In Hindsight: UN Transitions in a Fractured Multilateral Environment
It has been nearly a decade since the Security Council authorised its most recent UN peacekeeping mission, the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA), in 2014. During this time, four UN peacekeeping missions—in Côte d’Ivoire (2017), Haiti (2017), Liberia (2018), and Sudan/Darfur (2020)—wound down their operations and saw their responsibilities transferred to the host government, UN Special Political Missions (SPMs) and/or UN Country Teams (UNCTs). New SPMs were deployed in Colombia (2016) and Yemen (2019), and peacekeeping missions were replaced by SPMs in Haiti in 2019 and Sudan in 2020. These transitions took place amidst declining international attention to UN peace operations and rising fiscal constraints, with some major financial contributors, most notably the US during the Trump administration, determined to trim the UN peacekeeping budget.
The discourse on transitions has recently intensified in response to the changing nature of conflict, underpinned by complex and multifaceted peace, security, and development challenges. A characteristic of current conflicts is their wider regional implications influenced by transnational actors and geopolitical rivalries involving major powers, contributing to their protracted nature.
As well, host countries and communities have grown frustrated with the perceived ineffectiveness of UN peace operations. At times, inflated public expectations and disappointments have been influenced by disinformation campaigns. This has been especially evident in Mali, where in June 2023, the host government sought the immediate withdrawal of the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), and in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), where the host government requested the UN Organization Stabilization Mission in the DRC (MONUSCO) to accelerate mission transition. These developments—and transitions in countries such as Sudan and Haiti, where the political and security environments have deteriorated following the departure of UN peacekeeping missions—have spotlit the issue of effective peacekeeping transitions. This month, Security Council Report will issue a research report analysing the Security Council’s engagement on transitions. This In Hindsight highlights some themes of this upcoming report.
Security Council on Transitions
The Council has played a critical role in overseeing and observing the management and implementation of transition processes, including as an element of its field missions. On a visiting mission to Timor-Leste in November 2012, Council members observed the drawdown and exit of the UN Integrated Mission in Timor-Leste (UNMIT). They visited Haiti in June 2017 to review the transition from MINUSTAH to MINUJUSTH. A similar visit to Côte d’Ivoire and Guinea Bissau in February 2019 allowed Council members to take stock of these countries’ transition processes and engage with UN officials in the field on what lessons and best practices could be drawn from these transitions. Council members visited DRC in March 2023 to, among other things, assess progress in the implementation of MONUSCO’s transition plan.
The Council has held several thematic discussions on transitions, spearheaded by elected members. In November 2000, the Netherlands, an elected Security Council member from 1999-2000, organised an open debate under the theme “no exit without strategy” to discuss the role of the Council in transitions. In July 2019, Peru, which served on the Council in 2018-2019, organised a briefing on peacebuilding and sustaining peace with a particular focus on strengthening partnerships for nationally-owned transitions. In December 2020, Tunisia, an elected Security Council member in 2020-2021, convened a meeting in its capacity as Chair of the Security Council Working Group on Peacekeeping Operations, to discuss “Transitions and exit strategies in peacekeeping operations: taking stock and looking forward”. Ireland, an elected member in 2021-2022, convened an open debate in September 2021 on peace operations transitions.
The Council has adopted two thematic outcomes on transitions. In a 21 December 2017 presidential statement, facilitated by elected member Egypt (2016-2017), the Security Council recognised the importance of adequately resourcing the peacebuilding components of UN peacekeeping missions, including during mission transitions and drawdowns. As an outcome of the September 2021 open debate initiated by Ireland, the Council adopted resolution 2594, which considered UN transition processes as a unique global partnership that draws together the contributions and commitments of the entire UN system. Pursuant to resolution 2594, the Secretary-General submitted a report to the Council on 29 June 2022, providing an update on ongoing and recently completed transitions since September 2019.
While Council members have acknowledged that well-planned and -managed transitions have the potential to prevent a relapse into conflict, sustain the progress achieved in conflict management and resolution, and lay the groundwork for lasting peace, since the adoption of resolution 2594 and Ireland’s departure from the Council, no member appears to have prioritised transitions or convened a follow-up discussion on the Secretary-General’s June 2022 report.
Council members generally concur on the “primacy of politics” in driving transition processes (the phrase, from the 2015 High-level Independent Panel on Peace Operations, denotes that political solutions create enduring peace). But different groups of Council members tend to emphasise different aspects of transitions. China, Russia and the three African members (A3) generally give heightened deference to host country views and prioritise peacekeeping operations’ support for the implementation of peace processes, the extension of state authority, and security sector reform (SSR). Other Council members, including the other permanent members (P3)—France, the UK, and the US—acknowledge the need to engage host countries and listen to their views and perspectives, but also stress host countries’ responsibilities in improving governance, promoting inclusivity and protecting civilians. They argue that the success of transitions hinges on the support of dedicated and accountable host governments, and on inclusive transition processes that provide equitable political opportunities for women, youth, and marginalised and underprivileged populations.
