Conflict Resolution and the United Nations: A Leadership Crisis? (Part 2)

Conflict Resolution and the United Nations: A Leadership Crisis? (Part 2)

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. Part two of this article outlines how domestic political capacity and support from key international stakeholders are 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.
The first part, published last week, outlined a short background on the Namibian independence and the United Nations Transition Assistance Group and drew lessons for the success of such missions on the geopolitical and institutional level.

 1. Key Factors for Success on the Domestic Level

a) Domestic Capacity

Whereas the support of the international community greatly influenced the outcome of UNTAG, it might seem obvious that an effective domestic capacity would be needed to support any electoral peacebuilding process. The latter requirement has been less debated in academic literature, but in the case of Namibia, it proves equally vital to the success. From a structural point of analysis, three points have to be noted. Some seem unique to the situation in Namibia, while others serve well as lessons learned to be applied to recent and future UN peacekeeping missions.

First, the nature of the Namibian conflict and structure of the involved parties both supported a successful peace process from the beginning. There was a relatively clear line between the conflicted parties, and the conflict was between only two rivals. This simplified the ability of UN military observers (MILOPS) to monitor the cease-fire agreement. Furthermore, bilateral consultations between the conflicted parties with the support of an international mediator, such as the United Nations, were easier to achieve and more prone to success. Second, the nature of conflict was more or less one-dimensional on the issue of political representation as border disputes, ethnic tensions, and access to resources did not pose a great threat to peace. Recent UN peacekeeping missions in Cote d’Ivoire and Sudan represent a greater challenge for a sustainable peacebuilding process, as the nature of conflict is more complex. Third, the capacity of Namibian institutions and infrastructure before the deployment of UNTAG allowed for a greater level of effectiveness, as Namibian infrastructure was not heavily damaged by the civil war between SWAPO and South African forces. Access to remote locations across the country and existing government structures helped UNTAG execute its mandate and prepare the constitutional elections. The experience of the UN peacekeeping mission in Congo (MONUC) and its supervision of the 2006 elections underscore the crucial role of institutions and infrastructure in this context.

When looking into the socio-psychological characteristics of Namibian society and their influential role on the success of the mission, it becomes clear that domestic actors’ level of ownership of the peace process was also crucial for success. These domestic actors included political parties, the media, and religious institutions. It became apparent within the general Namibian population that the level of ownership towards the elections proved higher than anticipated by the international community. In fact, the number of voting registrants exceeded UN official predictions by 2.4 percent, and 97 percent of registered voters cast their vote. More importantly, both SWAPO and its domestic opposition, the Democratic Turnhalle Alliance, accepted their shares of government participation after the final polling of the constitutional assembly.

b) The Mission’s Capacity

Along with international and domestic capacity to support the mission, the general structure of UNTAG and efforts by personnel ensured the positive outcome of the electoral process. The mission’s mandate fit the requirements to monitor and implement elections in Namibia and hence matched the situation on the ground. The mission must also meet operational benchmarks and, perhaps more importantly, public expectations. It is noteworthy that no previous UN peacekeeping mission held a political mandate to conduct democratic elections: UNTAG sailed unknown waters. The United Nations as an institution for conflict resolution and all involved international actors risked a significant decrease in their political legitimacy if the election process failed. Consequently, all actors—except for South Africa to some extent—had their own distinctive incentives to support UNTAG.

Given this political pressure for success, a highly effective collaboration between the different military, civilian, and police components of UNTAG became crucial. Not only did the mission have to maintain and observe the cease-fire but it also had to promote and ensure a fair election process through the civilian and police sector. This integrated, multidimensional approach required a high level of flexibility and communication in all vertical and horizontal UNTAG structures of command. This was a complex task, especially when taking into account the multinational background of personnel and different external institutions involved.

Regarding communication, the “post-April 1 incidents,” in which the cease-fire was temporarily breached, demonstrated the success of the mission’s supervisors, in collaboration with UN headquarters in New York, in dealing with a sudden and serious threat posed to the peace process. Immediately after Ahtisaari arrived in Namibia and the cease-fire came into effect, South Africa accused SWAPO of carrying out attacks on South African forces after having moved into northern Namibian territory from their original bases in Southern Angola. SWAPO countered that its forces intended to commence with the Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) process as laid out in the peace agreement. Consequently, it claimed, it was moving towards UN weapon collection sites in Namibia.

The cease-fire was breached frequently in the following days, and fighting intensified between both parties. Since UNTAG was not yet fully deployed, and Ahtisaari was still awaiting most of his military observers, he was unable to assess the situation using his own personnel or verify any of the accusations laid out by SWAPO or South African forces. Only through top-level diplomatic efforts by the UN Secretary general in new York was it possible to motivate all relevant national and international actors and convene at Mount Etjo in Namibia to reconfirm UNTAG’s mandate and thus proceed with the election process. Consequently, SWAPO withdrew from Namibian territory and started to participate in the DDR process only after UNTAG was fully deployed. From these incidents, it is clear that the UNTAG command was able to quickly react to the mission’s threats and that a highly effective network of communication across all UN hierarchies enabled quick conflict resolution. The contrasting experience of communication failures within the UN ground forces and headquarters during the UNAMIR peacekeeping mission in Rwanda underscores the crucial role of communication.

