Stabilization at the Expense of Peacebuilding in UN Peacekeeping Operations

More Than Just a Phase?

In: Global Governance: A Review of Multilateralism and International Organizations
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  • 1 Coventry UniversityCentre for Trust, Peace, and Social Relations, UK, Coventry
  • | 2 RMIT UniversitySocial and Global Studies Centre, Australia, Melbourne
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The “uploading” of stabilization to UN peacekeeping presents conceptual, political, and practical challenges to the UN’s role in global governance and international conflict management. While scholarly research on stabilization has generally focused on militarization, its relationship to peacebuilding in the context of UN peacekeeping is underexplored. This article examines that relationship. A survey of UN policy frameworks highlights the simultaneous emergence of stabilization and clear expressions of peacebuilding. The article then draws on fieldwork in Mali and the Democratic Republic of Congo to illustrate how stabilization is displacing peacebuilding in the practices of UN peacekeeping. The article argues that the politics of stabilization impede local forms of peacebuilding, at odds with the “Sustaining Peace” agenda, and risks jeopardizing the lauded conflict resolution potential of UN peacekeeping.


The “uploading” of stabilization to UN peacekeeping presents conceptual, political, and practical challenges to the UN’s role in global governance and international conflict management. While scholarly research on stabilization has generally focused on militarization, its relationship to peacebuilding in the context of UN peacekeeping is underexplored. This article examines that relationship. A survey of UN policy frameworks highlights the simultaneous emergence of stabilization and clear expressions of peacebuilding. The article then draws on fieldwork in Mali and the Democratic Republic of Congo to illustrate how stabilization is displacing peacebuilding in the practices of UN peacekeeping. The article argues that the politics of stabilization impede local forms of peacebuilding, at odds with the “Sustaining Peace” agenda, and risks jeopardizing the lauded conflict resolution potential of UN peacekeeping.

1 Introduction

The introduction of the term stabilization into the peacekeeping lexicon has led to a number of studies on the form and function of UN interventions. Yet a gap exists as to the impact of stabilization on a long-standing characteristic of UN peacekeeping; namely, how operations support political dialogue after the cessation of violence to promote sustainable forms of peacebuilding. In this article, we interrogate this relationship between “stabilization”1 and the peacebuilding aspects of deployments in the context of United Nations peacekeeping operations.2 We do so by asking three key questions. First, how does the UN’s policy and guidance on peacebuilding as part of UN peacekeeping reflect stabilization? Second, how do stabilization missions reflect the key aspects of what the UN terms as peacebuilding? And third, how do those implementing UN stabilization mandates manage and execute programs that incorporate elements of peacebuilding and stabilization?

In answering these three questions, our research presents novel insights in a number of ways. First, the research develops a unique dataset informed by a significant number of interviews with UN personnel at UN headquarters and two stabilization missions—the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) and the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA).3 Second, the article helps close a gap in both the scholarly and policy related discourses, utilizing insights and introducing the concept of “liddism” from conflict resolution research to investigate stabilization in the UN context. Here, it responds to critiques of the stabilization literature for its tendency to focus on the increased robustness of operations, as opposed to “political problems.”4

Through these new insights, the research that we present in this article helps advance knowledge of the “origins, spread, and implications of stabilization in United Nations circles,”5 something that has been lacking in the extant literature base. This comes at a time when the UN is undergoing critical reforms of its peace and security instruments, flowing from three high-level reports into peace operations, the peacebuilding architecture, and the implementation of the UN Security Council’s Women, Peace and Security resolutions. These reports are informing new approaches to understanding peacekeeping, including the Action for Peacekeeping reform initiative. Moreover, in perhaps the most significant development, Secretary General António Guterres is leading a substantial reform process to better align the UN to future challenges in the peace and security field and consolidating the Sustaining Peace agenda across the organization. Although this article understands that stabilization in the UN context is a term lacking official definition,6 we refer to earlier work discerning key aspects of broader Western conceptualizations of the approach to define stabilization as:

a combination of civilian and military approaches with a focus on re-establishing state authority in “failed states”; this includes provision of “legitimate” state authority, institution-building, and delivery of key state services. It is supported by the use of military force, bordering on counterinsurgency, and predominantly aimed against non-state actors who challenge the state’s monopoly on violence.7

