainable peace and placing people front and center. But it remains a good starting point—if UN member states adopt even half of its recommendations.

More on:

International Organizations

Conflict Prevention

Wars and Conflict