Between Bureaucracy and Adhocracy: Crafting a Spectrum of UN Peace Operations

Ian Johnstone
Peace Operations Blog

The array of tools the UN has developed to prevent, manage and resolve conflict has expanded in recent years. They are being deployed in new formats, from political missions and small peacebuilding teams, to large observer missions and multidimensional peace operations with offensive capabilities. But the High-level Independent Panel on Peace Operations (HIPPO) and other recent reports question whether the tools are being used as effectively as they could be.

The HIPPO recommended, “the full spectrum of peace operations must be employed more flexibly to respond to changing needs on the ground”. It said the UN must deliver more “right fit” missions, a “continuum of response and smoother transitions between different phases of missions.” This message was echoed in the Secretary-General’s follow up report, the Advisory Group of Experts (AGE) on the Peacebuilding Architecture Review, and the Global Study on the implementation of resolution 1325. It is also implicit in the Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism, which calls for creativity in how to respond to that threat.

A central message of the reports is the need to get away from supply-driven interventions in mandating and designing missions. They call for a more flexible, demand-driven approach that is context-appropriate and harnessed to an overarching political strategy. They critique the tendency to fall back on peace operation templates, and to allow budgets and bureaucratic structures to drive the planning process, rather than what the circumstances require.

There is a need to re-focus attention on those circumstances. The practical challenge is not to envision some ideal end state and design a mission to achieve that, but rather to determine what is achievable in light of conditions on the ground. That in turn requires an assessment of what conditions lend themselves to the successful use of one instrument in the peace operations toolkit as opposed to another.

The term peace operations as used in the reports encompasses peacekeeping, political missions and other instruments the UN deploys to maintain peace and security. As such, it enables a more substantive discussion of the spectrum without getting distracted by the traditional dichotomy UN intergovernmental bodies draw between peacekeeping and political missions for budgetary reasons.

What Is Driving This Inquiry?

At one level, it is a need to conceptualize an approach to mandate design and mission planning that mitigates the distorting effects of budget and bureaucratic categories. At a deeper level, it is to mitigate the effects of a design and planning process that is driven more by Security Council dynamics and Fifth Committee negotiations than careful analysis of what the circumstances require. This is a tall order. Security Council politics, budgets and bureaucratic rivalry are powerful forces that won’t be overcome simply through better analysis. The goal is less ambitious. It is to reinstitute a mode of mandate design and mission planning that starts with conditions on the ground and then turns to these other factors, rather than the other way around.

Beyond that, three other considerations are driving this inquiry. First, the environments into which peace operations are being deployed are fluid and do not lend themselves to easy application of the existing templates. These include places where the host government is obstructive or outright hostile to the presence of a peace operation, where state authority is weak or perceived by the population to be illegitimate, or where there is substantial intervention by outside actors in an internal conflict.

Of particular note are places where the threat of violent extremism is high. The HIPPO report expresses the widely shared view that a UN peacekeeping mission should not engage in military counter-terrorism operations and offers suggestions as to what it should do when asymmetric threats are present in the operating environment. The Plan of Action on Preventing Violent Extremism provides further insight. But many questions are left unanswered, including what do to do when a protection of civilians mandate seems to call for forceful measures against threats emanating from extremists groups.

These complicated dynamics rarely resolve into a clear picture of what form a UN presence should take. They create a risk that the UN may get drawn into situations where it does not belong. This may happen because the organization is called on when all other options are politically unviable, or because deploying a UN operation can be an excuse for not taking other actions the situation may require. These concerns have stimulated a good deal of thought about the appropriate parameters for peacekeeping, going back to the three traditional principles set out in the UNEF I guidelines (1956), through Agenda for Peace (1992)Supplement to an Agenda for Peace (1995)the Brahimi Report (2000), Capstone Doctrine (2008) and now the HIPPO report (2015).

But there has been less thought about conditions that lend themselves to the effective use of other instruments, such as UN country teams, political missions, peacebuilding support offices, or regional offices. It is tempting to assume that, when a peacekeeping mission with a large military component is not the answer, a smaller purely civilian presence necessarily is. Yet even the decision to appoint a special envoy needs to be examined in each case. Beyond flying the UN flag, what value does he or she add? Too many envoys, after all, can complicate a peace process.