This article proceeds in four parts. We first situate this research in the broader theoretical approaches on UN peacebuilding and international conflict resolution. We then track the “uploading”—the process of policy transfer, uptake, and implementation—of stabilization in the UN context, the repeated recognition of the importance of peacebuilding functions in UN policy, and the resultant incoherence whereby UN peacebuilding policy makes little mention of stabilization. Then, using examples from two major UN stabilization operations (MONUSCO and MINUSMA), we illustrate how the arrival of stabilization has: generated conceptual confusion; diverted funds, technologies, and programs intended for peacebuilding; and required partnerships with host governments that limit the scope of early peacebuilding by missions. After that, we discuss how the politics of stabilization jeopardizes the impartiality of missions, decreasing the potential for missions to contribute to more inclusive and transformative peacebuilding. In the conclusion, we take a step back and reflect on what sort of phase the ascendency of stabilization may constitute. Here, we ask whether stabilization should be understood as an early stage of more sequenced missions, or in fact be considered as the harbinger of more systematic change in the logic of UN interventions. Both point to potential implications for the future effectiveness of UN interventions in building sustainable models of peace. The article is informed by field interviews with peacekeeping practitioners and other key experts in Mali, in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and at UN headquarters in New York.8 It is complemented by a survey of the UN’s institutional approaches to peacebuilding.

2 Peacebuilding and Conflict Resolution

This article contributes to the debate about the direction of UN peacekeeping in the age of the “pragmatic turn” in global conflict management. At a time when there is increasing evidence that peacekeeping helps halt civil war violence,9 prevents conflict from diffusing,10 reduces civilian atrocities,11 and creates durable peace,12 significant questions are being asked as to what sort of “peace” the UN seeks to encourage once it has reduced direct forms of violence. Here, we relate to both those who advocate more nuanced forms of postconflict peacebuilding, and those who are suggesting (with some concern) that trends in conflict management demonstrate a move away from more complex forms of peacebuilding. In the case of the former, we link to work by Cedric de Coning, who introduces the “adaptive peacebuilding” concept, defined as being “informed by concepts of complexity, resilience and local ownership.”13 In the latter, we note work by John Karlsrud, who links developments in the UN to broader counterterrorism agendas and claims that “liberal peacebuilding may be on its way to the scrapyard of history,”14 as well as Mateja Peter’s investigation into the evolution of “enforcement peacekeeping,”15 and Louise Riis Andersen’s research that charts debates within the UN itself about the use of force and militarization of UN peace operations.16 This second set of debates are reflective of broader concerns over “liddism”17 in the conflict resolution literature. First developed by Paul Rogers, liddism refers to the process of “keeping the lid on dissent and instability,” through means of public order and military force. Approaches that encourage a form of liddism often pay little attention to root causes of conflict, instead following the mantra of “maintain control, maintain the status quo, do not address the underlying problems.”18

UN peacekeeping plays a “vital conflict resolution role”19 insofar as UN operations seek to maintain, or broaden, political space amidst or immediately after violent conflict, with the aim of removing “the social structures that cause violent conflict in the first place.”20 Theoretical approaches argue that the deployment of peacekeeping operations, when complemented by immediate peacebuilding activities, have the potential to support peace agreements,21 and expand opportunities for political resolution,22 including the rebuilding of government, civil society, and the “public space” for debate.23 This is reflected in studies of particular missions,24 as well as in studies of the actions of individual peacekeepers.25 With this in mind, in this research we explore the framing and implementation of early peacebuilding by peacekeepers as a project of opening political space to investigate the extent to which this aspect of conflict resolution is carried out in UN stabilization missions. We then use conflict resolution’s concept of the multilayered nature of peacekeeping26 to investigate the links between macro-level policy articulations and micro-level implementation in the field when it comes to the UN’s peacebuilding efforts. This link is significant, not in terms of direct action because of policy directives, but rather in how actors in missions navigate the terrain when vague instructions are given to them.

3 Stabilization, Peacebuilding, and the UN’s Dilemma

At the strategic level, stabilization has been “uploaded” into the logic and practice of peacekeeping while UN peacebuilding policy has increasingly focused on local-level engagement. This has resulted in a vacuum where little attention is paid to stabilization within peacebuilding policy.

3.1 The Uploading of Stabilization

Stabilization doctrine can be traced to approaches developed among NATO Member States.27 The primary characteristic of stabilization is intervention to support the reestablishment of state authority in a “failed state.”28 This includes provision of “legitimate” state authority, institution building, and delivery of basic services.29 Military support to establish control over an area primarily targets nonstate actors who challenge the state’s monopoly on violence. Civilian approaches seek to implement short- and long-term projects with the aim to “transition towards more civilian-led and ideally more democratic forms of maintaining security.”30 The stabilization trend can be traced back to NATO operations in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, but recent examples include Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan, which featured missions with significantly more resources, deployed personnel,31 and budgets32 than UN operations.

