UN Peacekeeping Missions vs UN Special Political Mission


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United Nations Peacekeeping;  UN Photo/Isaac Alebe Avoro Lu’uba 

by Mahtab Shafiei     5 December 2022

The United Nations has the responsibility to maintain international peace and security. The United Nations has developed a wide array of peace instruments, such as political missions (political envoys, sanctions panels, and field-based missions) and peacekeeping operations for peace and security objectives (Dorussen, Böhmelt & Clayton 2022). In addition to PKOs, the UN operates Special Political Missions (SPMs) that are involved in tasks including, preventing violent conflict, managing or resolving a conflict, and Peacebuilding and Post-Conflict Recovery (Better World Campaign 2019). Although PKOs and SPMs have many commonalities, prominent differences can also be seen between them. These differences are in areas such as budgeting and funding, source of authority, cost, mission components, and mission size. In the rest of this chapter, the details of these differences will be explored in detail.

The deployment and role of Political missions are increasingly growing in recent years, and they are highly likely to play a more important role in international peace and security (Kugel 2011). This shows a need to be explicit about exactly what is meant by the special political mission and its tasks and functions. A number of questions regarding special political missions remain to be addressed. First, this paper provides a clear conceptual definition and historical evolution of different types of UN missions and differentiates between them. It further provides an understanding of how the different types of UN missions relate to each other.

Definition, Types, and Process of UN Peacekeeping

     Based on the UN Charter, the Security Council has the responsibility to maintain international security and peace. The charter does not explicitly provide for peacekeeping operations; this is a practice that developed over time, and that the Security Council and, on rare occasions, the General Assembly, have periodically authorized by resolution. Peace operations have different tasks depending on the situation and nature of the conflict (UN Department of Peacekeeping 2012). The planning process for the Security Council authorization of peacekeeping mandates starts with consultations by officials of the UN Secretariat with key UN member states, Council members, UN agencies, and the host nation to define the future characteristics of a potential peace mission such as size and type of mandate. For the next stage, they assess and analyze the UN’s role, the dynamics of the conflict, the characteristics of war, and the political and military situations. Also, Secretariat officials consult with a number of actors, such as the host state, parties to the conflict, NGOs, humanitarian actors, international financial institutions, etc. Finally, they provide a draft mission plan with the details of the conflict situation, mission structure, and the proposed mandate. (UN Department of Peacekeeping 2012).

The UN charter does not provide specific provisions for peacekeeping operations and there is no agreed-upon definition of peacekeeping (Nsia-Pepra 2014). Jean-Marie Guéhenno, former Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations remarks, “There is still no definition on what it entails, no criteria when operations are to be established, and no guidelines on how to plan and deploy the forces” (Caballero-Anthony 2005, 16). Furthermore, there is little information and guidance on the UN Security Council’s decisions about where and when UN peacekeepers should go. Generally speaking, peacekeepers are deployed with regard to Chapters 6 or 7 of the UN Charter. However, it is unclear why the Security Council considers some conflicts a threat to international peace and security[i] but not others. The UN Security Council has demonstrated flexibility in planning and justifying peacekeeping deployment (Gilligan & Stedma 2003). In terms of the peacekeeping mandate, the role of peacekeepers is determined by mission-specific mandates. Depending on the peacekeeping mandate, peace operations might be required to prevent the outbreak or spill-over of conflict, reach a peace agreement, stabilize situations after a ceasefire, or help states to stabilize the government (UN Department of Peacekeeping 2012).

Special Political Mission (SPM)

The United Nations (2020) refers to peacekeeping operations and special political missions as subsidiary organs of the Security Council. According to the UN (2013), “special political missions are united civilian missions which are deployed for a limited duration of time to help member states in conflict prevention, peacemaking” (p 2). Furthermore, when Jeffrey Feltman, Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs was presenting the Secretary-General’s report on special political missions, described special political missions as “one of the most visible manifestations of the Secretary General’s good offices.” (UN Press- Meetings Coverage 2014, p 1)

