Conflict Resolution and the United Nations: A Leadership Crisis? (Part 1)

Conflict Resolution and the United Nations: A Leadership Crisis? (Part 1)

Most United Nations (UN) peacekeeping missions during the last two decades were perceived by the general public to have failed. This article draws upon lessons learned from the 1990 UN mission in Namibia and identifies necessary conditions to ensure a sustainable and successful peacebuilding process for the conflicts of today.The first part gives a short background on the Namibian independence and the United Nations Transition Assistance Group and draws lessons for the success of such missions on the geopolitical and institutional level.

Part two will follow in the subsequent week and outline how domestic political capacity and support from key international stakeholders can be shown to be necessary for a peaceful democratic transition. However, smart timing during the preparation and implementation phases, as well as the structural design of a mission, are crucial prerequisites for support of any political effort for peace.

1. Introduction

During the last twenty years, the world has been a witness to an increased number of international peacekeeping operations designed to ensure politically sustainable transformations. Although the number of multinational and state actors such as the north Atlantic treaty organization (NATO), the united States, European union (EU), the African union, and others leading peacekeeping and peacebuilding missions has increased significantly, the united nations (UN) still plays the most critical role in dealing with international conflict resolution. Today there are 15 different peacekeeping missions directed by the UN Department for Peacekeeping operations (DPKO), and many have come under immense criticism for falling short of expectations. This criticism is twofold: on the one hand, UN missions were unable to meet targets laid out by their own mandate, as observed in the missions in Cote d’Ivoire (UNOCI), Haiti (MINUSTAH) and Somalia (UNOSOM). On the other hand— and more importantly— some missions could not meet the expectations of the general public, as has been observed in the tragic cases of the Srebrenica massacre (UNPROFOR) and the Rwandan genocide (UNAMIR).

This paper argues that the United Nations should maintain a leadership role in international conflict resolution despite recent political and academic criticism regarding outcomes of its operations. In order to do so effectively, the United Nations, along with UN Security Council member states, should incorporate some important lessons learned from its own success stories. The case of Namibian independence and the success of the UN Transition Assistance Group (UNTAG) to carry out constitutional elections and ensure a democratic transition there from 1989 to 1990 offer some valuable insights for the analysis of present and future UN peacekeeping missions. This paper aims to identify structural factors that made UNTAG one of the most successful peacekeeping operations and how these factors could be translated into the context of today’s peacekeeping missions.

2. Historical Overview and the Development of UNTAG

Before analyzing key factors that influenced the success of UNTAG, it is important to provide a brief overview on the historical framework in which Namibia became independent and the UNTAG mission was deployed. The issue of Namibia was on the political agenda of the international community even before the founding of the United Nations. The long developing dialogue and preparation for the peace process greatly assisted later success.

The international status of Namibia has been disputed since British-led forces of the South African union defeated German colonial forces at the onset of World War I. Though Namibia was placed under an international mandate of the League of Nations, the British-controlled union of South Africa enjoyed de facto political administration of the territory. While the International Court of Justice confirmed the illegality of South African administration in several non-legally binding rulings from 1950 to 1966, South Africa continued to treat Namibia as a province of its own territory. As a consequence, the South Africa People‘s organization (SWAPO) was formed in Namibia with the aim of achieving independence from South African occupation by armed struggle.

From 1966 to 1968, the UN general Assembly adopted several resolutions1 that clarified the international status of Namibia. It was laid under direct UN responsibility and was administered by a newly established UN Council on South West Africa2 under the leadership of Martti Ahtisaari, who would later become the UN Special representative of UNTAG. In 1970, the UN Security Council3 confirmed the illegality of South African presence on Namibian territory and consequently called for free constitutional elections under UN supervision in 1975.4 While three members of the Security Council, plus Germany and Canada—the so-called “Contact group”5— debated how to ensure a transition to independence, South Africa sought to keep Namibia as part of its own territory under the apartheid system.6 In 1976, SWAPO was officially recognized by the united nations as a relevant stakeholder and negotiating partner in the peacekeeping process.