Over the past decade, scholarship has charted a gradual “uploading”33 of stabilization into UN practice.34 There has been significant growth in the usage of the term stabilization by the Security Council,35 reflecting “increasing will” among its membership to mandate robust operations to contain aggressors and spoilers in the midst of conflict,36 linked to strategies of “development and humanitarian action to shore up the military gains made.”37 This brings operational impacts, with the “new category” of UN stabilization operations mandated with tasks centered around “protecting civilians and governments, or governance structures, against an aggressor(s) or general destabilization, amidst ongoing violence, while at the same time being part of a larger process that seeks a political settlement for the conflict.”38

Commentators suggest that the creation of stabilization missions in Mali, Central African Republic, and the DRC39—three of the largest and most complex UN operations—means peacekeeping is becoming more like the stabilization operations in places like Afghanistan and Iraq.40 This has consequences for the UN’s declared approaches to peacebuilding.

3.2 The Direction of UN Peacebuilding

While stabilization is being transferred into the UN system, the UN’s policy and guidance on peacebuilding aspects of its peacekeeping operations continue to develop almost independently. Reports from the Special Committee on Peacekeeping Operations (C34) regularly go into detail about the peacebuilding aspects of operations, including the importance of inclusive approaches that account for the “needs of all segments of society.”41 Security Council Resolution 2086, specifically on the topic of peacekeepers as facilitators of peacebuilding, emphasized the “comparative advantages” of multidimensional peacekeeping missions in early peacebuilding.42 These declarations mirror work by the peacekeeping bureaucracy expressing the ways in which the military component of a peacekeeping mission undertakes “early peacebuilding” tasks, including “expanding and preserving political space” themselves.43

The importance of peacekeepers to peacebuilding is predicated on a strong normative position that effective peacebuilding processes need to be locally driven and owned.44 UN policy seeks to better understand how to identify local partners, and incorporate them into “national capacities at all levels for conflict management.”45 This is most clearly articulated through the Sustaining Peace agenda, first outlined in two High-Level Panel Reports in 2015, one on Peace Operations (hereafter, HIPPO Report), the other on the Peacebuilding Architecture (hereafter, AGE Report),46 and formalized by the identical resolutions passed in the General Assembly and Security Council in 2016.47 The joint resolutions state that sustaining peace is a “goal and a process” undertaken throughout different stages of conflict escalation and deescalation, primarily aimed at engaging the UN system to help “build a common vision of a society, ensuring that the needs of all segments of the population are taken into account.”48 Sustaining peace firmly anchors peacekeeping on a continuum of efforts aimed at working toward durable peacebuilding.

The language of the HIPPO Report and Sustaining Peace agenda dovetail with existing operational guidance on areas where peacekeeping and peacebuilding overlap. This includes guidance on civil-military coordination, and quick impact projects; UN training programs that focus on peacebuilding;49 and practical handbooks given to deployed personnel.50 Here, UN guidance toward civil-military coordination seeks to differentiate itself from NATO-led approaches, as utilized in non-UN stabilization efforts. Whereas UN guidance directs civil-military coordination “in support of the wider peace process,”51 NATO approaches promote engagement with civilian actors as a force enabler to “achieve the commander’s intent.”52

3.3 Peacebuilding and Stabilization: An Awkward Silence?

Stabilization is conspicuously absent in peacekeeping policy documents. In reports of the C34 from 2015, the term barely appears, beyond references to ensuring “stability” in volatile postconflict environments.53 The only mention of stabilization in Security Council Resolution 2086 (referred to above) relates to coordination with national authorities to “stabilize and improve the security situation and help in economic recovery.”54 In the HIPPO Report, stabilization appears in just 1 of the 321 paragraphs. Here, the report acknowledges the usage of the term stabilization by the Security Council and Secretariat “for a number of missions that support the extension or restoration of state authority and, in at least one case, during ongoing armed conflict.” Yet it notes the concept has a “wide range of interpretations,” and that the “usage of this term by the United Nations requires clarification.”55 This high-level advice echoes broader scholarly critiques that stabilization is difficult to define,56 and arguably provided an opening for a process of reflection on the concept and its use within the UN. However, the follow-up 2015 Implementation Report of the Secretary-General made no mention at all of stabilization in UN missions.57

The AGE Review (which heavily influenced the Sustaining Peace agenda) rarely made an explicit mention of the term stabilization, instead interrogating questions of “national ownership.” The review outlined significant challenges regarding how the UN relates to national leaders in conflict-affected states. In particular, the relationship between conflict recidivism, and the UN’s closeness to leaders who are driven by narrow self and group interests, which have been “proved not to be aligned with peacebuilding.”58 It also outlined concern that attempts to rebuild or extend central authority may in fact extend violent conflict, overlooking local capacities to engage in early-stage peacebuilding, defined as having “more to do with strengthening local domains of governance than trying to re-establish strong central authority.”59 Although “stabilization” is not addressed specifically, the AGE’s caution is clear.

