Here’s how to end UN peacekeeping’s history of sexual violence

UN Photo/Marie Frechon

By Jeni Whalan

First published on The Interpreter on 29 April 2016. 

After years of moral outrage and stern official rhetoric, the odious scandal of sexual abuse by UN peacekeepers of the vulnerable people they are sent to protect may finally attract tangible penalties for the organisation. US senators this month threatened to withdraw funding from the UN over its leaders’ failure to prevent sexual violence by peacekeepers and to hold perpetrators to account when it occurs. Given that the US funds 28% of the US$8.3 billion annual peacekeeping budget, it’s a threat with teeth.

This latest legitimacy crisis for UN peacekeeping has been brewing a long time. Since the first widely publicised abuses by peacekeepers in Cambodia in 1992, allegations of sexual abuse and exploitation have followed the UN’s deployments to crises around the world: Bosnia, Timor-Leste, Kosovo, Burundi, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Haiti, the DRC, Côte d’Ivoire, Sudan and Mali.

But it is stories of widespread sexual violence against women and children in the Central African Republic (CAR) that have captured global media attention and which may finally prompt meaningful reform.

Reports of children being sexually assaulted and raped in CAR emerged in May 2014. UN investigators recorded numerous reports from young boys, aged 8–13 years, of their abuse by French troops serving under the (UN-authorised but French-commanded) Operation Sangaris. Gross mishandling by UN and French officials saw nearly a year pass before the reports surfaced publicly, thanks to the scrutiny of the NGO AIDS-Free World; only then did French officials begin criminal investigations. A month later, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon appointed a panel to investigate the UN’s response. Their damning report concluded that the UN’s mishandling amounted to ‘gross institutional failure’ and ‘an abdication of responsibility’ on the part of senior officials. In the meantime, Mr Ban sacked the head of the UN’s peacekeeping mission in the CAR.

But as the UN focused inward on the inadequacies of its own bureaucratic procedures, new reports of abuse continued to emerge. In February 2016, 120 peacekeepers from the Republic of Congo and the Democratic Republic of Congo were sent home over new accusations of sexual abuse brought to light by Human Rights Watch. Other allegations involved troops from Georgia, France, Burundi, Morocco and Tanzania.

And then in late March 2016 came the revelation that the UN had investigated 108 further cases of abuse by French and Gabonese forces. The vast majority of victims were children and the allegations included grotesque violence and bestiality by a French commander. Just a few weeks later, AIDS-Free World uncovered another 41 cases of sexual violence.

Why have peacekeeping missions so frequently been guilty of abusing those they were sent to protect? And given that only a tiny fraction of peacekeepers are responsible for the abuses, why has the UN proved so incapable of holding them to account?

Some blame the UN’s reliance on unprofessional, inadequately trained troops from countries with poor human rights records. To be sure, the demand for peacekeepers is at an all-time high and they are deployed overwhelminglyfrom developing countries. But that can’t explain the involvement of French troops in the CAR scandal — including in its most depraved incidents — nor the fact that most peacekeepers do not sexually abuse or exploit local people.

At the same time, while the vast majority of peacekeepers serve honourably and professionally, this is not simply a case of a few bad apples: the peacekeeping system is woefully deficient when it comes to the local accountability of peacekeepers.

The primary obstacle is the legal basis on which peacekeepers are deployed, according them immunity from prosecution by the host state. Intended to allow peacekeepers to operate without host state interference, in practice immunity has enabled impunity. The rules of UN deployments protect peacekeepers, not their victims. Countries contributing peacekeepers remain fully, and solely, responsible for investigating, prosecuting and punishing their own personnel. If their home countries turn a blind eye to abuse allegations, there is little the UN — or survivors of abuse — can do about it. Recent recommendations for ‘naming-and-shaming’ recalcitrant UN member states and withholding payment for their troop contributions reflect welcome progress, but these are weak mechanisms for preventing or remedying these crimes.

A range of other factors is at play. Field missions answer to UN headquarters in New York, not to communities on the ground. Sexual abuse and exploitation has been treated as misconduct, requiring disciplinary action, rather than as criminal acts requiring a legal response. A lack of transparency, systematic monitoring and public reporting means that local populations rarely have a voice, and it has required ad hoc efforts by civil society organisations to bring abuses to light. Finally, peacekeeping is fundamentally a foreign activity, involving the deployment of international troops within societies they usually know little about. In her book Peaceland, ethnographer and former UN peacebuilder Séverine Autesserre finds that derogatory views of local populations are alarmingly common, recounting ‘blatantly racist and shockingly offensive’ attitudes and behaviours described variously as degrading, belittling, humiliating, dehumanising and denigrating of local people.