Because these environments are so fluid, peace operations have to be adaptable and able to change shape quickly in order to be effective. That is a second factor driving the inquiry into the spectrum operations. Their configuration and mandate will vary at different phases of the conflict cycle: from escalating violence and all-out war, to peace negotiations, peace process implementation, or post-conflict recovery. Hopefully the conditions will improve over time; but sometimes they degrade. Whether the situation moves in a positive or negative direction, there has to be a regular process of assessment and reassessment to ascertain whether and how the conditions are changing. The notion of “adhocracy” is an organizational form that lends itself to innovation in a fluid environment. It is flexible and responsive, unencumbered by rigid structures or procedures. Such an approach can facilitate transitions from one kind of operation to another, for example when a large peacekeeping operation is succeeded by smaller political or peacebuilding mission, which in turn hands over to a reinforced UN country team. But this pattern is not inevitable. The more agile the UN is in reconfiguring a mission, scaling down when appropriate, or adding components when necessary, the more likely it is to succeed in its goals.

Third, a thread that runs through the HIPPO and other recent reports is “the primacy of politics.” While the idea is not new, consensus around it opens space for innovation in how the various tools at the UN’s disposal can be harnessed to a political strategy. The reports call for a renewed emphasis on conflict prevention, a goal that has been notoriously difficult to operationalize because it is hard to mobilize political will for something that has not happened. The emphasis on politics and prevention is an invitation to think creatively about how all UN instruments can serve to prevent the lapse into conflict, to prevent violence from getting worse, or to prevent a relapse once the violence has subsided. Not only mediators and envoys, but everything from small human rights offices to robust military operations can have a preventative effect, ideally by deterring would be spoilers.

Ideal End States V. Achievable Goals

There has been no shortage of thinking about the desirable end state of a peace process, articulated in numerous UN reports. In 2001, “No exit without strategy” defines “sustainable peace” to exist “not when all conflicts are removed from society, but when the natural conflicts of society can be resolved peacefully through the exercise of state Sovereignty and generally, participatory governance.”

In 2008, the Capstone Doctrine identifies four elements of sustainable peace and therefore a focus for early peacebuilding: a) restoring the state’s ability to provide security and maintain public order; b) strengthening the rule of law and respect for human rights; c) supporting the emergence of legitimate political institutions and participatory processes; d) promoting social and economic recovery and development, including the safe return of refugees and IDPs.

In June 2009, the Secretary-General wrote that the most “urgent and important peacebuilding objectives [are] establishing security, building confidence in a political process, delivering initial peace dividends, and expanding core national capacity.” These and national frameworks were synthesized in a volume on Guiding Principles for Stabilization and Reconstruction produced by the United States Institute for Peace. It identifies five end states: a safe and secure environment; rule of law; sustainable governance; a sustainable economy; and social well-being.

There is no need to endorse let alone come up with a new list of desirable end states for a peace process. It is both risky and counter-productive to assume there is a formula for sustainable peace – as the extensive debate on liberal peacebuilding makes clear. Ultimately, desirable outcomes depend on context and can only be determined through a process of dialogue and consultation with internal actors. The real challenge is not to articulate some ideal of peace and fashion new templates for how to get there, but to grasp what is achievable in the particular circumstances of a crisis and to design a mission accordingly. The prospects of achieving any outcome will depend heavily on the geo-political and local conditions. In some circumstances, negative peace (the absence of all-out war) may be all that is achievable; in others, elements of positive peace are possible; in still others, the peace operation can get at the root causes and help to build institutions and governing practices that will prevent a relapse into conflict.

The practical challenge is not to envision some ideal endstate and design a mission to achieve that, but to determine what is achievable in light of conditions on the ground.

What then can be done to facilitate the design of context-appropriate and adaptable missions? The concern is not with planning processes but rather content. The starting point is to ask the right questions about the conditions on the ground. These can be derived from the practice of contemporary operations and the most significant challenges they are facing. They provide a framework for conflict management analysis (a counter-part to conflict analysis). “Conflict management” as used here is shorthand for conflict prevention, mitigation and resolution. An indicative list of such questions that is neither exhaustive nor random could be:

What Is The Status Of The Political Process?

Is it viable, nascent or non-existent? After the failures of Bosnia, Somalia and Rwanda in the early 1990s, a mantra in UN circles was that peacekeeping operations should not be deployed when there is no peace to keep. This may have been a useful check on the tendency to imagine that peacekeeping was the solution to all problems, but as a threshold for deciding when to deploy an operation, it is not helpful. Rarely is there a perfectly reliable peace to keep; the question is how much peace is enough. A more helpful rule of thumb is articulated in the Capstone Doctrine: “a United Nations peacekeeping operation can only succeed if the parties on the ground are genuinely committed to resolving the conflict through a political process”. In other words, peacekeeping missions should only be deployed to support a viable political process. But that raises a host of second order questions: how do we know when the commitment of the parties is genuine, that the political process is viable? Can a UN presence help to create the conditions for such a process? Will a military presence with a protection mandate create space for political dialogue, or undermine it? If there are other external actors involved in the political process, what value does the UN add?

