The UN and state-building - part two

Although its original charter made no mention of peacekeeping, let alone state-building, both now feature prominently in its activities. By Justin Frewen.

(This is the second of a two-part series. Part one can be found here.)

In the early 1990s, the end of the Cold War and bi-polar global political structure was seen as providing the opportunity to reassess many of the standard practices and traditional norms of international relations. In this respect, the UN was no exception and the organisation engaged in an intensive internal and external review of its policies, structures and programmes.

The UN also began to call into question hitherto sacrosanct international legal principles such as state sovereignty, non-intervention in the domestic affairs of sovereign states and the prohibition on the use of force in peace-keeping missions. Implicit in these developments was the expanded role that the UN would potentially play in the future not only in maintaining peace, as has predominantly been the case in the past, but also in directly engaging in state-building activities in ‘failed states’.

Although today, some 20 years on and given what has transpired since, these issues might not appear that momentous, they were in fact quite revolutionary in scope and intention at the time. Moreover, they signified how far the UN had evolved from the original intentions of its founders.

At its creation, the UN founding charter made no reference to peace-keeping let alone state-building. However, in 1948, three years after its establishment, the idea of peacekeeping was introduced to help promote collective security during the Cold War. In 1956, the first deployment of UN peacekeepers, the United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF 1), was despatched to oversee the Israel/Egypt ceasefire following the Suez Canal crisis. In the early years, the UN adhered closely to the traditional idea of peacekeeping, which primarily consisted of monitoring truces and helping to stabilise the situation on the ground.

Following the conclusion of the Cold War, the UN began to expand its role in post-conflict environments, as it was argued that merely despatching peacekeepers under the UN flag to monitor truces was insufficient to ensure lasting and sustainable peace. To prevent the possibility of failed states relapsing into conflict, greater support would be required in the development of improved governance structures and legal systems as well as substantial capacity building support.

Consequently, the UN began to extend its range of support functions to include an active involvement – if not taking the lead - in state-building programmes. Between 1989 and 1993, there were eight such missions established in post-conflict countries, namely: Namibia, Nicaragua, Angola, Cambodia, El Salvador, Mozambique, Liberia and Rwanda. In a relatively short space of time, state-building had become the UN’s primary security activity.

This growing involvement of the UN in state-building was also influenced by a number of other factors in the early 1990s. Although, the end of the Cold War was seen as having reinforced peace and stability in the North, it was maintained that a number of states in the South were in need of state-building assistance. Despite the drop in the number of internal state conflicts countries, due to their successful resolution, these states now required state-building support.

UN state-building initiatives generally arise in two situations. Firstly, they are provided in the case of ‘failed states’ that is countries where

state apparatuses are unable to exercise full control over their respective territories, are unable to fulfill domestic and international development and legal obligations, lack effective national judicial systems to ensure the ‘rule of law,’ do not demonstrate the requisites of liberal democracy, and are unable to prevent their territories from being used in the perpetration of economic and other crimes. (Guttal 2005: 40)

The second case for state-building support is for those countries that are emerging from a period of domestic conflict. As the World Bank reported in 2006, some 20 million people worldwide lost their lives through civil wars with another 67 million being displaced. Moreover, 16 of the 20 poorest countries globally had endured a major armed domestic conflict. According to the World Bank these countries had become trapped in a vicious cycle where poverty was provoking conflict and conflict in turn was provoking poverty.

However, after two decades of involvement in state-building, there still remains a high level of uncertainty as to how the UN might successfully make the leap from peacekeeping to its expanded role in state-building, which includes a combination of peace-building, “consolidation”, new governance and administrative support measures.

A major issue concerns the determination of where the mandate for such an operation lies. While it is clear that with respect to global security issues, such as the more traditional operations of peacekeeping, authority lies with the UN Security Council, state-building involves a far wider range of programmes and activities. These include potentially humanitarian assistance –at the initial stage - and development support which would theoretically come under the purview of the UN’s Economic and Social Council.

To resolve this lack of clarity, efforts have been made to focus on ‘governance’, through which it might be possible to amalgamate the traditional functions of peacekeeping with the required socio-economic and political assistance to ‘consolidate’ peace. Generally, this would entail the incorporation of significant capacity-building programmes which emphasise ‘good governance’ and the improvement of public sector capabilities through the provision of the required technical assistance.


However, this approach has attracted a fair amount of critical attention. For instance, what exactly will these governance and public sector management capacity building support mechanisms be comprised of, by whom will they be delivered, what will be the composition of such capacity building programs, who will decide which programs should be financed and the priorities of the ‘needs’ and current governance capability ‘gaps’ identified?

In an effort to provide an overall strategic approach and coherence to state-building the Peacebuilding Commission (PC) was established by world leaders attending the 2005 World Summit. A year later, in October 2006, the Peacebuilding Fund was launched to support the Commission’s operations.