Together, these features of peacekeeping create a permissive, even enabling environment for sexual violence and exploitation. A slew of organisational reforms over the past decade has not, it seems, made the UN any more effective in curtailing these abuses.


Withholding funding from the UN, as US senators have threatened, is a powerful form of leverage. The 1964-65 session of the UN General Assembly, for example, essentially ground to a halt after several countries — including the USSR and France — refused to pay their share of the peacekeeping budget in protest over what they saw as the illegitimate authorisation of peacekeeping operations.

Today, the top five financial contributors to UN peacekeeping provide 60% of the entire budget: US (28%), Japan (11%), and France, Germany and the UK (each around 7%). These big contributors can wield substantial influence. While reforming the system of legal immunities is impractical, their leverage could exact reforms from UN peacekeeping bureaucracy to improve the process for dealing with abuse allegations. More importantly, their concerted attention could help to move attention from the politics of New York to the survivors of abuse in host countries, in the form of assistance and compensation.

They could also lend their political and financial weight to two more ambitious accountability reforms.

First, UN peacekeeping needs an ombudsperson, with budgetary and reporting independence from peacekeeping operations in the field and from peacekeeping bureaucracy in New York. The experiment with an ombudsperson in Kosovo provides both a precedent and a demonstration of the limits of an accountability mechanism that depends for its authority and funding on the very actors it is trying to hold to account.

Second, the extent of sexual violence in the CAR — and the UN’s mishandling of it — only came to light through the determined but ad hoc reporting of international NGOs, including AIDS-Free World, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Friends of UN peacekeeping, like Australia, should promote and fund systematic civil society monitoring of peacekeeping, ideally through a mix of host country and international NGOs, to monitor operations and give voice to those made most vulnerable by violent conflict.


Book release: Strengthening the rule of law through the UN Security Council

The book StrengtheROL_book_coverning the rule of law through the UN Security Council, edited by Hilary Charlesworth and Jeremy Farrall, was released this month. The collection of essays, three from members of the Security Council Analysis Network,  examine the extent to which the Council has honoured his commitment to the rule of law when exercising its powers under the UN Charter to maintain international peace and security.

The book discusses both how the concept of the rule of law regulates, or influences, Security Council activity and how the Council has in turn shaped the notion of the rule of law. It explores in particular how this relationship has affected the Security Council’s three most prominent tools for the maintenance of international peace and security: peacekeeping, sanctions and force. In doing so, this book identifies strategies for better promotion of the rule of law by the Security Council. Click on  the links below to read excerpts from the book.

Foreward by Alan Ryan and preface to the book

Introduction by Hilary Charlesworth and Jeremy Farrall

Strengthening the local accountability of UN peacekeeping by Jeni Whalan

The UN Security Council as regulator and subject of the rule of law: conflict or confluence of interest? by Jeremy Farrall and Marie-Eve Loiselle




Four things you need to know about the Syrian ‘ceasefire’ agreement

Jeni Whalan

The Syrian agreement announced on Friday is far from a comprehensive breakthrough, but it’s a significant step, particularly if we look at what’s required to successfully negotiate peace, writes Jeni Whalan.

Amid the brutality of Syria’s five-year civil war, it’s easy to be cynical about the latest peace deal. Critics have already labelled it “a sham“, merely “political cover” for Russia and the US, and – more colourfully – “as shot full of holes as an Aleppo apartment building“.

To many observers, it is just diplomatic hot air.

Certainly, the agreement announced on Friday is far from a comprehensive breakthrough. It won’t end the fighting nor ensure that sustained humanitarian relief reaches all those in need. But it is significant step, particularly if we take a long view of what’s required to successfully negotiate peace.

1. It’s not a ceasefire

Technically, the agreement is for a cessation of hostilities to begin within a week, and for the immediate delivery of humanitarian aid to seven priority areas as “a first step toward full, sustained, and unimpeded access throughout the country“.

A “cessation of hostilities” is generally understood to be less ambitious than a ceasefire, particularly as it was agreed not by the Syrian parties themselves but by a group of 17 countries with a stake in the war – chief among them, the US and Russia.

