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Multilateral partnerships: The UK and the UN as partners in peacekeeping and peacemaking

Article by Fred Carver

December 6, 2021

Multilateral partnerships: The UK and the UN as partners in peacekeeping and peacemaking

The challenges

The role of multilateral institutions, pre-eminently the United Nations (UN), in fragile states is multifaceted. They invariably maintain primary responsibility for the delivery of humanitarian aid – the more fragile a situation the more irreplaceable their role. Insofar as development programming continues to occur the UN will often play a lead or convening role in it. Their staff and, where present, observers will be expected to bear witness and report upon violations of human rights and international humanitarian law. Particularly where there is a political mission or Special Envoy in place they will take a degree of responsibility for sustaining peace and maintaining stability: mediating and using their good offices function to convene and facilitate peace talks, and attempting to ensure external interventions are supportive of an agreed upon political process. And where peacekeepers are present they will have a more direct responsibility for maintaining peace, including on occasions by using force in the protection of civilians or in furtherance of a mandate to support a peace process.


These differing objectives frequently come into tension. Notably, the UN has often struggled to balance the need to maintain friendly relations, and therefore access, with host governments to deliver humanitarian and development programmes, and the need to bear witness to human rights violations and apply pressure as part of a political theory of change. Following the catastrophic failure of the UN to strike this balance correctly in the final stages of the Sri Lankan civil war in 2009, the UN commissioned the ‘Petrie Report’ which in turn led to the ‘Human Rights up Front’ mechanism to rebalance the political and development aspects of its work.[1] It was therefore galling for the UN, not to mention tragic, when the atrocities in Myanmar’s Rakhine state in 2017 betrayed many of the same failings in the UN response, on occasion even involving the same personnel.[2]


The reasons were straightforward enough. Despite the implementation of Human Rights up Front there had not been a substantial shift in the management of UN in-country interventions to ensure the primacy of political responses. In response to the second scandal of Myanmar, Secretary-General Guterres was able to push through structural reforms to support the primacy of a political strategy set by the UN Secretariat over delivery of development and humanitarian services, and while these reforms were watered down by states and implementation of Human Rights up Front remains incomplete and contested there is now a greater sense of political coherence in the UN’s interventions in fragile states.[3]


Unfortunately, this is far from the only point of tension when it comes to multilateral initiatives in areas of fragility. Another is the somewhat artificial divide that exists between the UN’s special political missions, run out of the UN’s Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs, and the UN’s peacekeeping missions, run out of the UN’s Department of Peace Operations.[4] Despite the recommendation of the UN’s Independent High-level Panel on Peace Operations (the wonderfully named HIPPO report) that the UN de-silo its thinking in this area and instead consider all its interventions as existing on a continuum of peace support operations, and despite a compromise restructuring which saw a part merger of some aspects of both offices, the two entities still operate fairly distinctly with limited cooperation or skill sharing.[5]


This is not just a case of a structural disconnect. The UN’s political missions operate in the fairly conventional and state centric manner of a UN mediator: attempting to increase stability and with an inherent bias towards state actors, which will always be seen as more legitimate by a state led institution such as the UN. UN peacekeeping, likewise accountable to a mandate established by member states in the UN Security Council, broadly operates in the same way. But there is a twist. In recent decades an expectation has been established that the preeminent role of UN Peacekeeping will be the protection of civilians.[6] The threat to the civilians, however, often predominantly comes from state actors, with non-state actors being as likely to be playing a protective role as themselves constituting a threat.[7] There are even circumstances in which the objectives of increasing stability and protecting civilians are antagonistic – greater stability means fewer checks on the power of the state actor to harm civilians.[8]


