Better Than You Think: UN Involvement in Local Peace Processes

02 September 2020   ·   Allard Duursma

In recent years, UN peacekeeping missions have increasingly engaged in mediating local conflicts – with demonstrated successes. UN member states such as Germany should strengthen such efforts by investing in the logistical capacities of UN missions and by using bilateral diplomatic channels in mission countries in support of the UN’s engagement with national-level stakeholders.

In a recent essay on UN peacekeeping operations, the political science professor Séverine Autesserre claims that UN peacekeepers “often watch helplessly while war rages.” The main reason for their failure according to Autesserre is a “fundamental misunderstanding about what makes for a sustained peace. The UN’s strategy favors top-down deals struck with elites and fixates on elections. But that neglects what should be the other main component of their approach: embracing bottom-up strategies that draw on local knowledge and letting the people themselves determine how best to promote peace.” This claim by Autesserre ignores the UN’s recent turn to responding to local conflicts in Sudan, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Central African Republic, and Mali. It also contrast many reports that suggest that the UN, and particularly the Civil Affairs section of the UN, does in fact heavily engage in local peace processes. Moreover, two recent academic articles that draw on data on peace efforts in the Ivory Coast and Darfur respectively show the prospects for successful local peace processes are greater when the UN is involved.

The UN Is More Engaged In Local Peace Processes Than Is Commonly Assumed  

Another persistent claim that therefore needs to be qualified is put forward in Saadia Touval’s seminal essay published in Foreign Affairs in 1994 in which he argued that the UN is not an effective mediator, because “It does not serve well as an authoritative channel of communication. It has little real political leverage. Its promises and threats lack credibility. And it is incapable of pursuing coherent, flexible, and dynamic negotiations guided by an effective strategy.” Quantitative research indeed indicates that the UN is relatively unsuccessful in resolving civil wars involving governments and armed opposition groups. For instance, African third parties are generally more effective in this regard. However, the UN seems to be relatively effective in addressing local, non-state conflicts, which involves fighting between non-state groups over issues related to their immediate sub-state, politico-geographic context rather than on the institutions of state power.

Touval might be right that the UN often lacks clout when mediating civil wars, but the UN actually does have serious clout when mediating on the local level in locations where peacekeepers are deployed. There are three reasons why UN involvement in local peace processes make the resolution of local, non-state conflicts more likely.

UN Civil Affairs Holds Key Comparative Advantages Over Other Mediators in Local Conflicts

First, civilian UN staff involved in local peace efforts can draw on the support of the military force. This is also emphasized in a report published by the UN Civil Affairs section: “UN peacekeeping operations may have a comparative advantage relative to state actors, local civil society groups, international non-governmental organizations (INGOs), and other actors in addressing local conflicts. UN peacekeeping operations’ military component is an evident source of comparative advantage. Peacekeeping forces can be leveraged to either protect civilians at risk from local conflicts, or to create situations conducive to inter-communal dialogue.”

Second, the UN has the capacity to arrange the logistics to bring conflict parties and relevant stakeholders together. It is a common joke among Civil Affairs officers within UN peacekeeping operations that they are “travel agents” because they have to facilitate travel for government officials at the local, state and national levels, as well as for representatives of the conflict parties. This travel agent role should not be underestimated because it enables officials and conflict parties to attend peace conferences. Indeed, with “superior logistical capabilities than most other actors, and often operating at a greater nationwide scale, UN missions can leverage these capacities to bring communities together and encourage peaceful means of conflict resolution.

Third, the UN is well-placed to also engage with national-level elites when trying to support the resolution of local, non-state conflict. Seemingly local, non-state conflicts are often connected to higher-level political contests on the national level. For instance, the Sudanese government instrumentalized various non-state conflicts in southern Sudan during the 1990s and early 2000s through supporting rival armed groups against the Sudan People’s Liberation Army/Movement. Peacekeeping staff involved in local peace processes can use their contacts to simultaneously pursue a top-down approach to engage national-level actors in the peace process. This approach makes it less likely that any involvement from national-level actors spoils the peace process on the local level.

