Unintended Consequences of the Primacy of Politics in UN Peace Operations.

Author:Engell, Troels Gausla
 
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Peace operations - primacy of politics - United Nations - Burundi - unintended consequences

1 Introduction

The use of military force in UN peacekeeping operations (PKOs), and risks of unintended consequences from an increasingly robust stance, has been an issue of intense discussion among scholars, as well as within the UN system. (1) However, the debate about unintended consequences has not fully encompassed the UN's Special Political Missions (SPMs). (2) In line with the 2015 report of the High-Level Independent Panel on Peace Operations (HIPPO), UN missions are moving toward a "primacy of politics." (3) Indeed, then Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon published an implementation report, which reaffirmed the main focus on political solutions. (4) In line with those reports, Secretary-General Antonio Guterres's prevention platform also puts politics at the center when it comes to addressing violent conflict. (5) While these reports have different drafters with differing priorities, they often are analyzed collectively. (6) However, the existence of political battles and cultural contestation in individual parts of the UN and across agencies is an established insight in the literature, which we presuppose. (7) For example, as Ben Majekodunmi argues, the UN's conflict prevention work is being undermined by a fragmented vision of what protection means, which leads the organization to have overlapping and even counterproductive activities. (8)

A central recommendation put forward by the experts on the HIPPO was to tone down robustness in the use of force, and to turn up the diplomatic aspects of UN peace operations, focusing on the importance of impartiality and facilitation of political solutions. (9) We call this robust politics, by which we mean efforts by the UN to assert itself in political processes around crisis management. In doing so, we are inspired by Emily Paddon Rhoads' concept of assertive impartiality, which we broaden to include political measures. Assertive impartiality is a change from the traditional passive impartiality, which has been prevalent in most of the UN's history. Gaining salience from around 1999, especially with the idea of robust peacekeeping, assertive impartiality shifts the basis for decision-making so that impartiality is not about treating all actors equally, but about defending the mission's mandate and protecting civilians without regard to who the spoiler or perpetrator is. This means that "claims to assertive impartiality ... differentiate victim from perpetrator, they assign innocence and guilt, and, far from being bloodless, abstract statements of principle, they compel action." (10) It therefore can be necessary to pressure (some of) the parties to a conflict, which previously had to consent to any UN action. The principle of consent of the parties thus also takes on new meaning under assertive impartiality.

In the context of this pivot toward more politically robust missions, in this article we aim to show unintended consequences that are specific to the primacy of politics, as this plays out in the UN's SPMs. What we add, more specifically, is an analysis of the unintended consequences the UN faced in implementing the primacy of politics during the 2015-2016 crisis in Burundi.

The unintended consequences we found include opportunities for the parties in a conflict to discredit the UN when it lacks unified political will, challenges to the principles of impartiality and consent of the parties, risks of changing rather than lessening conflict dynamics, and deteriorating relations with partner organizations. Some of these consequences affect the lives of people living in conflict situations. Most consequences, however, impair the ability of the UN to facilitate peace processes, which in turn has indirect effects on the population. Uniformed UN peacekeepers are not alone in facing unintended consequences.

The reason for choosing Burundi as the case study is that it illustrates a broader range of unresolved dilemmas than would be possible by analyzing the predominant cases of peacekeeping. Much of the literature on unintended consequences of robust peacekeeping centers on the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Mali. The DRC, Mali, and Burundi are all cases of the engagement of UN peace operations in local conflicts, but with different levels of military robustness in the response. UN engagement in Burundi differs, first and foremost, in being a special political mission with only civilian staff and police observers on the ground. We also discuss Burundi as a case because the country entered a new phase in its conflict at the same time as the reports that heralded the primacy of politics. As such, Burundi is among the few country situations that have had a new (type of) UN mission deployed since the decision to give primacy to politics. It remains too early to judge the generalizability of Burundi as a case, but the unintended consequences we identify provide valuable lessons for what to consider in other areas of UN engagement in local political settlements.

The analysis of UN efforts in Burundi is built on interviews conducted in Bujumbura and New York during 2016-2017, as well as the existing literature. All interviews were conducted with active-duty UN staff, national diplomats, and Burundian officials. These interviews were chosen to obtain views from policymakers and implementers with insights from their involvement with the 2015-2016 crisis. The fact that respondents were serving officials made it necessary to grant anonymity, and they are therefore distinguished only by place and date of the interview, with the addition of an organizational marker when necessary for understanding the implications. The interviews were used to solicit views, personal experiences, and field-near analysis. All factual information was triangulated with other sources.

In short, we explore what we refer to as robust politics by focusing on a case where assertive impartiality can be analyzed in the context of a political UN mission. In doing so, we also illustrate the value of bridging insights from the literature on unintended consequences of peacekeeping, and the renewed UN emphasis on the primacy of politics and conflict prevention. Accordingly, in the article we argue for the need to broaden current debates about unintended consequences.

2 Taking Stock of the Debate on Unintended Consequences

There are a number of unintended consequences of UN peace operations. (11) A literature has emerged that identifies and unpacks different types of unintended consequences for troop contribution countries (TCC s), for local populations, and for the UN missions. Such analyses have been extremely valuable but, for the most part, insights have been developed exclusively for PKOs and their military components. In this section, we categorize some of the unintended consequences already identified in the literature as concerning three clusters: UN principles, means and mandates, and conflict dynamics. We use this discussion to build on the important insights gained from this collective body of literature as we zoom in on unintended consequences in the UN's political missions.

2.1 UN Principles and Unintended Consequences

One of the traditional UN peacekeeping principles is impartiality, (12) a principle that the robust turn in peace operations is said to challenge, (13) especially when peacekeepers use force against specific groups or provide "robust support to a government that is party to an ongoing conflict." (14) This, in turn, gives rise to unintended consequences when it hampers the ability of the UN to facilitate political processes that are meant to involve all parties to a conflict--processes that are central to the aim of finding a lasting solution to violent conflict. (15) As Alex J. Bellamy and Charles T. Hunt, for example, note, "Using force against militia groups may make it harder to secure their cooperation in the future." (16) Thus, robustness in the use of force in peace operations may negatively affect the perceived impartiality of the UN mission and, with it, unintentionally also the effort of the UN to find lasting solutions to conflicts. The link is closest within the same mission, but spillover to other situations is a possibility.

2.2 Mandates, Means, and Unintended Consequences

Another aspect that critics have highlighted is that unintended consequences may follow when robust mandates are not matched by the means required to implement them. (17) On the one hand, it has been argued that, where peacekeeping operations do not have an explicit mandate to protect civilians, the presence of a UN peace operation may have the unintended consequence of being associated with "higher levels of violence by rebel groups." (18) In other words, "simply sending troops without the mandate to interfere when necessary can be devastating." (19) On the other hand, in conflict situations where military protection of civilians has been employed, this has negatively affected the participation of troops from Western countries, which in view of the increased risks of undertaking robust peacekeeping have mostly chosen noncombat roles for their peacekeepers. (20) Put differently, there is a likelihood that, when designing robust mandates, member states may not be prepared to "provide the means for the desired ends." (21) A related consequence has been the tendency for African peacekeepers to bear the brunt of the risks following from the mismatch of tasks and resources. Thus, an unintended consequence of reluctance among Western states to contribute frontline troops has been increased "friction and inequality" (22) in peace operations, with a "division of work," (23) where some peacekeepers are exposed to considerably more danger than others. (24)

On a related note, there have also been unintended consequences cases where the use of force is outsourced to regional organizations such as the...

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