Confronting the Dilemmas of Peacekeeping in Africa: An Interview with Joachim Koops

This is part of our special feature, Beyond Eurafrica: Encounters in a Globalized World.

The emergence of the doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect, R2P, endorsed at the UN’s 2005 World Summit, was intended to buttress international efforts to prevent genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity. Its global impact has unfortunately been uneven, whether currently in Syria or the Ukraine. Africa is no exception.

The current conflicts in Africa are concentrated in specific regions, and involve only a few of Africa’s 54 nation-states, but they are intense, volatile, and some pose great challenges to both regional and global governance and stability.

The repercussions of the 2011 invasion of Libya under UN Security Council Resolution 1973 called for exercising “all necessary means” to protect civilians. The unforeseen consequences of the overthrow of Qaddafi nonetheless have been extreme. The scope and scale of the mission of United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) in the seemingly unending war on terror is expanding; the French-led 2014 anti-insurgent Sahel-wide Operation Barkhane is ongoing;  the internal conflicts of Boko Haram in Nigeria and the violence in Sudan are both unrelenting; the consequences of genocide and ethnic cleansing in Rwanda, with Burundian unrest, are other examples of such challenges.

All have intensified conditions leading to increased numbers of internally displaced peoples, the mass movements of refugees, and even increased slavery. Europe, far from being immune from the impact of these disturbing trends, has in the last years experienced an intensified influx of immigration of people from Africa, seeking safety, asylum, and economic opportunity.

A particularly interesting development has been a recent commitment of European countries to UN Peacekeeping in Africa, particularly in the context of the UN operation in Mali (MINUSMA). This European re-engagement comes at a crucial moment when both the reform of peacekeeping and European-African relations are high on the political agenda.

One renewed European reaction, while sensitive to the tragic imbroglio of Rwanda, and the ongoing consequences and accountability of its colonial and imperial past, has been the imperative to respond, to preempt, prevent, and attempt to mitigate the consequences of conflict This both humane, and self-interested activity, includes a renewed emphasis on peacekeeping.

Professor Joachim Koops, Dean of the Vesalius College of the Free University of Brussels, and Director of the Global Governance Institute, has been an insightful, thoughtful analyst, and critic of peacekeeping. One of the editors of the Oxford Handbook of United Nations Peacekeeping Operations, an important and extensive critique by leading experts and practitioners of all UN peacekeeping missions conducted globally between 1948 ad 2013, he is an expert on issues of crisis management, global security and peacebuilding. His most recent publication (European approaches to UN Peacekeeping: Towards Stronger Re-engagement?) provides a systematic overview of the opportunities and challenges of stronger European involvement in UN peacekeeping in Africa.

In this interview, Professor Koops provides an evaluation of the tensions between the responsibility and imperative to protect civilians, with the more long-range, impartial goal of peace-building; insights into the EU-UN-AU relationship, and thoughts about European sensitivity at being asked to resort to force in their peacekeeping engagements.

—Sherman Teichman for EuropeNow


EuropeNow You focus on European Union and United Nations approaches to peace and security, particularly on the African continent. Why do you deem this to be an important issue?

Joachim Koops First of all, the inter-organizational triangle of the United Nations (UN), European Union (EU) and the African Union (AU) is of immense importance for both global and regional security governance. Out of the 15 blue helmet operations currently run by the UN, eight are deployed on the African continent. If we look at the history of UN peacekeeping since 1948, a similar picture emerges – out of the total of 71 UN-led operations, nearly half (namely, 31) have taken place in Africa. If we look at the activities and operations launched by the European Union under its Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) banner since 2003, the focus on Africa is even starker: out of the 35 civilian and military operations, 29 have taken place on that continent. In other words 82% of all of the EU’s CSDP operations focused on Africa. Of course, there is a lively and important debate why this may be the case – with reasons that go beyond the nature or urgency of conflicts in Africa themselves. Post-colonial and power-related arguments about sovereignty and permissiveness of accepting international operations should also not be neglected.

EuropeNow What has changed in the composition of peacekeeping forces in Africa?

Joachim Koops I think it is important that we do not only focus on the demand, but also on the supply side of peacekeepers. During the last decade, the participation of troops from African countries in blue helmet operations has risen dramatically, and in January 2016 an African troop contributing country, Ethiopia, topped for the first time the ranking of all contributors with nearly 8,500 military, police and civilian personnel. At the same time, with Rwanda, Egypt, Senegal and Ghana currently also being among the 10 biggest troop contributors, these five African countries now account for a quarter of all the 93, 000 blue helmets currently deployed. If we compare this to the European contributions of 7,350 troops (8%) or the Security Council’s permanent five’s 4,300 troops (less than 5% of all blue helmets), then Africa’s significance on both the demand and supply side becomes clear.