A dilemma thus exists. It is apparent that stabilization has gained traction in the UN vernacular, particularly with certain Member States on the Security Council. Meanwhile, UN policy toward peacebuilding effectively ignores that stabilization has become an activity that extends beyond the point when violent conflict has abated and a deployment zone is “stabilized.”60 That Security Council Resolution 2086, the HIPPO Report, and the AGE Report were all produced while stabilization missions were deployed and the term stabilization became increasingly normalized in UN debates indicates an almost willful ignorance of the term. The fact that there is such cognitive dissonance within the UN system may be of little surprise to those who study the organization.61 However, as Andersen’s research into the use of force and militarization of UN peacekeeping shows,62 a lack of clarity over key normative aspects of UN interventions can have broader ramifications for the organization’s activities.

4 Is Stabilization Displacing Peacebuilding? Perspectives from the Field

With this in mind, we now offer examples from the UN’s stabilization missions in the DRC (MONUSCO) and Mali (MINUSMA) to illustrate the disconnects between stabilization and peacebuilding presented above. The analysis focuses on three main issues: conceptual confusion, conflation of peacebuilding means and stabilization ends, and the ramifications of interlinking stabilization and peacebuilding for political space to pursue sustainable peace.

4.1 Conceptual Confusion

As argued above, stabilization in the UN context is ill-defined at the strategic level. This leads to differing interpretations at the operational and tactical levels in the field—including in terms of how the concept relates to peacebuilding. A degree of conceptual ambiguity can be constructive for mission leadership if it allows for delegated authority to result in more context-sensitive decision-making. However, strategic vagueness appears to be manifesting in unwitting confusion in field missions. Fieldwork in both Mali and the DRC confirmed that it is not unusual for field personnel to conflate stabilization with peacebuilding.63 Many see the two sharing the same aim—tackling the root causes of violent conflict—and, therefore, either mutually reinforcing or entirely synonymous.64 In Mali, for instance, an interview with a senior stabilization adviser revealed that the focus of the “stabilization and recovery” section in MINUSMA is identifying stabilization projects aimed at winning hearts and minds by bringing quick peace dividends to particular communities. These usually take the form of Quick Impact Projects (QIPs) or Community Violence Reduction (CVR) programming and focus on restoring state authority so it can rehabilitate basic infrastructure and services—often following the “clearance” of armed groups and recovery of territory by national and parallel international forces—rather than efforts to transform the relationships that led to violent conflict per se.65

In the DRC, changing interpretations of stabilization over MONUSCO’s lifetime demonstrate that clarity around stabilization is difficult to achieve.66 The original stabilization mission in 201067 prioritized longer-term strategies for consolidating peace guided by the International Security and Stabilization Support Strategy (I4S).68 The first phase of the I4S (2009–2012) was later criticized for being too state centric and underplaying the destabilizing effects of local-level conflict dynamics.69 However, attempts to better recognize this reality in the second phase of the I4S (2013–2017) were quickly displaced with the advent of the Force Intervention Brigade, a robust UN military force attached to MONUSCO tasked with neutralizing specific armed groups to, inter alia, create space for “stabilization activities.”70 This new iteration of stabilization in MONUSCO was driven largely by a special representative of the Secretary-General (SRSG) with recent experience in Afghanistan and influenced by counterinsurgency models.71 The approach spawned the “islands of stability” concept, predicated on a “(shape), clear, hold, build” approach, but struggled to produce the stability envisaged and was heavily criticized for two main reasons: first, for failing to hold and build these islands of stability once spoilers were cleared out; and, second, for effectively creating “swamps of insecurity” around the focus areas that proved impossible to drain.72 As a result, the islands of stability concept lasted only two years and was “effectively killed by the office of the SRSG in 2016.”73 Stabilization in MONUSCO consequently reverted to a less coercive approach,74 with the MONUSCO Stabilization Support Unit (SSU) overseeing the dispersal of stabilization funds for reconstruction and development projects such as efforts to address land issues and customary authority disputes.75 Nevertheless, like in Mali, these were directed toward key hot spots, in part to placate sites of resistance and avert possible conflagration in the lead-up to repeatedly postponed presidential elections that eventually occurred in December 2018.76 Notwithstanding the attempts to promote national ownership, focus on particular locales, and emphasize state-society relations, the different shades of stabilization in the DRC have consistently privileged a state-centric capacity-building agenda at the expense of a more inclusive and localized approach to peacebuilding.77

