In Hindsight: Recent Trends in Council Visiting Missions
In September, the Council undertook its 63rd visiting mission since 1992 when it visited the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) for the 14th time. The Council has utilised visiting missions more often in recent years, having conducted 13 missions covering 26 countries between January 2016 and October 2018, with five missions in both 2016 and 2017.
(For more information on the history of Council visiting missions, please see https://www.securitycouncilreport.org/un-security-council-working-methods/visiting-mission.php.)
An analysis of Council visiting missions between 2016 and 2018 shows some emerging trends and insights into their possible impact.
Until 2001, visiting missions were made up of small groups of Council members, and the intention to embark on a visit up to the mid-1990s was often recorded in a Council resolution or presidential statement. Today, all 15 members tend to join visiting missions, which are agreed on during informal discussions. Getting agreement tends to be a protracted process, often leaving little time between the decision and the departure. The agreement to undertake a mission, its participation and terms of reference are provided through letters to the Secretary-General.
Visiting missions have been used for a range of reasons, from assessing the implementation of Council decisions and supporting political agreements to reviewing the mandate of a peacekeeping operation and getting a better understanding of the situation on the ground. Often, they are motivated by a combination of factors.
Council members visited Colombia in May 2017 largely to demonstrate their commitment to the peace process and to support the government, and travelled to Guinea-Bissau (2014), Burundi (2015 and 2016), the DRC (2016), Haiti (2015) and South Sudan (2016) mainly to express their concerns over ongoing political crises. Visiting missions carried out with the aim of assessing whether a peacekeeping mandate needed to be adjusted include Haiti (2017) and Mali (2016). Visits to the Lake Chad Basin (2017) and to Bangladesh and Myanmar earlier this year had a strong humanitarian focus.
A new element in several recent missions has been the inclusion of a visit to a regional organisation. The Burundi trip in January 2016 included a visit to the AU, which had been actively involved in the situation following President Pierre Nkurunziza’s announcement that he would run for a third term. After a visit to Somalia and Kenya in May 2016, Council members travelled to Egypt for their first consultative meeting with the League of Arab states. The two bodies discussed Middle East issues, as well as Somalia, Libya and migration and refugee issues. During their March 2016 visit to West Africa, which covered Mali and Guinea-Bissau, Council members also stopped in Dakar to be briefed on the work of the UN Office in West Africa and the Sahel, particularly in relation to conflict prevention. They also discussed challenges facing the region with President Macky Sall of Senegal, who was then chair of ECOWAS.
A new trend in 2017 and 2018 has been for Council presidents to propose a visiting mission to a region of significance to their foreign policy. Four of the five visits in 2017 reflect the presidencies’ strong national interest: to Colombia (under Uruguay); Haiti (Bolivia); Addis Ababa for the annual UN Security Council-AU Peace and Security Council meeting (Ethiopia) and the Sahel region (France). This trend continued into 2018 with Kazakhstan leading a mission in January to Afghanistan during its presidency (although it had originally been proposed a few months earlier.)
While the impact of a Council visiting mission is hard to measure, it appears that the deeper understanding of the political climate and security challenges that comes with first-hand exposure can influence the Council’s actions. These visits also provide a unique opportunity for Council members to interact with the wider UN mission and country team. Following the visit to Mali in March 2016, Council members provided a more robust mandate for the mission in June, influenced by what they had heard from Malian stakeholders. The Lake Chad Basin visit in March 2017 resulted in a resolution that addressed the complexity of the situation, notably the link with root causes of the conflict including development and climate change. Such a resolution, which was the first to focus on the armed group Boko Haram, was largely possible because members had heard the same messages from stakeholders in all four countries.
During the visit to Myanmar and Bangladesh in April, Council members could appreciate the reality of the refugee camps in Bangladesh as well as the lack of readiness on the Myanmar side for the return of the refugees to Rakhine State. Council members were united in pressing for greater UN involvement, which may have accelerated the signing of a memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the Myanmar government, UNHCR and UNDP the month after the visit regarding the repatriation of refugees from Bangladesh. Implementation of the MOU continues to be slow, however. While the visit may have provided momentum for continued Council attention to the issue, stronger action, particularly on accountability, has been difficult as the visit did not result in a fundamental shift in Council members’ positions.
In several cases, visiting missions have led to Council actions that might have been more difficult to achieve in New York. During the visit to South Sudan in September 2016, the Council agreed on a joint communiqué with the Transitional Government of National Unity in which the government consented to the deployment of the Regional Protection Force as a part of UN Mission in South Sudan. The Burundi visit in January 2016 eventually led to a resolution authorising a UN police presence, an option that was raised by Russia during the visit. While implementation has been difficult in the case of the communiqué with South Sudan and has not occurred in the case of the police force in Burundi, the visits provided an opening to try to move forward on intractable issues.
Visiting missions can be useful tools, but their high cost, which is almost always entirely borne by the UN (where the visit is to a peace operation, it is a cost to that mission’s budget) and complex logistical arrangements suggest they are best utilised where they will have the greatest impact. A key element of this is their timing. Being able to visit as a crisis develops, rather than in the aftermath, would allow these missions to be conducted within a conflict-prevention framework. Visits in the early stages of a peace operation could lend insight to mandate sequencing. Another important component for a mission having an impact is sustained follow-up. The Council agenda is so heavy that it is often difficult to remain focused on a particular issue. But without consistent follow-up after a mission, the momentum and gains achieved can diminish over time.
An option to address some of these problems would be to revive the practice of “mini-missions” of a small number of Council members deployed quickly at critical moments to address specific challenges. This could afford greater flexibility when a crisis breaks, incur lower costs and perhaps allow for more regular return visits as follow-ups. An example of such a mission was when the Council dispatched a five-member delegation to East Timor in 1999 following the violence in the aftermath of the Council-authorised referendum in which East Timor overwhelmingly opted for independence from Indonesia. The Council constituted a mission of five members (Malaysia, Namibia, the Netherlands, Slovenia and the UK) and the delegation departed within 24 hours of obtaining Indonesia’s agreement. High-level engagement during the visit and a resolution upon the delegation’s return authorising an enforcement operation with Indonesia’s consent had significant impact on the situation, and illustrates the Council’s ability to use a visiting mission for conflict resolution and prevention.