A Background to the Report of the High-Level Panel on Peace Operations

Peace Operations Blog

A year ago, when the Secretary-General put forward the idea of a new review of peacekeeping operations, he naturally referred to the Brahimi report. He argued that as the 15-year anniversary of that report approached, it was necessary “to take stock of evolving expectations of UN peacekeeping and how the Organization can work toward a shared view of the way forward.”

Because the terms of reference of the new panel included (besides peacekeeping operations) field missions focused on prevention, mediation and peacebuilding, the High-Level Independent Panel on Peace Operations (HIPPO) decided early on to take as its frame of reference the 1992 Agenda for Peace, which defined the panoply of tools that the UN could bring to bear on the resolution of conflicts in the aftermath of the Cold War.

However, clearly the more relevant comparator for the exercise carried out in 2015 is the 2000 effort by the Brahimi panel to find answers to the challenges resulting from setbacks suffered by UN peacekeeping in the 90s. Indeed, both in content and tone, the 2000 and 2015 reports stand in rather stark contrast to the seminal 1992 Agenda. The latter still contemplated the case of inter-state conflicts, while the former two were focused exclusively on intra-state situations. In 1992 the novelty in peacekeeping was the fielding of UN operations “to help implement settlements that have been negotiated by peacemakers”, whereas the 2000 and 2015 reports largely focused on the challenge to peacekeeping “where there is no peace to keep”.

Broadly speaking, the Agenda for Peace aimed to take advantage of new opportunities offered by dramatic improvements in international relations – the new World Order − whereas subsequent reports were an effort to enable the UN to cope with new and severe constraints. The 1995 Supplement to an Agenda for Peace described these as “unforeseen, or only partly foreseen, difficulties”, namely a succession of new wars, often within newly independent states, with a marked religious or ethnic character and often involving unusual violence and cruelty, particularly against civilians.

In that sense, against the background of high expectations raised in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War, the HIPPO faced in 2015 the same sobering realities as the Brahimi panel in 2000, and to a large extent the Secretariat as early as 1995:

  • Because UN involvement continues to represent the highest possible level of internationalization of a conflict − or any other domestic issue − it continues to face reluctance on the part of individual governments and, increasingly, regional groupings to entrust the Organization with sensitive issues such as preventive diplomacy and the negotiation of internal conflicts.
  • Because UN peacekeeping forces continue to be a “pickup team” whose constituent parts often do not share the same language, doctrines, training and equipment, or national interests, the UN continues to struggle to move beyond the mostly symbolic role it played in support of pre-existing agreements and become a relevant actor in situations of active hostilities.
  • Because the UN continues to be a relatively minor player in the field of international cooperation, and continues to be fragmented among a multiplicity of autonomous agencies, it continues to face great challenges in the consolidation of peace in countries that painfully emerge from conflict.

As a result, whether in the areas of mediation, peacekeeping or peace consolidation, the ground covered in the Brahimi and the HIPPO reports is strikingly similar, as are many recommendations offered by the two panels. And it comes as no surprise that the HIPPO refers explicitly to the Brahimi report on key issues such as the protection of civilians or the use of force.

At the same time, while the UN has faced similar challenges in its effort to remain relevant over the past 20 years, each panel has been working in a different set of circumstances. Each has developed different perspectives on the same issues, and has produced recommendations with significant nuances. Let us look at three key areas: the use of force and the principles of peacekeeping; peacebuilding; and the challenge of having no peace to keep.

The Use Of Force And The Principles Of Peacekeeping

Following the frustrating experience of the use of force by UN peacekeeping operations in Somalia and Bosnia, the 1995 Supplement to an Agenda for Peace drew very clear-cut conclusions:

“Nothing is more dangerous than to ask [a peacekeeping operation] to use force when its existing composition, armament, logistic support and deployment deny it the capacity to do so. The logic of peacekeeping flows from political and military premises that are quite distinct from those of enforcement; and the dynamics of the latter is incompatible with the political process that peace-keeping is intended to facilitate. International problems cannot be solved quickly or within a limited time. Conflicts the United Nations is asked to resolve usually have deep roots and have defied the peacemaking efforts of others. It is necessary to resist the temptation to use military power to speed them up. Peacekeeping and the use of force (other than in self-defence) should be seen as alternative techniques and not as adjacent points on a continuum.” 