In 1978, the mandate for the UNTAG peacekeeping mission was finalized7 to ensure a democratic transition for Namibia to independence. Nonetheless, UNTAG would not be deployed until eleven years later, when a cease-fire between SWAPO and South African forces came into existence on April 1, 1989. The time lag between the adoption of the UNTAG mission by the UN Security Council and its implementation was due to wider geopolitical bargaining within a Cold War framework which has become known as the “linkage” and which will be subsequently analyzed. The UNTAG mission lasted for twelve months and ended with certification of the elections of the constitutional assembly by UNTAG Special representative Ahtisaari on March 21, 1990.

3. Key Factors for Success on the International Level

a) The Mandate

In order to draw comparisons between UNTAG and other UN peacekeeping missions, one must first understand the different types of mandates that can be granted. Not only does the nature of the mandate imply important consequences for the use of force by UN personnel but it is also defines the point at which a mission can be termed a success.

One of the most important distinctions to be made when negotiating the mandate of a UN peacekeeping mission is whether it will be based on Chapter VI or VII of the UN Charter. Whereas Chapter VI provides a UN mission with the use of force only in the case of self-defense and requires the consent of all sovereign parties, Chapter VII provides a robust mandate to use military force without the consent of all sovereign parties. It is often argued that a mission’s capacity for success increases with a robust Chapter VII mandate, since the mission does not require consent and allows for more direct military involvement and political pressure to stop violence and enforce peace. The cases of the genocide in Rwanda and the Srebrenica massacre support this argument, since both UN missions were only given a Chapter VI mandate and could not interfere directly in the conflict. In both cases, the mandate did not fit the mission’s requirement.

Depending on the conflict conditions and the level of consent between parties, a Chapter VI mission may still provide a suitable, and in the case of Namibia, successful framework for a UN peacekeeping mission to achieve a sustainable peacebuilding process without the direct use of force. Moreover, the process of finding and securing consent arguably does increase the level of ownership of the conflicted parties towards the peace process, as could be observed in the long lasting diplomatic negotiations between SWAPO and South African forces in Namibia.

Ultimately, there does not seem to be a clear preference for either a Chapter VI or Chapter VII mission to ensure a mission’s success. However, a successful outcome may rely on whether the mandate reflects the mission’s unique requirements on the ground. This responsibility clearly lies with the UN Security Council and its member states.

b) International Capacity

In academic literature,8 the success of UNTAG is frequently attributed to the effective collaboration of the member states within the UN Security Council. This was especially true for the role of the United States and the Soviet Union due to the changing dynamics of Cold War politics. In this respect, it is not surprising that the adoption of the 1978 UN Security Council resolution 435—the legal basis of the UNTAG mission—and the actual deployment of UNTAG occurred towards the end of the Cold War in 1989. Chester Crocker, who at that time led consultations for UNTAG’s implementation of the Contact group on behalf of the united States, points out that “during the final phase of the Cold War, the Southern African conflict’s structure was directly affected by the age of bipolarity.”[1]

The so-called “linkage” of Namibian independence and the withdrawal of Cuban troops from Angola were in effect the primary reason for the late implementation of UNTAG eleven years after the ratification of resolution 435. While during the 1970s, South Africa still followed its own plans for Namibian “independence” under a system of representation based on apartheid,10 it soon followed a strategic partnership with the united States under the Reagan administration: South Africa traded its acceptance for an independence process under UN leadership with a US-South African alliance against the spread of communism from Angola and Mozambique towards South Africa.11 Moreover, South Africa used its support within the united nations for Namibian independence as political leverage in its relationship with the united States concerning its involvement in South African domestic politics.12

The United States, on the other hand, would only be able solve the question of Namibia’s independence under free and fair democratic elections, given South Africa’s acceptance of a Chapter VI peacekeeping mission (and hence based on mutual consent of the warring parties). The United States did not have an interest in a direct military intervention in Angola or Namibia, as this region of Africa was not of much geopolitical importance from its perspective.13 Moreover, it wanted to avoid a costly proxy war with economic, political, and public relations costs in the wake of the Vietnam War.14 given US and South Africa interest in Namibian independence, the united States consequently managed to draw the rest of the Contact group towards accepting the conditionality of the linkage.15 Although the linkage was never a conditional part of resolution 435,16 it remained persistent until the deployment of UNTAG in 1989.

