By Prof. Vesselin POPOVSKI, Vice Dean of the Law School & Executive Director of the Centre for UN Studies O.P. Jindal Global University, India
Conflict in the 21st century has changed. Rather than a competition between nation states, it is a result of states’ inability to enforce law and order, and local loyalties resurfacing. If the UN is to keep peace in this new context, it needs to realize that local powerbrokers become similarly, if not more important than state actors.
This is a bit radical transition for an institution that traditionally interacted only with states in assemblies and conferences based in capital cities. But there are signs that the UN is recognizing the need to change.
One year ago on 16 June 2015 the High-Level Independent Panel on Peace Operations (HIPPO) submitted its report to the UN Secretary-General (SG) proposing four transformational shifts to make peace operations – a synergy of peacekeeping and political missions – more efficient. On 29 June 2015 an Advisory Group of Experts completed a Review of the UN Peacebuilding Architecture.
Both documents appealed for mindset change. One of the deficits listed in the HIPPO report was that the UN ‘often overlooks social mechanisms or informal institutions and networks of mutual assistance that deliver services and enjoy trust at the community level, where women play an important role. Efforts to sustain peace must build upon those institutions and the resilience and reconciliation processes of local communities, and not undermine them.’
Local ownership – already a cliché in the peacebuilding literature for a decade and in the development literature for a quarter of a century – has never materialized, because of two false perceptions. One is that local governments are too weak to govern themselves, let alone coordinate international efforts. The second is that it is impossible to identify which leaders genuinely represent the local needs, thus it is better not to empower anybody before truly free and fair elections. Until such elections the UN will act as a guardian, administer the territory in the best interests of those who live there, and will teach locals what to do. Many still define local ownership simply as a transfer of know-how from the UN to the local societies.
Recent academic research challenged these perceptions and argued that, if the UN maintains its guardianship for too long and the local voices remain unheard, this can severely undermine local capacity and create antagonisms. Severine Autesserre in her book ‘Peaceland’ writes that local actors resist international initiatives not because they oppose the policies, but because they dislike outsiders’ high-minded attitudes and sense of superiority. Paternalistic attitudes, treating local people as stomachs to feed, or as consumers to buy democracy, are counter-productive.
It is high time for the UN to recognize the superiority of the local agents, they are the Formula One drivers of peacebuilding, the UN officers are just the mechanics changing the wheels in the box. The local agents are closer to the problem and are in a better position to understand and influence it, and this proximity ensures that they have long-term interests in the outcomes. This does not mean that local approaches are automatically effective.
Nevertheless, international responses need to be informed by analyses taking local dynamics into account, as this is the level at which modern conflicts increasingly operates. The UN’s responses need to be designed to work with both state and sub-state centers of power. The UN can help only, if local elites want to be helped, but also if peacekeepers are ready to stay patient for as long as it may take. The UN and local elites often operate on different timescales. The latter do not hurry, may ignore abstract lectures on democracy and human rights, and prioritize the delivery of security and basic services to their communities. On the opposite, some UN officers are often impatient, counting the weeks left before their mission ends, thinking about what success can they quickly report in New York to get promotion.
The UN should lose its paternalism and impatience and start thinking of itself as a servant of local people, acknowledging their ideas and priorities. Peacekeepers should be accountable not only to UN auditors, but to the local people too. This hardly ever happened, most evaluations of peacekeeping have been measured against benchmarks based on what the UN thinks is a success, not against what local people think is a success. International bodies are powerful in setting global agendas, but such top down agendas may interrupt local solutions from emerging and produce the opposite of what the UN aims to achieve.
One of the HIPPO’s innovative recommendations worth testing is negotiating ‘compacts’ with host countries, going beyond current status-of-forces agreements. Such compacts would ensure that host governments fully commit to their responsibilities and develop their sense of accountability. These compacts can engage multiple actors, help to clarify expectations and resolve friction between host governments and peacekeepers.
The first compact has already been drafted and developed with the government of the CAR. More needs to be done in this direction. It is time to recognize the superiority of the local and to admit that the UN is only a temporary facilitator. The peace process essentially belongs to, and is owned by the local people. To achieve SDG 16 and make peace sustainable, the UN should lose its paternalism and serve local actors to build their own peaceful societies.
About the author: Prof. Dr. Vesselin Popovski is Vice Dean of the Law School & Executive Director of the Centre for UN Studies O.P. Jindal Global University, India. Author of seminal publications in the field of International Peace and Security, International Law, Human Rights, Justice. Regular member of The Philosophy Club, Sofia, Bulgaria.