A tangential, but closely related, point of contention comes when one considers the UN’s role in counter terror operations. In the aftermath of the ‘war on terror’ the UN’s counter-terror work has become increasingly extensive and coherent, now organised under the leadership of the United Nations Office of Counter-Terrorism (UNOCT) and reaching to an extent where some researchers have deemed it the ‘fourth pillar’ of the UN’s work (the traditional three pillars being peace and security, human rights and development).[9] But counter-terror work is not a natural fit for the UN. For one thing the UN emphasises neutrality in its approach to conflicts, particularly in its peacekeeping work, and its peace and security work primarily operates by mediating between partners it attempts to view as equals. Counter-terror operations are not neutral, nor do they treat parties equally: they label certain non-state actors as the adversary. Furthermore, counter-terror operations frequently take the form of, or closely approximate, warfighting, an activity which is both antithetical to the objectives of the UN Charter and one that the UN is congenitally ill suited to perform. To quote the British born architect of UN Peacekeeping Sir Brian Urquhart, “the moment a peacekeeping force starts killing people it becomes a part of the conflict it is supposed to be controlling, and therefore, part of the problem. It loses the one quality which distinguishes it from, and sets it above, the people it is dealing with.”[10]


Peace in partnership

It is against this background of issues that discussions about multilateral partnerships for peacekeeping and peacebuilding have to be understood. The UN’s initiatives in this agenda rarely happen in a vacuum, particularly in Africa where the African Union (AU) and powerful and effective regional economic communities (such as ECOWAS, SADC etc…) play a vital role. In a situation of fragility such as Mali, such interventions will also take place alongside multiple others, such as two EU missions (EUTM Mali, EUCAP Sahel Mali), unilateral missions (such as the French led Operation Barkhane), and ad hoc regional missions (such as the ‘G5’ mission from Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger). When one therefore considers a question such as ‘to what extent is the UN peacekeeping operation in Mali conducting conventional peacekeeping and to what extent is it performing counterinsurgency?’, one has to not only consider the conduct of the mission itself (which I would argue mostly does still constitute conventional peacekeeping), but also the fact that in providing stability it creates an enabling environment for these other actors who are most certainly conducting counterinsurgency.


Therefore, while there is broad agreement that peacekeeping and peacebuilding are best when regionally led, and there is a consensus among most that they would like to see the AU and other regional actors take on more of the work with the UN playing a funding and support role, this has led to often insurmountable issues in practice. For example, states have so far resisted calls from the Secretary-General, primarily at the behest of lead donor France, to directly fund the G5. And quite right too, as scholars have argued, if they did they would be using UN funds to directly support the fighting of wars – in contravention of the UN Charter.[11] But how then to follow through on the longstanding demand from many African states for the UN to provide direct funding to African Union peacekeeping missions? The AU defines peacekeeping differently to the UN, and many of its ‘peacekeeping’ activities could be considered warfighting.[12] Is it possible to fund some actions of a peacekeeping mission but not others that cross the line? This has been the logic behind various UN support offices (such as UNSOS in Somalia) which seek to channel funding and support in kind to AU missions while maintaining a degree of separation between the UN and peace enforcement operations. The results are often complex and convoluted.[13]


What is to be done? And what role for the UK?

None of these tensions have easy resolutions. Furthermore, even if some extraordinary technical silver bullet did exist in the mind of some policymaker that could perfectly thread these several needles, it would do us no good. The UN’s peacekeeping and peacemaking work has evolved in ad hoc fashion as a result of protracted negotiations between states and other actors. So too, even more so, has multilateral peace support work outside the UN system. The discipline will inevitably continue to evolve in similar fashion: slowly, gradually and unevenly.