What Is The Geographic Scope Of Conflict?

Is it local, national, regional, or global? Most conflicts in which the UN gets involved today are intra-state wars that pit two or more national actors against each other. Yet they almost invariably have transnational, regional and/or global dimensions, often because outsiders are intervening in the internal conflict. At the other end of the spectrum, the roots of conflict and triggering events for violence are often at the sub-national and community levels. Different approaches and different tools are needed depending on the level of the conflict.

Who Are The Targets Of Violence?

Is it against other combatants, political opponents or civilians? A mission whose security focus is primarily to protect civilians will look different from one that is trying to deter violence between combatants, or from one that is trying to help a new government to consolidate its authority against spoilers. If the threat of violence against civilians is high, then a strong military and police presence may be needed to provide physical protection. If the threat is less acute, other civilian protection measures like human rights monitoring, humanitarian action and community engagement may suffice. If women and children are facing particular risks – for example if rape is being used as a weapon of war – then the inclusion of gender and child protection advisers in missions is particularly important.

What Are The Reasons For The Violence?

Is it to take over the government, control territory and resources, secure a seat at the negotiation table, or to terrorize a population? The answer to those questions will have an impact on how large a security presence is required, with whom mediators should be negotiating, and how the incentives for spoilers can be altered. Moreover, beyond measures to address the immediate threats, understanding the reasons for the violence can shape the types of institutional reform that may be needed to channel conflict away from the battlefield. Building more inclusive political machinery may be the priority in some places; a more independent justice system could be more important in others.

What Is The Capacity And Perceived Legitimacy Of The State?

Are the national government and institutions strong or weak? Are they legitimate in the eyes of the local population? Are there local authorities and non-state actors that have greater capacity to fulfill governance functions? Are those other sources of authority perceived to be more legitimate than the central government? Extension of state authority is a prominent feature of Security Council mandates, and capacity building is a big part of that. But how authority is extended and how capacity is built have an important impact on legitimacy. Helping to extend the authority of a state that is perceived to be illegitimate by its population is not likely to contribute to sustainable peace. Conversely, political engagement with other sources of authority – including non-state actors – may be both necessary and useful.

What Is The Scope Of Consent To And Cooperation With A UN Presence?

What type of UN presence with what mandate will the host government accept? What will the other parties to the conflict accept? What is the attitude or the broader population? The answers may be reflected in a peace agreement, but the agreement does not tell the whole story because a) commitment to the agreement may not be genuine; b) how the parties interpret it may differ; and c) circumstances change. Nor do peace agreements tell us what political elites expect to gain (or lose) from an external presence, or what the broader population wants. The Advisory Group of Experts on the peacebuilding architecture calls for inclusive national ownership of a peace process, while taking care to stress that the role of the UN is to work with – not against – the host government. The extent to which the UN has the space to reach out to political parties, local levels of government, community groups, women’s groups, youth, the private sector and civil society organizations will affect the shape of a mission.

What Role Do Neighbors, Regional Actors And Global Powers Play?

Outside actors are always involved in internal conflicts, whether in the form of military assistance from friends and neighbors, development assistance from international financial institutions and bilateral donors, or in any number of other ways. Sometimes these interventions contribute to the cause of peace; sometimes not. If they are constructive, what sort of UN presence – if any – can add value vis-à-vis other external actors? If destructive, what UN instruments are most useful for engaging with those interveners? If the UN is deployed to support a regional organization, what form should that support take? How can it best contribute to diplomatic efforts that involve a multitude of external actors?

The answers to these and similar questions can provide valuable insight into the design of a peace operation. However, it is important to understand that the conditions are not necessarily immutable. For example, what sort of presence the parties will accept is obviously an important determinant of the shape of a peace operation, but the attitude of those parties is susceptible to change through negotiation or pressure. Even geo-political “realities” are not immutable. The political will of great powers can change; a well-designed and well-timed peace operation can be an agent of that change.

Tasks And Instruments

The range of functions UN peace operations serve spans five areas: political/governance, security, humanitarian, human rights and socio-economic – although not every mission operates in all five areas. To fulfill these functions, the UN performs a range of tasks including political engagement, protection, capacity-building, monitoring, service delivery, and coordination.

