A High-level View on Reform Needs for Peace Operations

This article combines an analysis of current reform efforts, and reform needs that I see following my four previous posts on the impact of trauma on sustainable peace and reconciliation. So, partly, you will see language coming from there. Opposed to these four pieces, this one does not make reference to external sources through footnotes. If you want to “check the fact-checking” for my conclusions, read the more detailed analysis.

Since taking office January 2017, the UN Secretary General has made the reform of how the UN engages in the field of peace and security a top priority. His vision includes efforts to improve the complex architecture through which the many UN actors within the Secretariat and within UN agencies contribute. More importantly, it also includes improving the conceptual approach: A historically grown delineation between peacekeeping and peacebuilding efforts, with the latter following the former, is being gradually replaced by more integrated approaches which put conflict prevention at the fore. Sustained peace and security is the best approach to prevent relapse into renewed conflict.

In his own words, the SG describes the challenge in his report to the General Assembly and the Security Council on peacebuilding and sustaining peace: “An important breakthrough … was the recognition that efforts to sustain peace were necessary not only once conflict had broken out but also long beforehand, through the prevention of conflict and addressing its root causes. More countries have recently experienced violent conflict than at any time in nearly three decades. Forced displacement has reached unparalleled levels. In too many places, the cohesion of societies and the well-being of people are at risk. Building a common vision of society must involve paying attention to the causes of those problems. In the resolutions, it was recognized that the international community must redouble its efforts to support Member States in preventing crises that exact such unacceptable and growing human and financial tolls.

The Secretary General thus points at the inherent connection between well-being of people, the cohesion of societies, and the likelihood of violent conflict: Health, including mental health, and cohesion of communities and societies are inseparable. In the currently increasingly challenged global system, with a rise of populism, nationalism, disregard of achievements on human values and rights, and erosion of vital elements of democracy including the rule of law, international organizations such as the United Nations are experiencing distrust and at times open hostility. A credible implementation of the UN SG’s vision requires to give him utmost support.

UN policy has not kept up with developments in peacekeeping, which has seen an increasing number of mandates that have changed the principles which have traditionally defined it as based on consent, limited use of force, and impartiality. The 2008 Capstone Doctrine sought, based on the findings and recommendations of the 2000 Brahimi Report, and on the aforementioned principles, to place peacekeeping within a spectrum of “Peace and Security Activities”, a “range of activities undertaken by the United Nations and other international actors to maintain peace and security throughout the world”.

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Whilst the Capstone Doctrine places peacekeeping within a larger set of concepts, the other elements remain largely undefined policy wise. This is also true for UN Special Political Missions. As one of the consequences of a changed environment in which these missions operate, peacekeeping has focused more and more on the grey zone with peace enforcement, making it more difficult to create a distinction to peace enforcement which is required if one is to uphold the traditional principles of peacekeeping. Peacekeeping is challenged by having a conceptual identity that is less reflected in contemporary mandates. With regard to it’s current reform, there is a common tendency to focus on those parts of this reform that make operations fit for work in less benign environments where there is less and less consent of stakeholders with the presence of a UN operation that includes more coercive capabilities. As another consequence, the distinction between peacekeeping operations and special political missions, which have been growing over the years since then, has become more difficult as well. At the same time, no follow up to the Capstone Doctrine took place. The “scattershot, incoherent and occasionally contradictory or competitive international efforts as a significant source of failed peacebuilding efforts”, as described by the SG in his 18 January 2018 report, comes as no surprise.

The 2015 report of the “High-Level Independent Panel on United Nations Peace Operations”, in conjunction with the 2015 “Report of the Advisory Group of Experts for the 2015 Review of the United Nations Peacebuilding Architecture” have set the stage for the current reform activities. Yet, a unifying policy that would reflect the views of all stakeholders within the United Nations how best to combine existing tools under the primacy of the Secretary General’s vision of putting conflict prevention to the fore is not yet visible.

At the same time, again with the SG’s own words in his report as of 18 January 2018, “the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development contains the blueprint of the common vision of society towards which the world is trying to move. Inclusive and sustainable development not only is an end in itself but also happens to be the best defence against the risks of violent conflict. The 2030 Agenda also contains the promise to leave no one behind in the quest to build such societies.

It can, therefore, be argued that the reform vision of the UN requires a fundamental discussion about how to proceed with outdated and incomplete doctrine: Peace operations need to be more integrated, which is one of the objectives behind the SG’s reform initiative of the peace&security architecture of the UN Secretariat: The UN is currently implementing a new organizational setup. This absorbs most capacity that is not already consumed by operational needs. However, in order to drive change, in this fundamental discussion there is a need for guiding strategic principles for mandating peace operations, and how they integrate the political objectives of the UN and its constituency. Growing rifts between members of the UN Security Council, and between the driving forces of the Security Council and the general constituency represented in the UN General Assembly can significantly paralyze future success of this reform.

If identifying root causes of conflict, as stated by the SG, sits at the heart of conflict prevention activities, then identifying root causes for relapse into conflict is a core activity of conflict prevention as well. It has often been stated that, in order to get peacekeeping done right, important opportunities of assistance during the early “golden hours” need to be addressed better. This is true for transnational threats including the combined effects of transnational organized crime, violent extremism, and terrorism, but it is also true for early assistance to peacebuilding, which often is missing recognition in mandating peacekeeping operations. Even more then this is vital if a renewed strategy of the United Nations is meant to lead to more integration and coherence between what currently is understood as peacekeeping and as peacebuilding.

Innovative approaches are needed in support of the Secretary General’s vision to make the entire system fit for contributing to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The context between conflict- and war related trauma of entire young generations and their caregivers through many forms of abuse on one hand, and the ability of communities and a society to move forward towards sustainable peace on the other hand, remains part of the scattershot activities of actors attempting to help, but without a guiding high-level policy.

