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A Crisis of Consent in UN Peace Operations

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DR Congo
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ast week, at least 15 people died in protests demanding United Nations (UN) peacekeepers leave the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The week before, the military junta ruling Mali halted troop rotations for the UN mission there and ejected the mission’s deputy spokesperson. These incidents are not just urgent practical challenges for UN peace operations. They highlight the deep-seated crises of consent and legitimacy unfolding in these missions.

The UN mission in the DRC, MONUSCO, has the government’s weak consent to operate and wield force, but it has failed to build legitimacy and consent among the ordinary people who are most affected by the conflict. The government has been trying to get the mission to leave since 2010, and the UN has been in the process of drawing the mission down since 2020. Protestors, meanwhile, say they want the UN to leave because it has failed to protect civilians. This week, UN peacekeepers returning to the mission from their home country opened fire on a crowd, killing two people and injuring others—a serious incident that drew the UN Secretariat’s outrage and seems likely to accelerate demands for the mission’s departure.

In Mali, government consent for the stabilization mission (MINUSMA) that began in 2013 soured following a 2020 military coup. A recent mandate renewal initially stalled over how freely the mission could move in the country, and over how to manage the reported increase in the Malian armed forces’ alleged human rights violations. Blue helmets in Mali today are operating in a political context that their mandate is not suited for, with decreasing benefit to the civilian population and at great risk to themselves: for eight consecutive years, MINUSMA has been the deadliest mission in the world for peacekeepers.

Protests in the DRC highlight how the consent of people, not just the state, is central to UN peace operations’ effective work, while turmoil over the terms of MINUSMA’s deployment highlights how political questions, not the exercise of force, remain at the heart of peace operations. If UN member states want multidimensional peacekeeping operations to survive the next few decades, then they should authorize peace operations that build consent and support for peace and for their presence and goals at multiple levels—including both the state and its people—and draft mandates that are anchored in meaningful, context-sensitive political processes that center diplomatic and humanitarian goals.

Whose Consent?

UN peace operations are the most prominent contemporary tool for multilateral conflict management worldwide, and historically they’ve distinguished themselves from other kinds of military interventions by adhering to three core principles: consent of the warring parties, impartiality, and the limited use of force. Even though operations hewing to these three principles have been extremely successful, the UNSC hasn’t authorized a new multidimensional mission of this kind in nearly ten years.

MONUSCO and MINUSMA, as well as the UN mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA), are robust peace operations with stabilization mandates. Unlike older missions that focus on upholding peace agreements between warring parties, MONUSCO, MINUSMA, and MINSUCA are all charged with helping the state government manage violent challengers and assert its primacy. In these missions, the UN is explicitly intervening on the side of the state, and peacekeepers are charged with using force in defense of state authority. As Mona Ali Khalil argues, peace operations that undertake offensive military action challenge both the principles of impartiality and the limited use of force, leaving only consent to distinguish UN operations from other kinds of military interventions. Consequently, whose consent matters a great deal.

Traditionally, consent is based on the approval of the host government, even when the state is a prominent violator of its population’s human rights. Although MONUSCO’s relationship with the government has at times been rocky, its unique Force Intervention Brigade (FIB) —an offensive force within the mission authorized to combat non-state armed groups, including the M23 rebel movement in the Eastern DRC, among others— has committed the mission to underwriting and supporting the state’s armed forces since 2012. Its early successes pushed the movement back.

Today the M23 is resurgent, and the underlying conflict remains unresolved, with dire consequences for people on the ground. As Jenna Russo argues, pursuing a militarized solution “closed the door on political solutions to the conflict, while undermining the perception of the UN’s impartiality, increasing risk to civilians, and drawing resources from non-military activities.” While MONUSCO today operates with the Congolese government’s consent, whether the Congolese people consent is less clear. The mission has persistently failed to address the security concerns of people in the Eastern DRC—as Edgar Mateso, a civil society leader from North Kivu, told The New Humanitarian in July, “for decades, we have known several international forces deployed in Congo in the context of peacekeeping operations…[Yet] nothing has changed on the ground.”

Aspirationally, the UN’s interventions are undertaken in service of people, not just states. In one interpretation, a whole body of international obligations descends from the UN charter’s declaration that the peoples of the United Nations, not the states, enter into a compact to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war. In this interpretation, the UN’s work is not simply about upholding the sovereignty and preferences of member states, but about the safety, dignity, and protection of people—ideas that are reflected in the mandate to protect civilians that each multidimensional mission authorized since 1999 has received. Practically, local activists and scholars alike have argued that peace only takes root when international actors invest in local communities, and when political solutions that center the concerns of local people have space and time to develop. Missions that center the state’s security instead of the will and safety of people make these local solutions more distant, and explicitly make peacekeepers yet another potential source of violence in places already rife with threats to ordinary people.

The Primacy of Politics

This more securitized, coercive version of peace operations runs against the vision of UN peacekeeping and peacebuilding that emphasizes the “primacy of politics.” A politically-focused model of peace operations centers mediation, ceasefire monitoring, and implementing peace accords in the UN’s conflict resolution efforts in line with the Independent High-level Panel on Peace Operations and subsequent reform efforts. These missions are also in line with older models of peace operations: lightly armed forces with primarily diplomatic and humanitarian goals, deployed to help ease an agreed-upon transition away from war, and operating with the host state’s consent to help ensure peacekeepers could achieve these goals without violating the UN charter’s core tenet of member state sovereignty.