4.2 Peacebuilding Means for Stabilization Ends

The most recent mandates for the UN’s two biggest stabilization missions analyzed here make little or no mention of “peacebuilding.”78 Nevertheless, both make use of the funds and tools of the UN’s peacebuilding architecture and have employed them toward stabilization ends.79 Strong linkages have emerged between stabilization missions and the UN’s Peacebuilding Fund (PBF).80 In the case of Mali, PBF funds are dispersed through the Immediate Response Facility (IRF)81 devoted to MINUSMA stabilization projects.82 In the DRC, PBF support has been part of an integrated UN effort to support stabilization since 2009.83 A number of IRF projects have been approved to assist in implementing the I4S, and funds have provided capacity support to the MONUSCO SSU as part of the Peacebuilding Priority Plan 2015–2017.84 Since 2018, PBF funds have been used to target key sites of vulnerability in the east, including projects in Kalehe (South Kivu) and Mambasa (Ituri) coordinated through the MONUSCO SSU.85

In effect, the everyday business of peacekeepers deemed to contribute to early peacebuilding is being relabeled as stabilization activity.86 In Mali, MINUSMA civil affairs officers are tasked with facilitating local-level dispute resolution. This is explicitly articulated within the mission as part of the stabilization effort.87 Similarly, in the DRC, efforts to address local conflict dynamics, such as land disputes, have now been incorporated into stabilization programming. Here too, it is worth noting that the QIPs and growing number of CVR projects—previously major delivery mechanisms of early peacebuilding work—are also subject to this rebranding and strategically delivered to populations in areas recently recovered from spoilers. With stabilization funding being dispersed by MONUSCO to a range of implementing partners (including other UN agencies and funds and international nongovernmental organizations), it is unavoidable that their development and peacebuilding work becomes associated with the overarching stabilization agenda.

4.3 The Politics of Stabilization

The UN approach to stabilization in both Malian and Congolese contexts has important political dimensions. Most obviously, stabilization is manifesting in strong partnership between missions and host governments—in certain circumstances underpinned by military force.88 Effectively picking the side of incumbent governments that are party to an ongoing conflict, and on occasion supporting those authorities to neutralize specific armed actors, undermines the UN’s impartiality in the eyes of some stakeholders. These perceptions of partiality and exclusionary practices shrink the political space for broader participation—including by those most capable of “spoiling” the peace processes in place.89

In Mali, MINUSMA’s stabilization activities include efforts to ameliorate drivers of conflict at the local level through mediation and CVR activities. However, these occur within a metastabilization agenda that is directly buttressing a central government that shows little interest in promoting a more inclusive peace process. It also cements a partnership with the government’s security forces that are independently seeking to militarily defeat those excluded and treated as illegitimate spoilers.90 The exclusion of groups labeled as “terrorists” from the peace agreement, and political dialogue, not only has limited progress toward stabilization but also contributes to the UN becoming a major target for those groups. This significantly constricts the effectiveness of extant peacebuilding efforts and forecloses more ambitious projects.

Similarly, in the DRC, MONUSCO’s coercive approach to armed groups in the east—such as the Allied Democratic Forces and a range of Mayi-Mayi self-defense militia—disregards their embeddedness in communities and their importance in generating support for a political process that can lead to broad-based peacebuilding rather than consolidation of predatory state power. The UN’s own complicity in these politics limits its ability to act as an impartial third party. The logic of overall support to the host government allows the government in Kinshasa to put severe restrictions on MONUSCO’s ability to support the more ambitious, transformational elements of its stabilization strategy such as wide-ranging security sector reform. This renders MONUSCO’s support to peacebuilding as almost entirely about strengthening government institutions and extending state authority rather than challenging the status quo that currently perpetuates the existing distribution of power.

5 The Ramifications of Stabilization for UN Peacekeeping Operations and Early Peacebuilding

Our survey of strategic-level policy and examination of how stabilization is manifesting in the UN’s missions in Mali and the DRC identifies political and practical challenges for the authorizers, architects, and implementers of UN peacekeeping operations. The ways that stabilization is interpreted and implemented in MINUSMA and MONUSCO are antithetical to the UN’s own articulations of peacebuilding. While stabilization at the field level incorporates a certain degree of localism in line with UN peacebuilding policy, this is ultimately subjugated by an overarching militarized and state-centric blueprint for stabilization. In these cases, stabilization is essentially conflated with “extending state authority.” This should not come as a surprise when mission exit strategies are almost exclusively tied to achieving basic acceptable levels of state capacity to maintain order.91 It is, however, problematic as these stabilization missions, in effect, have become “entangled in fractious and arguably unethical relationships with national leaders who, driven by greed or fear, have little real interest in stable, open and inclusive political systems.”92 As Arthur Boutellis argues, invariably “weak and contested state authority is often part of the problem rather than the solution.”93 By providing support—at times in the shape of joint military operations—to governments with questionable levels of credibility among their own population, the UN compromises its ability to achieve its own peacebuilding goals.