Five years later, with the experience of the genocide in Rwanda etched deeply in the UN consciousness, the Brahimi panel would take the exact opposite stance: “As the United Nations has bitterly and repeatedly discovered over the last decade, no amount of good intentions can substitute for the fundamental ability to project credible force”. In other words, not only is the use of force “other than in self-defence” not incompatible with peacemaking, it is a pre-requisite for its success − and the imperative of saving lives trumps allowing for the slow ripening of peace negotiations. Robust rules of engagement should enable a peacekeeping mission to defeat “those who reneged on their commitments to a peace accord or otherwise seek to undermine it by violence”. And the Brahimi panel proceeds to revisit the traditional principles of impartiality, consent and use of force in self-defence with a view to accommodating the centrality of the use of force in peacekeeping affairs.

In truth, the 1995 and 2000 positions are not as incompatible as it may seem: the 1995 report argued that the UN is in no position to impose a peace settlement by military means, which the Brahimi panel would not disagree with (“force alone cannot create peace”). And the Brahimi report argued that once a peace agreement has been achieved, it is essential that UN peacekeeping forces should be capable of defending it against violent challengers. The authors of the 1995 report would also not disavow this. At the same time, the central message to emerge from the Brahimi report was that the UN suffered from a critical deficit in military credibility, and its continued relevance to international peace and security depended on acquiring the “robustness” that was so tragically lacking in Rwanda.

Fifteen years later, the course of international affairs was bound to have an impact on the HIPPO’s perspective on the use of force. And in this regard change had been fast and momentous. Indeed, barely one year after the completion of the Brahimi report, a major shift took place in the international community’s approach to conflict with the start of the Global War on Terror in the wake of 9/11.

Together with the prodigal branding of rebel groups as “terrorists” with whom dialogue and political negotiations were deemed unacceptable, the 2000s witnessed the ascendency of the “primacy of the military” in the settlement of conflicts. Significantly, with perhaps the particularly bloody exception of Sri Lanka, application of military force led nowhere to a termination of conflict. In Iraq and Libya, it arguably made the conflicts worse. Moreover, as some Western powers, reeling from setbacks in Afghanistan and Iraq, seemed to distance themselves from population-centered counter-insurgency campaigns, they switched to an even less political approach: counter-terrorism.

In the field of peacekeeping, politics also appeared to take a backseat to military deployment. In Darfur and the DRC, the two largest-ever peacekeeping missions ended up almost entirely disconnected from any political process. The Security Council was increasingly embracing forceful “protection of civilians” as central to the mandate of peacekeeping missions. But it did so without a corresponding effort to find long-term political solutions that could make the protection of civilians effective and sustainable.

Looking at the current state of affairs in relation to ongoing conflicts and emerging trends in peacekeeping, the HIPPO considered that the first fundamental shift for the UN to maintain and increase its relevance in peace and security had to be the restoration of the “primacy of politics” and the imperative of reconnecting the use of force with political strategies. To quote the HIPPO’s report, this meant recognition of the fact that, without denying the importance of credible deterrence in peacekeeping, “politics is the true force multiplier”.

The report further elaborated on what was intended by “politics” when UN forces deployed in situations of ongoing conflicts, namely the search for negotiated solutions. This is essentially in contraposition to what has often been a flaw of counter-insurgency campaigns from Vietnam in the 60s to Afghanistan in the 2000s: the vigorous extension of state institutions, particularly the armed forces, as a substitute for negotiations and accommodation. It also contrasts with the general proposition that political settlements are not achievable with “terrorists”. While the report accepts that negotiation with “violent extremism” is a very difficult proposition, it draws lessons from NATO’s late recognition that there was no military or state-building solution to the Afghan insurgency. It reasserts the “hallmark” of the UN’s approach to conflict resolution: to explore peaceful options with all combatants regardless of military affiliation on the basis of “legitimate interests and grievances”.

Again there is no contradiction as such between the Brahimi report and the HIPPO: the former does list “political support” as the first key condition for the success of complex operations. And the latter emphasizes the critical need for every stakeholder at the UN – Security Council, TCCs, and Secretariat – to provide missions with the capacity to act as a credible deterrent to threats against civilians. But the nuance in emphasis is not unimportant: the HIPPO’s first concern is to reconnect the use of force with the politics of peaceful settlements as a pre-condition for deployment, and to impress upon the Security Council the need to bring its political leverage to bear as a pre-condition for success.

