Why has the United Nations failed in its central task of maintaining peace and security since 1990? Essay

Why has the United Nations failed in its central task of maintaining peace and security since 1990? Essay


This paper will discuss that, despite keeping peacebuilding, peacemaking and conflict resolution as primary agendas of the UN, there is still a general perception that UN peace and security missions are not successful, especially since 1990. Section I will discuss the definition and concepts of peacekeeping manifested through United Nations Agenda for Peace after 1990. Section II will provide arguments about the reasons behind the failure of United Nations activities for maintaining peace and security. Section III will highlight examples of different United Nations peace and security missions like Bosnia, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan to supplement the arguments.

Section I – UN and Peace- After 1990

The UN Agenda for Peace defines the peacebuilding concept as post-conflict social and political reconstruction activities, addressing economic despair, social injustice and political oppression and aimed at avoiding the setback into conflict (Boutros-Ghali 1992: par. 15 & 55). It was in the 1990s that, while keeping in view the past slow progress, inefficiency to maintain peace and on the request of the Security Council, United Nations Agenda for Peace, strategy for security and conflict resolutions were extended to the following four components (Zeeuw: 2001:13):

– Preventive Democracy: Action to prevent disputes from arising between the parties, to prevent existing disputes from escalating into conflicts and to limit the spread of the latter when they occur.

– Peacemaking: To bring hostile parties to agreement, mainly through peaceful means.

– Peacekeeping: The deployment of a UN presence in the field, hitherto with the consent of all the parties concerned, normally involving UNs military and/or police personnel and frequently civilians as well.

– Post-Conflict Peacebuilding: Identify action and support structures that will tend to strengthen and solidify peace in order to avoid a relapse into the conflict.

For the UN, the era of the 90s was a post Cold War scenario, where the UN had to combat new types of security and emergency situations like collapsed state structures; humanitarian tragedies caused by starvation, disease of genocide; large-scale fighting and slaughter between rival ethnic or bandit groups; [and] horrific human rights atrocities (Schnabel and Thakur, 2001: 12).

So, in general, the following tasks were needed to be focused on for ensuring peace and security (Schnabel and Thakur, 2001: 12):

– Military disengagement, demobilisation, and cantonment;

– Policing;

– Human rights monitoring and enforcement; – Information dissemination;

; – Observation, organisation and conducting of elections; – Rehabilitation;

– Repatriation;

– Administration;

– Working with or overseeing regional or non-UN peacekeeping operations.

Section II- Reasons of Failure

This section will focus on the reasons behind the failure of the UNs aim to secure peace with reference to its strategy and functioning.

Tschirgi (2004) while analysing the United Nations agenda for securities in 1990s till now, categorised reasons for its failure in five areas, which are: political grounds, policy development, operational areas, institutional reforms and partnerships.

While analysing political areas, Tschirgi (2004) argues that from 1990 till now, the UNs failure to handle security concerns on political grounds is due to polarisation among member states which the UN could not manage effectively. It is argued that till now, the UN has failed to develop a common normative framework for international cooperation to secure peace.

The reason behind the inability to develop such a framework is polarisation in perception about identifying the main threat to international security that has made the UN vulnerable to managing political partition effectively. Where developing countries feel socio-economic and civil strife as a base of all security threats, Brazil views social justice as a base to peace. Similarly the U.S. and its allies consider terrorism as the main action point. It is indicated like in the past, that failure to reduce and manage such polarization will still remain a threat to the UNs aims for providing peace and security in the future as well.

Moreover, Tschirgi (2004) critically argues that ineffective policy development is also the main reason behind the UNs failure. Despite the comprehensive Agenda for Peace and strategic forums, the UN has not been able to integrate development and security policies effectively in its own work. Similarly even realising growing evidence that economic instability, financial crises, unemployment, and excessive military expenditures contribute to social unrest and civil strife, there are still no integrated strategies on the UNs behalf in linking international trade, investment, debt and development assistance to enable countries to avoid the conflict trap. This can be manifested from the UN-led Monterrey Process on Financing for Development, which is not designed to factor the costs and consequences of violent conflicts in its plans and projections.

Operational deficiencies are carried forward by Giletti (2000) who critically analyses reasons for UN failure when it carried out peace operations. He argues that the basic shortcoming for ensuring successful peace missions is in the area of mission planning, specifically, the excessive delay between mission authorisation and troop deployment. Such lengthy delays manifest that the UN is unable and inefficient to intervene at the right time, thus resulting in more costly and larger operations. Examples of Croatia and Bosnia were highlighted in the regard that it was claimed that timely intervention in the early stages of that conflict would have deterred Serb military action against Croatia and Bosnia.