While peacebuilding and stabilization may have a shared aim—an end state of resolution of conflict and an exit strategy for the mission—the UN’s extant modalities of stabilization are limited and limiting what it can achieve through its own early peacebuilding. In these large stabilization missions, the normative calls for recognizing local agency and focusing on inclusive bottom-up forms of peacebuilding continue to be relegated in favor of a more conservative and conventional securitization agenda. This renders the lofty rhetoric around peacebuilding (highlighted in section 3.2 of this article) as little more than lip service.

This is significant from a conflict resolution perspective. The politics of stabilization as currently pursued limits space for initiatives that possess the potential to foster sustainable, inclusive forms of peacebuilding. We understand that, at times, this is a natural consequence of operations undertaking activities “during the most intense period of destruction.”94 However, our research identifies that these limits are self-imposed by the UN itself. Through mandates that adopt stabilization approaches that prioritize state authority over transformative programs, the UN is pushing the lid down on insecurity and limiting alternative visions of medium- and longer-term peacebuilding. This is in agreement with Walter Lotze and Paul Williams’s observations of stabilization efforts by the African Union in Somalia, where they argue that “extending state authority is not synonymous with peacebuilding, at least in the short term.”95

It is important to note that stabilization is not the sole responsibility of in situ UN peacekeeping operations. The comparative advantage that deployed UN missions tend to offer does, however, make these missions a focal point and key actor in implementation. For instance, their transportation and logistical capabilities alone make UN peacekeeping operations one of the only stakeholders in these settings capable of facilitating access to remote locations and managing complex programs.96 Despite significant limitations, stabilization missions with a mandate to assist in implementation of peace agreements often have unparalleled political access and capital that can be leveraged with key stakeholders drawn from local and national political elites. As Randi Solhjell and Madel Rosland argue in the case of the DRC, these competencies can lead to peacekeepers being de facto burdened with responsibility for full implementation, rather than simply coordination, of major programming that they are not well trained, prepared, or placed to undertake.97 Moreover, UN personnel in the field are often left to make sense of competing agendas and sometimes contradictory priorities.98 Consequently, localized strategies and programs are often ad hoc and necessarily guided by pragmatic choices to optimize the limited resources available to make things work. This can reinforce the tendency to fall into lockstep with the strategic logic of missions that sees a strong state as the path of least resistance to eventual exit.

It is imperative that realistic expectations for UN peacekeeping missions are established before deployment.99 On the one hand, this may mean that stabilization missions cannot hope to meet early peacebuilding goals beyond basic reinforcement of government authority. On the other hand, it may mean that stabilization missions as currently conceived are incompatible with the more ambitious and holistic understandings of peacebuilding enshrined in the UN’s own policy documents.

6 Conclusion

In this article, we argued that stabilization logics have encroached on the terrain traditionally occupied by the ideas and activities of early-stage peacebuilding. To what extent is this phenomenon significant for how we understand peacekeeping? We answer this by arguing that the relationship between peacekeeping operations and stabilization is characterized by the notion of phases. Stabilization can be a phase within the life cycle of operations, or a broader phase in the history of intervention by the UN. One may seem less important than the other; however, they both throw up substantial challenges to how UN peacekeeping is understood in policy and academic literature as a device of international conflict resolution, and both indicate varying degrees of liddism as outlined above. We now look at each phase in turn.

To address the first point, we found that in UN policy and guidance, stabilization and stability are perceived as steps in conflict management and deescalation, where the arrival of a UN mission means a reduction of direct violence, the implementation of a cease-fire, and associated stabilization of a volatile area. These approaches assume that by implementing stability through a range of technocratic fixes, interventions will sufficiently progress and, by default, peacebuilding can proceed and have traction. However, we found that the increasing use of the terminology, funding, and resources guided by strategies of military domination against spoilers and reliance on a propped-up host government to fill the gap pushes the lid down on local conflict dynamics, and effectively mitigates against broader, more inclusive sets of peacebuilding commitments as time goes on. This is at odds with the UN’s Sustaining Peace vision for the future of engagement in matters of peace and security.

To address the second point, the uploading of stabilization may represent a broader shift in how peacekeeping operations are conceptualized and carried out. Welcoming Security Council Resolution 2423 renewing the mandate of MINUSMA, Francois Delettre, permanent representative of France to the UN, stated that “only a balanced approach, combining security response and development and governance efforts, can create the conditions for sustainable stabilization.”100

That a permanent member of the Security Council speaks about sustainable stabilization raises noteworthy questions about the role of stabilization in how UN operations are conceptualized, designed, executed, and evaluated.101 Whereas the peacebuilding literature speaks about increasing complexity within peacebuilding practice,102 what we may be witnessing is the UN stepping back from deep approaches to peacebuilding based on local inclusivity. Stabilization missions, which are focused on a strong host government, supported by external military and civilian capacities, may now be the limit of the UN’s imagination when engaging in its most testing interventions. As Karlsrud argues, modern UN operations have become less intrusive and are characterized as having “more limited goals, a shorter-term outlook and more reactive approach to security incidents.” This, in the view of Karlsrud, is “to the detriment of implementing a long-term people-centric strategy to address the root causes of security challenges.”103 Therefore, significant questions arise regarding the UN’s capacity to actively assist communities to build inclusive models of peace. Far from removing the status quo, the UN may be setting its sights on reinscribing one that does not tolerate direct violence, but is far more limited than what its own policy and guidance asks.