And just like the Brahimi report tinkered with the “principles of peacekeeping” to make way for the centrality of the use of credible force, the HIPPO revisited them to accommodate the centrality of negotiated political solutions to internal conflict. It follows the Brahimi report in distinguishing impartiality from the “equal treatment of all parties in all cases for all time”, but it also stresses the UN mission’s equidistance from belligerents in key areas: the protection of civilians “irrespective of the origin of the threat”; the promotion of human rights of all actors “including the belligerents regardless of affiliation”; and the search for political solutions based on “the legitimate interests and grievances of all parties”.

The HIPPO’s report acknowledges that consent from parties other than the government may be difficult to secure, but emphasizes that consent from all actors must be relentlessly sought:

Obtaining and maintaining the consent of the other parties remains an important objective of any mission and should be pursued to the extent possible. This strengthens the view of the Panel that any peacekeeping mission must be a part of a robust political process in which the UN is deeply involved, and must continuously seek to build consent to the UN role and presence through an impartial posture.

Finally, the HIPPO proposed that between the overly restrictive “use of force in self-defence” in the 1995 report and the overly militaristic and unrealistic “use of force in defence of the mandate” in the Brahimi report – indeed, many if not most tasks contained in UN missions’ mandates are not apt to be implemented by military means – the use of force should be clearly specified in each mandate.


Peacebuilding is another area where the HIPPO report adds updated perspective to the concerns contained in the Brahimi report. In the Agenda for Peace, peacebuilding was defined as activities undertaken by the international community to supplement the efforts of national actors with a view to consolidating peace. However, as noted in the 1995 Supplement to the Agenda for Peace, while the situation is clear when a mission is deployed on the back of a previously negotiated peace agreement, in other circumstances the question of the ownership of peacebuilding becomes blurred. The Brahimi report gave peacebuilding activities a much more critical role than previous reports:

When complex peace operations do go into the field, it is the task of the operation’s peacekeepers to maintain a secure local environment for peace-building, and the peacebuilders’ task to support the political, social and economic changes that create a secure environment that is self-sustaining.

But it did not dispel the ambiguities surrounding ownership, quite the contrary. Traditional ceasefire monitoring missions were explicitly meant to create conditions in which negotiations for a settlement could take place. In that sense, international peacekeepers were to enable national actors to deliver peace. In the Brahimi report – as in the practice of peace operations in many late 90s missions – peace was assumed to be “built” rather than “negotiated”; and international peacebuilders, rather than local actors, tended to be in the lead. A number of areas were singled out – elections needed the support of a broader process of democratization and civil society building, the police and the justice system should be reformed, and DDR should be undertaken – but the responsibility for designing those activities appeared to rest primarily with international actors based on their theory of change, rather than national actors. While it was stated that “effective peacebuilding requires active engagement with the local parties”, it was unclear whether the degree of ownership of these local parties went beyond that of implementing agents of international designs.

In this regard, the Brahimi report reflected the international paradigm that emerged from the 90s, which assumed that during a “peacebuilding window” of a decade or so the international community could apply a series of generic reforms to “build back better” countries emerging from conflict. That approach encompassed reforms around a set of acronyms (e.g., SSR, DDR, RoL) that were assumed to be so universal and so powerful that the Security Council ended up including them automatically in its mandates without considering whether they were actually relevant to the settlement of the specific conflicts in the country concerned, or whether they had domestic constituencies.

While this ambitious approach seemed reasonable and realistic at the end of the 90s and the early 2000s, the picture was quite different by the time the HIPPO met in 2015. Over the past 15 years numerous attempts were made at full-spectrum transformation of countries at war, or emerging from war à la Afghanistan or Iraq, and even at remaking small countries not at war (Haiti comes to mind). More often than not these attempts proved disappointing and sometimes counter-productive. Many missions with ambitious mandates and a staff of international experts on police, judicial reform or DDR have been engaged year after year in attempting to implement their templates with very little impact on their target institutions and no tangible impact on the restoration of peace. Still, institution development was thought to be the winning strategy, and it tended to displace from the missions’ agenda a political approach to contending local forces and interests.

