UN and peacemaking: It worked in the past. Why not now?

Introduction: The UN, peace and security

The quintessential goal of the United Nations, as clearly expressed in its constitutive document, the Charter of the United Nations, is the maintenance of international peace and security. The latter involves not only the management of conflicts, inter- or intra-state, and the absence of violence (negative peace), but also the prevention of conflicts, as well as the cultivation of positive peace, through the development of friendly relations, the cooperation in solving international problems of social, economic or humanitarian nature, and promoting respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. The UN was equipped with instruments like the UN Security Council and was given powers to achieve these goals, most notably via its enforcement action under Chapter VII of the UN Charter. It could further rely on the cooperation of its Member States and other actors, especially regional organisations, and increasingly more so, as the years passed, on civil society.

Not everything could be foreseen in 1945, when the UN Charter was adopted, in terms of peace and security challenges, threats, requirements, tools, and solutions. Over the years, the UN has demonstrated significant flexibility by going beyond the written letter and introducing new arrangements in the face of mounting security crises globally, as well as institutional bottlenecks and developments in the geopolitical arena. A characteristic example, in this respect, is the emergence, at the height of the Cold War, of UN Peacekeeping, as a quasi-Chapter VI ½ of the UN Charter. It involves the deployment of armed troops to oversee the implementation of ceasefires and peace agreements. Thereafter the evolutionfrom peacekeeping to peacemaking, to peace-enforcement, and multidimensional mandates, and the increase of the relevant operations in terms of number, size, variety of formats, goals, and funding, is noteworthy – yet, sometimes unappreciated.

Another example of flexible adaptation of the UN to the requirements of the times is the role of the UN Secretary-General in providing good offices and/or mediating to prevent and/or manage international crises and conflicts. Such a role is not envisioned in the UN Charter. Many of these innovations are considered to have been introduced by Dag Hammarskjöld, the UN’s second Secretary-General. “Leave it to Dag” was often heard at the UN during Hammarskjöld’s term, in 1953-1961, for his conflict management efforts, for which he also gave his life. Decades later, in 1997, then newly-elected UNSG  Kofi Annan declared, in the same spirit:“If war is the failure of diplomacy, then diplomacy, both bilateral and multilateral, is our first line of defence. The world today spends billions preparing for war; shouldn’t we spend a billion or two preparing for peace?”, calling for a more proactive UN, including in peacemaking.

That was in the past; where are we today?

The UN is facing a trust crisis, internally, as its institutional memory seems to have vanished and can no longer do things as it used to in the past, and externally, as international politics are flying high on populism and nationalism, leaving little room for cool-headed, common interest discussions. This is fuelling – among other things – the UN’s ongoing liquidity crisis and the crisis of the international rules-based order. “We’re in the middle of a fragmentation of our world, where everybody thinks they can go their own ways and deal with the problems themselves. The perception of the UN has taken a dip, particularly on the political side,” said Michael Møller, former UN Under-Secretary-General and former Director-General of the UN Office at Geneva (UNOG). The average, non-politics-savvy person’s image of the UN oscillates between disappointment and outright dismissal when it comes to high politics of war and peace, with the UN’s humanitarian and climate/environment work as the only saving grace. In the meantime, conflicts around the world abound and are becoming progressively more deadly and more catastrophic (e.g., Israel-Hamas, Ukraine-Russia, Sudan, Yemen, Sahel countries, etc.), while security threats are changing in nature, diversity, and intensity.

Good practices from the past…

Taking this status quo as a starting point, we decided to delve into the UN’s role in peacemaking,[1] in the past and today. Overall, the UN has several success stories, but also failures to learn from and to gather takeaways.

One of the key achievements of the UN’s intervention in international disputes – with the late 1950s to early 1990s period largely being referenced as its ‘golden age’– has been the adoption of a holistic and flexible approach. Its holistic nature refers to the existence of tools and practices for the entire continuum of conflict prevention (e.g., support for rule of law and institution building, election monitoring and support, Sustainable Development Goals implementation, building national capacities for conflict prevention,[2] Peacebuilding Fund/PBF projects, etc.), conflict management (e.g., UNSG or Envoy good offices or mediation, UNSC sanctions[3], including arms embargo or other enforcement measures, peacekeeping missions, recourse to the principle of the Responsibility to Protect[4], commissions of inquiry and/or regular or special courts for war crimes and crimes against humanity[5], etc.), and post-conflict reconstruction and development, as well as reconciliation (e.g., truth and reconciliation committees, all peacebuilding measures that close the loop to prevention).

