Debates about UN peacekeeping have increasingly come to revolve around the ‘protection of civilians’ (POC) in both policy and academic spheres. These debates are undoubtedly crucial and have important real-life consequences. At the same time, the focus on POC has been criticized for narrowing the remit of peacekeeping to ‘negative peace,’ which may succeed in reducing civilian harm but also leaves aside the question of what kind of order peacekeepers will leave behind once their mandate ends. Further, it has overshadowed the important work that UN peacekeepers are mandated to do with regarding rds to human rights. As such, it is important to examine human rights offices and structures.
Today, most UN peace operations are mandated to monitor human rights, report on their implementation, and assist member states in their promotion (see for example the most recent mandate of MINUSCA). In the field, this usually takes the shape of a human rights office, headed by a director who reports both to the leader of the mission (the Special Representative of the Secretary-General, or SRSG) and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Geneva. From existing research, we know that UN peacekeepers may be effective in their human rights work focused on physical integrity rights, especially when they engage in mediation and humanitarian missions. This ties in with the broader human rights literature, which might see UN peacekeepers as norm entrepreneurs, who may be effective in bringing about increased compliance with human rights in target states. At the same time, if interventions are neutral or explicitly pro-government, they may actually lower incentives to reduce repression and thus engender more human rights violations.
Human rights promotion by UN peace operations, however, is not uncontroversial. Support among UN member states for a proactive role for peace operations in human rights promotion is often found to be mixed. In particular, researchers have noted how the Special Committee on Peacekeeping Operations, major troop-contributing countries, and for substantial periods of time, important member states, tried and try to undermine or limit the UN’s proactive involvement in human rights.
The ambiguous support for human rights at the member state level has contributed to an inconsistent track record of UN peace operations’ implementation of their various human rights mandates, in their effectiveness but also in how they have sought to conduct their work. Some human rights offices have emphasized working with their respective host governments to improve human rights compliance through efforts focused on persuasion, capacity-building, and quiet diplomacy. However, others have sought to do the same through efforts focused on naming and shaming human rights violators, cajoling their counterparts to mend their ways, and calling out abusive governments. In general, human rights offices see varied approaches and it is important to understand why this is.
Many scholars focus on structural, bureaucratic, or high-level explanations for this variation. On the other hand, while many of these conditions are relevant, these explanations overlook the role that individuals play in this endeavor. I argue that the socializing experiences of individuals, personality traits, and value frameworks of the SRSG and the director of the human rights office have an important impact on whether they take an approach that is focused on coercion, or one that emphasizes persuasion.
The leaders of these UN peace operations operate in a context of high agency and that their individual traits matter for the ways in which these operations approach human rights promotion. Structural indeterminacy offers mission leaders a significant, but varying, room for maneuver. They use this room for maneuver differently, depending on their personality traits and socializing experiences.
Individual-level factors are not the only factors that matter in explaining variance, but I do contend that these explain at least a significant part of it. Structural and contextual conditions set the boundaries for permissible action, but these boundaries may differ in their scope, which means there is still a set of possible choices that individual leaders can make. How they pick and choose among these possible options can be explained by their socializing experiences, personality traits, and value frameworks.
What do these three factors entail? ‘Socializing experiences’ assumes that a person’s previous experiences matter for his or her current behavior. In particular, two sets of socializing experiences have a significant impact: experience in activism (NGOs, human rights bodies etc.) and experience in diplomacy (in the UN system or their country’s foreign service). Leaders with activist pasts are more likely to choose coercive approaches while leaders with diplomatic experience are more likely to choose persuasion approaches.
The second factor that matters is the leader of the office’s personality traits. The extent to which they are risk tolerant and the extent to which they are consensus-seeking influences the approach to human rights promotion they are likely to take. It is probable that individuals who are more risk tolerant are more willing to accept the potential costs that coercive approaches might pose, while those who are more risk averse are more careful and avoid ruffling feathers. Similarly, the extent to which these individuals are consensus-seeking matters. Are they willing to go it alone? Or, are they constantly seeking to bring everyone on board to support the approach they follow? If they are more consensus-seeking, I argue that they are more likely to opt for persuasion-based approaches, while if they are less consensus-seeking they will be more likely to opt for coercive approaches.
The final factor that has influence here is the mission leader’s value system. While this may encompass a variety of things, what matters in particular are the value they attach to the universality of human rights and how they view the peace operation’s role in the country. When the leader thinks the peace operation’s main role is to support the sovereign state’s government in assuming its sovereign duties, he or she will choose persuasion approaches. If the leader is convinced that the peace operation should take a more assertively impartial role in the country and emphasizes the organization’s values, he or she will choose approaches that emphasize coercion.
In sum, these agent-level factors combine to form two sides of a continuum: one where the mission leader is highly consensus-seeking, risk averse and believes the peace operation should take a supportive role in the country. These leaders are more likely to prefer persuasion approaches to promoting human rights. On the other pole are the mission leaders who are more confrontational, risk tolerant and believe that the peace operation should take an independent and assertive role in the country. These leaders are more likely to prefer coercive approaches to promoting human rights.