Emerging Voices: The Use of ‘Stabilization’ in the Mandates of UN Peace Operations

Emerging Voices: The Use of ‘Stabilization’ in the Mandates of UN Peace Operations

[Alexander Gilder is a PhD Researcher at The City Law School, City, University of London. From September he will be a Lecturer in Law at Royal Holloway, University of London.]

In recent years UN peace operations have begun to explicitly seek so-called ‘stabilization’. In 2015 the Report of the High-Level Independent Panel on Peace Operations (HIPPO) suggested the Security Council give clarification to how the UN interprets ‘stabilization’. Unfortunately, no UN-wide definition of the term has been forthcoming. Nevertheless, the term has been used in the titles of four UN peace operations, three of which are ongoing. Rather than attempt to spell out a concrete definition of the UN’s usage of stabilization in a short blog post this space will instead be used to discuss how stabilization missions have engaged in both the ‘robust’ use of force and how, in the case of MINUSMA, they have strayed into supporting counter-terrorism activities.

Implications for the robust use of force

In the past, UN peacekeepers have not taken the initiative in the use of force and only responded in self-defence. However, ‘robust’ actions toe a fine line between peacekeeping and peace enforcement. The UN missions in Mali (MINUSMA) and the Central African Republic (MINUSCA) have mandates to extend state authority and stabilize population centres which is achieved through actions such as a ‘robust posture’ and active patrolling to deter armed groups. In February 2017 MINUSCA launched Operation Bekpa to stabilise the town of Bambari by securing the agreement that the armed groups would leave. MINUSCA used armed helicopters to engage armed groups attempting to re-enter the town. More recently, a ‘joint disarmament and arrest operation’ alongside the CAR armed forces (FACA) was launched against criminal groups in Bangui’s PK5 neighbourhood where MINUSCA participated in armed raids which led to exchanges of fire and the death of a peacekeeper.

Turning to MINUSMA, the mission has contingents of forces from Western countries and sophisticated military hardware. MINUSMA has aimed to ‘progressively dominate areas adjacent to population centres’ to prevent access to terrorist groups and criminals. In 2016 the UN Security Council called for MINUSMA to engage in direct operations against asymmetric threats.

Over the last few decades using force ‘in defence of the mandate’ has been categorised as self-defence. In light of these missions though the question becomes, at what point does defence become offence? Using force in defence of the mandate can be argued to be a catch all phrase which allows a peace operation to take the initiative against any threat. Taking the initiative risks becoming synonymous with enforcement action if operations regularly undertake direct operations against spoilers, perform disarmament and arrest operations or other actions where peacekeepers actively seek out threats to the peace process.

In 2015, the HIPPO Report stressed that when UN operations stray into enforcement actions, they must be carried out with full respect for humanitarian law and that such actions ‘may make the United Nations forces, and the mission as a whole, a party to the conflict…’ However, falling short of enforcement, the robust use of force risks intensifying hostilities which could also lead to the UN becoming a party to the conflict. The fact that MINUSMA is conducting joint operations with the host state forces, is supported by attack helicopters and drones, and has had skirmishes with armed groups, make the intensification of hostilities a distinct possibility. Where there are sustained, direct clashes between MINUSMA and armed groups it would be difficult for the UN to contest the applicability of IHL.

Whether a peace operation is a party to the conflict under IHL is also relevant where the UN is providing support to the host state military. Peace operations do not typically fight a war against an enemy but, for instance, MINUSMA is mandated to conduct joint operations and share information with the Malian Defence and Security Forces (MDSF). The ICRC has argued that where the UN provides support to the host state, who is engaged in a pre-existing non-international armed conflict, there is a ‘genuine belligerent intent’ which would result in participation in hostilities. UN Assistant Secretary-General for Legal Affairs, Stephen Mathias, has said that it is unclear whether military support to the host state alone would make the UN mission a party to the conflict. What can be said though is that stabilization mandates and the use of robust force have laid the groundwork for UN forces to more frequently engage in building the military capacity of the host state and more frequently become engaged in clashes with armed groups making the intensification of hostilities a distinct possibility.  

UN peace operations and counter-terrorism

One area of global concern where the UN has become increasingly involved is the fight against terrorism. Terrorism is rife in the Sahel region, particularly in Mali. MINUSMA operates alongside French troops (Operation Barkhane) and a regional counter-terrorism force (G-5 Sahel Force) both of which are taking offensive action to combat terrorist groups. The UN cooperates with these two forces in a number of ways. First, MINUSMA provides operational and logistical support to the G-5 Sahel Force and has helped prepare its bases. Second, MINUSMA has a sophisticated intelligence arm, the All Sources Information Fusion Unit (ASIFU), which identifies groups and individuals it deems a threat to the mission and puts together targeting packs. Those targeting packs are then reportedly shared with Operation Barkhane.  

The UN Security Council is far from in agreement over the extent to which the UN should be involved with offensive counter-terrorism operations. The G-5 Sahel Force is not authorised under Chapter VII, instead the regional force operates with the consent of the states involved, due to US reluctance. Neither has the UN Security Council previously used Chapter VII to authorise force against terrorists and instead states typically use force in self-defence. MINUSMA is an interesting situation though. MINUSMA is mandated to use robust force under Chapter VII and to provide support and intelligence to the G-5 Sahel Force and Operation Barkhane. MINUSMA’s Chapter VII mandate is consequently linked to supporting a regional counter-terrorism operation which uses offensive force with the open encouragement of the UN Security Council.

The UN has rightfully stated that the fight against terrorism must not infringe upon human rights or marginalise communities. The UN itself has recognised that Malian counter-terror operations have violated human rights law ‘which compounded the communities’ feeling of marginalization from the peace process’. In addition, the UN has already begun investigations into serious human rights violations committed by the G-5 Sahel forces, including the killing of civilians. In 2015, the HIPPO Report stated that UN peace operations should not conduct counter-terrorism operations and where the UN is operating alongside parallel counter-terror forces the roles of each mission must be clearly demarcated. Mali may be an exceptional case, but in this regard the advice of the HIPPO panel has not been heeded and the UN has deepened its involvement in counter-terror activities over the last few years.

The UN has quite clearly moved towards a stabilization strategy aimed at clearing an area of armed groups through the use of robust force to extend state authority and build peace in the power vacuum left behind. However, this strategy comes with risks. Taking the initiative in the use of force alongside a closer relationship with the host state military could lead to an intensification of hostilities where the UN would be regarded as a party to the conflict under IHL. Concurrently, the UN’s increased involvement with counter-terror operations will require a more in-depth assessment by the organisation to assess whether there will be a detrimental effect on other mandated tasks such as supporting the peace process and national reconciliation.

More can be found on this topic here.

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Emerging Voices, Featured, General, International Human Rights Law, International Humanitarian Law, Organizations, Public International Law, Symposia, Use of Force
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