In fact, based on the cases analysed, most success stories involve a UN presence during the whole peacemaking cycle, including active presence post-peace agreement, via election monitoring and support, demobilisation and disarmament and reintegration of fighters, community-based development, etc. (e.g., Liberia, Sierra-Leone, Timor-Leste). Moreover, holistic peacemaking also includes the streamlining of issues such as gender equality and youth empowerment in addressing conflicts – see  two key UNSC Agenda items on Women, Peace, and Security and Youth, Peace, and Security – as well as civil society inclusion. It further concerns the customised nature of peacemaking tools to be used when addressing interstate conflicts, or civil, ethnic conflicts, or decolonisation / independence conflicts.

In terms of actors, a flexible approach meant broadening over time the range of actors that could undertake a role in the peacemaking continuum, encompassing not only the UNSC, but also the UNSG, UNGA, the ICJ, and other agencies and bodies of the UN, as the cases researched for the writing of this article indicate (work-in-progress database to be made available on the FOGGS website). It also meant the development of UN mediation and conflict prevention manuals and a ‘learn-from-practice’ culture.[6] In fact, it is important to note that the UN has been systematically developing both its mediation per se and mediation assistance/facilitation capacities, including, among others, through the creation in 2006 of the Mediation Support Unit in what is today the Policy and Mediation Division (PMD) of the UN Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs (DPPA), and in 2017 of the UNSG High-Level Advisory Board on Mediation. Moreover, a flexible approach also meant the establishment of concrete cooperation with and the building of the capacities of regional political and security organisations, as a way to acknowledge the value of local agency in tackling local drivers of conflict. The cases examined indicated primarily the agency of the African Union (AU) and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).

Flexibility is also key in terms of the adoption of various mediation techniques, the choice of the mediator, the decision to use a ‘carrot and stick’ approach, with sanctions/arms or trade embargo or international criminal proceedings used to push parties towards an agreement. Especially regarding the personality of the mediator or, in the UN’s case, of the UNSG Special Representative, the reputation, experience and trust by both/all parties are key. While in office as UNSG, only Dag Hammarskjöld has been directly involved in mediation, from the cases that we have collected. Kofi Annan mediated conflicts after he left the UNSG office, while Ban Ki-Moon mostly acted via his envoys, apart from offering to mediate between India and Pakistan in 2016. Antonio Guterres has also mostly acted via envoys, save for offering to mediate in the Kashmir tensions in 2020, and in the war in Ukraine. Certainly in the latter conflict Mr. Guterres’ offer was not very convincing, at least to one of the parties, and he did not insist. Lastly, flexible peacemaking is centred around the evolution of the mandate of peacekeeping operations from mere monitoring respect for ceasefire / peace agreements to their enforcement, to the disarmament of militias, border controls, prevention of war crimes and atrocities, protection of civilians, election monitoring and support, and even to state-like duties during transition periods from conflict to peace (e.g., in Timor-Leste, in Cambodia, in the Congo). In other words, peacekeeping operations are now multidimensional, as expressed via initiatives such as Action for Peacekeeping (A4P) of 2018.

…and past mistakes

While giving credit to the UN when credit is due, one cannot ignore that there have been several instances where mistakes were made, opportunities missed, and failure came as a result. UN peacekeeping missions and efforts in former Yugoslavia, notably Bosnia and Herzegovina, in Rwanda, Somalia and elsewhere were faced with warring parties’ non-adherence to peace agreements, or with the lack of adequate resources or political support from UN Member States, as well as internal mandate and/or operational failings. In these and other cases, geopolitics among great powers obstructed or significantly delayed UN peacemaking efforts, leading to detrimental consequences for people and societies. In more recent times, conflicts in Libya, Syria or Yemen indicate how the direct or indirect, political, economic, or military involvement of third parties, including great powers, in a conflict can affect the UN’s and thus the international community’s proactiveness and effectiveness in the conflict’s management. Moreover, the impartiality of the UN as a mediator or peacekeeper has been questioned several times, in cases like Libya or Iraq. In the same vein, the choice of a particular mediator or Special Envoy and the support provided to him/her is something that the UN could be more transparent and consistent about to increase trust.