It is possible that, in the near future, the Security Council will call on UN peacekeeping to help stabilize situations in places such as Libya and Yemen, where peace agreements may be fragile or absent and asymmetric threats high. As de Coning explains, this is “not because they are a preferred option, but as an option of last resort.”104 Indeed, if key Member States perceive that the UN does not engage effectively with stabilization as part of its conflict management tool kit, the organization may face another “crisis of relevance” in dealing with threats to international peace and security.105 Much will therefore depend on how the current batch of stabilization missions perform and how their experiences influence thinking at headquarters. This sort of organizational learning, however, is not a strength of the UN peace operations bureaucracy.106 With this in mind, the UN faces a significant challenge. On the one hand it continues to deploy operations with stabilization mandates in the absence of clear and coherent guidance. On the other hand, it continues to develop an elaborate peacebuilding guidance architecture that is not sufficiently reflected in its largest field operations. If this continues, the UN is on a trajectory that may undermine the effectiveness of its own peacekeeping operations. The politics of stabilization poses impediments to local forms of peacebuilding, at odds with the Sustaining Peace agenda, and risks jeopardizing the celebrated conflict resolution potential of UN peacekeeping.


The authors wish to show their appreciation for the work of those who engaged constructively in the review process of the article. It is built from a paper presentation at a 2017 EWIS Workshop entitled ‘Norms and Practices of Peace Operations: Evolution and Contestation’. The research benefited from grant funding from Coventry University’s external mobility fund, and the Australian Research Council through DECRA fellowshipDE170100138 and Discovery Project Grant DP1601022429.


We use the American spelling of “stabilization” unless quoting from others.


For this article, we use the term peacekeeping operations when speaking about missions that are headed by the UN Department of Peace Operations. We did not examine specific peacebuilding missions that are not linked to peacekeeping deployments, nor did we examine the UN’s political and mediation support missions.


These two cases were selected as they are the two largest UN stabilization missions (in terms of footprint and budget), and both facilitate peacebuilding processes where conflict is ongoing. Mali and the DRC are also case studies for funded research projects that enabled the fieldwork that informs this article.


Solhjell and Rosland 2017, 2.


Muggah 2014.


Gorur 2016.


Curran and Holtom 2015, 4.


Approximately eighty semistructured interviews were conducted in Mali (April–May 2017) and the Democratic Republic of Congo (May–June 2018). Interviewees included peacekeeping practitioners; senior mission leadership; civilian, military, and police components; and other key experts based in international organizations, nongovernmental organizations, national institutions, and local civil society organizations. Around thirty semistructured interviews were conducted during research at UN headquarters in New York in 2017.


Hultman, Kathman, and Shannon 2014.


Beardsley 2011; Beardsley and Gleditsch 2015.


Hultman, Kathman, and Shannon 2013; Kathman and Wood 2014; Melander 2009.


Doyle and Sambanis 2006; Fortna 2008; Gilligan and Sergenti 2008.


de Coning 2018, 305.


Karlsrud 2018a, 1.


Peter 2015, 352.


Andersen 2018.


Pugh, Cooper, and Turner 2008.


Rogers 2015, 102.


Ramsbotham, Woodhouse, and Miall 2016, 147.


Bellamy 2004, 19.


Wallensteen 2015, 266.


Fisher and Keashly 1991.


Last 2000.


Curran and Woodhouse 2007.


Diehl and Balas 2014, 212.


Fetherston 1994, 150.


Curran and Holtom 2015.


Gilder 2019, 50.


Rotmann and Steinacker 2013; UK Stabilization Unit 2019.


UK Stabilization Unit 2019, 13.


At its height, the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force deployment in Afghanistan had over 130,000 deployed personnel from over 51 countries. See NATO 2015.


At the height of UK engagement, costs to the UK reached between £ 3.5–4.0 billion per annum. Berman 2012, 5.


Curran and Holtom 2015, 1.


Aoi, de Coning, and Karlsrud 2017.


Curran and Holtom 2015.


Karlsrud 2018b, 23 Boutellis 2015, 4.


Karlsrud 2018b, 87.


Aoi and de Coning 2017, 299.


In addition to MONUSCO (2010–) and MINUSMA (2013–); the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA) (2014–).


Peter 2015, 352.


See UN 2015c, 29; UN 2016a, 34; UN 2017c, 37 UN 2018a, 41.