The agreement excludes two main parties to the conflict: Islamic State, which controls territory in Syria’s east, and Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaida’s Syrian affiliate. These two groups will continue to be legitimate targets for parties within and beyond Syria, but their exclusion also means they can continue their attacks throughout the country. Expect both to play spoiler to any tentative cooperation between the Assad government and opposition groups.

2. Forging an international deal first may help a Syrian deal to follow

Peace agreements, particularly in the most difficult conflicts, often begin as deals among international players who then persuade, pressure and even coerce their local allies to comply. This internationally led model was used in the peace deal that ended the Bosnian war in 1995; as Christopher Hill, one of its negotiators, recalled:

First, an international “contact group” agreed on a framework for peace. Then, the parties directly involved in the conflict were brought in to reach agreement within the framework. That may sound patronising, but it worked.

This approach has merit in a civil war as internationalised as Syria’s. While lasting peace must ultimately be Syrian-led, getting these international parties to agree the basic parameters of a deal is an essential first step.

3. Russia can now get (more of) what it wants

Recent Russian airstrikes have decisively tipped the battlefield in favour of the Assad government. As in Ukraine, Russia’s military action makes it better able to get its way on what it sees as core security interests – in this case, continuing rule by the Assad regime.

Much now depends on Russia’s own compliance with the cessation of hostilities. Despite claiming to target Islamic State, the overwhelming majority of Russian bombs have instead pummelled the Syrian opposition, killing over 1000 civilians. If Russia continues to target the moderate opposition groups under claim that they are terrorists, Friday’s agreement will be dead in the water. More likely is that, satisfied with recent advances and cautious about the costs of an expanded military campaign, Russia will be content for now to see its newly acquired advantage play out in the negotiating room.

4. The deal won’t hold, but peace talks must continue

As I have argued previously, the road to a peace deal is always paved with failed negotiations. Ceasefires require continued renegotiation and violations are commonplace, even once a comprehensive settlement is reached.

So what should we expect of this agreement? Hostilities, if they do cease, will resume. Aid delivery, if it does begin, will again be obstructed. Violence will probably flare as all sides seek the most advantageous position before the cessation of hostilities effectively freezes them in place.

But even if the agreement does little more than allow a temporary period of humanitarian relief for people in Syria’s besieged cities, it will have been worthwhile. While Russian airdrops are far from the ideal means of aid delivery, even a brief alleviation of human suffering is surely a positive outcome. More significantly, the deal provides a foundation from which further humanitarian access can be negotiated.

Finally, the agreement should be judged not on whether fighting ceases but whether it allows UN talks to resume, as planned, at the end of the month. It is not a coincidence that its key features address the Syrian opposition’s preconditions for talks. But as John Kerry put it on Friday, much more will be required than simply words on paper.

UN Photo/Mark Garten, Jordan Camp Host to Thousands of Syrian Cross-Border Refugees

Book review of ‘How peace operations work’ in Political Science Quarterly

Review of ‘How peace operations work: Power, legitimacy, and effectiveness’ by Lise Howard in Political Science Quarterly.

 ‘In this book, Jeni Whalan has united the literatures on power and legitimacy with the technicalities of peace operations in a novel, significant, and thor­oughly convincing manner. Whale’s cross-disciplinary analysis provides an excellent typology for understanding the crucially important role of legitimacy in peace operations’.
You can access the full review here.


Book review: ‘How peace operations work’

Book review by Vanessa Newby in Global Responsibility to Protect.


‘Whalan’s book is a valuable addition to newer scholarship on peace operations at the local level. Her strong methodological approach combined with rigorous engagement with the theory on power and legitimacy is a welcome addition to the peacekeeping literature. It will make an excellent addition to the literature on peace and conflict courses, for the peace operation practitioner and for scholars of peace operations more broadly’.


You can access the full review here.

Making peace operations work: The importance of local legitimacy

UN Photo/Albert González Fardan. UNAMID hosts cultural and sports event.

Jeni Whalan presented the findings from her recent book How Peace Operations Work at Chatham House on 31 January. Dr. Whalan addressed the issue of local support for peacekeeping operations and the overriding importance of local legitimacy – the perception among local actors that a peace operation, its personnel, and its objectives are right, fair, and appropriate. The roundtable discussion considered a number of practical policy recommendations to make peace operations both more legitimate and more effective.

The event was chaired by Lord Michael Williams of Baglan, Distinguished Visiting Fellow and Acting Head, Asia Programme, Chatham House, and discussant Ian Martin, Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Head of the UN Support Mission in Libya (2011-2012).