Warnings were voiced both from academia and from international organizations that institution building was a much more uncertain and protracted affair than initially assumed, that formal institutions were not as relevant as initially believed, and that their functioning was so deeply contextual that it was risky for foreigners to play sorcerer’s apprentice in cultures they did not have the time or the inclination to understand. To some extent, the lessons learned from the 2000s invited a return to the much more modest and cautious philosophy of the 1995 Supplement:

The United Nations is, for good reasons, reluctant to assume responsibility for maintaining law and order, nor can it impose a new political structure or new state institutions. It can only help the hostile factions to help themselves and begin to live together again. All too often it turns out that they do not yet want to be helped or to resolve their problems quickly.

The HIPPO did not conclude that efforts to strengthen institutions were irrelevant. It shared the view expressed by the World Bank, the G7+ and others that improvement in the field of justice, security, inclusive politics and jobs are generally positively correlated with peace consolidation. It actually stressed that alongside inclusive politics jobs and livelihood should be a much more prominent part of the international approach. However, it also argued − and this is a significant development in peacekeeping affairs − that particularly in contexts where there is no comprehensive peace agreement, which is the general rule these days, the Security Council should refrain from providing any substantive peacebuilding mandate until it has given the Secretariat and peace missions on the ground the opportunity to carry out the fullest possible in-field consultations with local actors on what peace building could mean to them in the particularly country and at the particular time when the mission is deployed. No element of the traditional international template should be mandated without prior understanding of its relevance to the grievances and interests that drive the conflict, and the prospect of a political settlement among national actors.

Incidentally, the approach advocated by the HIPPO fully dovetails with the peacekeeping philosophy so well articulated by Lakhdar Brahimi and Salman Ahmed in their 2008 essay “In Pursuit of Sustainable Peace: the Seven Deadly Sins of Mediation”:

The people of the country concerned − the educated and the illiterate, the governors and the governed, the suspected perpetrators of the violence and the victims, the men and the women, alike − understand their own country far better than the foreign mediators who have just arrived on the scene. They will have to live with the consequences of the political process long after the mediator has departed. They also can help the mediator to identify where a potential course of action could lead to a dead-end, fail to command domestic support, or worse, exacerbate political divisions in the country and potentially provoke violence. It is therefore not only a question of shrewd diplomacy, but good sense and basic respect to listen to a diverse range of views in the host country.

Among others, this approach provides the fullest answer to the problem of supply-driven “Christmas tree” templates, whether pushed by vested interests at UNHQ, the donor community or the Security Council. The implications are profound: it means a restoration of national agency in peacekeeping, after more than a decade of template approaches where “national ownership” was more often than not an afterthought. For missions, it means a renewed emphasis on political approaches to peace consolidation, since for a protracted period in the life of a mission this consolidation will have to be achieved not so much through the building of formal institutions, but rather in their absence, or while they remain largely dysfunctional. It means a transformation of the mandating process, better adjusted to the reality of continuously evolving political and military situations. It also means a transformation of the budget process at the UN, which currently favors front-loading mission tasks and resources rather than allowing for ongoing re-adjustment of mission mandates depending on context.

“No Peace To Keep”

It is a testament to the relevance of peacekeeping to international peace and security that it has been able to expand from strictly military missions dealing with inter-state conflicts in the 60s, 70s and 80s to the multidimensional missions assisting the resolution of internal wars in the 90s and 2000s. But it is also a testimony to its relative immaturity that it is still struggling after 70 years to define the limits of its “territory” relative to other fields of endeavor in the midst of continuing controversy among the UN membership.

After disastrous attempts at peace enforcement in the protection of humanitarian activities in Somalia and the protection of the notorious UN safe areas in Bosnia, the conclusion was drawn in the mid-90s that UN peacekeepers did not have what it took to deploy in situations where no agreement existed among belligerents, at least on a ceasefire. A few years later, the Brahimi report concluded from the Rwanda tragedy that the UN simply did not have a choice but to acquire the military robustness that would enable it to face its responsibilities when a political settlement it was deployed to assist collapsed, violence resumed and the lives of thousands were threatened or lost as a result.

