UN peace operations are not meant to last forever (long-standing missions like UNFICYP and UNMOGIP notwithstanding). A peace operation’s legacy in a country emerging from conflict depends in part on how and whether it has made it possible for local actors and remaining international partners to succeed in consolidating any gains made during the UN’s mission presence. The transition away from a UN mission, or from one type of UN mission to another, therefore, is much more than an administrative or logistical operation. It’s often a critical moment in the “peace continuum”. That explains the attention focused on transitions – or rather on ensuring successful transitions – during the ongoing reform of the UN’s peace and security work.
The latest UN mission to transition is the peacekeeping operation in Haiti, which will be replaced on 16 October 2019 by a political mission with beefed-up engagement from UN development actors. Planning of the drawdown and setting up of a new structure is in full swing and involves a plethora of actors on the ground and at UN headquarters. The new mission will be charged with accompanying the country’s authorities, together with the UN country team, as it consolidates and builds on the gains made with the support of successive UN presences.
Evolution of UN mission transitions
The transition in Haiti coincides not only with the UN’s peace and security reform, but with a process of reflection among three UN entities – the UN Development Programme (UNDP), the Department of Peace Operations (DPO) and the Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs within the Joint Transition Project – about this critical phase in the life of a peace operation. In the past, the focus was primarily on getting out in an orderly fashion, leaving behind the rest of the UN system to reconfigure and possibly ramp up in order to provide more support on outstanding peacebuilding issues. With time, however, it became evident that transitions required much more attention.
Some recurrent issues typical of UN transitions resulting from the withdrawal of a peace operation include lack of planning capacity, the tendency to be reactive rather than proactive, the loss of political leverage and a drop in donor aid to the country that hosted the operation, according to Jascha Scheele, a UN transitions expert.
Furthermore, Scheele continues, one of the benchmarks that often triggers a transition is the holding of successful elections. But elections are usually already a moment of enhanced uncertainty in a country, and a UN mission leaving at the same time can further enhance that uncertainty. Additionally, when a mission draws down and closes its field offices, the remaining UN agencies, funds and programmes tend to retract to the capital.
“There’s often no permanent UN presence at the local level anymore, so they also have less of a finger on the pulse. The capacity for conflict prevention and early warning becomes limited,” said Scheele.
There is also recognition that mission transitions are too UN-centric at the moment. “We’re often not the most important actor on the ground, and once we reconfigure, we become even less important,” Scheele continued. “The ones that will really have an impact with the host government are others, so we need to be a lot more outward-looking.”
Engagement with host governments is key, but so is a relationship with regional organizations and international financial institutions. “We need to create stronger partnerships around the topic of transitions,” Scheele added. “And we need to understand the needs of host governments when a UN presence is re-configuring and how we can best help them plan and set the agenda for what their long-term needs are.”
“In terms of where the organization wants to go next, my sense is that there’s a push for integrating transition planning into integrated assessment and planning processes at large.” He pointed to the end of the UN peacekeeping mission in Liberia as an example of a successful transition. “In Liberia, we really had a joint approach,” he said. “We thought through a lot of the issues, the agencies were able to consolidate their presence into one house to provide more integrated support and the engagement with the government was fairly strong.”
“Transitions are special moments in the organizational life-cycle and there needs to be a support package in place that gives colleagues on the ground additional funds and simpler arrangements for surge capacity support.”
Indeed, moving towards a more integrated approach informed the new UN transition planning directive issued by Secretary-General António Guterres earlier this year. The directive highlighted that there is a clear positive correlation between the UN’s integration on the ground and the seamlessness of a transition. UN missions now need to articulate a long-term vision, identifying when conditions are right to disengage, ensure that there’s a shared assessment of peacebuilding needs, do a capacity mapping of other UN actors to see where they stand, for them to articulate their programmatic response and to adopt joint programming modalities.
Title picture: Nigerian peacekeepers serving with UNMIL departing for Roberts International Airport at the end of their deployment. Two hundred Nigerian peacekeepers, the last military protection force in UNMIL, left Liberia in February 2018 as part of the termination of the Mission’s mandate. UN Photo/Albert González Farran