Invest in Logistical Capacity of UN Peacekeeping Operations to Support Local Peace Processes

The three reasons for why UN local mediation works also hold the key to improving the track record of the UN even further. It is important to invest in the logistical capacity of UN peacekeeping operations in order to allow for support to local peace processes. Being able to draw on assets like vehicles, airplanes, helicopters, and boats helps UN civilian staff in their peace facilitation. The more assets are available, the better the UN will be to connect representatives of conflict parties, as well as to involve local and national-level stakeholders. Member states should support the logistical capacity of UN operations. The UN does not only rely on troops, it also needs modern transport technologies. The greater the logistical capacity of a mission, the better placed the UN will be to support local peace processes.

In addition, NGOs can support local peace processes in which the UN is involved. While NGOs might not have the logistical capacity of the UN, they do have a comparative advantage in being able to work on the grassroots level and to be involved over extended periods of time. Most NGOs have multi-year funding cycles, allowing NGOs to be involved in local conflict resolution processes beyond just the conclusion of a local ceasefire or a peace covenant. Effective coordination is required in order for the UN and NGOs to supplement each other’s work.

Diplomats from UN Member States Should Support UN Efforts to Engage National Level Stakeholders

It follows from the UN’s comparative advantage with regard to its military capacity that it is important that civilian staff supporting local peace processes and the military force of the UN efficiently work together. An example of such effective cooperation is how civilian UN staff and military staff of the UN operation in Somalia worked together to support negotiations between the Somali Patriotic Movement (SPM) and the Somali Patriotic Movement / Somali National Alliance (SPM/SNA) in the Kismayo area, which led to the Jubbaland Peace Agreement on 6 August 1993. Already during the negotiations it was decided that the UN military force would be an integral part of implementing the agreement, with a call for the deployment of UN forces in each of the 14 districts mentioned in the agreement.

Furthermore, UN staff working on local peace efforts should take great care to involve national-level elites in a local peace process if these could potentially act as spoilers. For instance, when supporting the mediation effort by the Action pour la Paix et la Concorde (APC) in land conflicts in Kalehe in South Kivu, the UN civilian staff flew a team from APC to the capital to meet with some of the key actors driving these conflicts in an effort to include them in the mediation process.

Ambassadors and diplomats in countries where peacekeepers are deployed should support efforts by the UN to engage national-level stakeholders that can positively influence local peace processes. UN Political Affairs is well placed to engage with national-level elites, but diplomats from member states, including for example Germany, can add additional cloud. National-level political elites have strong incentives to be regarded as peacemakers in the eyes of the international community. Accordingly, being aware that the international community is also concerned with local conflicts, might make national-level elites decide to support local peace processes rather than instrumentalize local conflict. Close coordination between UN staff in the capital and various embassies might therefore help to transform the links between the national and local levels into a positive connection that makes local peace processes more likely to succeed.

Develop Whole-of-Mission Approaches to Responding to Local Conflicts

The high number of local non-state conflicts in contemporary peacekeeping operations places pressure on the UN to respond to this type of conflicts. The UN has several comparative advantages when it comes to responding to local conflicts, including its logistical capacity, its ability to draw on the military force, and its connections to national-level elites in the capital. To utilize these comparative advantages to the fullest, the UN has to develop a whole-of-a-mission approach towards responding to local, non-state conflicts. This cooperation needs to be structural rather than ad-hoc. This cooperation also needs to go beyond just cooperation between senior staff. Staff from different sections in the field need to coordinate and strategize on how to support local conflict resolution as best as they can. For instance, military commanders in the field need to coordinate with Civil Affairs staff on how to monitor compliance with locally concluded ceasefires. Similarly, civilian staff involved in a local peace process in the periphery need to be able to coordinate with Political Affairs staff in the capital on how to best engage with potential spoilers in the capital. A whole-of-a-mission approach towards local peace processes will help UN staff to leverage the mission’s military capacity, its logistical capabilities, and its presence across the country.

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Allard Duursma

Allard Duursma is a senior researcher at the Center for Security Studies (CSS) at ETH Zurich. He can be reached at and found on twitter @AllardDuursma.