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Credit to Australia as Security Council makes UN policing a priority

The Security Council votes unanimously for Resolution 2185, the first ever devoted to UN policing as an integral part of the mandates of peacekeeping operations and political missions. UN Photo/Yubi Hoffmann

As UN Security Council president for November, Australia’s major initiative was to promote the centrality of civilian policing in UN peace operations. Noting Australia’s experiences with police peacekeeping from Cambodia to East Timor and the Solomon Islands, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said:

It is appropriate that the Council consider, in a holistic way, the increasingly important role the United Nations’ work on policing plays in the restoration and maintenance of international peace and security.

The result is the first ever Security Council resolution dedicated to the topic. The resolution stresses the invaluable contribution made by UN police (UNPOL) and offers strategic-level support and guidance to the UN Police Division and field missions. It also highlights some enduring issues.

The rise of UN policing

UNPOL has been involved in peace operations since 1960, but its role has transformed and grown dramatically in recent years. Almost 15,000 UN police are serving in 18 missions around the world – twice as many as ten years ago.

The range and complexity of UN policing have also increased significantly. The role has evolved from passive monitoring to more intrusive capacity-building and operational support.

UNPOL efforts are increasingly conceptualised as part of a comprehensive approach to restoring the rule of law. This includes restructuring and rebuilding host state police services and other law-enforcement agencies. This support for a liberal institutional state architecture is supposed to provide the foundations for public order and a sustainable peace.

Australians served in the UNPOL mission in East Timor. EPA/Antonio Dasiparu

Despite missions such as those in Sierra Leone and Liberia being heralded as success stories, the disintegration of East Timor in 2006 and more recent failures in South Sudan point to enduring challenges with this approach.

Regarding operational support, in addition to dealing with organised crime and trying to implement community-oriented and intelligence-led policing models, UNPOL faces new demands in terms of protecting civilians from physical violence.

This has become increasingly core business in recent years. UN peace operations have taken a robust turn, tackling murderous spoilers in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, confronting Islamist extremists in northern Mali and protecting civilians from ethno-religious massacres in places like South Sudan and Central African Republic.

UNPOL is regularly expected to conduct 24-hour patrols, ensure freedom of movement, facilitate delivery of humanitarian assistance and generally keep public order including in/around displacement camps. For instance, in South Sudan, UN police have had to jettison their capacity-building mandate. Instead, units have been deployed in unprecedented roles to protect civilians sheltering in and next to UN bases.

Challenges of recruitment and evaluation

The Security Council resolution is recognition that UNPOL components are mission-critical in implementing mandates. However, UNPOL’s increasing responsibilities create two significant challenges for the peace operations bureaucracy.

First, the growth of UNPOL places demands on the quantities and qualities of the individual officers and formed units provided by contributing countries. Finding people with the requisite technical skills (including linguistic) and experience is a perennial challenge. In addition to well-trained and equipped officers for everyday policing, UNPOL needs individuals who can undertake capacity-building and manage organisational change.

In recent years, UNPOL has focused on recruiting more women as officers. UNPOL

The participation of women presents another major challenge. Dealing with sexual and gender-based violence and encouraging women’s participation in peace processes and reformed security sectors are often cited, among other things, as compelling reasons to have more women UNPOL in the field.

The “Global Effort” to increase women UNPOL to 20% of total field personnel by this year is laudable. Training initiatives in contributing countries, such as Rwanda, to increase the numbers of female police officers ready to deploy have made some progress, but much remains to be done.

All these issues underline a familiar refrain in peacekeeping. Missions need clear and credible mandates, but these mandates need to be matched by the financial and human resources required to achieve them.

Second, missions lack a meaningful way of assessing their impacts. The rudimentary measures in use – such as the number of police stations refurbished, officers trained and crime statistics of dubious fidelity – cannot adequately reveal the nature of organisational and behavioural change in complex social environments that UNPOL is trying to effect. This might lead to misleading accounts of progress, with perverse effects such as misdirecting scarce resources.

A monitoring and evaluation system capable of resolving these issues must make better use of the knowledge of those on the receiving end of interventions. It is they who see how models imported from outside do or do not gel with more local forms of social order. Developing a way of better understanding progress made by UNPOL is vital.

UNPOL also has not been effective in feeding the lessons from field experiences into institutional memory at the mission and organisational headquarters level. This perpetuates an ad hoc approach to complex undertakings in the field. The relative infancy and rapidly evolving nature of most UNPOL work demands that lessons are learnt from good and bad experiences; the UN peace operations bureaucracy needs to develop this capacity.

The use of UNPOL in peace operations is more likely to increase than wane. This makes it all the more important that the Security Council provides clear support in the way it mandates and resources missions. How it reflects on the strengths and weaknesses of endeavours that affect the safety of millions of people is critical, too.

The commitment in the inaugural resolution to deepening the engagement of the UN Secretariat and the Security Council is a positive step. The recently announced comprehensive review of UN peace operations provides a perfect opportunity to reflect on the rapid rise of UNPOL.

Australia’s attempt to promote these issues in its last major act of an eventful tenure on the Security Council is commendable. The landmark resolution has the potential to leave a lasting legacy.

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