The event was presented by the International Security department and the Asia programme.

Click here for more information

Book launch of ‘How peace operations work: power, legitimacy, and effectiveness’

Jeni bookTomorrow, Jeni Whalan will launch her book ‘How Peace Operations Work: Power, Legitimacy, and Effectiveness’. Panelists will Dr Christine Cheng, King’s College London, Dr Jolyon Ford, former Senior Analyst at Oxford Analytica and Dr Lee Jones, Queen Mary University.

The book proposes a new approach to studying the effectiveness of peace operations. It asks not whether peace operations work or why, but how: when a peace operation achieves its goals, what causal processes are at work?

By discovering how peace operations work, this new approach offers five distinctive contributions. First, it studies peace operations through a local lens, examining their interactions with actors in host societies rather than their genesis in the politics and institutions of the international realm. In doing so, it highlights the centrality of local compliance and cooperation to a peace operation’s effectiveness. Second, the book structures a framework for explaining how peace operations can shape the behaviour of local actors in order to obtain greater cooperation. That framework distinguishes three dimensions of a peace operation’s power-coercion, inducement, and legitimacy—and illuminates their effects. The third contribution is to highlight the contribution of local legitimacy to a peace operation’s effectiveness and identify the means by which an operation can be locally legitimized. Fourth, the new power-legitimacy framework is applied to study two peace operations in depth: the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC), and the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI). Finally, the book concludes by examining the implications of this new approach for practice and identifying a set of policy reforms to help peace operations work better.

The book argues that peace operations work by influencing the decisions and behaviour of diverse local actors in host societies. Peace operations work better—that is, achieve more of their objectives at lower cost—when they receive high quality local cooperation. It concludes that peace operations are more likely to attain such cooperation when they are perceived locally to be legitimate.

Where: King’s College London, Strand campus, War Studies Meeting Room (K6.07)

When: 04/02/2014 (14:30-16:00)

Australia adds weight in global leadership

ml-artw-leadership-20131028173741200955-620x349 In world diplomacy, the Security Council has been a vital proving ground.

The Canberra Times29 October 2013

Jeremy Farrall and Jeni Whalan

Australia is almost halfway through its two-year elected term on the UN Security Council. Our delegation has acquitted itself well, particularly in the ceremonial role of council president in September. Hopes are high that Australia can build on its 2013 achievements to craft a lasting legacy as a productive contributor to global peace and security.

During the first half of 2013 Australia made solid contributions to the Security Council’s work, primarily in its work as chair of the committees overseeing sanctions against Iran, al-Qaeda and the Taliban. It also worked behind the scenes to coax other council members to support action to address the shocking humanitarian situation in Syria. An example of these efforts was Australia’s sponsorship of an informal briefing for Security Council members by a UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria.

Australia’s most important test came in September, when we assumed the temporary position of Security Council president. Preparations for the presidency were hampered by the timing of federal elections, which complicated efforts to arrange a flagship high-level council meeting on a theme of Australia’s choosing. As president Australia also faced the considerable challenge of managing differences between council members on how to address the crisis in Syria. Tensions over Syria were particularly high following the August 21 use of chemical weapons against civilians in Damascus.

Despite these challenges, Australia managed to preside over three important high-level meetings and secure the adoption of two landmark resolutions. The first high-level meeting, on September 26, was on stopping the illegal flow of small arms and light weapons. Australia chose this theme to build on its successful efforts earlier this year as chair of the final conference for the Arms Trade Treaty. It was the Security Council’s first formal meeting on small arms for five years and Australia’s leadership ensured that an intensive negotiation process culminated in the adoption of the council’s first ever resolution on small arms.

The second high-level meeting, on September 27, discussed the situation in Yemen, where an ongoing national dialogue process is making progress towards a more peaceful, inclusive transition to democracy, notwithstanding ongoing security, political and humanitarian concerns, particularly in the south of the country.

In the third high-level meeting, late on September 27, the Security Council took its first action in 18 months to address the situation in Syria. In one of its final acts as president, Australia thus presided over the adoption of resolution 2118 (2013), which endorsed the framework agreed by the United States and Russia for the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons. As Australia’s ambassador Gary Quinlan noted at the time, this was a momentous occasion.

After a successful first year of membership, Australia now has greater diplomatic capital with which to address important global issues that might otherwise escape the attention of the Security Council’s major powers.

