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The state of peace operations: An interview with Lakhdar Brahimi

Zambian peacekeepers from the United Nations Mission in Sudan (UNMIS) patrol streets in Abyei on the border of Sudan and South Sudan.
Zambian peacekeepers from the United Nations Mission in Sudan (UNMIS) patrol streets in Abyei on the border of Sudan and South Sudan, May 2011. Photo: Flickr / UN Photo (Stuart Price).

Two years ago, on 31 October 2014, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon established the High-level Independent Panel on Peace Operations (HIPPO). The panel aimed to review the current state of UN peace operations and provide recommendations on how they can and should adapt to the changing global context and conflict environments in order to remain relevant and effective. The panel presented its final report to the Secretary-General in June 2015, and its recommendations are now being implemented.

SIPRI’s research team on peace operations and conflict management sat down with SIPRI Governing Board member Ambassador Lakhdar Brahimi earlier this year to discuss the current state of UN peace operations, his view on the HIPPO report and prospects for the future. Among other notable positions during his diplomatic career, Ambassador Brahimi chaired the panel that produced the previous comprehensive review of UN peace operations in 2000 (which came to be known as the ‘Brahimi report’). Below is an excerpt of the conversation.


SIPRI: Sixteen years after its publication, the Brahimi report is still regarded as a landmark document that really changed UN peace operations. How do you look back on the process and outcome of that review?

Brahimi: When we conducted our review we were just seven people and in quite a hurry. As it was very important that the UN Secretary-General would have something to present at the Millennium Summit in September 2000, we ended up doing the whole thing in four months. Unlike the HIPPO, which travelled extensively to all parts of the world, we barely left New York. I think we only went to Geneva for a couple of days to meet with agencies based there. In New York, we talked to senior and mid-level staff and Ambassadors from the Permanent Members of the Security Council and from as many member states as possible to avoid surprising any of them with the report’s outcomes. In other words, we wanted to create as much ownership of the report by the UN membership and bureaucracy as possible.

Of course everybody told us that our report would be just another UN document that would end up gathering dust on some shelf somewhere. It was therefore a pleasant surprise that it was so well received, not only by a lot of member states (although definitely not by all of them), but also by the Secretary-General, the UN bureaucracy and the media. Looking back I think it was a successful exercise, even though not all of our recommendations were implemented.


SIPRI researchers Jair van der Lijn and Timo Smit talking to Ambassador Lakhdar Brahimi
SIPRI researchers Dr Jair van der Lijn and Timo Smit talking to Ambassador Lakhdar Brahimi


SIPRI: Some policy analysts have remarked that, compared to the Brahimi report, the HIPPO report is a more technical document and much less revolutionary in terms of the recommendations it proposes. How do you reflect on this and do you think this is a fair comparison? 

Brahimi: I would say that it is a compliment rather than a complaint to say that the HIPPO report is more technical than the report we produced in 2000. You have to bear in mind that ‘revolutionary’ is a very big word at the UN, where consensus really means unanimity in practice. These reports are not written for posterity but for immediate implementation, and immediate implementation requires the concurrence of everybody. You are dealing with almost 200 sovereign nations and if only a handful of countries reject the outcome the process stops right there and your report will be useless.

If you are going to compare both reports it is also important to recall the background against which we started our review. At the end of the 1990s, the UN was experiencing a major crisis of confidence. The genocides in Rwanda and Srebrenica had caused a dramatic reversal of the initial optimism that had surrounded UN peacekeeping following the end of the cold war and Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali's Agenda for Peace. People in the corridors of the UN headquarters where seriously questioning whether UN peacekeeping might have been a mistake and some were openly wondering whether the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) should not be disbanded altogether. For us the main question was whether UN peacekeeping could survive—whether it could keep at least some of its promises or not. If our report was revolutionary, it was so in the sense that it revived something that was dying, which was exactly what was needed at that time.

You cannot compare this to the current situation in which everyone is actually rather happy with UN peace operations. The UN and its membership clearly think that UN peace operations are an important tool, because otherwise we would not have over 100,000 UN peacekeepers spread across the world today. So there is this tool, you have seen where it worked well and where it did not work so well, and therefore you try to perfect it. That was the point of departure of the HIPPO, and I think it got the right mix. It identified certain problems that persist and made recommendations on how to fix them. The UN and its membership can therefore not hide behind the fact that the HIPPO report was not revolutionary enough.

Overall, I think the HIPPO produced a very good report. While it is based on what we had already done in 2000, they have really tried to broaden the scope. Although there are perhaps one or two areas in which I think the panel could have gone a bit further, I am rather impressed with its report. We will now have to wait and see how it will work in practice of course.

