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COVID-19 and peace operations – the pandemic adds urgency to already ongoing shifts

Linnéa Gelot | 6 October 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has been called a ‘game changer’ for international peace and security by the UN Secretary-General Guterres. The pandemic has acted as a catalyst for rapid short-term adaptation of international conflict management. At the same time, a reversal of peace operations has been well underway for at least a decade. But we do see an added urgency and several disruptive, and mixed, implications for the capacity of peace operations to restore international peace and security, especially relating to three trends.

1. Financial pressure and contraction of peace operations

A period of contraction in UN peacekeeping characterises the last ten years at least. UN member states have demanded cost reductions in several ongoing operations and have pushed for disengagement. Large and longstanding missions have closed down, such as those in Liberia, Côte d’Ivoire and Haiti. Overall deployments are shrinking, and no new large-scale missions have been approved since 2014. Still ongoing missions in Darfur (UNAMID) and the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUSCO) have seen repeated major personnel reductions.

As Katharina Coleman’s article in International Peacekeeping shows, it is the civilian UN peacekeepers that have been particularly affected by downsizing – civilian posts have declined more steeply and since longer back than mission budgets or uniformed personnel deployments. Her research shows that downsizing processes have detrimental impact on civilian productivity and performance, and since the civilian dimension in peacekeeping is very important, this negatively impacts on the peacekeeping mission’s ability to implement its mandate.

In this year’s peacekeeping budget decision, the worldwide economic strain caused by COVID-19 did not lead to major budget contractions. The UN General Assembly 5th committee approved the peacekeeping budget, making only modest cuts. However, the approved budget slashed in particular requests for civilian positions that are critical to the protection of civilians in some of the most challenging mission contexts today. This led Civilians in Conflict to object that the Action for Peace (A4P) commitment – that mandates must be matched with adequate resources – should be kept. Missions with ambitious mandates should not be expected to do more with less.

The pandemic is ushering in a global economic recession, which will exacerbate these downsizing pressures. We will likely see a decline of peace operations, both in size and scope. Mission leadership in ongoing missions have had to slim down and prioritize very carefully what operational activities are absolutely critical to their ability to fulfill their responsibilities. Looking at the broader picture, most peace operations have adapted remarkably well given the complex security environments in which they are deployed. It is especially the civilian activities such as life-saving protection of civilians and community outreach activities that have been reduced.

2. Multiple crises of multilateralism

Multilateral cooperation is undergoing a rough period after already bad years due to recent economic and geopolitical power shifts. Peacekeeping policy and practice seems likely to experience a plunge, but this represents an intensification of steps already underway to bring peace operations back to basics, limiting their scope and objectives.

The normative underpinnings of peacekeeping had already been vividly contested. It is becoming commonplace to point to the example of China that in recent times invested more diplomatic weight in discussing peacekeeping policy. China argues against ambitious ‘Christmas tree’ mandates and resists attaching high numbers of human rights staff during the annual peacekeeping budget negotiations. But just as important are two other developments that question the credibility and legitimacy of the UN Security Council. We have seen repeated UN Security Council deadlocks – that is the inability of the P5 to reach constructive decisions on certain crises such as Syria. And we have seen bypassing – that is the practice by some major powers of intervening outside of the framework of the UN Security Council, on their own or through proxies. Furthermore, the rise of right-wing nationalist movements and governments poses a challenge to the legitimacy of a multilateral world order.

A4P launched by the UN Secretary General in March 2018 – remains the main framework to strengthen UN peace operations. 154 countries, including the P5 of the UN Security Council, have endorsed A4P and thereby recommitted to strengthening peace operations. At the same time, this framework entails a pragmatic turn, back to basics and less appetite for large-scale multidimensional peace operations. A4P emphasizes the need for political solutions to conflicts and political support for ongoing missions, and coupled with financial pressures this accentuates downsizing trends.

3. Using a broader spectrum of conflict management tools

With the appetite for multidimensional peace operations currently on the wane, the least bad option is to value and optimise the broad array of conflict management tools currently available. Examples include smaller political missions and non-UN/regional missions.

The number of UN diplomatic initiatives, including political missions and good offices engagement, exceeds the number of UN peacekeeping missions (see data by Dorussen et al.). These fulfil important roles; they allow the UN to mediate political solutions to armed conflicts, such as in Yemen, Syria, Somalia and Libya. They help advance peacebuilding, and they ensure international presence and attention. This is a smart way of using the full repertoire of international conflict management tools. But it is clear that civilian-led small-sized political missions do not have the reach and scope of the large multidimensional and integrated peacekeeping missions.

Regional organisations have for a long time called out and asked for calibration of inequalities in authority inherent to the UN System. Regional and sub-regional organisations, and coalitions of member states (such as the G5 Sahel) have shouldered various peace and security roles. A longstanding question has become how to improve the UN’s coordination mechanisms and support models for these non-UN initiatives. As more responsibility for regionally-led peace operations falls on the African union and on sub-regional bodies or coalitions of states, particularly in contexts subjected to stabilization and counter-terrorism operations, the UN will face increasing pressure to support security-driven operations.

As UN peace operations seem likely to contract even further, and if we assume that instability and risks of violence against civilians will be on the rise, the practice of neighbouring states and regional coalitions responding proactively to rising tension will probably increase. Close strategic partnerships between the UN and regional organisations are critical along with adequate coordination processes, compliance and accountability frameworks, modalities for sustainable and predictable funding, and clarity from the UNSC as well as the African Union Peace and Security Council on the right timing of turning ad hoc security coalitions into more internationally legitimate missions.

Compelling evidence exists showing that multidimensional peace operations make a valuable contribution to supporting peace agreements and reducing violence against civilians. The absence of international solidarity at the onset of the pandemic has deepened further the vulnerabilities and inequalities that in some places may have as secondary consequences an increase in conflicts – warranting more – not fewer – calls for peace operations.

I caution against securitizing the pandemic, seeking to classify people or activities as ‘threats’ and risks without taking a comprehensive perspective. Conflict sensitive analyses allow us to untangle the secondary consequences of the pandemic from the direct human toll of the infectious disease. A form of crisis politics that mobilizes fear and uncertainty will be bad news for peace operations, the pandemic is not a war to be fought and international cooperation will not be well served by fear mongering and alarmist language during this time as if it were a combat of sorts. Peacekeepers have sometimes been put to greater risks when instability worsens and societies are exposed to even more repressive containment measures put in place ‘in the name of Covid-19’ which endanger people’s political and economic activities.


Linnéa Gelot is senior researcher at the Folke Bernadotte Academy in Sweden and associate professor of peace and development studies at Gothenburg University. She is currently finalising a Swedish Research Council research project called “African Union Waging Peace”. She holds a PhD from Aberystwyth University. Her research focuses on peace and security cooperation between the UN Security Council and regional organizations such as the AU, and she has carried out field work, professional training and assessment in Somalia, Ethiopia, Sudan, Nigeria, Rwanda, Zimbabwe and South Africa. She’s the author of Legitimacy, Peace Operations, and Global-Regional Security: The African Union-United Nations Partnership in Darfur (Routledge, 2012), and editor of The Future of African Peace Operations (Zed, 2016), and her research has additionally appeared in Conflict, Security and Development, Third World Quarterly, and Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding.


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