Which instruments can best be used to perform what tasks? The answer depends on the conditions on the ground. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) could be used for monitoring communal violence, but if community groups are suspicious of drones, then relying on civil affairs officers may be more appropriate. If sustaining a political process requires engagement with a number of neighboring countries, then a regional envoy may be a more appropriate instrument than one assigned to a single country. Matching instruments with tasks to meet strategic objectives in light of prevailing conditions is the challenge.

What, More Precisely Are The Tasks?

Political engagement includes activities such as political advice to governments, mediation and good offices, engaging with political parties and parliamentarians, electoral and constitution-making assistance, local reconciliation efforts, the promotion of political inclusion, and reaching out to community leaders, women’s groups and civil society. It occurs at the national, subnational and local levels. As many conflicts have transnational dimensions, peace operations must often engage with regional and global actors as well. Political engagement also includes supporting governance functions and, on occasion, performing those functions (like conducting elections or running transitional administrations).

Protection may entail robust military or police action to create a secure environment or to physically protect civilians facing imminent threats of violence. It also means insisting on compliance with humanitarian and human rights law, and demanding humanitarian access to people in need. Protection may occur through dialogue and political pressure on national actors, or as DPKO’s policy states by “establishing a protective environment” by creating conditions for the return of refugees and internally displaced persons, and the disarmament, demobilization and reintegration of ex-combatants. In a recent report, the particular challenges of DDR in the context of violent extremism was highlighted. Protection tasks overlap with political engagement, capacity-building and monitoring.

Capacity-buildinga core feature of peacebuilding, means helping to create, reform or strengthen governance institutions. These could be in the political sector, such as electoral management bodies and parliaments. They could be in public administration, including institutions that manage natural resources and other aspects of the economy. They could be in the security sector, both military and police. Or they could be in the justice sector – justice ministries, courts, corrections facilities, and indigenous dispute settlement bodies. Helping to “extend state authority” is tied to capacity-building, an increasingly problematic mandate if the state authorities have less legitimacy in the eyes of a local population than the informal governance actors they may displace.

Monitoring mandates go back to the earliest days of peacekeeping when monitoring ceasefires, troop withdrawals and buffer zones was the main task of a peace operation. These remain common tasks, but other forms of monitoring are also prevalent. In the security field, missions now monitor the disarmament and demobilization of ex-combatants, communal violence and, on occasion, arms embargoes. Human rights monitoring is regular feature of mandates, as is keeping track of humanitarian conditions. In addition to providing electoral assistance (a task listed under ‘political engagement’ above), peace operations often monitor elections and referenda.

Service delivery refers mainly to the provision of humanitarian aid in the form of food and shelter. Quick-impact projects to deliver peace dividends also fall in this cluster. UN peace operations must be attentive to the challenges of delivering health, education and other social services in conflict zones – including in zones controlled by extremist groups. While they are rarely involved in delivering health directly, the Ebola crisis raises questions about whether they could play a greater role.

Coordination refers to a diverse mix of tasks. The coordination of economic and social recovery programs is an example, as is the coordination of humanitarian assistance. It may also mean the coordination of envoys and other external actors, for example, through “friends” groups. The UN sometimes coordinates security sector reform efforts, where the military and police training may done by bilateral actors, but governance issues fall within a UN mandate.

The table below listing the instruments deliberately avoids the words “missions,” “operations,” or “offices” to connote the fact that they can be deployed in many different combinations. A large multidimensional, robust UN peace operation will include most of these tools; an observer mission will have fewer. A political mission may be restricted to providing advice and good offices; or it may perform peacebuilding functions, in which case it would need more components. The same is true of regional offices. A UN country team lacks most of these tools, but it could be enhanced to take on prevention or residual peace-building tasks. Characterizing them as modular units in this way helps to conceive how they can be mixed and matched to craft a context-appropriate mission that can be reconfigured as circumstances change.

For some of the six tasks listed above, UN instruments may need to be strengthened, for others, new tools may be necessary. While the UN has well-developed capacities for political engagement to support implementation of a peace agreement, it has fewer tools for conflict prevention. Instruments for capacity-building are much more well-developed in peace operations than for non-mission settings. Monitoring by human beings has long been the norm for the UN; it has only recently begun to experiment with the use of drones for that purpose. While UN operations have substantial experience trying to protect civilians against known spoilers, they have less experience dealing with asymmetric threats. Should preventing violent extremism advisers be added to the UN toolkit?