Against the backdrop of complex conflict settings with difficult regional and geopolitical dimensions, Council members’ differences often manifest themselves in mandate renewal negotiations. Several members seek to advance thematic language in these negotiations, including on human rights, the rule of law; justice and accountability; women, peace, and security, and children and armed conflict. On the other hand, China and Russia tend to suggest that such issues are peripheral to missions’ core mandates. Upcoming transitions are likely to be affected by the significant political fault lines among Council members.
Complicating the challenge is that the P3 which, at the time of writing in October 2023, among them hold the pen on 11 out of the 12 UN peacekeeping operations and eight out of the 12 special political missions (SPMs) mandated by the Security Council—in the main appear to have less leverage with host countries. Some host countries, particularly in Africa, have become increasingly critical of the penholding arrangements, spurred in large part by prevailing divisions within the Council and the support they are receiving from China and Russia, as well as other like-minded members.
Some of the permanent members that provide significant support to the peacekeeping budget periodically emphasise the need to cut costs. However, there is at least rhetorical agreement that financial considerations should not dictate the drawdown, reconfiguration, and exit of missions. Members also believe that missions should be provided with the resources to support fragile countries in transition and note that failure to do so can risk reversing the hard-won gains.
Options for Council Action
In light of the formidable challenges currently confronting UN peace operations and the difficult discussions surrounding the drawdown and exit of larger multidimensional UN peacekeeping missions, transitions have taken on heightened relevance in the work of the Security Council, despite its lack of follow-up discussion on the Secretary-General’s 29 June 2022 transitions report.
Even though missions are expected to develop a comprehensive transition plan at least 24 months before withdrawal or reconfiguration, based on the Secretary-General’s 2019 policy directive, some transition processes have had limited lead time due to unexpected developments, such as the withdrawal of the host country’s consent. This highlights the imperative to reassess UN policies and guidelines on transition planning and management to factor in less-than-ideal drawdown scenarios.
The role of UNCTs has been critical in taking over residual responsibilities from UN peace operations and sustaining the UN’s continued political engagement and cooperation with host countries in preserving peace and security gains. While UNCTs are increasingly involved in integrated planning processes, their views and concerns may not always be fully taken on board by missions and UN headquarters. Council members may want to bear in mind the Secretary-General’s call, in his 29 June 2022 report on transitions in UN peace operations, to make sure that “Security Council mandates are crafted on the basis of a realistic understanding of country team capacities and capabilities and that sufficient resources are projected and committed to supporting peacebuilding activities to avoid funding cliffs after the departure of a mission”. Given that the Council does not mandate the agencies, funds, and programmes, and has limited interaction with them, Council members may want to reflect on how best to acquire this understanding. They could consider making greater use of the PBC’s convening role to enhance engagement with UNCTs.
The role of host countries is crucial in the success or failure of a UN transition. This, as well as sustaining peace at community level, requires meaningful engagement with host governments and with civil society, including with women and youth representatives in the field. Many peace operations have noted the gap in public (and, at times, host government) expectations; countering this through strategic communication and public engagement has become more important, albeit harder, in the face of powerful disinformation campaigns waged against UN field presences.
Council members have recognised the need to strengthen partnerships with regional and sub-regional organisations in transition processes; as well, discussion of the financing of AU-led peace support operations (AUPSOs) has gained momentum. While predictions of a rapid decline in UN peace operations may be exaggerated, there is at present little appetite for larger multidimensional UN peace operations. There seems to be a growing recognition that current conflicts, with no sign of resolution, require more mobile and agile forces willing to take greater risks in countering violent armed groups and terrorists. Regional peace support operations may be better suited for such tasks, a perspective encapsulated in the Secretary-General’s July policy brief, A New Agenda for Peace.
Depending on the evolution of this discussion (at the time of writing, the A3 seems likely to table a draft framework resolution on the financing of AU-led peace operations before the end of 2023), a possible trend is of UN peacekeeping operations transitioning into UN peace support missions mandated to provide political and operational backstopping to AUPSOs. The Secretary-General’s 1 May 2023 report on the financing of AUPSOs seems to lean towards the UN support office option that is considered flexible and practical in tailoring support to AUPSOs in accordance with specific needs and circumstances.
These developments may bring about a shift in the UN’s hitherto UN-centric thinking about transitions. If AUPSOs take over stabilisation responsibilities as UN peace operations draw down and exit (in contrast to the historical trend of AUPSOs having transitioned into UN peacekeeping operations, as in the CAR, Mali, Liberia, Burundi, and elsewhere), the AU will also need capacity in the planning and management of transitions. Council members should recognise and actively anticipate the potential emergence of this trend.