While the threat of military strikes against Syria is no longer immediate, there is little respite for the seven million people in need of humanitarian assistance. On October 2, a joint Australia-Luxembourg initiative culminated in a presidential statement calling for all UN member states to contribute with urgency to the ongoing humanitarian appeals for Syria. At $4.4 billion, the Syrian appeals constitute the largest aid request in the UN’s history. Barely half the funding needs have so far been met. A crucial test of Australia’s leadership will be whether it can maintain its commendable record on Syria’s humanitarian crisis, both in and outside the Security Council.

Australia should continue its efforts to improve Security Council transparency and accountability. The Responsibility to Protect (R2P) initiative, once championed by Australia, has fallen out of favour with many UN members as an unfortunate consequence of NATO’s over-enthusiastic implementation of the mandate to protect civilians in Libya. One way to restore confidence in R2P would be to develop appropriate accountability mechanisms for civilian protection mandates. Australia should also encourage careful review within the council of recent shifts in UN peacekeeping practice, including the authorisation of ”combat peacekeepers” and surveillance drones in the Congo, a controversial new mission in Mali, and expanded efforts to counter organised crime and terrorism throughout Africa.

Finally, Australia is the ”penholder” on Afghanistan – the nickname for a Security Council member that takes the lead on the issue’s deliberations. With both elections and the ”transition” of NATO-led international operations due in 2014, Australia will play a crucial role in shaping the future role and status of the UN Assistance Mission to Afghanistan (UNAMA).

Australia has 14 more months on the Security Council, including another turn as monthly president. Australia’s legacy will be shaped by our ability to use this time to promote political and humanitarian progress in Syria, increase the council’s transparency and accountability, strengthen peacekeeping practice and promote a constructive role for the UN in Afghanistan.

Let’s hope our diplomats have the stamina and support to achieve positive outcomes on all these fronts.

Read more:

New York is Jakarta: why Tony Abbott should attend Leaders’ Week at the UN

Jeni Whalan and Jeremy Farrall

First published by The Conversation, 20 September 2013

Foreign minister Julie Bishop’s austerity announcementsover the weekend make it clear that she will attend Leaders’ Week at the United Nations later this month. But it is still not clear whether Australia’s new prime minister Tony Abbott will attend this important gathering of world leaders. We think he should.

The UN remains the most important forum of global governance, indispensable for collective efforts to solve the world’s most troubling problems. But visiting New York this September will also enable Abbott to achieve two of his most important short-term foreign policy goals: consolidating relations with our nearest neighbours and saving money for the Australian taxpayer.

Every September, world leaders gather in New York for the opening of the UN General Assembly. This provides leaders of the UN’s 193 member states an opportunity to share their views of the biggest challenges facing the world community. It also provides an invaluable chance for these leaders to meet their counterparts to discuss issues of pressing national interest.

In the past, Australian prime ministers have taken full advantage of this opportunity. Kevin Rudd is reported to have held around 50 one-on-one meetings with other heads of state and foreign ministers.

During the final days of the election campaign, Abbott was asked if he would attend this important event. While he didn’t rule out the possibility, he used the opportunity to emphasise his “Jakarta not Geneva” approach to foreign policy by assuring journalists that his first international visit would be to Indonesia.

There are many reasons why Abbott should go to New York. The first is that he is now Australia’s leader and there is a reason that this occasion is called “Leaders’ Week” rather “Foreign Ministers’ Week”. This is Abbott’s opportunity to announce his arrival on the global stage as Australia’s leader and to begin forging those essential personal relationships with his peers.

Australia is also currently President of the UN Security Council, and it will hold a high-level meeting on small arms on September 26. As the meeting will take place during leaders’ week, all 15 Security Council members have been invited at the head of state level.

As the Security Council’s president, Abbott could therefore get to bang the gavel to call to attention a gathering of peers that might include presidents Obama, Putin, Hollande and Jinping, and conservative UK prime minister David Cameron. There is also a possibility that the presence of such leaders in New York might galvanise the Security Council into action on Syria, which would make the absence of an Australian prime minister all the more conspicuous.

Finally, Abbott does not have to “choose” between regional and global commitments. All of our region’s most important leaders will be in New York. He could therefore advance Australia’s national interests in meetings with his most valued regional peers on issues of bilateral and multilateral concern. Of course, if he were to meet these leaders in person in New York then it would eradicate the need to undertake costly trips at taxpayers’ expense to dozens of other capitals.