Given these sharp swings, the HIPPO has taken a position that reflects both concerns: it accepts fully that the protection of civilians in armed conflict is a core principle of international humanitarian law and a moral responsibility for the United Nations. In addition to the moral and legal dimensions, it is a political and military imperative: indeed, as a foreign force confronted to local challenges, no UN mission can expect to remain politically or militarily relevant unless it enjoys support from the population where it has deployed. The HIPPO therefore agrees that missions have the obligation, and must be given the means, to protect civilians from armed attack.

Moreover, beyond the type of situations that the Brahimi report had in mind – missions sent to uphold peace but confronted with “lingering forces of war and violence” − it accepts as legitimate the deployment of UN missions even “in situations of violent conflict and in the absence of a viable peace process”. It does so convinced that, in some cases, combined with the deployment of UN forces, the leverage available to influential members of the Security Council and the region can help create a political process where none existed, make a difference in the protection of civilians and bring the conflict under control.

But it does so very cautiously. It takes into account that the pursuit of robustness after the Brahimi report met great difficulties: key recommendations for stand-by forces, rapid deployment, adequate enablers, intelligence-gathering and other elements required for the “projection of credible force” by peacekeepers were not implemented. Denoting deep differences among member states, the practice of hidden caveats continued to undermine command and control as it did 25 years earlier. In the end, throughout the 2000s, in spite of the Brahimi report the use of force against spoilers in the context of UN peace processes was more often than not carried out by national and regional forces – in Sierra Leone, Cote d’Ivoire, Liberia, Timor-Leste, Haiti, Somalia, Mali and the DRC – rather than the UN.

The HIPPO insists that further progress can be made in the political and military capacity of peacekeeping forces, particularly if a consensus on peacekeeping is restored among member states. But it also believes that the composition and character of multinational, fundamentally heterogeneous, and to some extent disparate peacekeeping forces carries inherent limitations both in terms of deployment speed and military capability. It argues therefore that while UN multilateral peacekeeping can play a part in the management of today’s violent environments, it will always critically depend on others – national or regional contributors – as “first responders”, as “parallel forces” or as the primary protagonists in the control of conflict.

Peacekeeping proved to be a valid proposition in its original domain, the consolidation of inter-state ceasefires. It proved to be, with some tragic exceptions, a valid proposition in a very different context: the termination of civil wars. Confronted with a vastly more ambitious task, i.e. the global management of emerging conflicts and crises, it can again play a role. It could even be argued that it should play a much larger part − bearing in mind, in the wake of the controversy over NATO’s intervention in Libya, the risks inherent in the intervention of non-UN actors authorized by the Council. Already in 1995 the Supplement to the Agenda for Peace pointed out “the danger that the States concerned may claim international legitimacy and approval for forceful actions that were not in fact envisaged by the Security Council when it gave its Authorization to them”.

But the UN must not be taken as a substitute for the creation of the “global-regional peace and security framework” that the HIPPO calls for, and which it hopes the Secretary General will agree to lead. In 2007 the founding father of UN peacekeeping, Brian Urquhart, stressed:

A new approach needs to be found, something between peace enforcement action by large and battle-ready national contingents made available under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, and the improvised, more or less symbolic, peacekeeping that served so well during the Cold War but has often proved inadequate since.

This approach is not to be found by focusing on UN peacekeeping forces alone. It requires a new, multi-actor response. The global-regional framework will have to bring clarity to the relationship between national, regional and UN operations, an area where improvisation and ad hoc arrangements have prevailed to this day. In particular, it will have to review the political costs and benefits of several factors critical to the effectiveness and reputation of UN operations: the separation of regional initiatives or their integration under the blue flag (the case of the Force Intervention Brigade comes to mind); the re-hatting of first responders, and in particular re-hatting of troops from neighbouring countries; and the arrangements guiding the relationship between UN missions and parallel forces. There is very real urgency to this undertaking: the pressure on peacekeeping to do more than it can will not relent until this new architecture is in place.

Jean Arnault was a member of the High-level Independent Panel on Peace Operations (HIPPO) and is a non-resident Senior Fellow at the Center on International Cooperation (CIC). He has been the head of UN peace operations in Afghanistan, Burundi, Georgia, and Guatemala.

Stay Connected

Join our mailing list to receive regular updates on our latest events, analysis, and resources.

"*" indicates required fields

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.