The Role of Civil Society in Peacekeeping Missions


  • 2016•06•04

    Tamara Kool

    MINUSMA SRSG Visits Menaka in Northern Mali

    Photo: UN Photo/Marco Dormino

    Originally published as part of the UNU-MERIT Challenges to Peacekeeping in the 21st Century article series. 

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    Conflicts are not only national or transnational, but above all local. This means that simply considering the international or national perspective in mission mandates will never be enough; policies have to be translated into concrete workable programmes at community level. So how can peacekeeping missions contribute to sustainable resolutions and prevent conflicts from reoccurring?

    The best way to ensure the lasting effectiveness of peacekeeping operations is to build inclusive partnerships with civil actors. While there is mention of a broader level of civil-military relations between a range of civil actors — including government, humanitarian actors, development actors, and also local civil society actors or grassroots organisations — this remains largely undiscussed within the international community. Instead, the focus tends to be on humanitarian actors as part of Civil Military Coordination (CMCoord).

    These actors, however, often come in at the end of a conflict and, unlike civil society actors, are there ideally for a short term. Yet, in areas wracked by conflict and violence, civil society actors have often been engaged before the conflict was recognised as a threat to international peace and security, and a mandate for peacekeeping was established. During any conflict, several other organisations tend to emerge. They may not be neutral actors, and could even aggravate the conflict; yet many do contribute to peace and stability and can raise awareness, engage in dialogue with conflict parties, and create the conditions necessary for conflict parties to talk to each other.

    From this perspective, local civil society organisations can take various forms: from faith-based organisations to women’s organisations, human rights advocates, media outlets, and educational establishments, to name but a few. These groups tend to engage both on a national level and on a community level, so not including them in missions is to ignore key mechanisms that could bridge the gap to key parties. For example, women activists in Liberia assisted the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) in the Disarmament, Demobilisation, and Re-integration (DDR) processes of former military combatants, and raised awareness when the DDR cash payment system was failing. It should also be noted that these actors will remain after peacekeeping missions have left — so by including them there will be higher chances of building a lasting peace.

    How and why should partnerships be built? First, military and civil actors can partner on aspects of “soft security” — aspects that tend to be more sustainable and people-centric under the umbrella of multidimensional peacekeeping. After all, a fragile situation cannot be resolved through securing the physical safety alone. This is already borne out in UN officialdom. For example, in the Principles and Guidelines on UN Peacekeeping Operations set up in 2008, the Department for Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) and Department of Field Support (DFS) accepted that peacekeeping has undergone an evolutionary process, from merely observing ceasefires to a far more complex situation in which military, police, and civilians work together for sustainable peace. However, the partnership element remains limited; indeed there is not even a focal point for civil society within the DPKO.

    There are several compelling precedents for including civil society organisations. They can help peacekeepers in building relationships with local populations, as shown with the outreach of the UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) on the electoral process and human rights in the early 1990s. They can help build democratic institutions by ensuring a more inclusive process, as in the mixed success of consultation processes by the United Nations–African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID). In other areas, working alongside peacekeeping forces can help humanitarian intervention and development programmes, as for example in Liberia with UNMIL. Naturally, the level to which each is relevant and applied depends on its nature, the mission, and local perspectives.

    However, practical obstacles to any collaboration during the mission seem to be the lack of trust; the short-term focus of the security forces to reduce immediate threats versus the long term focus and relationship-based approach by civil society; the fear of associating with peacekeeping troops reflecting negatively upon the local civil society actors; or concerns on the side of peacekeeping forces over civilian mission creep or the expansion of missions beyond the original goals. It is crucial to understand the objectives of both sides in any form of collaboration.

    In sum, bottom-up and top-down approaches need not work in isolation; in fact, it is vital to find the middle ground. Various actors will always have their own interests and goals, so a balance will need to be found in terms of the level of inclusion, but having partnerships with civil society actors allows peace to grow from within local communities.

    There is not a one-way fixed solution, and each situation calls for its own analysis and structure of cooperation. A balance will need to be found in terms of the level of inclusion. However, excluding local civil society is losing a crucial element necessary to ensure any mandate from succeeding.

    In any future mission in Syria, there will certainly be a need for a multidimensional mission that takes into consideration inputs from local civil society actors to bridge the divide between various interest groups and also to support civil society’s input in any transition period. Ultimately, UN missions must achieve “soft” security with local partners in order to ensure lasting local ownership of peace and stability.