Lack on institutional reforms is another reason behind the UNs inability to cope with changing trends of peacebuilding and security. It caused direct and indirect impacts on the UNs ability to manage peace missions after 1990s. Tschirgi (2004) argues that over the years the UN grew from 51 to 191 members although its structure basically remained the same. Within the UN there are still concerns and agreements that important departments for security such as the Security Council need urgent reforms to reflect changes in their composition and mandate to cope with changing security concerns and better integration between departments.

It is further argued that lack of institutional reforms caused indirect detrimental effects on UN efforts for peace as it caused a scenario where each department was working in isolation with each other. This further failed inter-department and inter-agency coordination that also made UN peace efforts after 1990s ineffective. Giletti (2000) indicated such lack of integration as a shortcoming for the UN in conducting the ongoing peace operations. He argues that in many cases of peace efforts in the 1990s, different components of the UN with different goals caused the ineffective command and control arrangements in the mission area and between the field and the UN Headquarters thus causing significant failures in achieving the results. In the case of Somalia, tensions arose between the military and political components because they had different goals and different functional chains of command. This resulted in a lack of communication and may lead to situations where one hand does not know what the other is doing, clearly causing failures to achieve overall goals for peace (Duffey, 1998; Durch, 1996).

Finally, highlighting the lack of effective partnership as a reason for ineffective confrontation of peacebuilding challenges in the 1990s, Tschirgi (2004) argues that the UN has never been able to achieve the capacity, reach and means to address the multiplicity of peacebuilding challenges around the world due to its limited partnership development. Ineffective strategies in the past for causing failures in collaborating with other key actors, including national governments, regional organisations, NGOs, and the private sectors for peace and security, should be replaced with effective ones. Such scenarios also restricted the UN to perform merely a legitimising or catalyst role rather than establishing an image of a complete remedy against peace and security concerns.

Giletti (2000) further highlighted another shortcoming in the UNs peace efforts after 1990 that is force sustainment due to inefficiencies in the UNs logistic support. The reason is explained by critical analysis of the UNs logistics function where the UNs logistic system for peace operations is controlled by a Chief Administrative Officer (CAO), surprisingly a civilian who controls the resources that military components need for their functioning. Such scenarios created enormous tensions between the Force Commander and the CAO, which often spilled back to the UN Headquarters for resolution. Moreover, it is also argued that major reasons behind the inefficient logistic system are linked with procurement procedures that include lengthy competition periods, multiple bidding for every item, and purchasing at the lowest price. Moreover the UN uses the same procurement system to buy office products for its Headquarters staff as it does to buy supplies for its troops in the field.

Such logistic system inefficiency had other detrimental effects as well for UN peace efforts as lethargic procurement processes also had affected the UNs ability to launch new missions in a timely fashion and sustain existing ones at sufficient levels (Peck, 1995). Moreover, advance logistics planning is claimed to be almost non-existent: the length of a typical mandate, which is only six months long, limits forward purchasing options causing an adverse effect on efficient progress for peace missions (Morrison, 1996).

Apart from all these broader reasons behind the inability of the UN to maintain its central task of peace and security, the other reasons are asserted as the lack of timely and secure communication links between the UN Headquarters and the field, the absence of a UN doctrine, insufficient attention to force protection, an inability to exploit advances in technology, the inadequate training of units from non-traditional troop-contributing nations (Heje, 1998:16), an unreliable system for the gathering, analysis, and dissemination of intelligence (Evans, 1993: 127-128), and an ineffective early warning capability (Bowen, 1997: 9-11).

Section III Failures in UN Peace and Security Mission- Finding from Examples

To supplement all the arguments and analysis discussed in the previous section, this section will explore the reasons for failures from the practical experiences of UN peace efforts in Afghanistan, Bosnia and East Timor.

Atmar and Goodhand (2002:21) highlighted that Good Offices Mission in the late 1980s and early 1990s in Afghanistan transformed into UN Special Mission to Afghanistan (UNSMA) in 1996. With more focus on the regional dimension of conflict, the UN followed 6+2 talks including six neighbouring countries along with U.S and Russia. The objectives of the peace strategy were to (a) achieve a cessation of hostilities, (b) seek a regional political consensus in support of the peace process, and (c) seek direct negotiations between all parties on a political settlement. However, Maley (1998: 180-200) claims that as in the past, the UNs mission failed and turned out to be a Graveyard for UN Negotiation for the following three reasons:

– The inherent weakness of traditional peacemaking in contemporary wars: Orthodox mediation is based on the premise of inter-state relations and dialogue. Bilateral negotiations or talks within the 6+2 framework, however, have a limited impact because of the transnational and non-state entities that are an integral part of the conflict. Such non-state actors may deny the authority of the very framework of rules and norms within which conversations between states occur.