Visiting New York for Leaders’ Week is not a frivolous extravagance: it is core business for Australia’s new prime minister. That Tony Abbott can save money conducting foreign policy at the United Nations should be the icing on the cake.

Will Australia make the most of its Security Council presidency?

UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferré. Julie Bishop, Minister for Foreign Affairs of the Commonwealth of Australia.

As the federal election calls Australian attention to matters domestic, our diplomats are preparing for one of their most demanding briefs. On September 1, Australia becomes President of the United Nations Security Council.

Will Australia make the most of its opportunity? Or will politics at home overshadow this crucial role?

first published by The Conversation28 August 2013

Jeremy Farrall and Jeni Whalan

The Security Council is the world’s preeminent authority on matters of international security. It is accorded primary responsibility under the UN Charter for identifying threats to the peace and determining appropriate global responses.

The presidency of the Security Council offers a rare opportunity for Australia to promote its foreign policy agenda within this powerful body, usually by focusing the council’s 15 members on a particular issue of concern. Historically, council presidents have used their tenure to tackle such important issues as preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, protecting civilians in conflict, and promoting justice and the rule of law.

September is a big month at the UN. Not only will our diplomats need to contend with the distractions of the Australian election, they also face a demanding list of precarious international situations before the Security Council.

Last week’s allegations that the Syrian regime used chemical weapons against civilians will demand the council’s attention. However, the Syrian conflict exposes the deep political divisions between the council’s permanent members. Russiaand China have repeatedly blocked proposals from the United States, Britain and France for action against the Syrian government. Russian support for an independent UN investigation of the chemical weapons attack is a positive move, but is not expected to lead to Security Council consensus on further action.

Meanwhile, the council is also managing fragile conditions in countries around the world. These include the Democratic Republic of Congo, where earlier this year the council authorised the UN’s first combat peacekeeping operation; the Central African Republic, where deteriorating political, security and humanitarian crises have left 1.6 million people in dire need of assistance, half of them children; and Sudan and South Sudan, where violent conflict and humanitarian crises have occupied the council in 17 meetings this year alone.

Further, the council currently oversees 31 peacekeeping and field-based political missions spanning the globe, including the hotspots of AfghanistanMali and Somalia.

Given the international turmoil and domestic election campaign, why does Australia take on the presidency in September? The simple reason is that the Security Council presidency rotates on a monthly basis according to which country comes next in the English alphabet.

Due to our favourable alphabetical position, Australia was actually the first ever president of the Security Council. On Thursday January 17, 1946, the council’s inaugural meeting was called to order by none other than Australian Norman Makin. The presidency is currently held by Argentina, which will hand us the presidential baton at 12.01 am on Sunday September 1. We will then dutifully pass it to Azerbaijan at 12.01 am on Tuesday October 1. The monthly presidential rotation also means that Australia will have a second opportunity to be president in November 2014.

So what can we expect Australia to do in September while it holds the presidency? As president, we will set the Security Council’s agenda, chair its meetings, sign off on formal correspondence and speak to the press as the official voice of the council. Savvy past presidents have also taken advantage of their position to promote Security Council policy refinements.

If Australia’s performance to date on the council is any indication, then the day-to-day business of the Security Council should proceed smoothly and effectively. Our delegation will undoubtedly fulfil its chairing responsibilities diligently and professionally. But it would be terrific if Australia could use its presidency to deliver more durable improvements in the Security Council’s effectiveness and credibility.

The scheduling of national elections for September was less than ideal for our Security Council presidency. Normally, a September presidency would be a golden opportunity to shape the council’s approach to pressing issues of the day. This is because heads of state and government from the UN’s 193 member states will converge on New York in the third week of September for the annual UN General Assemblyleaders’ week.

An Australian prime minister could therefore preside over a leaders’ level Security Council meeting on their favoured cause, with potential attendees including presidents Obama, Putin, Jinping and Hollande, as well as UK prime minister David Cameron. This would represent a full house of thePermanent Five members.

In the past, September presidents have shone the spotlight on protecting children affected by armed conflict (Germany in 2012), preventing nuclear proliferation (United States in 2009) and maintaining peace and security in Africa (France in 2007).

At the time of writing, Australia has still not announced what its flagship presidency theme will be. Insiders suggest that a rabbit is waiting to be pulled out of the presidency hat. It might be promoting a greater role for women in peace-building, protecting civilians in Syria, strengthening the rule of law in countries emerging from conflict or banning illegal trade in small arms and light weapons.