When Ban Ki-moon commissioned the report he was already halfway into his second term, and by now he is approaching the end of his time as UN Secretary-General. So the question is how much of the report he can get implemented and how much will be left to his successor. Still, I think the incoming Secretary-General will find a lot of substance in this report to discuss with the members and the senior staff across the UN to improve UN peace operations further.


SIPRI: Can you give an example of an area in which you would have liked the HIPPO to have gone a bit further?

Brahimi: Although the HIPPO did a much better job than us in addressing the administrative set-up at the UN regarding the DPKO and the Department of Political Affairs (DPA), this is perhaps an area in which it could have been a bit more radical. Back in 2000 we were already playing with the idea of saying that it is unnecessary to have two separate departments. However, we did not want to create a problem for Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who was already thinking of his second term. The HIPPO did address the problem, but its solution—to place both departments under the supervision of a Deputy Secretary-General—is perhaps not as revolutionary as it could have been. But I do not know what the panel’s considerations were, of course.


The UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) conducts a training exercise in riot control for its peacekeepers in Juba, South Sudan, May 2015.
The UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) conducts a training exercise in riot control for its peacekeepers in Juba, South Sudan, May 2015. Photo: Flickr / United Nations Photo.


SIPRI: What about the issue of the use of force in UN peace operations? The HIPPO report concludes, for example, that ‘extreme caution must guide any call for a UN peacekeeping operation to undertake enforcement tasks’ and that it should stay away from military counterterrorism. What are your thoughts on this?

Brahimi: I fully understand their caution. The use of force in UN peace operations is a very complex issue that is difficult to resolve. However, the experience of the last 25 years is that the use of force outside the UN framework has been catastrophic. I cannot remember a single instance where such a military intervention has been effective. In some cases—Iraq more than anything—it has been absolutely and outrageously horrible.

The UN is still uncomfortable and lacking the self-confidence to authorize missions under Chapter VII of the UN Charter (‘Action with respect to threats to the peace, breaches of the peace and acts of aggression’) and tasks that require the use of force. The UN’s main problem is that the countries that have well-equipped and well-trained armies refuse to participate in UN missions, even for the purpose of peacekeeping under Chapter VI (‘Pacific settlement of disputes’). I still find it extremely difficult to accept that rich countries seem to have decided that they will finance peace operations but not put their own people in harm’s way. I think this division of labour—in which the rich provide the money and the poor provide the blood—is utterly immoral and unacceptable. However dramatic this may sound, this is in essence how it has become.

Fortunately there are other countries that can be effective. For example, I am encouraged to see that China has become increasingly interested in participating in UN peace operations. Other examples include India, Pakistan, some African countries and perhaps a few countries in South America. I think the UN can now mount effective peace operations that can easily fulfill peacekeeping missions, and perhaps even, in some cases, enforcement missions.

As for military counterterrorism, the short answer is that I do not understand what it is supposed to entail. You do what the situation allows and compels you to do. When the UN went to Haiti they were only supposed to monitor the Haitian police and not do any policing themselves. But whom are you going to monitor if there is no functioning police force, as was the case in Haiti? Say that hypothetically there was a UN force in Nigeria and that they had located the Chibok girls, are you not going to attempt to free them because the UN is not supposed to do counterterrorism?


SIPRI: These richer countries you mention may claim that they do participate in multilateral operations, albeit outside the UN framework, as they did in the Multi-National Force (MNF) in Iraq and the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan.

Brahimi: The military operation in Iraq was an invasion—naked aggression, led by the most powerful country in the world without justification. And the UN refused to support it. As for Afghanistan, please remember that ISAF was a multinational force, duly authorized by the UN Security Council. It was functioning next to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), the UN civilian mission, and it was not engaged in war. Next to that, there was Operation Enduring Freedom, a US-led war-making force that was not authorized by the UN.

NATO eventually assumed the command of ISAF, in the course of 2003. In hindsight, the UN should have asked questions and expressed reservations when that happened. Contributors to ISAF reassured us then that this was a purely technical arrangement and that ISAF was not becoming a NATO Force. But then a couple of years later ISAF and Operation Enduring Freedom were merged as a NATO-led Force waging war in Afghanistan. Once that was done, the UN should have stayed firmly away and made it clear to all that that military, US-led mission had nothing to do with UNAMA.

