Fletcher Features

Head of U.N. Peacekeeping Shares Agency Challenges, Personal Stories

If it’s on the news, chances are it’s also on Edmond Mulet’s to-do list. As Assistant Secretary- General for Peacekeeping Operations at the United Nations, Mulet is responsible for the U.N.’s effort to maintain peace and security in global hotspots such as Darfur and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He oversees nearly 120,000 people deployed to 16 missions worldwide, meaning his agenda is full – and constantly changing. 

“Every day we have a different crisis,” he said, speaking to Fletcher students this week at a special presentation hosted by the Diplomacy Club and the United Nations Club. “When you go for lunch at a restaurant they have la soupe du jour…for us, it’s the crise du jour. And we have to deal with it that day.”

In his talk, Mulet highlighted current challenges faced by the U.N.’s Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO). He also spoke candidly about his personal experiences as an agency leader and his role as head of the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH), to which he was deployed immediately following the devastating earthquake of January 2010. Prior to the talk, Mulet participated in Professor Ian Johnstone’s “Peace Operations” seminar.

Peacekeeping is a flagship U.N. activity – DPKO has one of the largest budgets in the U.N. system – but Mulet’s agency is not immune to challenges. He described peacekeeping as a “partnership” requiring careful coordination between a number of players, including troop-contributing and police-contributing countries (TCCs and PCCs), financing countries, and the U.N. Secretariat. In his view, that partnership is currently “broken in many ways.”

Financial difficulties in particular have strained trust between the U.N. Security Council (UNSC) and the TCCs, he said. Because of the global economic crisis, the DPKO, like many agencies, is being asked to do more with less. “Countries who are financing this say they are paying enough; TCCs say they need more funding. This is an ongoing debate that creates tension and has tainted a lot of discussions in the Security Council regarding peacekeeping,” he said. Those financial tensions bubble up more frequently as the DPKO is increasingly asked to provide a more robust military presence in places like the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Beyond dealing with requests to bolster its military presence, the agency must also grapple with how to properly frame the political presence for each of its missions. The U.N.’s ability to apply political leverage depends on the context, Mulet explained. In Haiti, for example, he said that MINUSTAH has good leverage to push the government on specific issues because 80 percent of the budget comes from international support. In Sudan, however, where the government in Khartoum is relatively stronger, applying pressure can be more difficult.

He also criticized the political impact of the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNIMIL). “Everyone thinks Liberia is on the right track, but I believe that’s not the case,” Mulet said, citing corruption within the executive branch, lack of constitutional reform and poor accountability in the national budgeting process. “Liberia depends heavily on the international community, especially on the U.S., and we’re not using that leverage to push enough for political change. In the end, the mission will be useless, because we’re not using it to achieve what we need to achieve,” he said. “The root causes of war in Liberia are still there…and the country could revert easily into a situation of instability.”

Despite these difficulties, Mulet did note a bright spot: an uptick of interest among European countries in supporting DPKO activities. As they prepare to transition out of Afghanistan, many European delegations are seeking to share their assets – from helicopters to hospitals – with the U.N. “I’m delighted to see this comeback from Europe,” he said. “It’s very good for our legitimacy to have them on the list of TCCs and PCC’s.”

In addition to the big-picture issues confronting the DPKO, Mulet also discussed some of the specific challenges he faces as an agency manager. One of his most difficult responsibilities, Mulet said, is finding people with the right profile to lead peacekeeping missions.

“The personality of the SRSG [Special Representative of the Secretary-General; the head of a peacekeeping mission] is very important,” he said. “Missions are always in transition. You need someone with the right profile to start up the mission, manage it through a middle stage which is more political, and then possibly oversee a downsizing and closing down.”

Mulet also addressed concerns over sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA) by peacekeeping personnel. TCCs are required to provide courses and proper instruction to guard against these abuses before deployment, and troops receive induction training to reinforce their obligations once they arrive in the field. Despite these processes, Mulet said the issue can be “difficult to manage when you have contingents from all over the world with different cultures and levels of training.”

The situation is complicated by the fact that national contingents, not the DPKO, have responsibility for investigating, prosecuting, and penalizing SEA offenders. “Some countries are very responsible, whereas others just try to hide it,” Mulet said. The issue has been debated in the General Assembly, but Mulet said that TCC members want to retain authority over their troops rather than handing off investigations to the U.N. The most the DPKO can do, therefore, is inform TCCs of potential violations and decide not to request contributions from certain countries in light of past behavior. 

Finally, Mulet gave a moving account of his role leading MINUSTAH in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake. The MINUSTAH headquarters building collapsed in the quake, claiming the lives of 102 personnel, including the head and the deputy head of Mission. Mulet was immediately dispatched to Port-au-Prince to put the Mission back on its feet, flying in on a U.S. Coast Guard airplane loaded with search-and-rescue dogs.

Mulet said he essentially got a “blank check” from the U.N. Secretary-General and was encouraged to use any means necessary to assist in humanitarian efforts. “I was really thankful and surprised. They waived all sorts of regulations and protocols so we could be more productive, and sent colleagues and friends from all over the world to help. The world should be proud of what the U.N. did in Haiti those first few months of the crisis,” he said.

However, the initial flexibility and fast-paced approach was soon hampered by the U.N.’s limited ability to work with the crippled Haitian government, which had also suffered terrible losses during the quake. “When the emergency phase was over and we went into the recovery phase, we needed the response of the Haitian government to help make decisions, implement things and prioritize,” Mulet said. “It didn’t happen. They were not even capable, so when the time came to work with them – for example, to identify sites of camps – it really slowed us down.”

According to Mulet, the political crisis in Haiti continues to hamper recovery and transition efforts. Part of MINUSTAH’s mandate is to build the capacity of the Haitian National Police (HNP) but the state is so resource-poor that it cannot even pay the salaries of police academy graduates. “We’re downsizing a lot in MINUSTAH, and hoping the HNP will be able to occupy the spaces they should occupy,” he said. “But because of the permanent political crisis, I’m afraid this will take some time.”

---Emily Simon, MALD ’13 Candidate

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