In light of recent Syrian events and Australia’s own historic role in the successful conclusion of the Chemical Weapons Convention over 20 years ago, this would also be an opportune moment to devote renewed energy to arms control.

Let us hope that Australia makes the most of this opportunity to promote an important theme that will improve the effectiveness and credibility of the Security Council. If we can do this, then we might be remembered not just as a country that worked hard as council president, but as one whose hard work in that position made a difference.

UN peacekeepers cross the line of warfare in the Congo

The idea that peacekeepers should not initiate military action has prevailed … until now. Jeni Whalan says the new “intervention brigade” in the Congo has stretched the institution of peacekeeping to breaking point.

first published by ABC The Drum, 23 April 2013

Jeni Whalan

There’s a fine, but critical, line between keeping the peace and waging a war.

For the blue-helmeted United Nations peacekeepers deployed in some of the world’s worst conflict zones, it’s a line that is constantly, violently tested – by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia in the early 1990s; by rebels who this month killed five peacekeepers in South Sudan. Yet the greatest challenge may have come from the United Nations itself.

Last month, the United Nations Security Council established an “intervention brigade” to take offensive military action against rebel groups in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.

It’s a decision that takes UN peacekeeping into uncharted waters. Peacekeeping is the UN’s policy instrument of choice for responding to violent conflict around the world. It entails diverse tasks, from monitoring buffer zones to holding elections to demobilising militia forces. But never has UN peacekeeping involved combat operations to defeat an armed group through military force.

The Congo’s new peacekeepers are charged with precisely that: with “neutralising” militia in the country’s east. The move follows an earlier decision in which the Security Council dropped its historic reluctance to give peacekeepers intelligence-gathering capacity, authorising their use of surveillance drones to monitor conflict activity. Despite assurances that the DRC is an exceptional case, these are precedents that demand careful scrutiny.

The earliest peacekeepers were prohibited from using military force except under strictly defined conditions of self-defence. When former UN secretary-general Dag Hammarskjöld penned the first peacekeeping doctrine in 1958, he wrote:

Men engaged in the operation may never take the initiative in the use of armed force, but are entitled to respond with force to an attack with arms … The basic element involved is clearly the prohibition against any initiative in the use of armed force.

This prohibition was relaxed over time. Indeed, peacekeeping is defined foremost by its ad hoc, flexible character, which has continuously evolved in concert with emerging crises and shifting international norms. Each of the touchstone principles of peacekeeping has adapted to new conditions: “state consent” was (selectively) expanded to become the consent of conflict parties; “impartiality” was reconceived after the Rwandan genocide to exclude inaction in the face of evil; and the non-use of force is now recognised to mean “except in self-defence and defence of the mandate”. Since 1999, 12 peacekeeping operations have been authorised to use force to “protect civilians under imminent threat of violence”.

But concern about slippery slopes notwithstanding, peacekeeping has to date been distinguishable from warfare. Hammarskjöld’s notion that peacekeepers should not initiate military action has prevailed.

Until now. The offensive posture of the Congo’s new intervention brigade stretches the institution of peacekeeping to breaking point. Its mandate declares that the new combat force is created on an “exceptional basis” and does not constitute “a precedent or any prejudice to the agreed principles of peacekeeping”. But practice surely outweighs these words. This is a fundamental shift for peacekeeping.

The current situation in the eastern DRC is untenable. After thirteen years of peacekeeping, and despite the current deployment of nearly 20,000 peacekeepers, the country remains defined by its insecurity. DRC occupies the bottom ranking in the UNDP’s Human Development Index: 186th of 186 countries. Armed groups continue to operate with impunity in the country’s east; rape and sexual violence occurs with horrific frequency; and the complex dynamics of a war economy are a destabilising influence throughout the region.

But there is an air of desperation about the Security Council’s authorisation of combat operations in the Congo’s east. The new intervention brigade will operate within the existing MONUSCO operation, which – despite being one of the UN’s largest and most expensive peacekeeping forces – has thus far failed to stem the violence or address the conflict’s root causes.

As respected New York think-tank Security Council Report put it recently:

Many Council members have expressed their scepticism about the capability of the new intervention brigade to neutralise armed groups and restore stability in the eastern DRC.

Nevertheless, it seems that lacking any alternative ideas or political resolve to invest in addressing the root causes of conflict in the region, Council members are willing to endorse a course of action put forward by the regional actors.

