Counterterrorism and Challenges to Peacekeeping Impartiality

A distinct characteristic of United Nations peacekeeping is its impartiality. It is also a reality that for UN peacekeeping to function properly, partnering with regional organizations and other groups is essential. Experiences in Mali and Somalia have, however, exposed the political and operational challenges that partnerships create in maintaining impartiality. The challenge at hand is the dynamic between peacekeeping and counterterrorism efforts, especially as partnerships have expanded—notably in Africa, where regional actors have deployed increasing numbers of counterterrorist forces in the Sahel, Somalia, and Lake Chad Basin.

The 2015 report of the High-Level Independent Panel on Peace Operations (HIPPO), the subsequent report of Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on the future of UN peace operations, and the 2018 report of the Special Committee on Peace Operations (C34) have all asserted that UN peacekeeping cannot and should not engage in counterterrorist operations. Despite this principled stance, it seems that the countering and preventing violent extremism (CVE/PVE) agenda has moved counterterrorism from the margins to center stage, ensuring that the UN will continue deploying peacekeepers in contexts where organizational partners do counterterrorism.

At the same time, the Action for Peacekeeping Initiative (A4P) emphasizes partnerships. And so, the questions have become about how UN peacekeepers can operate in environments where counterterrorist forces are also deployed, how UN missions can demarcate their responsibilities from that of counterterrorist objectives, and how UN peacekeeping can cooperate with regional organizations or coalitions of states that do counterterrorism. Moreover, to what extent should UN peacekeeping seek or promote partnerships? What types of UN cooperation with strategic partners should be encouraged, and which ones should be avoided, to strengthen peacekeeping? So far, the answers have been limited to operational and technical matters, and “simply” making sure that the UN and its partners properly distinguish their respective roles and spheres of action.

I argue that this act of distinguishing UN peacekeeping and counterterrorist roles and spheres of action is almost impossible to implement in the field without great risks to the integrity of UN peacekeeping and to deployed UN personnel, and without severely undermining conflict resolution efforts.

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Originally published on IPI Global Observatory

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