Peacekeeping Beyond the UN
Transitions, Regional Organizations and Ad Hoc Alliances

Canada and the World invites prominent scholars from across the country to discuss Canada’s relationship to the wider world, and the ways in which history has shaped its international relationships. Series editor: Kyle Pritchard.

Burundian soldiers wearing green camouflage and berets, some carrying backpacks, walk across the tarmac of an airfield. Behind them is a white passenger jet with United Nations livery.

Burundian troops, part of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), arrive in Somalia to take part in the peacekeeping operation February 13, 2017. AMISOM Photo / Ilyas Ahmed [SOURCE

In this article, Alistair Edgar examines the diverse range of peacekeeping initiatives which have evolved as part of a United Nations framework. While not in all cases, peacekeeping alternatives have arisen as a result of limitations to UN-backed initiatives in nations experiencing hostilities, and how historical troop contributing countries (TCC) have been obstructed, or been replaced, by regional organizations holding the support of mercenary groups in post-conflict peacekeeping. Edgar delves into the complexities surrounding these shifting dynamics of international peacekeeping efforts, shedding light on the nuanced interactions between traditional UN mechanisms, regional organizations, and the utilization of mercenary groups in post-conflict stabilization endeavors.

FOR THE LAST FEW MONTHS, making use of being on a half-year sabbatical, I wrapped up several projects on governance in international organizations, the Sustainable Development Goals (in particular, SDG 16 on ‘peace, justice and strong institutions’), and Canadian peacekeeping history. At the invitation of Texas A&M University Law School and the Bush School of Government and Public Service, I have begun a new research project that explores two often interrelated peacekeeping topics: first, support within troop contributing countries (TCCs) for alternative peacekeeping and peacebuilding concepts and initiatives; and second, pathways for peacekeeping ‘beyond the UN’ – those being (a) UN transitions from complex peace operations to special political missions (SPMs) and UN Country Teams (UNCTs), and (b) peace operations conducted outside of the UN’s framework by regional organizations and ad hoc alliances.

TCC support, UN peacekeeping transitions and ‘non-UN’ peace operations are interrelated in several ways. Most obviously, as the TCCs provide the large majority of peacekeepers’ ‘boots on the ground’ for the largest and most complex UN missions, they also have the highest stake – too often marked by death or injury – in achieving mission success and subsequent transitions to smaller, civilian and policing oriented SPMs, and ultimately to development-focused UNCTs. Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Côte d’Ivoire are examples of UN peacekeeping mandates and missions that were able to draw down in these transitions after helping to end conflicts characterized – especially in Sierra Leone and Liberia – by horrific atrocities against civilian populations and support post-conflict peacebuilding.

By contrast, the UN missions in Mali, Central African Republic and Sudan have been unable to stabilize the bitter conflicts in those states and most recently have been instructed by the regimes in power to leave the countries entirely, or have had the UN envoy declared persona non grata – while those regimes have hired the Russian Wagner mercenary group to provide forces, equipment, and other support as they wage their internal wars. In the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, too, there are numerous reports that the government has hired ‘white mercenaries’ – read, the Wagner group – in its fight against the Rwanda-backed M23 militia. Of course, there are also those long-standing conflicts for which no major UN peacekeeping operation was authorized – perhaps the most obvious being Syria and Yemen.

Transition by success, and transition by failure or host state rejection. In the latter case, how does the highly politicized Security Council (with Russia as a permanent member while Moscow wages war against Ukraine, sustains Assad in Syria, and now has internal struggles against Wagner), and the UN Secretary-General as the leading voice of the international organization, respond? What do these tell us about the political will of the major powers in the Council, the leverage that may exist for the Secretary-General, and the possible future for major UN peacekeeping operations?

Those are big political questions, often tied up in great power geopolitical rivalries, although it often is overlooked that even successful UN transitions can create their own practical or programmatic, economic, political, and logistical challenges that are worth considering. The downsizing from large scale peace operations can negatively affect local economies (and local power brokers), while reducing international political attention and funding, and even lead to those local power brokers (and their militias) ‘claiming’ – or looting – the physical infrastructure, facilities, equipment, and supplies that remain behind. Sometimes even, we have seen a contingent of TCC peacekeepers seeking to apply for political asylum in the country of their mission when their own home country may be in turmoil. These issues are addressed by the UN Secretariat rather than the Security Council: how has the Secretariat sought to deal with these challenges and to minimize the harms that can be a by-product of mission success?

Last and certainly not least – while there currently are 12 UN peacekeeping missions (and 23 SPMs), the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute in 2022 counted 64 multilateral peace operations, with the majority (34) being in sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and North Africa. Several of the operations or missions in Africa were authorized by the African Union Peace and Security Council or under the auspices of the African Standby Force ‘model’, while others were being conducted by ‘coalitions of the willing’ established under regional economic communities (such as ECOWAS, SADC, or IGAD); and some were ‘ad hoc security initiatives’ organized on a bilateral or trilateral basis to coordinate states’ forces operating internally against transnational threats such as terrorist or other armed insurgent groups.

How have these ‘non-UN’ peace operations affected TCC’s willingness or capacity to support UN peacekeeping, given that the states involved in those operations may include some of the largest TCCs? And as the African Union seeks to promote ‘African solutions to African problems’, and the UN Security Council seems highly reluctant to authorize any new UN peacekeeping missions – even before the deep political divisions caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 – how is the relationship between the UN and AU evolving in terms of political authority and legitimacy, financing, and core capacities?

Those are a lot of hard questions, for a set of very difficult issues. They should keep me busy. I wonder, idly, if the Government of Canada will ever re-engage seriously with UN peacekeeping, after two decades of almost complete absence?

Headshot of Alistair Edgar.

Alistair Edgar is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Wilfrid Laurier University, with cross-appointment to the Balsillie School of International Affairs. He is an editor of Global Governance: A Review of Multilateralism and International Organizations (Brill/Nijhoff), and a series co-editor for the ACUNS Series on the United Nations (Edward Elgar Publishers). His research interests include UN and other forms of international peacekeeping operations; leadership and governance in the UN system, with an ongoing research project examining the President of the General Assembly; and issues of justice, reconciliation and peacebuilding in conflict and post-conflict societies, with fieldwork in Afghanistan, Cambodia, Kosovo and Uganda. Outside of his scholarly activities, he is President & Chair of the Canadian Landmine Foundation.