If true, a lack of ideas and political resolve seems a dangerous basis indeed on which to redefine peacekeeping, with potential repercussions for people and nations far beyond the DRC.

Dr Jeni Whalan is a lecturer in the School of Social Sciences at the University of NSW specialising in peace operations, the UN and Australian foreign policy. View her full profile here.

Australia wins a seat on the Security Council—but now it needs sound policy


It’s a comfortable victory that Australia’s diplomatic corps have little time to celebrate. In the early hours of Friday morning, the world’s nations decided that Australia deserved a seat on the United Nations Security Council. But now that the campaign is won, Australia has vital interests to pursue in New York, which demand more than good storytelling, a past record, a generous aid budget and a seemingly endless photo album of Australian peacekeepers hugging small foreign children.

First published by the Canberra Times, 20 October 2012

Jeni Whalan

Australia ran a good campaign. From a standing start, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s strategists achieved a remarkable feat by comfortably beating both Finland and Luxembourg in the first round of voting. That the secret machinations of the vote leant Australia’s way is surely to the credit of our tireless diplomats and planners.

Backed by a growing aid budget, they built a narrative of Australia’s global role designed to appeal to the key voting blocs of developing countries in Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific. It told the story of good, honest, pragmatic Australian foreign policy – of a ”practical” contributor that recognises the value of ideals, but is also prepared to roll up the national shirtsleeves when needed.

The campaign’s tagline ”Australia, we do what we say” provided an opening to speak with humility about the nation’s proud contributions over the past six decades to peacekeeping, peacebuilding, development and humanitarian relief. DFAT’s story highlighted Australia’s proximity to developing countries and its commitment to working with the UN’s smallest and most vulnerable members. Australia will make a difference, the campaign promised, for the small and medium countries of the world.

Of course, like all good narratives, we find in this a degree of requisite mythologising. More worrying is whether constructing the story became a higher priority at DFAT than getting policy right.

If Australia is truly to ”do what it said”, it needs better, more informed, more innovative and bolder policy positions to take to New York. When Julia Gillard addressed the UN last month, her speech – entitled ”Practical progress towards realising those ideas in the world” – delivered the final refrain of DFAT’s carefully composed campaign tune. But if the Prime Minister’s speech is to be more than mere campaign rhetoric, Australia must get back to formulating serious policy contributions in New York.

The council’s agenda is broad. During Australia’s tenure, it will certainly include the worsening crisis in Syria, ongoing tensions between Sudan and South Sudan, the UN’s role in Afghanistan during and after the transition of NATO-led operations, and oversight of the 16 peacekeeping operations deployed under Security Council mandate. In Mali, the growing power of militant groups linked to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb prompted the Security Council last week to adopt a French resolution paving the way for an African-led intervention.

These are big challenges. Undoubtedly, it is the permanent five members – China, France, Russia, Britain and the US – that ultimately determine the council’s outcomes by virtue of their veto power. But Australia will have opportunities to lead: on issues of rule of law and disarmament, for example, and on the council’s multiple sanctions committees. Australia’s Pacific Islands neighbours will be hoping that Australia will lead on issues of climate security.

For inspiration, Australia might look back to 1990, when our diplomats didn’t need a Security Council seat to produce a draft Cambodian peace proposal that broke the impasse in negotiations. The 155-page ”Red Book” provided a substantive account of the roles, costs, people and processes required for a comprehensive Cambodian settlement. Far from the generic principles and motherhood statements that too often pass for UN contributions, this plan was remarkable in its specificity, a carefully researched resource document presenting realistic paths to peace in Cambodia – and without a photo in sight.

That Australia will take its place alongside 14 other Security Council members in January is a broadly good thing for our foreign policy. But Australia now needs to harness the energy and strategic prowess with which our diplomats waged the Security Council campaign for higher ends, to tackle the urgent threats to international peace and security for which the council has unique responsibility.

It needs in particular the serious investment of strategic planning resources within DFAT. It needs to promote open, rigorous debate about policy ideas and practice – not just those that cohere with Australia’s campaign strategy. And it needs to let its public officials off the leash so they might engage in honest discussion, in and out of their departments, about what works, what doesn’t and why.

Having a seat at the table might be important, but having something worthwhile to say is indispensable.

Dr Jeni Whalan is a lecturer in the School of Social Sciences at the University of NSW specialising in peace operations, the UN and Australian foreign policy.

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