A number of implications for peace operations reform can be identified.

First, to avoid the twin evils of an “imported peace” and an “elite peace”, engage in inclusive consultations with local actors at every stage. The main determinant of constructive external intervention is the relationship with internal actors. Consultations about the mandate of a peace operation or other presence must begin at the earliest stages of planning, and must continue throughout the life of a peace process. The challenge is to identify the appropriate local interlocutors. This has to include the main parties in a conflict or peace process, but – to the extent possible – should reach beyond them to other stakeholders: opposition groups, local authorities, community leaders, and representatives of civil society, especially from the most conflict-affected segments of the population. Phased mandates can help with that by giving the UN the time and space to consult a broad cross-section of local actors before committing to a particular response. A peace agreement or political settlement, if it exists, ought be treated as a “relational contract” – not a simple bargain or transaction, but a rather a framework for managing a long-term relationship that implicates multiple actors and evolves over time.

Second, in surveying the conditions that determine what sort of UN presence is likely to be most effective, consider whether multiple mandates reinforce or undermine each other. Protecting civilians and supporting the extension of state authority may be compatible in one context but not another. Prioritized mandates can help with that by assigning missions tasks that are achievable in light of conditions at a particular moment, but that may change, grow or shrink as the conditions change.

Third, peace mission design must account for the impact of other measures the UN can take for the maintenance of international peace and security. Other measures include Security Council-authorized no-fly zones, sanctions regimes, international criminal trials, arbitration proceedings, and commissions of inquiry. These can either reinforce or constrain the work of a peace operation. Criminal justice mechanisms may sideline actors who can get in the way of a political process; or they may make it impossible to engage with actors who are needed for that process. How to leverage those other tools should factor in the design, planning and transition of a peace operation.

Fourth, UN analysis and planning must include an assessment of how its instruments can best be used in relation to those of other actorsRegional and sub-regional organizations are active players in peace operations, coalitions of the willing are sometimes authorized, and bilateral actors often dispatch envoys and experts to conflict-affected states. Some of these actors have a similar list of tools at their disposal, if less capacity, like the African Union. Others have greater resources but fewer tools, like NATO and the World Bank. Partnering with other actors expands the range of instruments the international community can bring to bear in a peace process: regional mediation teams, over-the-horizon security guarantees, and donor compacts.

Fifth, ensure missions, financing arrangements, and headquarters structures are able to adapt quickly to changing conditionsThe notion of “adhocracy” nicely captures how peace operations must be able to adapt and transform. It is an organizational form that exhibits fluidity in response to a changing environment, collaboration on a particular task, and the ability to reconfigure to perform new tasks as a peace process unfolds. In order to provide “tailored and flexible” responses, the UN has to be able to innovate, and to innovate it must avoid the trappings of rigid bureaucratic structures, with sharp divisions of labor and hidebound operating procedures. Bureaucratic silos, cumbersome hiring practices and outdated budgeting processes must give way to more fluid arrangements, both at headquarters and in the field.

Ian Johnstone is a Professor of International Law at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University. He also holds an appointment as non-resident senior fellow at the Center on International Cooperation, New York University. His most recent books are with Simon Chesterman, Ian Johnstone and David Malone, Law and Practice of the United Nations (2016), and with Jacob Cogan, Ian Hurd and Ian Johnstone eds. Oxford Handbook of International Organizations

The author would like to thank participants in CIC workshops held in November 2015 and March 2016 for the many useful comments provided on drafts of this essay.

Which instruments can best be used to perform what tasks?

Special envoys and advisersMilitary staff officersCivilian police divisions
Special and executive representativesInfantry battalions and companiesFormed police units
Mediation teamsRapid reaction or reserve forcesPolice sector reform teams
Political affairs officersSpecial forcesSpecialized police training teams
Civil affairs officersGuard units
Human rights officersAttack helicopters
Judicial and corrections advisorsTransport helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft
Electoral assistance teamsMaritime and riverine units
Legal affairs unitsIntelligence units
Disarmament, demobilization and reintegration unitsUnmanned aerial systems
Mine action teamsEngineering units
Information and analysis cellsMedical/medevac units
Humanitarian liaison and coordination unitsMilitary observers
Recovery, return and reintegration units Military advisers
Development coordination unitsMilitary sector reform teams
Peace and development advisers
Protection of civilian advisers
Gender advisers
Women protection advisers
Child protection advisers
Conduct and discipline units
Communications and public information units
Sanctions monitoring teams

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