Issue 18 - Article 16

The Brahimi report: politicising humanitarianism?

June 4, 2003

As of January 2001, some 38,000 military and civilian personnel were deployed in 15 UN peacekeeping missions across the globe, from the Western Sahara to East Timor. Between July 2000 and June 2001, the UN will have spent around $3bn on peacekeeping. But to what effect? The world’s largest peacekeeping operation – the 13,000-strong mission in Sierra Leone – has conspicuously failed to end the violence there; operations in Rwanda did nothing to prevent genocide, and peacekeepers in the Balkans found themselves powerless to defend so-called ‘safe areas’ against Serb attack. Even where operations have been deemed a success, in Cambodia for example, the threat of instability, renewed conflict and human-rights abuse is ever-present.

The acknowledged failure of peacekeeping to keep the peace gave rise to the Report of the Panel on United Nations Peacekeeping Operations (the so-called Brahimi report), released in September 2000. The document, prepared by a 10-strong panel chaired by Lakhdar Brahimi, a former Algerian foreign minister and one-time UN envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, bluntly analysed current weaknesses in the way the UN mounts and sustains operations. The UN overreaches, approving ambitious mandates while deploying inadequately-equipped and frequently poorly-trained forces in volatile situations. Its bureaucracy is cumbersome, with little coordination between relevant agencies. Decision-making is too slow, making timely responses to unfolding crises impossible. And – crucially – the political will does not exist to make peacekeeping forces more deployable, robust and effective. If the UN is the sum of its parts, its capacity to keep or create peace must depend on its members’ commitment to achieving these objectives, often in places of only marginal strategic relevance to the major powers. Yet commitments made to peacekeeping forces in Congo, for example, have not been met.

In the short term, some conflicts, those around natural resources such as diamonds for instance, may indeed be immune to satisfactory resolution by outside military intervention. This is not to argue that conflicts in awkward or out of the way places can be ignored. But it does suggest that the traditional concept of peacekeeping – essentially keeping warring parties apart, as on the Golan Heights or in Cyprus – needs rethinking given the more fluid and fragmented conflicts to which peacekeepers are being sent.

There is no excuse for deploying missions with weak and confused mandates, inadequate numbers of troops and muddled thinking about aims and objectives. The Brahimi report was welcomed at the UN’s Millennium Summit late last year as a timely analysis of the problems, and a useful prescription for change. Yet operations in both Sierra Leone and the Congo, for example, breach many of the principles it advanced. The long-term aim of the UN operation in Sierra Leone is unclear, and the capacity of the UN to make a sensible contribution to what is a hugely unstable situation in the Congo is questionable at best. Member states are incapable of producing the sometimes very large contingents that a proper operation requires, while the quality of cease-fires, truces, military disengagements and peace arrangements is often too poor to support peacekeeping.

Brahimi and humanitarianism

What does Brahimi mean for humanitarians? Better, perhaps, to ask what humanitarians meant for Brahimi. Although the Brahimi panel included a former head of USAID and a former president of the ICRC, there is little mention of specifically humanitarian issues beyond references to legal instruments. Yet peacekeeping does not take place in a vacuum: where there are peacekeepers, there will also be aid agencies; what peacekeepers do and how they do it can impinge on the activities of these agencies, many of whom might have been working in a country long before the first UN troops arrive, and might remain there long after they pull out.

This raises a number of questions to do with the relationship between military forces and civil organisations in situations of conflict. Increasingly, governments and armed forces are using the word ‘humanitarian’ to define military action – see the US and British air strikes against targets in Iraq in February 2001, for example, or NATO’s bombing of Serbia in 1999. Pressure too is growing for a closer relationship between armed forces and NGOs. The British army, for instance, is increasingly keen on being involved in areas of work traditionally the preserve of civilian agencies. The lines that traditionally divided military and political action from humanitarian action are becoming blurred.

How should agencies respond to questions of civil–military coordination in the field? There are agencies which accept – even call for – military involvement, and others that categorically do not. In practical terms, agencies may need, or may be compelled to accept, military help in protecting refugees or themselves, or relocating camps. The military clearly has expertise that could be useful in disarmament and demobilisation programmes. This is particularly the case for a country like Britain, whose government has defined DDR as an important aspect of its peace-building agenda, and is commissioning extensive research on the subject.

The key question is to do with how Brahimi defines impartiality. For peace operations, it means ‘adherence to the principles of the [UN] Charter: where one party to a peace agreement clearly and incontrovertibly is violating its terms, continued equal treatment of all parties … can in the best case result in ineffectiveness and in the worst may amount to complicity with evil’. Peacekeeping is, by definition, a political action. Peacekeepers are deployed on the basis of UN resolutions agreed by governments, and can be mandated to take explicitly political action against parties to a conflict – arresting war criminals in the Balkans, for instance. If their presence aims to enforce peace accords, recalcitrants can be coerced into behaving, and amenable parties rewarded for being agreeable.

For humanitarians, impartiality means something quite different: the delivery of assistance on the basis of need alone. In the context of a peacekeeping operation, where do agencies look for the ‘humanitarian space’ deemed essential if they are to carry out their work? There is a risk that too close a relationship between the peacekeeping mission and the humanitarian operation implicates humanitarians in political action to which elements of the local population are opposed, thereby putting them at risk of retaliation. The nature of modern conflict can suggest a closer relationship between agencies and the military. Again, this is a sensitive issue of principle. In theory, at least, there are areas where some common ground could be found. But to do this successfully would mean the explicit recognition of the very different agendas of aid agencies and peacekeepers and their governments. By declining to take humanitarian concerns more fully and explicitly into account, Brahimi insulates peacekeeping from the wider context in which it operates, of which humanitarian agencies are an important part. Peacekeeping and humanitarian agendas necessarily differ, and it is important that these differences are kept clear.


The Report of the Panel on United Nations Peacekeeping Operations is available at <>. Details of all current and past peacekeeping operations can be found at <>.


Nicholas Leader, Friend or Foe? Some Humanitarian and Development Implications of the Brahimi Report on United Nations Peace Operations, draft report prepared for DFID, March 2001

Michael W. Doyle, UN Peacekeeping in Cambodia: UNTAC’s Civil Mandate (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 1995)

Michael O’Hanlon, Saving Lives with Force: Military Criteria for Humanitarian Intervention (Washington DC: Brookings Studies in Foreign Policy, 1997)

Dennis C. Jett, Why Peacekeeping Fails (London: Palgrave, 2000)

James H. Allan and John A. English, Peacekeeping (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1996)

The International Association of Peacekeeping Training Centres (IAPTC) website: <>

International Peacekeeping News, Department of Peace Studies, Bradford University, UK, <>

The Lester B. Pearson Canadian International Peacekeeping Training Centre, <www.cdnpeacekeeping.>


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