Who Is Behind the Expansion of UN Peacekeeping Mandates?

Kseniya Oksamytna
April 03, 2024

Contemporary UN peacekeeping operations protect civilians, organize elections, assist with security sector reform, run radio stations, promote local reconciliation, and finance small-scale reconstruction activities. UN Blue Helmets can undertake up to 41 distinct tasks. This is very different from Cold War-era “traditional peacekeeping”, which focused on the monitoring of ceasefires and the separation of forces. Why did UN peacekeeping mandates expand so significantly in scope over the last 35 years? Advocacy by key individuals – diplomats, bureaucrats, and experts – drove this process. To illustrate my point, I trace the evolution of three agendas in UN peacekeeping: public information and strategic communications, protection of civilians, and quick impact projects.

In my book, Advocacy and Change in International Organizations: Communication, Protection, and Reconstruction in UN Peacekeeping (Oxford University Press, 2023), I show how advocacy leads to organizational change. I demonstrate that UN officials, member state representatives, and experts all contributed to the expansion of peacekeeping mandates. 

This does not mean that anyone who has an idea for new tasks for Blue Helmets gets their will. Rather, advocates can choose between three key strategies – persuasion, social pressure, and deployment of authority – to bring results under specific circumstances. Persuasion works best behind closed doors, while social pressure requires publicity. Social pressure is more effective when applied by a coalition, while deployment of authority has the most weight when information comes from a single source. No strategy guarantees success, but certain approaches make advocates more effective in pushing for organizational change. Thus, we cannot attribute such change to a single source, like the conventional approaches discussed below do.

Is the Security Council to Blame (or Praise) for the Expansion of Peacekeeping Mandates?

Focusing solely on the role of UN member states, some argue that countries serving on the UN Security Council overburdened peacekeepers with an unmanageable number of tasks. After all, peacekeeping mandates are sometimes compared to “Christmas Trees” that different actors seek to adorn with their preferred provisions. The Council debates new issues regularly: recently, for instance, the US called attention to the link between conflict and food insecurity, Niger promoted a focus on climate change, and Belgium advocated for a greater regard for transitional justice. Many of those issues end up in peacekeeping mandates. 

However, not all tasks of peacekeeping operations have been mandated by the Council, at least not initially. Some of them emerged through bottom-up innovation by UN officials in the field. This is the story of public information and strategic communications in UN peacekeeping. Following an innovative information program in Namibia, UN officials in the UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) successfully persuaded the Secretary-General that the UN needs its own radio station. Radio UNTAC made a significant contribution to the success of the 1993 election (even though the election itself did not lead to sustained democratization). 

Even though UNTAC showcased the importance of information and communication in peacekeeping, the innovation did not become institutionalized immediately. New issues require continued advocacy before they become embedded in organizational policies, structures, training materials, and monitoring and evaluation frameworks. After the UN missions in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia struggled to communicate the goals of their presence – and the limitations of their role – to the local population, further campaigning by UN officials led to the recognition of the importance of public information (eventually recast as strategic communications) in peacekeeping.

Initially an afterthought, strategic communications now play a crucial role in peacekeeping, including in countering mis- and disinformation. For instance, following the host government’s request for the departure of the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), the mission fulfilled only a handful of residual tasks in its last six months, but strategic communications was one of them. 

Is Bureaucratic Drift the Cause of Mandate Expansion in Peacekeeping?

Focusing solely on the role of UN officials might lead us to suspect that international bureaucrats drove the expansion of peacekeeping mandates for self-serving purposes. After all, bureaucracies grow by seeking more tasks and resources. Yet UN peacekeeping missions differ from traditional bureaucracies because they are transitory by definition, and each operation has its own budget decided annually. 

An innovative way of providing peacekeeping missions with a new discretionary spending line was not initiated by unaccountable bureaucrats, but rather by an expert panel. The 2000 Brahimi Report recommended that missions should have a small pot of money for quick impact projects, or small-scale reconstruction initiatives that benefit the local community and build confidence in the mission. The recommendation was so authoritative that it was put into practice immediately (and without much debate) by the UN Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea (UNMEE). The role played by the independent expert panel (which, however, coordinated closely with the UN Secretariat) illustrates how external actors can promote organizational change.