EuropeNow Given these developments, what are the important implications – not only for European and UN approaches and EU-Africa cooperation – but also for the future of peacekeeping and security governance in general?

Joachim Koops While current UN operations, such as the ones in the Central African Republic and Mali, are often also seen, somewhat insensitively, as laboratories for European re-engagements with UN peacekeeping, African troop contributors’ views and demands increasingly influence the debate about the use of force and so-called ‘robust peacekeeping’. It has often been the African Union and African troop contributors who have called for intervening in conflicts and situations that might still be ongoing, and where there might not yet be a peace agreement, rather than the UN’s and Europeans’ more cautious approach, often repeating the mantra that UN blue helmets should only go to areas where ‘there is a peace to keep’. Furthermore, AU operations or AU-endorsed operations, such as in Somalia and the Central African Republic against the Lord’s Resistance Army, have recently deployed lethal force in operations more akin to counterinsurgency or counterterrorism operations. It has also been African countries, such as Uganda, South Africa and Malawi that pushed for a robust ‘Force Intervention Brigade’ in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to use lethal force against the Congolese March 23 Movement (M23) within the context of the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the DRC (MONUSCO). While this might bring quick results in terms of deterrence, and to some extent protection of civilians, it opens up a wide field of other problems and challenges related to impartiality, long-term peacebuilding and – for some – the very essence of peacekeeping itself.

EuropeNow Is the use of lethal force in UN Peacekeeping always a negative factor?

Joachim Koops It always depends on the circumstances and purpose. But it has clearly become one of the trickiest, but also most persistent questions for the UN to tackle. Not only the question of the use of force, but also the future of UN peacekeeping in high risk environments in general or where there is no peace to keep, but civilians to be protected. The current debate generated by the so-called ‘Cruz Report’ on ‘Improving Security of United Nations Peacekeepers’ authored by the Force Commander of MONUSCO, Brazilian Lieutenant-General Carlos Alberto Dos Santos Cruz, tries to find some answers, particularly concerning issues that the High-Level Independent Panel on Peace Operations report of 2015 shied away from.

EuropeNow What were the vexing issues?

Joachim Koops The perennial questions is what is the right balance between the effective use of force for credibility and deterrence on the one hand and the primacy of politics and civilian approaches to peacekeeping on the other? Yet, in many ways, events already overtake doctrinal debates: the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) has also reignited the debate on whether the UN needs to adapt more rigorously to high-risk environments by deploying the tools and mindsets of counterinsurgency and counterterrorism. The use of lethal force is sometimes required in order to protect civilians, defend peace operations and their mandate against attacks and to stop impunity. But we shouldn’t forget that UN Peacekeeping is essentially a political tool and that the use of force can also undermine the UN’s claim to impartiality or can even contribute to the deterioration of the security situation in the mid- and long-term, despite short-term ‘quick wins’.

EuropeNow Where do the Europeans stand on this issue?

Joachim Koops During the two decades before their ‘re-engagement’ with UN peacekeeping since 2014 in the context of MINUSMA, most European countries had drastically reduced their commitment to blue helmet operations. Europeans remained critical of UN peacekeeping and rather invested in NATO-led and EU-led operations – both for military and political reasons. In a project with representatives from ten international think tanks, we tried to explore the challenges, opportunities and ways ahead for European countries to re-engage with UN peacekeeping. We tried to assess the main reasons for committing troops to UN Peacekeeping, as well as core obstacles, inter-organizational rivalries and opportunities. For many troop contributors, even those that were among the ‘founders of UN Peacekeeping’ in the 1950s and 1960s (such as the Nordic countries, but also Austria and Ireland), MINUSMA served as a strategically important mission, but also as a kind laboratory for testing the extent to which UN peacekeeping has developed. Countries that had been rather hesitant since the 1990s (such as The Netherlands and Germany) contributed somewhat surprisingly substantial troops and equipment. The Europeans’ approach is on balance a bit schizophrenic: even though one of the core criticisms in European capitals relates to the UN’s inability to wield effective force, many European troop contributing countries also remained wary of deploying with full force in the riskiest areas.

EuropeNow Were there lessons and tools from European experiences in Afghanistan that could be transferred to MINUSMA?