Nor should this be seen as an entirely negative thing. Immensely frustrating as multilateral peacebuilding is, it does – for a given value of the term – work. UN Peacekeeping in particular can boast a commendable track record of harm mitigated the presence of peacekeepers is credited with preventing genocide in the Central African Republic in 2014 and empirical studies show that “on average, deploying several thousand troops and several hundred police dramatically reduces civilian killings”.[14] While it is harder to demonstrate the value of the UN’s wider peace and security work (it being notoriously hard to prove the negative of a conflict not happening) one must always bear in mind that for three quarters of a century the UN has achieved its primary objective: preventing World War III.[15] And these successes cannot be disaggregated from the contestation and tension at the heart of multilateral approaches. Maddening as the lack of clarity, coherence, and singularity of purpose can be, these are the inevitable consequences of precisely what gives the approach its strength: the fact that one has established a mechanism for otherwise potentially hostile actors to resolve hard power differences through processes of negotiation leading to compromises. Frustrating as the messiness and incoherence of multilateral conflict management may be, it is nothing compared to the messiness and incoherence of conflict.


One potential reform that I believe is worth pursuing is to attempt to discourage and minimise micromanagement of peacekeeping and peacebuilding activities by state led mechanisms. Practitioners operating in a complex and fragile environment need clarity, but if the states that they are answerable to are not able to provide that clarity then flexibility and room to manoeuvre is the next best thing. Locally set policy can also better reflect local conditions, and match them in more granular detail, whereas blanket universal policies are bound to either be too robust for certain circumstances, not robust enough for others, or both.


A classic example of this dynamic came in a recent controversy regarding the use of lethal force by British UN peacekeepers in Mali.[16] While one can argue as to what the correct posture for the mission is, and while of course rules of engagement are a matter of legal and operational necessity, I would strongly suggest that any judgement made in New York is invariably going to be a poorer match for local conditions and circumstances than that of those participating in the incident. We have seen in the past the negative consequences of too rigid a mandate in peacekeeping and the value of mission command flexibility.[17] Of course, with such flexibility comes the opportunity for abuse, unless it is tempered by transparency and accountability. Peacekeepers must always fully account for their actions and must be accountable to, and able to be held to account by, those they keep the peace for. In this regards the UK’s candid communications with respect the incident have been commendable but greater work to place the populations of fragile areas at the centre of UN peace operations, as proposed by the Effectiveness of Peace Operations Network (EPON), is vital.[18]


More broadly, what role can the UK play? Their role in shaping peacekeeping, and indeed in all negotiations, will of course be limited by the limitations on UK influence, but this remains a sector where the UK has a louder voice than many.[19] Its policy positions with respect to many of the controversies I have outlined above are reasonably thoughtful and nuanced. Certainly they are the least extreme among the five permanent members of the UN Security Council where France and the USA join with Russia and China when it comes to enthusiasm for counter terror operations.


It’s also a sector in which the volume of your voice is proportionate to the size of your contribution. The UK has long contributed significantly to peacekeeping both financially and with small but influential members of senior staff in leadership roles. However, increasing resentment among traditional troop contributing countries at the division that exists between those that lead and those that bleed has meant that increasingly this is not enough, and a country such as the UK is expected to put non negligible numbers of troops at potential risk to earn its right to speak with authority.[20] The UK has done this commendably, doubling its traditional contribution of a mini battalion in Cyprus and senior leadership personnel with a series of commitments of a couple of hundred troops: first of a field hospital and then an engineering unit to the UN mission in South Sudan, and now of a long range reconnaissance force to the UN mission in Mali. The UK now contributes a similar number of troops to France, only a few less than China, and considerably more than the paltry contributions of Russia and the USA.


The military in particular have found that such deployments also offer significant additional benefits: unmatched on the job training and career enrichment opportunities; the strengthening of both traditional and new partnerships and the ability to practice work in coalition; enhanced situational awareness in strategic locations; the ability to match influence with rivals both in the areas of deployment and relevant international forums; and the opportunity to get a close look at some other nations’ kit.


An exemplary deployment in Mali: where next?