Cases of misconduct of UN peacekeepers have been documented in, among other places, Haiti, Liberia and the DRC, giving fuel to the trust crisis  that undercuts the legitimacy and effectiveness of the UN. Additionally, one cannot but notice that several mediation efforts are mostly top-down, lacking in terms of inclusion of all political and social actors, and in terms of gender inclusion. Furthermore, despite the UN recognising the key role of regional organisations in conflict management, there have been cases where lack of coordination hindered a successful result, or led to a ‘too many cooks spoil the broth’ outcome. Of course, all these negative findings have to be taken “with a pinch of salt”, as multi-stakeholder approaches, regional partnerships and multiple tracks have their own challenges of coordination and efficiency. The UN should address all these shortcomings with its internal evaluation and reviews, as well as external advice and Member State guidance, all the while applying lessons learned and advancing its peacemaking potential.

Constructive critique is the key to improvement. The UN cannot be judged for something it is not. It is an international organisation created by states, with the authority to bind them via UNSC decisions, that are taken subject to P5 veto, and the authority to enforce these decisions via Chapter VII of the UN Charter. As an international organisation, it operates on the basis of international law, so long as it binds states to different extents for different subject areas, and on the basis of its Charter. That is not to say the UN should be viewed as lacking power and thus responsibility. It rather should not be viewed as more powerful than it is. After all, its own power has evolved over the years, encompassing key normative developments in international law. It should also be judged in the context of the political climate prevailing at a certain time. For example, today we see the rise of geopolitics and realpolitik, nationalism and populism, the blatant violation of quintessential principles of international law (e.g., Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, Israel’s indiscriminate attack on Gaza, etc.), all of which constitute challenges for a stronger UN presence in peacemaking, starting from funding and going all the way to political will for peace. However, at the same time, this is exactly the reason why such a proactive presence is needed.

Regarding data on the UN and peacemaking, we find that it is rather easy to gather information on particular conflicts, their handling, including by the UN, and the peace agreements eventually reached (e.g., databases, [7] books, journals, newspapers, dedicated think tanks). However, what is usually not as available, with notable exceptions,[8] is insider information from UN officials involved directly in the peacemaking efforts about the detailed steps they took, the support they had or did not have, the obstacles they had to surmount and how they did it. Making such information available, as well as the procedures and justifications behind the appointment of mediators or envoys, can strengthen the public’s trust in the UN and boost the UN’s peacemaking potential.

Conclusions and way forward

Overall, as has been noted, “not only can we see significant change over time in UN practice [in peacemaking in general], but that at any given time there is great variation across the UN’s peacemaking activities”. Each conflict or security crisis is unique and different, requiring an informed and careful approach, involving different international political configurations regarding the conflict/crisis itself and international political dynamics around it. Flexibility, multidimensionality and a holistic approach to peacemaking and conflict resolution is the way forward. The UN has several success stories to prove its capacity, and several failures and ongoing crises to prove that things can and must be improved. The robust debate surrounding these challenges underscores a critical takeaway: the UN’s efficacy (and inefficacy) in peacemaking is not solely within the control of its executive arm, in the form of its Secretary-General, his Envoys and Secretariat Departments, but is also deeply dependent on the collective commitment (to peace and beyond) of its Member States, particularly those wielding veto power and the power of the purse.

Moving forward, the international community must recommit to the principles of the UN Charter and bolster the Organisation’s peacemaking capabilities through enhanced support and cooperation. This would involve not only adequate funding, but also a strong commitment to more integrated approaches to global security – approaches which would respect the sovereignty of nations all the while actively promoting peace. Reflecting on the successes of the UN peacemaking efforts during its ‘Golden Age’ mentioned earlier, it becomes evident that effective conflict resolution requires a robust and holistic strategy, exemplified through the UN’s prior engagement in countries such as Liberia and Sierra Leone. In this context, the UN’s comprehensive approach, including post-conflict election monitoring and community-based development, showcased the potential for successful peacebuilding. Similarly, the establishment of peacekeeping operations that transitioned from simple ceasefire monitoring to more complex roles – like in Cambodia and Timor-Leste – demonstrates the UN’s capacity for adaptive strategies in peace enforcement and state-building.

