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Open Debate on Strategic Communications in Peacekeeping Operations*

Tomorrow (July 12), the Security Council will hold a high-level open debate on strategic communications in UN peacekeeping operations. Brazilian Foreign Minister Carlos Alberto Franco França is expected to chair the meeting. Secretary-General António Guterres will deliver remarks. The expected briefers are Force Commander for the UN Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) Lieutenant General Marcos De Sá Affonso Da Costa and Dr.Jenna Russo, Director of Research and Head of the Brian Urquhart Center for Peace Operations at the International Peace Institute (IPI).

At the time of writing, members were negotiating a presidential statement that was proposed by Brazil as a possible outcome of the open debate. It is unclear whether agreement will be reached in time for tomorrow’s meeting.

Brazil has circulated a concept note ahead of the open debate to help guide the discussion. It states that strategic communications are critical to “securing the political and public support that UN peacekeeping missions need to effectively implement their mandates and create a safe operational environment for peacekeepers”. They do so by helping to manage the expectations of relevant stakeholders—including those of local communities and host governments—and addressing disinformation and misinformation that can undermine the credibility of peacekeeping operations and put peacekeepers at risk.

According to the concept note, tomorrow’s meeting will focus on the key role of strategic communications in the implementation of peacekeeping mandates, including their contribution to the protection of civilians and women, peace and security agendas. The meeting also aims to highlight the role of strategic communications in promoting the safety and security of peacekeepers. It will also serve as a platform to discuss concrete proposals to improve the strategic communication capabilities of peacekeeping missions and at the UN headquarters.

The concept note suggests several questions for member states’ consideration at tomorrow’s meeting, including:

Guterres may highlight in his remarks the challenges that UN peace operations are facing on the ground. Several UN peace operations are deployed in increasingly volatile security environments, and the changing technological landscape is further complicating their task. The Secretary-General has highlighted these challenges in his regular reports on UN peacekeeping operations in such country-situations as the Central African Republic (CAR), the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Mali, among others.

Guterres may also note that while digital technologies offer new capabilities to enhance the effectiveness of UN peace operations, they also create difficulties by shaping the conflict environment and influencing public opinion against UN peace operations. In this regard, he may elaborate on some of the steps taken by the UN Secretariat to address these challenges, including through the development of the UN Policy on Strategic Communications for Peacekeeping Operations—which outlines a common standard for how peacekeeping operations approach and manage strategic communications and public information—and the Strategy for the Digital Transformation of UN Peacekeeping, which seeks to help missions in implementing their mandates effectively by harnessing the potential of digital technologies and mitigating their risks. Guterres may also highlight strategic communications as one of the key priorities under the Action for Peacekeeping Plus (A4P+) initiative, citing it as an important enabler and multiplier across all mandated areas to help accelerate progress in the reform of UN peace operations.

Affonso Da Costa may describe MONUSCO’s efforts to strengthen strategic communications. In this regard, he may cite as a positive example the radio network “Radio Okapi” which operates in the DRC. It was established in 2002 by the then-UN peacekeeping mission in the country, the UN Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUC), in cooperation with a Swiss non-governmental organisation. Over the past ten years, the radio network, which operates in several languages, has provided the local population with information about the UN’s activities in the country.

Russo is likely to highlight the main findings of an August 2021 IPI research report titled “Strategic Communications in UN Peace Operations: From an Afterthought to an Operational Necessity”, which emphasises the need for UN peace operations to consider strategic communications as a core mission capacity. It underscores the need to provide UN peace operations with adequate resources and additional personnel who have the necessary training and skill-set to enhance the operations’ strategic communications capabilities.

Tomorrow will be the first time the Security Council holds a meeting specifically focused on strategic communications in peacekeeping. Council members are expected to be supportive of this discussion, given the challenges that peace operations are facing on the ground.

Although members are generally supportive of Brazil’s initiative for a presidential statement in connection with tomorrow’s meeting, some differences have emerged during the negotiations on the draft text. It seems that one issue of contention was language proposed by some members about peacekeeping intelligence and situational awareness in strategic communications. The UN issued a policy on intelligence in peacekeeping in 2017 and then issued a revised version in 2019. It outlines how UN peacekeeping operations acquire, collate, analyse, disseminate, use, protect and manage peacekeeping-intelligence to support its operations in the field. While some members believe that peacekeeping intelligence can play an important role in enhancing the situational awareness of peacekeeping missions, other members are more critical of its use in UN peace operations.

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*Post-script: On 12 July, the Security Council adopted a presidential statement which highlights the role of strategic communications in supporting the implementation of UN peacekeeping operations’ mandates and promoting the safety and security of peacekeepers. It welcomes ongoing efforts to integrate strategic communications in the planning and decision-making of peacekeeping operations. The Security Council requests the Secretary-General to undertake a strategic review of strategic communications across UN peacekeeping operations, including at the headquarters level, and submit its outcomes no later than April 2023. It also requests him to include information on strategic communications as part of his regular reports to the Security Council on individual peacekeeping operations.

It appears that members were generally supportive of Brazil’s initiative for a presidential statement. However, one of the contentious issues during the negotiations was a proposal by the UK and the US to include references on peacekeeping intelligence and situational awareness in strategic communications. Russia opposed the inclusion of such language, and it was not retained in the final text of the presidential statement.

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