Joachim Koops It is interesting that some countries in fact sent the same troops to MINUSMA that had already previously cooperated well in Afghanistan. For example, the Dutch and German contingents built up a strong relationship and track-record of cooperation in NATO’s ISAF mission, which was of great help and use for their cooperation in Mali. The use of intelligence (among NATO members in the mission), helicopters, medical evacuation, force protection and high-end equipment was a strong component of the European return to UN peacekeeping. Similarly to the US parallel role to International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, France maintained a robust national operation in parallel to MINUSMA. A core problem was not only the difference in equipment, training and engagement between the different troop contributing countries, but the fact that NATO countries cooperated more closely among each other than with the rest of MINUSMA’s non-Western troop contributors also created frictions. Critics pointed out that there was sometimes a risk that the Europeans created a ‘mission within the mission’ amongst themselves. This is understandable from their perspective and for utilizing the benefits of their past cooperation and interoperability, but it did of course lead to criticism from other troop contributors. On the other hand, some Euroepean contingents also provided effective ‘in-mission capacity-building’ for other countries, for example in establishing and maintaining better medical facilities.

EuropeNow How can EU-African security cooperation be strengthened?

Joachim Koops There has been a flurry of initiatives in recent years in relation to the so-called strategic partnership between the European Union and the African Union, which in previous years has become somewhat stale. As mentioned earlier, European engagement in Africa of course goes beyond UN peacekeeping and even EU-led CSDP operations. The 2017 Joint Communication “for a renewed impetus of the Africa-EU Partnership” seeks to re-launch political, economic, security and education-related relations between both continents as well as a strong trilateral EU-UN-AU approach. Yet, the Europeans’ current political priorities, that focus too much on the migration “crisis” risk marginalizing other important topics and policies for a more long-term and sustainable approach. Relations between the Europeans and Africans remain strained, but is also a continuing story of untapped potential. With other crisis hotspots emerging in the Middle East and other neighbouring regions of the EU, attention – at least in the security field – is now more divided. Yet, it’s a crucial moment for a proper and balanced partnership.

EuropeNow What is your outlook on the future of a UN Peacekeeping and EU-UN-AU triangle?

Joachim Koops In the past, there have been strong, yet uncoordinated, efforts in peacekeeping partnerships and capacity-building. It is clear that both the Europeans and the UN look to the African Union and the African Peace and Security Architecture (APSA) for becoming first responders in high risk environments. Yet, the European Union and the UN will themselves remain extensively involved in peacekeeping, crisis management and training missions on the African continent. Several mechanisms, particularly at the inter-secretariat levels, have been promoted for more institutionalised partnerships of EU-UN, EU-AU and UN-AU formats, but more work remains to be done at the truly integrated trilateral level. Preparations and advancements have only begun in 2015. Again, the overemphasis of the EU and European member states on the migration crisis, and particularly its questionable policies towards Libya, threatens a more long-term and value-based approach. On the other hand, it has reignited strategic interest in African security issues among European decision-makers and the wider public. In the realm of peacekeeping, ongoing calls for UN reform, the build-up of APSA and the reorientation of the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy also remain moving parts of the wider puzzle.

There is some renewed momentum for closer cooperation, but differences in interests, priorities and commitment will unfortunately make it very difficult to make quick gains in the process towards a coherent EU-AU-UN vision for peacekeeping. However, European experiences from MINUSMA will feed into wider debates on the future of UN peacekeeping and the wider lessons learned process that has only just begun will be an important opportunity for crafting a joint strategy for more effective and sustainable peacekeeping and a strong EU-AUUN partnership.



Joachim Koops is Dean of Vesalius College of the Free University of Brussels (VUB), Research Professor of International Security at the VUB’s Institute for European Studies and Director of the Global Governance Institute (GGI). His research focuses on European Union, NATO and United Nations approaches to crisis management, peacekeeping and diplomacy. He is currently directing an international research project on ‘European Approaches to UN Peacekeeping with a particular emphasis on Sub-Saharan Africa. Recent publications include the Oxford Handbook of United Nations Peacekeeping Operations (Oxford University Press, 2017, co-edited with Norrie MacQueen, Thierry Tardy and Paul D. Williams), European Approaches to UN Peacekeeping: Towards Stronger Re-engagement? (Routledge, 2018, co-edited with Giulia Tercovich), The Palgrave Handbook of Inter-organizational Relations in World Politics (Palgrave, 2017, co-edited with Giulia Tercovich) and Germany and UN peacekeeping: The Cautiously Evolving Contributor, in International Peacekeeping, 2016. Joachim has served as the Advisor of the Chief of Staff of the Standby High Readiness Brigade for UN Operations (SHIRBRIG), the Head of the Partnership Team of the Department of Peacekeeping Operations, New York and theHead of the UN Liaison Office for Peace and Security (UNLOPS) in Brussels.

Sherman Teichman is a Senior Fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. He is a non-resident Research Associate at the Department of Politics and International Relations in the Centre for International Studies at the University of Oxford. His first immersive research experience with conflict in Africa was with the Anyanya separatist movement in southern Sudan in 1966.  



Published on March 1, 2018.


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