The UK’s deployment to Mali has been widely praised, and rightly so. It provides a requirement the UN needs: enabling the mission to project influence many hundreds of miles from the immediate vicinity of the fortified bases where they had in the past on occasion felt somewhat besieged, and allowing civilian experts to spend significant time out and about among the Malian population. While one can reasonably raise concerns about the purpose and value of the mission as a whole – the reliability of the Malian Government as a host and partner, particularly post-coup; the manner in which the mission works alongside French and G5 counterinsurgency operations; and the appropriateness of a UN mission operating in a counter-terror environment – the work of the long range reconnaissance patrols seems to embody a clear theory of change: dissuading attacks on civilians with a show of force; enabling the investigation of human rights violations by providing security for investigators; and enforcing peace agreements through weapons inspections. A clear and candid communication strategy has made this readily apparent.[21]


The UK will need to maintain a contribution at this level if it is to continue to have the influence it does over UN peacekeeping and wider peacebuilding policy conversations. Given the warm reception and effectiveness of the Mali deployment, currently expected to last until 2023, the UK should be in no rush to look elsewhere. But all commitments must come to an end eventually, and it is right that thought be given to what comes next, or indeed if additional contributions could be made, particularly in light of the Prime Minister’s as yet unfulfilled promise to the House of Commons that the increase in the UK’s defence budget would enable it to “do more on peacekeeping.”[22]


The Integrated Review, the UK’s generational strategy paper on national security and international policy objectives, commits the UK to an “increased commitment to the successor mission to the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM)”.[23] There’s a number of reasons to doubt whether such a commitment could achieve the same policy objectives as the UK’s deployment to Mali, and thus act as an effective replacement for it. For one thing the scope and nature of the successor mission to AMISOM has not yet been decided, and the process of negotiating that successor has been fraught with difficulty.[24] For another the situation in Somalia is highly complex and prone to risk, perhaps second only to Mali for the complexity of the interrelation between the various external actors, and likely even more deadly. Any UK intervention would have to be very carefully planned to ensure that it is indeed helpful. Finally, it is likely that – as now – any successor mission would place the AU in the lead role with the UN providing logistical, financial and in kind support through a support office.


The UK has already contributed significant numbers of staff to the UN support office in Somalia.[25] It is difficult to see how, in such circumstances, the UK’s as yet undefined contribution could take a form which would see a Mali sized number of additional blue helmeted troops being exposed to a similar level of risk as in Mali so as to give the UK a similar degree of credibility in UN conversations.


The UK might be well served to disaggregate its commitment to supporting the successor to AMISOM and the strategic value of an ongoing higher level of commitment to UN Peacekeeping: providing AMISOM’s successor with the support, most likely political and financial, that it needs, but separately engaging with the UN’s Department of Peace Operations on plans to ensure the maintenance of at least one Mali-sized contribution to its ongoing multidimensional peacekeeping missions.



  1. That the UK take a ‘needs led’ approach to supporting the successor to AMISOM in Somalia, providing that mission with resources and capabilities it needs, and not contribute for the sake of contributing;


  1. That independently from developing a contribution to the successor to AMISOM the UK commit to either renewing its contribution to the UN mission in Mali or offer a contribution, which similarly involves providing several hundred blue helmeted troops equitably sharing risk with other troop contributing countries so as to provide for similar policy benefits; and


  1. That the UK use its position on the UN Security Council and involvement with the policy conversations, including the upcoming Seoul defence ministerial to push for:
    • Greater accountability to, and centring of, the communities at the heart of peacekeeping missions, as recommended by the EPON network;
    • To resist any urge for state based mechanisms to micromanage peace operations;
    • To resist state centricity in multilateral responses to areas of fragility and embrace the fact that states can often themselves be part of the problem and non-state actors part of the solution; and
    • To counter any attempt to have UN resources or UN supported missions diverted into counter-terror operations, counterinsurgency, or other forms of warfighting.


Fred Carver is a freelance researcher working in the field of international relations, with specific expertise on the United Nations, Peacekeeping, Atrocity Prevention, civil wars and political violence. From 2011-2016 he ran the Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice, a human rights NGO, and from 2016-2020 he was head of policy at UNA-UK, a campaigning organisation for multilateralism. Prior to that he worked as a researcher specialising in South Asia (primarily Pakistan) and in UK politics.


