Peacekeeping is one of the cornerstones of the United Nations and was, is and will be an essential tool for creating lasting peace in war-torn societies. The international system has changed in many ways since the first deployment of peacekeepers in 1948; new actors and challenges have emerged and mandates have evolved. The 21st Century brings enormous challenges to the international community’s peace and security – and peacekeeping will have to address many of these challenges. This series, culminating on International Day of UN Peacekeepers, 29 May, will bring innovative analysis and offer solutions to some of the most pressing issues facing peacekeeping today.
We live in an era of dramatic urban growth. Over half of the world’s population lives in urban areas and in the next 50 years this figure will increase to two thirds. Within the next 15 years, the majority of countries currently hosting peacekeeping missions will be largely urban.
There is a clear case to be made that the sustainable development fight may be won or lost in cities. Urban areas, especially in conflict-affected contexts, are emerging as epicentres of multi-layered violence and extreme vulnerability. For example, parts of Bangui (in the Central African Republic), Port-au-Prince (Haiti) and Abidjan (Côte d’Ivoire) have long been under the control of gangs and militias – and large numbers of local populations continue to be victimised and terrorised.
In 2014, the Secretary-General of the United Nations convened a High-Level Independent Panel on Peace Operations (HIPPO) to “take a comprehensive look at how United Nations peace operations could continue to contribute to the prevention and resolution of conflicts and be best designed and equipped to deal with the challenges of tomorrow.” In light of the urban-based challenges facing peacekeepers, combined with the uncontrolled pace of urbanisation experienced in some of the most fragile and conflict-affected countries (see Figure 1 below), it was reasonable to expect some mention of how UN peacekeepers should adapt to such challenges in HIPPO’s outcome report. Yet, the words ‘urban’ and ‘cities’ are entirely absent from it. Despite this apparent lack of attention, we argue that the urban-based challenges facing UN peacekeeping missions are real and growing and further complicate the ability of the UN to ‘keep the peace’.
Figure 1: Urban Population in Selected Fragile Countries, 1965-2030
(Source: World Urbanisation Prospects, 2014)
Operational challenges associated with urban peacekeeping
In contexts such as the Central African Republic (CAR) and Haiti, UN peacekeepers have had to operate in densely populated urban settings characterised by the presence of non-conventional armed groups and to adapt to the strategic complexity and specificities of urban space. Haiti in particular is often used as a classic example of ‘urban peacekeeping’. During a period of escalating violence throughout 2003 and 2004, the UN mission (MINUSTAH) was given a mandate to intervene militarily in gang strongholds in order to regain territorial control and restore state authority. Such interventions have raised doubts about MINUSTAH’s ability to ensure long-term stability and security in urban areas; and all the more so given the lack of a political strategy to tackle the deeply-rooted politico-criminal networks sustaining violence in the country.
Such urban-based challenges to peacekeeping are not unique to Haiti. In CAR, alarming rates of violence in the capital, Bangui, have led commentators to describe the current situation as one of “urban guerrilla warfare”. The UN Police (UNPOL), in particular, has had significant gaps in its capacity to respond. Elsewhere, demands for UNPOL’s services are increasing and its role is expanding across multiple peacekeeping operations. This also makes UNPOL more likely to operate in increasingly complex urban settings, and raises concerns around varying standards and approaches, as well as capacity limitations and gaps in training. Clearer guidance is needed on precise roles of different UNPOL components, the use of force, and coordination between the police and military, as illustrated in the cases of Haiti and CAR. UNPOL is particularly valuable in contexts where military force may be unsuitable to prevent violence or criminality, and it can play a key role in urban contexts – but this role should be better articulated, with context-driven training that reflects strategic priorities.
Peacekeeping economies in the urban space
In addition to the inherent challenges of conducting military and police operations in urban settings, the effects that peacekeeping operations have on the urban environment are considerable. The idea that international actors can have a profound impact – either damaging or beneficial – on their surroundings is captured by the notion of ‘peacekeeping economies’. Urban areas tend to be the loci of economic activity, and urban markets present important centres of taxation for armed groups, with universities sometimes serving as bases of recruitment. Peacekeepers may also contribute to sustaining local sex industries. Notwithstanding the UN’s zero-tolerance policy against sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA), including engaging with the sex industry, SEA “has been judged the most significant risk to UN peacekeeping missions, above and beyond other key risks including protection of civilians.” Whilst such concerns are not confined to the urban arena, urban populations are particularly vulnerable to abuses due to greater ‘leisure’ infrastructure, more contact between local populations and peacekeepers in cities, and the high concentration of troops in such urban spaces.
The need for context-driven approaches
There are, of course, many examples of conflict and civilian protection concerns that remain rural in nature. Yet, the issues highlighted above, coupled with demographic realities and the changing nature of violence, should push the UN to think harder about the unique challenges that operating in an urban environment poses for peace operations. This post is only a snapshot of some of the examples of where urban contexts have already shown themselves to present such challenge for peacekeepers, not to mention the rest of the UN’s intricate peace infrastructure. This is not to suggest that the urban should supplant the rural as the focus of peace operations, but that urban-based responses must be prioritised to a greater, and more systematic, degree than is currently the case. The follow-up to last June’s report should include considerations of the urban context in responding to the contemporary challenges faced by peace operations. In particular, recognition of cities as ‘strategic sites’ of political and security dynamics will be important if peace operations are to take on board HIPPO’s push to prioritise political solutions for lasting peace.
By Louise Bosetti, Hannah Cooper, John de Boer and Menaal Munshey.
This is a shorter version of a piece published on the UNU-CPR website at:
UN Photo / S.Paris
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The Role of Civil Society in Peacekeeping Missions: Tamara Kool
Peacekeeping in Cities: Is the UN Prepared? UNU-CPR
Is Hybrid Peacekeeping a Model of Success? The Case of UNAMID: Diego Salama