Since peacekeeping operations traditionally do not do development, quick impact projects caused unease among both UN humanitarian agencies and NGOs, yet not before the practice became institutionalized. Institutionalization received support from the Global South countries keen to see peacekeeping moneys (which come from a dedicated, separate budget) used for development, such as Brazil in the case of the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH). While some UN officials appreciated this funding stream, others found its management too burdensome. This reluctance by UN officials to manage these additional resources further challenges the notion of bureaucratic drift.

Quick impact projects paved the way for other innovative uses of peacekeeping moneys, such as community violence reduction programmes and programmatic funding. Quick impact projects enabled peacekeepers to engage in a variety of activities, such as the construction of a police station by the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), the establishment of a centre for women’s socio-economic empowerment by the UN Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA), and the promotion of gender-sensitive journalism by the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL).

Is Mandate Expansion in Peacekeeping Rational Adaptation to New Challenges?

From the above, it might seem that the evolution of peacekeeping was a functionalist story of adaptation to new challenges, while institutionalization of innovation happened through rational lesson learning. Yet this is not the story of most innovations in international organizations, especially since different lessons can be drawn from the same experiences. Advocates need to reframe crises in ways that make their solutions appear feasible and appealing.

Contrary to most analyses that look to the year 1999 for the origin of the contemporary agenda on the protection of civilians in UN peacekeeping, I argue that important debates took place already in the 1990s. During the Rwandan genocide, the UN Security Council for a long time did not acknowledge the nature and magnitude of the killings. Eventually, elected members of the Council, led by the Czech ambassador with  the of the ambassadors of New Zealand, Spain, and Argentina, pushed through a presidential statement that used the definition from the UN Genocide Convention, but not the term “genocide” itself. This coalition of small and middle powers could only do so by threatening an on-the-record vote on the issue, thus putting social pressure on the permanent members of the Council. 

The same coalition also campaigned for reinforcement of the UN Assistance Mission to Rwanda (UNAMIR), which received a mandate on April 17, 1994 to “contribute to the security and protection of…civilians at risk in Rwanda.” Yet while this resolution recognized that peacekeepers should protect civilians, it did not institutionalize this understanding immediately. After the failures in Rwanda (and Bosnia), many UN voices argued that peacekeeping should go “back to basics,” or to its traditional ceasefire monitoring role, instead of attempting to protect individuals threatened by violence.

Several years passed without the launching of new major peacekeeping operations, putting the survival of peacekeeping in doubt through downsizing not dissimilar to what we see today. Only when Canada served as an elected member of the UN Security Council in 1999-2000 did its leaders and diplomats make a convincing case for learning different lessons from the tragedies of the 1990s: if peacekeepers are deployed in situations of ongoing or renewed conflict, they should protect civilians. This idea reinvigorated peacekeeping. In this case, the UN Security Council played the conventional role of being a venue for debates on normative issues as well as the authorizer of new tasks for peacekeepers on the ground, but the process was not as straightforward as organizational learning models assume.

Yet even after the 1999 resolution explicitly tasking the UN Mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL) with the protection of civilians, the institutionalization took years, especially if we consider the allocation of adequate resources as an indicator. Only in 2008 did the mandate of the UN Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUC) list the protection of civilians as its number one priority. Protection was prioritized in some (but not all) mandates, and there were instances of deprioritization

In summary, international organizations are more adaptive than we think. New agendas emerge through bottom-up innovation by international bureaucrats, outside-in advice by experts, and top-down issue construction in intergovernmental forums. However, the emergence and institutionalization of new issues requires skilful, sometimes multi-year advocacy by dedicated diplomats, officials, or experts.

About the author:

Kseniya Oksamytna is a Senior Lecturer at City, University of London and Visiting Research Fellow in the Conflict, Security and Development Research Group at King’s College London. She tweets as @Kseniya_Oksamyt.

This think-piece is based on the author’s new book, Advocacy and Change in International Organizations: Communication, Protection, and Reconstruction in UN Peacekeeping (Oxford University Press, 2023) that received the 2024 Chadwick F. Alger Prize by the International Organization section of the International Studies Association.

Photo Credits: 22-04-07-Patrouille de securisation Sofara Mopti-10 by Mission de l'ONU au Mali - UN Mission in Mali 

The views and opinions expressed in this think-piece are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of SIPA or Columbia University.