Image by Sgt Russ Nolan RLC under (OGL).


[1] Charles Petrie, Report of the Secretary-General’s Internal Review Panel on United Nations Action in Sri Lanka, United Nations Digital Library, 2012,

[2] Colum Lynch, For Years, U.N. Was Warned of Threat to Rohingya in Myanmar, Foreign Policy, October 2017,

[3] IISD / SDG Knowledge Hub, “New Year, New United Nations”: Structural Reforms Begin, January 2019,; Kenneth Roth, Why the UN Chief’s Silence on Human Rights is Deeply Troubling, Human Rights Watch, April 2019,

[4] United Nations Security Council, Special Political Missions,; United Nations Peacekeeping, Where we operate,

[5] United Nations Peacekeeping, Report of the Independent High-Level Panel on Peace Operations, June 2015,; IISD / SDG Knowledge Hub, UN Secretary-General Details New Elements of Peace and Security Architecture, November 2018,

[6] Adam Day and Charles T. Hunt, Distractions, Distortions and Dilemmas: The Externalities of Protecting Civilians in United Nations Peacekeeping, November 2021, Taylor Francis Online,

[7] Center for Civilians in Conflict, From Mandate to Mission: Mitigating Civilian Harm in UN Peacekeeping Operations in the DRC, January 2017,; Severine Autesserre, The Crisis of Peacekeeping: Why the UN Can’t End Wars, Foreign Affairs, January/February 2019,

[8] Protection Approaches, Being the difference, November 2021,

[9] Ali Altiok and Jordan Street, A fourth pillar for the United Nations? The rise of counter-terrorism, Saferworld, June 2020,

[10] Urquhart, Brian E. 1987. A Life in Peace and War. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.

[11] Paul D. Williams, Why a UN Support Office for the G5 Sahel Joint Force is a Bad Idea, reliefweb, June 2021,

[12] Paul D. Williams, Lessons Learned in Somalia: AMISOM and Contemporary Peace Enforcement, Council on Foreign Relations, July 2018,

[13] Paul D. Williams, Lessons “Partnership Peacekeeping” from the African Union Mission in Somalia, International Peace Institute, October 2019,

[14] Diane Corner, “Without the UN, there would have been genocide”, UNA-UK, December 2017,; Kelcey Negus, Mounting Evidence: Empirical Studies Show UN Peacekeeping Mission Presence May Reduce Violence Against Civilians, Center for Civilians in Conflict, December 2019,

[15] Hultman, L., Kathman, J., and Shannon, M. 2019. Peacekeeping in the Midst of War. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[16] Louise Jones, Mali: An Alternative View, Wavell Room, October 2021,

[17] Tony Ingesson, Trigger-Happy Autonomous, and Disobedient: Nordbat 2 Mission Command in Bosnia, The Strategy Bridge, September 2017,

[18] Cedric de Coning and Linnea Gelot, Placing People at the Center of UN Peace Operations, IPI Global Observatory, May 2020,

[19] UNA-UK, Global Britain in the United Nations,

[20] Natalie Samarasinghe and Thomas G. Weiss, How “the rest” shape the UN, UNA-UK, October 2018,

[21] These were mostly available by following the contingent commander at the time @WillJMeddings on twitter. Now troop rotation has seen the Royal Anglians replaced by the Welsh Cavalry it remains to be seen which channels they will use, but following @TheWelshCavalry on twitter is likely to provide a starting point.

[22] UK Parliament, Integrated Review, Vollume 684: debated on Thursday 19 November 2020,

[23] Cabinet Office, Global Britain in a Competitive Age: the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy,, March 2021,

[24] International Crisis Group, Reforming the AU Mission in Somalia, November 2021,

[25] Ministry of Defence and The Rt Hon Sir Michael Fallon, UK troops support UN mission in Somalia,, May 2016,

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