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Op-Ed: Peacekeeping at the Crossroads

Peacekeeping at the Crossroads
June 2000 - published in Mmegi, Botswana (23-29 June), NRC Handelsblad, the Netherlands (8 June), El País, Spain (21 August)

UN peacekeeping operations are back in the spotlight. From war-torn Sierra Leone and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to the transitional administrations in Kosovo and East Timor, the UN's ability to make a decisive impact on conflicts on the ground is being severely tested.

But while events in Sierra Leone inevitably focus attention on the need - repeatedly reiterated since the war in Bosnia - for peacekeeping operations to be backed with credible and usable military force, it is important not to lose sight of other equally important challenges confronting would-be peacemakers today. In particular the political dimension of violent conflict - both as a cause and a potential remedy - is a factor of overwhelming, but still under-appreciated, importance.

Because so many of today's conflicts take place within states, the overarching challenge of peace-building is to construct a sustainable domestic political order. This means that we need to focus more of our critical thinking upon how the internal politics of fragile states can be strengthened, and stable politics made sustainable. This is very much the issue in Kosovo and East Timor, for example, where UN missions are confronted with the challenges of assisting the reconstruction of societies recently ravaged by violent conflict.

Over the last decade UN missions have almost developed a standard operating procedure in such contexts: some sort of elections held within a year or eighteen months of the start of the mission, usually less than a year following full deployment, followed by a rapid handover to the new authorities, and an even more rapid departure of UN troops and personnel.

Thus in Kosovo today there is strong pressure on the OSCE, the body tasked by the UN with organizing elections in the region, to hold elections in October, regardless of whether the province is ready for them or not. A similar pull towards holding 'instant elections' exists in East Timor, where the UN Transitional Administrator has stated that postponing elections beyond 2001 will be 'difficult'.

Undoubtedly, real challenges are involved. In many cases the push towards holding rapid elections is fuelled as much as anything by a desire to remedy the perceived lack of local political legitimacy inherent in international administrations. But what the 'quick as possible' approach simply fails to take account of is the reality that if held too early, elections in fragile situations can easily undermine the longer-term challenge of building a democracy. Not surprisingly, such 'premature elections' often have the opposite results to those intended. The 1992 elections in Angola, which led Jonas Savimbi back to war, or the 1996 and 1998 elections in the Bosnian Federation, which served to cement the positions of hard-line nationalists in power, are two obvious cases in point.

As we have seen in so many cases, too, this approach can result in a much worse outcome than if elections had been postponed until some of the basic elements of a pluralistic party system and a functioning state had been established. The 1993 elections in Burundi, for example, which were supposed to elect a power-sharing government, instead mobilised population groups along ethnic lines and served as a catalyst for ethnic genocide.

In war-torn societies political parties are often thinly disguised versions of former armies, who view electoral politics as little more than a vehicle for the continuation of their previous struggles. Ethnic conflicts, for example, are replicated in the form of new ethnically exclusive political parties. In such contexts, holding an election before the norms of civic, peacetime politics have taken hold almost inevitably results in increased support for extremist and exclusivist parties.

Supporting the difficult process of transforming a poor, traumatised and war-ravaged society into a well-functioning democracy requires more than the presence of a few hundred UN officials for 18 months. We can taste instant coffee but there is no such thing as instant democracy. If the international community wishes to see democracy established in a country that has little or no tradition of democratic governance, it must realise that what it is asking for is nothing less than a complete political, social and economic transformation of that society. Key elements of such an approach include:

  • Timing and design. Strategy should be formulated taking into account the root causes of particular conflicts. Such a strategy should have different phases, including the immediate phase of 'peacekeeping' but also a longer-term 'peace-building' and 'democracy building' component. It is crucial that the longer-term approach to addressing root causes is already thought through at the outset of peacekeeping operations.

  • Democracy building. While democracy is not the only solution to every problem, experience strongly suggests that building up democratic institutions can help to promote solutions to the root causes of many violent conflicts. Developing more effective peacekeeping and peace-building strategies thus requires the inclusion of a vigorous democracy-building component that goes beyond the holding of quick elections.

  • A new policy framework. The time has come for the international community to develop a new, more holistic policy framework to peacekeeping and peace-building operations. The framework should be a renewed commitment to multilateralism combined with the new understanding of 'national sovereignty' proposed by Kofi Annan and others. In particular, the international community should no longer shy away from democracy issues out of deference to the traditional principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of states.

In this context elections should not be seen as the end of a peace process, but rather as the beginning of a long, sometimes tortuous democracy process leading to a sustainable, democratic system of government. In essence this means helping countries prepare for an extended transition and staying for the long term where possible. And where long-term commitment is not possible, even a shortterm strategy should be focused on assisting and developing the capacity of local po-litical leadership. As William Shawcross argues in Deliver Us From Evil, his recent study of UN operations around the world, 'The international community can put nations into the process of transition, but effecting [the transition] depends on the indigenous leaders and political class'.

We face a fundamental challenge: that of supporting the building up of the capacity of divided societies to manage their own conflicts peacefully, and in the process restoring a minimum level of trust between people. That is why the search for democracy must be up front, both in the thinking about and implementation of what are currently called peacekeeping operations - in Sierra Leone no less than Kosovo or East Timor.

In this sense democracy promotion should be viewed as the international community's first resort, the use of military force its last. In this way, perhaps one day peacekeeping operations will come to be known by a better and certainly more appropriate title - 'democracy-building operations'.

Bengt Säve-Söderbergh is Secretary-General of International IDEA (The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance).

Press contacts:

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International IDEA
103 34 Stockholm, Sweden
Phone: +46-8-698 3700
Fax: +46-8-20 24 22
Monika Ericson
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International IDEA
103 34 Stockholm, Sweden
Phone: +46-8-698 3700
Fax: +46-8-20 24 22



International IDEA
Tel: +46 8 698 3700, Fax: +46 8 20 24 22
International IDEA, Strömsborg, S-103 34 Stockholm, Sweden