UN Security Council, Resolution 2282 (2016b), 3, reaffirmed this, “noting with appreciation the contributions that peacekeepers and peacekeeping missions make to peacebuilding … and a comprehensive strategy for sustaining peace.”


UN 2010b, 2.


von Billerbeck 2015, 301.


UN 2010c, 5.


UN 2015a.


UN 2016b.


UN 2016b.


UN 2014; UN 2009. See also Curran 2017.


UN 2011.


UN 2011, 4.


UN 2010a, 3.


See for instance UN 2018b, 42.


UN Security Council 2013a. This silence has continued see, for example, UN Security Council, Resolution 2378 (2017b) on UN peacekeeping reform, which also made no mention of stabilization.


High-Level Independent Panel on United Nations Peace Operations 2015, 30.


Muggah 2014; Mac Ginty 2012.


UN 2015b.


UN 2015a, 34.


UN 2015a, 16; see also Hunt 2018.


See, for instance, Eide et al. 2005; Lipson 2007.


For further elaboration on this, see Lipson 2007.


Andersen 2018.


Interviews with MONUSCO officials, Goma/Beni, the DRC, May 2018; interviews with MINUSMA officials, Bamako/Mopti/Gao, April 2017.


Interviews with MONUSCO officials, Goma/Beni, the DRC, May 2018; interviews with MINUSMA officials, Bamako/Mopti/Gao, April 2017. See also Gorur 2016, 16.


Interviews with MINUSMA officials, Bamako/Mopti/Gao, April 2017.


De Vries 2016; Solhjell and Rosland 2016.


UN Security Council, Resolution 1925 (2010d) ushered in the transition from MONUC to MONUSCO.


UN 2013b.


De Vries 2015; Paddon and Lacaille 2011.


UN 2013b, para. 12 (b).


Interview with MONUSCO officials, Beni, North Kivu, and Kinshasa, the DRC, May 2018.


Vogel 2014, 1–2; Barrera 2015.


Interview with senior MONUSCO official, Kinshasa, the DRC, May 2018.


Interview with senior MONUSCO officials, Goma, Beni, and Kinshasa, the DRC, May 2018.


UN Security Council, Resolution 2348 (2017a), 3, tasks MONUSCO with contributing to “stabilization, reconstruction and development efforts in the DRC.”


For example, in 2018 a $ 7 million stabilization fund was set up for Beni territory in North Kivu province, historically an opposition stronghold in a geopolitically important location near the borders with Uganda and Rwanda. Interview with MONUSCO official, Beni, the DRC, May 2018.


Interviews with MONUSCO officials and community members, Goma/Beni, the DRC, May 2018; See also Solhjell and Rosland 2017, 2.


UN Security Council, Resolution 2480 (2019); UN Security Council, Resolution 2463 (2019).


Interviews with MONUSCO officials, Goma/Beni/Kinshasa, the DRC, May 2018; interviews with MINUSMA officials, Bamako/Mopti/Gao, April 2017.


UN Peacebuilding Fund n.d.


The IRF provides flexible and rapidly disbursed project funding for immediate peacebuilding and recovery needs.


UN Peacebuilding Fund, “Mali”, n.d..


UN Peacebuilding Fund, “DRC”, n.d..


See UN n.d.


See UN Peacebuilding Fund 2017.


For similar argument regarding Preventing/Confronting Violent Extremism, see Karlsrud 2018b, 5.


Interviews with MINUSMA officials, Bamako/Mopti/Gao, April 2017.


Bellamy and Hunt 2015.


Hunt 2016.


Boutellis 2015.


For example, MONUSCO’s exit strategy threshold was until recently “the threat posed by armed groups to civilians has been reduced to a level that can be effectively managed by the Congolese State” (MONUSCO Mission Concept 2016, on file with the authors).


Gowan 2015, 32.


Boutellis 2015, 12.


Ramsbotham, Woodhouse, and Miall 2016, 147.


Lotze and Williams 2016, 17.


Interviews with MONUSCO officials, Goma/Beni, the DRC, May 2018; interviews with MINUSMA officials, Bamako/Mopti/Gao, April 2017.


Solhjell and Rosland 2017.


See, for example, Hirschmann 2012a, 2012b.


On this disconnect between expectations and capabilities, see Hill 1993.


Statement by Francois Delettre, permanent representative of France to the United Nations, New York, 28 June 2018.


While the authors acknowledge the influence of powerful Member States in the Security Council on the rate of uptake of stabilization in UN peace operations, a deeper engagement with national preferences of particular states is beyond the scope of this article.


de Coning 2018.


Karlsrud 2018a, 3.


de Coning 2015, 17–18.


Guéhenno 2015, 289–309.


Hirschmann 2012a; Hunt 2015.


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