That has not happened with the needed clarity and as a result the difference between the UN and NATO became somewhat blurred. That made the UN suspicious in the eyes of many and it did not help the USA and their allies in the least. Indeed, if the independence and impartiality of the UN had been better preserved, the UN would have been much more useful to the people of Afghanistan as well as to the International Community, including the USA and its allies.


SIPRI: The Brahimi report was essential for the development of the use of force in UN peace operations and the concept of ‘robust’ peace operations. In recent years the limits of robustness have been stretched by, for example, the Force Intervention Brigade in Eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo and in stabilization missions in Mali and the Central African Republic. How do you weigh this development—that UN peace operations are more frequently mandated to use force—against the other recommendation in your report that UN peace operations should have achievable mandates?

Brahimi: Let us first clarify that our report was used as a basis for further study to promote and refine the idea of ‘robustness’ and clarify in which circumstances the use of force becomes necessary or unavoidable or useful or all of that together.

Having said that, it is a fact that the UN is overextended and may be overexposed. Some of the current missions are too large and have mandates that may be too broad and insufficiently clear. Robustness needs to be matched by sufficient resources. For example, practically all UN peacekeeping operations nowadays have a protection of civilians mandate. While protection of civilians is a great concept, you have got to have the means to do it. As long as this is not the case, I am afraid that blanket promises to protect civilians might expose the UN to another Srebrenica.

Of course it is difficult for the Secretary-General to refuse mandates that create unrealistic expectations. But he should firmly put the facts before the Security Council. He should tell the members of the Security Council that if they want the UN to protect civilians in places like Darfur or South Sudan, they should either provide the number of soldiers required to do so or not make the promise to do so. If there is one formulation in the Brahimi report of which I am particularly proud, it is that the Secretary-General should tell the Security Council what they need to know, not what they want to hear.


SIPRI: Yet, there have been cases in which peace operations end up taking over principal functions of the host government, or support governments to re-establish state authority throughout their territory, perhaps even at the expense of their perceived impartiality. Do you then have your doubts about these kind of missions?

Brahimi: I do not believe that the UN should replace governments. This happened in Kosovo and that could not be helped in the circumstances that existed at the time. When the late UN diplomat Sergio Vieira de Melo took a similar position in Timor, I used to tease him by saying that he had become the dictator of Timor-Leste and that Xanana Gusmao, the leader of the Liberation Movement, was his advisor; why not the opposite: Gusmao as the head of the administration and Sergio as his advisor?

The UN must help a government as well as it can, so that the government can do what it needs to do. You will not find any expressions in the 2001 Bonn Agreement (on Afghanistan) that the UN will do this or that; it states that the UN will help the Afghans to do this or that. This is also how you establish the basis of limited expectations. The UN is not going to create paradise.

In this process, there is nothing inherently wrong with supporting governments as long as they are, or at least visibly try to be, inclusive. You can help a representative government to regain control over its territory with the support of the population. Of course, hopefully the government that you are supporting is in the process of becoming a national government if it is not that already. However, the UN must be careful when dealing with a government which is sectarian and should not be seen as siding with a government that is not reasonably representative of, and acceptable to, the entire population.


Bombed vehicles in Aleppo, Syria.
Bombed vehicles in Aleppo, Syria in 2012. Photo: Commons / Voice of America News.


SIPRI: You were the UN Special Envoy for Syria from 2012 to 2014. What future role do you see for peace operations in countries like Syria? Even if a comprehensive ceasefire or peace agreement would allow for the establishment of a peace operation, it would most likely remain a very high risk environment for UN peacekeepers.

Brahimi: If you would ask me whether it would be possible to do any kind of peacekeeping in Syria today the answer would be a clear no, as there is neither consent by the main parties nor a clear starting point on which to base an operation.

However, when an agreement is in place this is definitely an option. The UN will do its best to ensure that any kind of peace agreement that is drafted will include the best possible provisions to allow for a peace operation. Of course it would be very difficult to establish a UN mission in countries like Syria, and in these situations you cannot expect that everything is going to be perfect. That is why you would probably need to adjust your mandate along the way.

As a matter of fact, I think that in general the first mandate of any UN peace operation should be provisional. You simply do not have enough knowledge of the situation on the ground before you deploy, no matter how much you think you know. A few months into a mission you have a much better perspective of the challenges and requirements. Then you can adjust or rewrite the mandate accordingly and submit it to the Security Council. I am very glad to see that the HIPPO made recommendations to that effect.


Dr Jaïr van der Lijn is a Senior Researcher and Director of the SIPRI Peace Operations and Conflict Management Programme.
Timo Smit is a Senior Researcher in the SIPRI Peace Operations and Conflict Management Programme.