– The history of UN involvement in mediation: The UN has limited credibility with the different actors because of its previous failures, its limited capacities (both in terms of individual performance and political muscle) and, on occasion, a perceived bias.

– The focus of UN mediation: The UN has often failed to understand that the crisis in Afghanistan runs deeper than the mere composition of the government. As one NGO worker commented, the UNSMA is looking at any people who will sit round a table and talk to each other. We still hear a familiar refrain of the need for the set piece response of calling a cease fire, forming a broad-based government, holding elections and moving into reconstruction. How this peace package will address the interests of the non-state entities is not clear, however, since they have little interest or need of a unitary Afghan state.

While analysing the case of Bosnia, Ghoniem (2003) asserts that the UNs peace efforts through the United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR) highlighted that the indecisiveness of UN was the main reason behind failures. Rikhye (2000:45) further pointed out the following reasons for the UNs failure for peace efforts in Bosnia:

– The UN was initially indecisive as to whether or not to get involved in the conflict in Bosnia, which allowed for warring factions to break up Bosnia-Herzegovina into ethnically cleansed areas.

– The peacekeeping mission had no real design and had a vague mandate that was stretched to cover changed circumstances in the region.

– The rules of engagement given to the protection force were inadequate even for the delivery of humanitarian aid.

– Poor naming of protection force and safe-areas. These terms were misleading as UN forces were unable to provide protection for civilians, and safe-areas did not provide safety.

Contrary to Afghanistan and Bosnia, the United Nations Mission in East Timor (UNAMET) and United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET) in the late 1990s gained considerable success in peacekeeping because, based on past failure experiences, a UN-authorised multinational force is prepared for combat action if necessary, and is given the mandate, troops, equipment, and robust rules of engagement that are required for such a mission (Schnabel & Thakur, 2001:13) However, Ghoniem (2003) asserted that despite some success, there are failures as well which highlighted a few more drawbacks in the UNs efforts for peace. These failures includes failure to anticipate the consequences of a rejection of autonomy by the East Timorese, which led to a humanitarian catastrophe and lack of provision in agreement for a military component of UNAMET, which left the Timorese people hostage to whoever exercised power in East Timor, thus enabling late realisation for the UN that peace restoration was not possible without the creation of law and order.

To conclude discussion, all the arguments and examples support Gilettis (2001:15) views that consistent ineffective management of peace efforts after the 1990s lost confidence in the UN at international level as the primary remedy to restore and manage international peace and is clearly manifested through three trends:

First, the UN was averaging approximately five new operations per year from 1991 with more than eighty thousand personnel deployed around the world (in 1993). From 1994 to 1999, the UN has only averaged three new missions per year, with it a little more than twelve thousand deployed personnel (in 1999).

Second, many of the recent operations reflect a UN no longer committed to the substratum principle of maintaining international peace and security as, out of the 20 new operations since 1994, most have corresponded to either the interests of the great powers (seven missions in the Former Republic of Yugoslavia and three missions in Haiti) or to areas receiving extensive media coverage (six missions in Africa and in East Timor).

Third, there has been an increased enthusiasm for peacekeeping by proxy. Most of the time, this has occurred when the UN authorises a regional organisation or coalition of states to lead an operation. Recent examples include NATO operations in the former Yugoslavia and the combined Australian, New Zealand, US, and British effort in East Timor.


This paper highlighted the reasons behind the UNs failure to perform its central task of maintaining peace and security. After briefly discussing the UN concept of peace and security from 1990 onwards in Section I, debates and arguments behind the failures were discussed in Section II. This discussion brought up reasons behind consistent failures after 1990 such as the inability to manage political polarisation among member states, ineffective policy developments such as integrating security and development agendas, lack of institutional reforms causing inter-department integration problems, inability to develop effective collaborative partnerships in peacebuilding, faulty logistic support, communication issues, lack of technology advancements, lack of continuous training and imperfect management of intelligence. In Section III, reasons for failures of (replaced from) peace efforts in Afghanistan, Bosnia and East Timor were highlighted to supplement the arguments in the previous section. At the end it was argued that consistent failures after 1990 damaged the confidence of the UN as a primary tool for maintaining international peace and security.


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