At all times children have witnessed their fathers being killed and their mothers being brutally raped, and they have suffered from the same cruelties themselves, committed by armies, militias, gangs, and mobs. Children have been separated from their parents, endured unspeakable atrocities. This is the reality until today. Nowhere this is more devastating for communities and societies than when acts of severe war crimes or genocide are being committed. Generations suffer. Never before in human history the number of civilian casualties has outnumbered the military casualties as much as today. In contemporary conflicts, as much as 90 percent of casualties are among civilians, most of whom are women and children. Women in war-torn societies face specific and devastating forms of sexual violence, systematically deployed to achieve military or political objectives. It is in this context that entire traumatized generations emerge.

Children grow up with the consequences of what has been done to them and their parents, others again grow up with the knowledge that they are born because their mothers were raped. Raped mothers struggle with acceptance in patriarchal societies. Raped men even more. Children of rape, raised by a traumatized raped mother already struggling to love her unwanted child unconditionally, they also experience being pariahs in their communities. In all this suffering, childhood trauma is different from the trauma of adult survivors of conflict in that trauma is perceived as an event or a series of events in life for adults. It is defining the life of children. It is their never ending reality, and the younger they are, the fewer, if any, cognitive tools they have to comprehend what happens to them and to put it into a context of accountability of others. Mental health is severely affected by irreparable damage to the developing brain, and mitigating coping mechanisms within families or communities are dysfunctional or absent.

Sustained severe trauma through conflict-related violence profoundly impacts on the world of a toddler who has no concept of complex human relations. Subsequently, the adult survivor will suffer from a deformed capacity to establish healthy human relations. Because of neurophysiological damage inflicted by enduring trauma this is true for all cultures.

The International Community is also defined by the helplessness of many who care about humanity and decry the atrocities through soldiers, militia, gangs, mobs, violent extremists and international terrorists against civilian populations including children, whether in Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Sudan/Darfur, South Sudan, Central African Republic, Democratic of Congo, Burundi, Niger, Mali, Libya, recently Mozambique, Myanmar, and so many other places. Increasingly the divisions within the UN Security Council do not allow finding a common position that can be enforced. In cases of mandates being given to UN or partner organizations, we are confronted with an increasing inability to stop atrocities under our eyes, and to help countless trauma victims in the aftermath of conflict: Respect for ceasefires or commitment to peace agreements is as much waning as the acceptance of the UN itself, not least because of the disunity amongst those who constitute the UN: Member States, and especially the Security Council Members. Peace operations that can not sufficiently engage in deterring atrocities lose political credibility, such as in South Sudan, peace operations that engage in order to protect civilian populations with robust means, such as in Mali or the Democratic Republic of Congo find themselves being accused of bias, increasingly getting under fire themselves. The plight of civilians, especially children, continues. Billion-dollar peacekeeping operations get stuck in conflict where there is no peace to keep, losing capacity and credibility to contribute to peacebuilding.

Global migration of surviving traumatized young people throws them into the merciless arms of organized criminals and spills them into societies which are overwhelmed and increasingly hostile. Across the globe, whether in the U.S., Europe, or in Bangladesh facing refugees from Myanmar, traumatized children continue to experience severe traumatizing even in places they have been told might be their hope for a better future. Families with cruel abuse stories at their place of origin find themselves in another horror: The arrest of the adults and the forced and cruel separation of their infants, toddlers and children from them without any prospect to know how to maintain contact, or when they may be re-unified. Children who have been thrown on smuggler’s boats by their parents experience that a country denies access to a port of entry to vessels operated by aid organizations. Trauma becomes a constant fact of life. Alienation both on the side of victims and receiving host societies’ communities leads to “why bother” on either side. Antagonization leads to mutual resentment and hate. The spiral of conflict continues. Deported forced migrants come back to their country of origin, with little hope for peace, security, and some economic future. What do we know about the impact of mass trauma on children and adults by conflict and war? How well do we understand the connection between healing of individuals and communities, and societies, on the one hand and reconciliation as a core pre-condition for lasting peace?

On a high-level policy level, a much better appreciation of the damaging neurophysiological consequences of sustained childhood trauma within communities within and post conflict is necessary. A health-focused discussion needs to happen, recognizing the importance for peacebuilding efforts. Notwithstanding the different conditions created by different conflicts for whether, and how, the effects of severe trauma can be addressed through international assistance, its impact itself on communities and a society are deep. Whilst the crippling, life long, and intergenerational impact of trauma, especially during early childhood, on individual mental and physiological health is well documented and increasingly better understood, less knowledge exists about how it affects conflict- and post-conflict communities in different cultural settings. Even less studies have been undertaken on how such communities affected by large scale mental health deficiencies contribute to societal healing, or are supported in healing by those societies they exist in. Yet, any practitioner will agree on the relevance, perhaps with varying degrees of helplessness when it comes to the question how to help. Studies about how to overcome this within peace operations do not exist.

Closely connected to efforts raising awareness, a path towards identifying mitigating measures within peace operations needs to be charted. This is important in order to make a difference to the current situation: Practitioners and policy-makers acknowledging the problem in principle, but not sure about how to better and more holistically address it. However, the impact on building sustained peace, including through reconciliation, is critical. Therefore, the question must be how to incentivize an increased focus within support efforts for peace and security.

Without doubt, scattershot efforts to the best of the abilities of many actors do exist, including through humanitarian actors working in peace operations with so-called multi-dimensional mandates. An effort collecting views, practice, and potential best practice needs to be undertaken.

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