From the perspective of the Communist bloc, represented by Cuba and Angola with political support from the Soviet Union, the strategy of maintaining Cuban presence in Angola soon came to an end. The dynamics of Cold War politics changed with the onset of glasnost and perestroika. Additionally, South African forces, along with troops from the Frente Nacional da Liberaçao de Angola (FNLA) and the National Union for Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), with financial support from the United States, increased their attacks on Angolan and Cuban troops on Angolan territory. This led to rising costs of waging war for both political blocs.17 Consequently, by 1984, Angolan president Jose Eduardo Dos Santos indicated that Cuban troops would be withdrawn under the following three conditions: first, South Africa would have to remove all of their troops from Angolan territory. Secondly, resolution 435 calling for Namibian independence under UN leadership would have to be implemented. And thirdly, the US and South African support in Angolan domestic issues would have to be ceased.18

The political indication from the Soviet-led bloc created a basis of an international, multi-party support for the UNTAG mission. In other words, the international community confirmed a vital interest and hence capacity to develop ownership for the implementation of resolution 435—a crucial prerequisite for success for any UN peacekeeping mission. The Brazzaville Protocol, which was signed and observed by all relevant international actors (including the united States and the Soviet union as observers) on December 13, 1988, confirmed the withdrawal of Cuban troops and hence gave way for the implementation of resolution 435 and the deployment of UNTAG on April 1, 1989.

It has been shown that the post-Cold War geopolitical framework brought an end to the stalemate of the UN Security Council and enabled it to deal with global conflicts effectively. Moreover, the case of Namibia demonstrates that a strong backing of UNTAG’s mission by the international community and all relevant stakeholders—which I term here as international capacity—greatly enhanced the positive outcome of the mission. Any UN peacekeeping mission that lacks the full support of the UN Security Council, its member states, and also the wider international community (such as the general public or multilateral partner organizations) will fail to provide the political and financial support necessary for success.

4. Beyond the international

Part two of this article will follow in the subsequent week and outline how domestic political capacity and support from key international stakeholders can be shown to be necessary for a peaceful democratic transition. However, smart timing during the preparation and implementation phases, as well as the structural design of a mission, are  as well crucial prerequisites for support of any political effort for peace.

By Philipp Panizza

The author is an M.A. candidate in the international development program at SAIS Bologna Center. This Article was co-published in the Bologna Center Journal for International Affairs, Vol. 14, 2011.


Chester A. Crocker, “Peacemaking in Southern Africa: the Namibia-Angola Settlement of 1988,” in Herding Cats: Multiparty Mediation in a Complex World, ed. Chester A. Crocker, Fen Osler Hampson, and Pamela R. Aall (Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace Press, 1999), 207-244.

Lise M. Howard, “UN Peace Implementation in Namibia: the Causes of Success,” International Peacekeeping, 9 no. 1 (2002), 99-132.

Laurent C. W. Kaela, The Question of Namibia (London: MacMillan Press, 1996), chapter 5.

Winrich Künhe, The Role of Elections in Emerging Democracies and Post-Conflict Countries,” International Policy Analysis (Berlin: Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, 2010).

Winrich Kühne, “Friedenseinsätze der Vereinten Nationen,” in Einsatz für Frieden. Stabiliät und Entwicklung in Räumen prekärer Staatlichkeit, ed. Josef Braml, Thomas Risse, and Eberhard Sandschneider, Jahrbuch Internationale Politik 28 (2010), 279-287.

United Nations, “UNTAG,” in The Blue Helmets: A Review of United Nations Peacekeeping (New York: United Nations Department of Public Information, 1996), 201-230.

Selection of Relevant Resolutions of the United Nations General Assembly and the UN Security Council

UN Security Council, Resolution 276, “The Situation in Namibia,” January 30, 1970.

UN Security Council, Resolution 385, “Namibia,” January 30, 1976.

UN General Assembly, Resolution 2145, “Question of South West Africa,” October 27, 1966.

UN General Assembly, Resolution 2248 (SV), “Question of South West Africa,” May 19, 1967.

[1] Crocker, “Peacemaking in Southern Africa,” 89.