Editors’ picks for 2015 ‘UN peace operations: time for Australia to take a more strategic approach’
5 Jan 2016|
Members of the Indian military contingent of the UN Mission in Sudan (UNMIS) prepare to depart from their mission site for a patrol around Abyei town.

Originally published 23 June 2015. Picked by Amelia Long.

The United Nations appears to have seized on its 70th anniversary this year to undertake a series of high-level reviews (previously noted here). Long awaited among them have been the outcomes of the High-level Independent Panel on UN Peace Operations. Last week the chair, Jose Ramos-Horta, presented the final report (PDF) to the UN Secretary-General. As the most comprehensive review since the Brahimi Report in 2000, there have been high hopes for the report.

The challenges prompting the appointment of the panel to undertake the review of UN peacekeeping and special political missions in June 2014 are immense. Recent decisions of the UN Security Council—decisions Australia supported as a non-permanent member—resulted in the deployment of a controversial force intervention brigade into the DRC, a robust stabilisation operation in Mali and another new mission to the Central African Republic. Pressure for the international community to respond without delay to protect civilians has meant that peacekeeping missions are increasingly deploying into environments where hostilities are ongoing, political dialogues (if any) are fragile and blue helmets are a direct target. And many missions still lack the capabilities authorised and budgeted for as part of their mandates.

The panel report recognises efforts to prevent and mediate conflict have been vastly under-resourced. Special political missions like those deployed in Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan have a much smaller footprint than many peacekeeping operations. They have traditionally lacked a political constituency like the one that drives dialogues among troop and police contributors on peacekeeping. This has often meant that political support and investment in prevention and mediation efforts has waned until a crisis breaks out. The role of those smaller missions in brokering political dialogues has become all the more important with concerns about violent extremism and state breakdown across North Africa and the Middle East.

That awkward and institutionally ingrained distinction between peacekeeping operations (largely military and police) and special political missions (primarily civilian) in the UN system has resulted in inflexible political, financial and operational approaches in the field. The report subsequently makes several recommendations to address these deficits, with a heavy emphasis on the need for the UN to invest more in prevention activities and political dialogues.

Among the most awaited recommendations, however, are likely to be the panel’s assessments on the direction of peacekeeping operations. These included reviving old ideas on the need for a rapidly deployable capacity, two-stage mandating process and greater accountability on conduct and discipline, highlighting ongoing deficits and gaps. Addressing political concerns about the limits and reach of UN peacekeeping operations, the panel report cautioned the Security Council from authorising peace operations in environments that the UN is ill-equipped to operate in (eg counterterrorism operations), but nonetheless noted the need for personnel to be prepared for these environments. Echoing statements by UN officials, the panel not surprisingly urged countries with higher capabilities to deploy to UN peacekeeping missions.

Like Europe, Australia was a likely target audience of that latter comment. Our contributions to UN peacekeeping have substantially declined and are at their lowest in nearly decade—and this is at a time when the UN is overstretched. With just over 40 personnel deployed to operations in South Sudan, Liberia, Cyprus and the Middle East, Australia is ranked 86th from 121 peacekeeping contributors. While deployments of personnel and equipment aren’t the only measure to demonstrate support for UN peacekeeping, it’s still one of the most visible means for assessing a country’s level of commitment. Key allies such as the United States are stepping up their engagement politically. President Barack Obama will chair a high level summit on UN peacekeeping in September. You can expect Australia will be approached to make commitments.

The release of the panel report and upcoming summit in September present an opportune time for Australia to consider its political and operational interests in supporting UN peace operations. This should include a more strategic and whole-of-government approach, which identifies policy priorities, opportunities for training and capacity-building programs, and missions where the government may consider deploying personnel and assets in the future.

As the government reflects on the recommendations in the panel’s report, thought should be given to issues that Australia wishes to actively progress among the UN membership, including established priorities such as protection of civilians and policing. It should also include further consideration of niche, modest capabilities that Australia can deploy to missions that have an enabling effect, which may include strategic airlift, logistics, and counter-IED expertise.

As Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has noted, the conclusion of our two-year term on the UN Security Council has positioned Australia well to deliver support to strengthen the effectiveness of UN peacekeeping. We should utilise the momentum established with the release of this report to continue that work—and build on it.