The challenges are daunting. The history of the UN, though, shows that with concerted effort and international solidarity, success is not out of reach. For the UN, renewing its focus on prevention, good offices / mediation, and resolution of conflicts (along with a transparent and inclusive approach to engaging with global stakeholders) is a vital task. The future of world peace may well depend on such an approach. As this paper has demonstrated, this does not need to be ‘created’ out of thin air. It should be based on the UN’s rich record that has to be revisited and adapted to today’s shifting landscape of international relations.


I would like to sincerely thank Mr. Antoine Brimbal for his important contribution to the compilation of peacemaking cases as seen in the table in the Annex and for his assistance with the text above. I would like to also deeply thank Dr. Georgios Kostakos for his editorial advice and his general support to this work. It has been a pleasure working with both.

Annex – https://www.foggs.org/conflict-management-cases/

[1] The word “peacemaking” is used in this article in a loose way, to refer to the UN’s role in the maintenance of international peace and security overall. The term thus includes peacekeeping, peacebuilding and conflict prevention too, unlike the more precise categorisation between all these terms that was done by then Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali’s Agenda for Peace of 1992, and thereafter.

[2] E.g. The Joint UN Development Programme (UNDP) – UN Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs (DPPA) Programme on Building National Capacities for Conflict Prevention.

[3] E.g. in Sierra Leone, where UNSC sanctions were considered to be quite effective as an addendum to mediation efforts, in Libya and Syria, where UNSC sanctions were considered to be quite ineffective in general.

[4] The R2P doctrine was developed in 2005 by the UN World Summit, following the dramatic events in Kosovo, Rwanda, and Yugoslavia.

[5] E.g. in Burundi, Sudan, Côte d’Ivoire.

[6]See: https://peacemaker.un.org/resources; https://peacemaker.un.org/sites/peacemaker.un.org/files/ManualUNMediators_UN2010.pdf; tps://peacemaker.un.org/sites/peacemaker.un.org/files/DPA%20Report%20REV9%20ENG%20WEB.PDF; https://peacemaker.un.org/guidance-effective-mediation; https://dppa.un.org/sites/default/files/booklet_200618_fin_scrn.pdf; https://www.refworld.org/policy/legalguidance/dpko/2008/en/58423; https://peacemaker.un.org/digitaltoolkit.

[7] See: https://peacemaker.un.org/; https://peaceaccords.nd.edu/; https://pax.peaceagreements.org/visualizations/messy-peace-processes/.

[8] E.g. former UNSG Kofi Annan’s book on his conflict management interventions https://www.kofiannanfoundation.org/annan-work/interventions-a-life-in-war-and-peace/; the former UN Under-Secretary General for Peacekeeping Operations, Jean-Marie Guéhenno’s personal memoir of former concrete examples—from the crises in Afghanistan, Iraq, Congo, Sudan, Darfur, Kosovo, Ivory Coast, Georgia, Lebanon, Haiti, and Syria: https://www.brookings.edu/books/the-fog-of-peace/.

Fotini Zarogianni is a young researcher and professional specialising in international security (mostly conflict and warfare studies) and foreign policy, with a regional focus on the Middle East and North Africa and EuroMediterranean regions. She is currently a PhD Candidate researching on proxy warfare and threats of force, while working as Research Officer at the Anna Lindh Foundation. Fotini holds a Master of Advanced International Studies and a BA in Law, while she has extensive work experience in the international affairs policy field.

1 comment

  1. 31 May, 2024 @ 13:43 Dr Bilali Camara

    After so many failures, it is time that the UN stops these inefficacious peacekeeping missions which have not achieved results anywhere in Haiti, Liberia, Central African Republic, Rwanda, Mali, Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, etc. The UN has to give priority to the prevention of conflicts and conflicts resolutions through active diplomacy and socio-economic development programmes. The UN has to work hard on reducing the divide between its membre states in terms of rights, equality, justice, and economic development. The rich countries cannot continue to be richer and the poor poorer and as the Jamaican philosophers told us: no justice-no peace and that is the truth of all the times.


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