The missions to DRC, Mali, and CAR, on the other hand, act with the host state’s consent explicitly in order to uphold and extend the state’s power, often working alongside state forces to counter groups that the state has identified as insurgents or terrorists. “To be effective,” Sofía Sebastián and Aditi Gorur write in their 2018 Stimson Center report on host state consent, “missions need both an implementing partner and an underlying political process in place.” Neither condition obtains in Mali today: in 2020 and 2021 resulted in military governments that were hostile to the UN’s vision of domestic political reform. These governments both mobilized and embraced popular resentment against the UN mission for its failures to protect people. But MINUSMA’s sustainability was in question long before the military coups: as the UN Secretary General’s 2018 report noted, an independent review of the mission that year concluded it “faced a dilemma between the need to reform and reconstitute the Malian defense and security forces and simultaneously support the existing forces in addressing the current situation of stability,” and that only a “key regional political framework” made the mission’s goals achievable.

Today, the mission cannot move freely; investigate potential human rights atrocities; or rotate troops in and out of the country, and while an underlying political process exists on paper, it is fraught in practice. Moreover, the instability of regional security arrangements raises further questions for the mission’s ability to implement its mandate. MINUSMA has both depended on and contributed to formal French, European, and African counterterrorism operations in the Sahel—“a unique ecosystem of external forces” with over 21,000 uniformed troops deployed across the region. This ecosystem is currently in flux, having proven to be both ineffective and locally unpopular. Support to MINUSMA provided by the French-led Operation Barkhane and Tabuka Task Force will end by the fall, leaving the mission with reduced capacity alongside its waning popularity.

Mali is not the first host state to be hostile toward peacekeepers. Perhaps the most well-known example is the UN operation in Sudan in the early 2000s, done without the consent of the Sudanese government. And in cases like the observer mission to Guatemala in the late 1990s, parties to conflict actively sought to curtail the UN’s activities while ostensibly consenting to and welcoming the mission. Yet MINUSMA’s state stabilization mandate makes the situation unusual: blue helmets are on the ground to help the Malian government combat jihadists and terrorists while being no longer welcome by the very government they are supposed to be helping.

The political context has changed so much that MINUSMA’s mission may no longer be feasible on its own terms. This year’s renegotiations of the mandate at the UNSC proved tricky as well—both the transitional government and Russian mercenaries have been implicated in atrocities against civilians, and Russia initially objected to draft language addressing human rights violations and local restrictions on MINUSMA’s movements. The UNSC tends to simply renew mandates and repeat language and terms of engagement whenever possible, preferring to shift mission logistics at the margins instead of having to fully renegotiate the terms of an intervention, and this approach favors settled, context-invariant solutions over dynamic political solutions. In the Malian case, this strategy risks repeatedly placing peacekeepers in an increasingly hostile environment with little clear benefit.

As Nina Wilén and Paul D. Williams have argued, this leaves two potential options for MINUSMA: “go big” or “go home” —in other words, to be reauthorized as a more powerful, capable mission, or to draw down and exit the country. A third option involves prioritizing the protection of civilians and documenting human rights violations, tasks that would require consent the government is clearly, demonstrably reluctant to give.

Even amid real divisions at the UNSC, readjusting MINUSMA’s goals to better reflect the current political situation—even if this means drawing down the mission—is vital. And if member states and the P5 value peacekeeping and state stabilization at all, they have to be willing to engage in these renegotiations.

Toward Sustainable Peace Operations

Taken together, these two crises underline how critical consent is to sustainable peace operations. Last week’s protests in the DRC raise central questions about who the UN’s peace operations are for, both aspirationally and practically; whose expectations of peace operations matter; and whose expectations of peace operations should matter. Missions cannot do their work when local people do not want them there, and UN operations without the consent of the people are bare exercises in upholding state sovereignty, not efforts to build lasting peace.

While last week’s protests were unusual, they were not unprecedented: notably, Haitian civil society has mobilized against the UN at times; any future UN missions to Haiti must accordingly consider how best to build consent and legitimacy among Haitian citizens, not just with the Haitian government. As I’ve argued, tactics to counter UN peacekeepers tend to spread from place to place—mobilizations against the UN in DRC and Haiti are unlikely to be isolated incidents. And operating in dangerous circumstances without host state consent or the ability to protect people from state violence or a clear peace to uphold, as the UN is currently doing in Mali, risks damaging the UN’s standing as a peacemaking organization even further: why, after all, should states or people welcome a UN force that’s there to fight like any other external armed actor?

Building consent at multiple levels is key for the enduring success of UN peace operations, and key to finding lasting political solutions to conflicts. An unwelcome intervention force cannot help serve as a neutral, welcome, and honest broker between warring parties, or as a meaningful amplifier of people’s concerns and grievances. If peacekeepers become more widely understood as unwelcome intervention forces, then the UN will struggle to mediate conflicts, uphold ceasefire agreements, and help implement peace accords at any level. The UN has tools and techniques to foster local peacebuilding efforts, and centering these tools and techniques to build consensus and consent around the UN’s presence in local communities should be a key part of every mission. And, where host state consent isn’t possible, humanitarian and diplomatic goals—not security goals—should be the central plank of the UN’s efforts in conflict. Otherwise, UN peace operations risk being continually mired between unachievable goals to protect people and impossible efforts to solve security problems, at great cost to both the larger enterprise and the people experiencing violence.

Anjali Dayal is Assistant Professor of International Politics in the Political Science Department at Fordham University, New York. She tweets at @anjalikdayal.

"Originally Published in the Global Observatory"