However, many observers have expressed their concerns regarding the neutrality of the Peacebuilding Commission, given the presence of all five of the Security Council’s permanent members as full-time members of the PC. In an interview with ISN Security Watch, Johan Galtung, Director of Transcend University in Romania, claims that

... the commission will act in the interest of the great powers - particularly the US and the UK. In ways, they are generations behind in their thinking on peace - to them peacebuilding equals maintaining the status quo, which will not lead to any peace where there are global and societal inequalities and injustices. (Roughneen, 2006)

Moreover, despite the identified need for state-building assistance, the actual finance provided for such programmes is less forthcoming. This funding shortfall places serious pressure on the UN’s state-building activities. The corollary of this is the leverage this situation provides those wealthier, donor nations that possess the necessary resources to pay for such state-building efforts. In exchange for their support they are in a position to exert considerable influence to ensure the UN’s state-building operations are devised and implemented in line with their own policy objectives.

The obvious example, if also an extreme case, is the role the UN has played in Iraq subsequent to the 2003 invasion. Despite the offensive having been launched outside the ambit of the UN and without its backing, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1483 on May 22nd 2003, which recognised the US and UK as ‘occupying powers’. This resolution also opened the door for the UN to step in and assist in the building of new ‘democratic’ structures.

The UN acknowledgement of their status as ‘occupying powers’ brought significant benefits to the US and UK. Firstly, it helped them counter claims that they were acting solely or largely in their own interest in Iraq. Secondly, the involvement of the UN was of assistance in getting greater international support for the ‘reconstruction’ of Iraq, not only in terms of the country’s infrastructure but also the political and legal structure. Finally, the presence of the UN allowed the ‘occupying powers’ operate, in theory at least, at one remove from the Iraqi government and administrative structures, thus facilitating their claim that they were not merely puppets of the US.

However, while the ‘occupying powers’, new Iraqi administration and its officials, might have profited from the UN’s participation in the ‘reconstruction’ of Iraq, this approach entailed considerable risks for the UN itself. By aligning itself with the ‘occupying powers’, the UN became a lightning rod for the discontent of their opponents. This danger became all too clear on 19 August 2003 when the attack on the UN Baghdad office resulted in 23 fatalities.

Another controversial area in which the UN has become involved over the past couple of decades is its assumption of actual governmental powers in a number of states. Of particular note is the role the UN has played in so-called transitional administrations.

Transitional administrations have traditionally been established either when the previous state institutions had collapsed due to conflict between various domestic factions as in Cambodia and Bosnia-Herzogovina or where such institutional structures did not exist at all as was the case in East Timor, Afghanistan and Namibia.

The invasion of Iraq and the subsequent involvement of the UN gave rise to a third type of transitional administration, one where the state in question already had a substantial level of human, institutional and economic resources.

The involvement of the UN in transitional administrations has been criticised as, at the very least, a dubious application of the UN’s expertise. In order for the UN to successfully introduce new government structures and legal systems it has had to adopt an approach of ‘benevolent autocracy’, whereby the concerned state and its citizens find themselves obliged to submit to the UN’s dictates in these domains. For many, this is totally contrary to the original mandate of the UN where the sovereignty of states was deemed more or less inviolable.

Moreover, why should an international organisation such as the UN be allowed determine the future political, economic and legal structure of any state? This issue is of particular concern for the South who decry the setting up of systems and structures of governance, which appear totally predicated on those of the North, irrespective of the relevant state’s political, economic, social and cultural heritage.


In summary, it is evident that the UN record in state-building operations over the past two decades has been at best a patchy one. A great deal of the UN’s problems lies in the failure of the global community, especially in the North, to allocate sufficient funds to support its programmes. At the same time, and arguably linked, the UN has tended to engage in a rote application of state-building programmes based on neo-liberal, ‘western’ democratic ideals. In order to regain the trust of states in the South, it is important that the UN when engaged in state-building activities gives more weight to indigenous and domestic political and socio-cultural practices and assists in the development of compatible government and administrative structures.

At the end of the day, though, one must remember that the UN is not an independent or autonomous organisation. It member states decide what it can and cannot do. Unfortunately, it would appear that in this respect the more powerful states – not least through the Security Council - have been able to repeatedly influence how the UN has engaged in peace-keeping and, more recently, state-building operations in order to advance their own international political objectives to the detriment of those states subject to UN intervention.


Guttal, S. (2005a) ‘Reconstruction: A Glimpse into an Emerging Paradigm’, Silent War

 The US’ Ideological and Economic Occupation of Iraq, (Focus on the Global South Publication)

Roughneen, S. (2006) Challenges Ahead for UN Peace Commission


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