The role of the police was also crucial to the development of local ownership of the election process. The UN police component, CIVPOL, was assigned by the mandate not to take any direct punitive action but rather was responsible for monitoring the existing police force, SWAPOL, under South African administrative authority, until Namibian independence could be officially declared. CIVPOL’s tasks included the promotion of rule of law and to ensure unbiased public security during the election period. This was more easily said than done. The Namibian population had yet to develop an understanding of the duality of the police structure. Also, CIVPOL had to undertake substantial efforts to build trust with the local population. Moreover, South Africa frequently undermined CIVPOL’s efforts. This was especially visible in South Africa’s use of ex-Koevoet counter-insurgency forces within SWAPOL, which engaged in military-like fighting with SWAPO troops. Again, thanks primarily to effective communication and collaboration within UNTAG, the counter-insurgency forces were quickly withdrawn following a diplomatic initiative of the UN Secretary general with the South African foreign minister.

Of even greater importance to the mission’s success was the civilian component and its coordination with UNTAG. As mentioned before, UNTAG’s mandate was principally political; to ensure free and fair democratic elections of a constitutional assembly. As Kühne points out, elections in post-conflict countries are complicated and prone to risk. Elections can lead to an improvement—or they may undermine a country’s stability. The provision of public security during elections, development of a suitable electoral timetable, inclusion of traditional structures, process of voter registration, the choice of electoral system, and availability of a complaint system are all of great importance. Even given a free, democratic election, long-term political stability and legitimacy remains susceptible if the former non-democratic political elite is able to remain in power in the new, democratic system.

In the case of Namibia, almost all of these critical factors were addressed with great success. As the Namibian population did not have any prior experience in democratic voting, electoral education was of specific importance. UNTAG managed to publish and distribute 590,000 information items within only a few months. It worked closely with local opinion leaders and religious institutions to raise awareness of the upcoming election as well as the nature and aim of the UN mission. UNTAG accomplished these tasks despite a 40 percent reduction in its financial budget. The mission absorbed these cuts without compromising on a single issue area of the mandate. UNTAG’s reaction to the decrease in financial support—often cited as a cause of failure in other, less-successful UN missions— shows how the quality of a mission’s structure and capacity may be more important than its quantity in financial assets. Indeed it was UNTAG’s capacity in terms of professionalism, flexibility, and—most importantly—effective coordination that accounted for the successful outcome.

2. The Issue of Time

Along with the international, domestic, and internal capacity to implement the mandate, timing also played into the hands of UNTAG’s success. Timing was important in two aspects: first, UNTAG managed to keep up with its own schedule with respect to the election process once the mission was deployed. Consequently, UNTAG’s legitimacy as a supervisor of the electoral process was affirmed. Second—and perhaps more importantly—the “time gap” between the approval of resolution 435 in 1978 and its implementation in 1989 allowed for intensive preparation on all levels in anticipation of the mission.

It is important to note that the blueprint for UNTAG barely changed before its implementation in 1989. Hence, on the international and domestic levels, all involved parties could develop an increased ownership of the election process and the mandate. The legitimacy of the United Nations as the supervising authority was solidified as it continuously pushed forward with the implementation of resolution 435 and convened high-level talks between all parties of interest from 1978 to 1989.

Furthermore, most of the UN and international personnel dealing with the process of peacebuilding worked on the Namibian question throughout the time lag. This provided a high level of continuity, efficiency and capacity building between the involved actors. For example Ahtisaari, who certified the elections in 1990 as the Special representative for Namibia, had worked on the peacebuilding process since 1977 as the UN Commissioner for Namibia. In the case of Namibia, the lengthy preparations for both the mission’s structural and personnel requirements greatly supported UNTAG’s successful outcome.

3. Lessons Learned

UN Peacekeeping missions across the world face a legitimacy crisis. Not only do academics question the purpose and success of the liberal peace agenda, but the recent UN peacekeeping missions in Afghanistan, Cote d’Ivoire, Haiti, and Sudan are either openly criticized by the public or lack any reliable future perspective for sustainable stabilization or democratic transformation.

Academics and politicians alike struggle to measure the success of peacekeeping missions. Each mission is different in its requirements, its complexity, and ultimately, in its prospect for conflict resolution. However one might define success in a specific case, structural factors do exist which at least increase the effectiveness. Although UNTAG seems to have dealt with a less complex conflict at a favorable time in history compared to other UN peacekeeping missions, the Namibian experience provides a set of crucial lessons learned applicable to all missions.

I conclude with three key points. First, it is absolutely crucial for the UN Security Council to develop a mission’s mandate in terms of the mission’s specific circumstances. Second, developing ownership for the mission, on both domestic and international levels, is crucial for any successful mission and should be supported by raising public awareness about the mission’s goals and by a transparent approach. Finally, timing and early preparation matters. The ability to meet a self-determined schedule increases legitimacy. Thorough preparation, where possible, allows for improved capacity to quickly react to unforeseen circumstances, which are certainly to be expected in all of the UN peacekeeping missions.

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.