The political mission also can broadly be defined as political engagement which is a “broad definition for political missions that work on an array of tasks tailored to the specific country contexts they engage in political missions across the spectrum achieve the best results when they are recognized as neutral and can work closely with relevant political actors” (Kugel 2011, p 4). Political missions are almost as old as the UN itself (United Nations 2020). The majority of special political missions are authorized by the Security Council. The UN Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs (DPPA) also manages special political missions (United Nations 2010). SPMs can be created in response to various situations and several political and security contexts (UN Report of the Secretary-General 2014). The primary focus on political missions is political functions. Evidence illustrates that they also have been involved in other tasks such as reporting human rights violations (Druet 2021). However, these political missions usually prioritize support for political dialogue and reconciliation procedures (UN Department of Political Affairs 2012).

The SPMs personnel carry out missions both during the war and after the war when the risk of violence in the conflict zone is high and also when the conditions of the conflict zone indicate a preference for SPMs deployment over PKOs (Druet 2021). SPMs are involved in peacebuilding, and conflict prevention by using preventive diplomacy and supporting political transitions. According to Ban Ki-moon, Former Secretary-General of the United Nations “Special Political Missions (SPMs) have become an indispensable instrument for the maintenance of international peace and security.

Historical Evolution of SPMs

Historically, there has been a great deal of confusion and ambiguity in the literature regarding the roles of special political missions. There are more studies required to fill the conceptual and operational gap. Traditionally, SPMs have played important roles in conflict resolutions in different forms. Officially, the term special political missions appeared in 1990. However, there have been a number of UN missions with political functions before this date (Reports of the Secretary-General 2015) The number of SPMs has increased in the last two decades. There were three SMPs in 1993 and twelve in 2000 and increased to fourteen in 2014. As their number grew, their mandate and tasks become more complex (DPPA 2014).

The historical analysis of political missions indicates that there are three distinct eras. Including, “a first period of new mission design (1948-early 1960s); a second period of relative inactivity (late 1960s-late 1980s); and a third period of rediscovery (post-cold war).” (Report of the Secretary-General 2015, 3). This shows that the UN has a tendency to have more new instruments and mechanisms to make peace and prevent conflict. Since 1948, the UN deployed political envoys or missions to mediate. A mediator in Palestine (Count Folke Bernadotte) was the first UN mediator to cooperate alongside the UN ceasefire Supervision Organization (General Assembly resolution 186 1948). After the Cold War, new civil wars broke out that threatened global security. The post-Cold War political situation has fueled calls for greater UN involvement in various areas, such as electoral support, and constitution-making. Indeed, electoral assistance was central to some of the political mission’s mandates in the 1980s and 1990s. This can be exemplified in the case of the UN mission in Nicaragua and the UN mission in Haiti to support the electoral process (Report of the Secretary-General 2015).

Differences between SPMs and peacekeeping operations

The existing studies on UN intervention were constrained to the effectiveness of peacekeeping missions (PKOs). There are few studies on the roles and types of SPMs. However, their study does not distinguish between peacekeeping missions and special political missions. The political missions have subtle differences and distinctions in mechanism, purpose, and composition from the peacekeeping missions, which affects their performance in preventing violence. Martin (2010) in reviewing the UN missions, argues that the United Nations distinguishes between PKOs and SPMs, which can be seen in the “mandating, funding and (for the most part) managing its peace missions” (1).

Most importantly, political missions differ from peacekeeping missions in terms of their source of authority. Based on the UN Charter, the Security Council has the main responsibility for global security. All peacekeeping missions are authorized by the Security Council. Peacekeeping missions require a Security Council resolution, and of course without a veto from a permanent member. However, some political missions are created with the collaboration of the secretary-general (UN Report of the Secretary-General 2014). The political mission also can be established by the General Assembly authorized by a majority vote. Both Security Council and the General Assembly can mandate special political missions, yet the majority of missions are mandated by the Security Council (Druet 2021; UN Department of Political Affairs 2012). In this way, the authorization of political missions goes through an easier process compared to peacekeeping which needs a longer process (Dorussen, Böhmelt & Clayton 2022). The Security Council also can extend the SPMs mandate or decide to end its mission (DPPA 2014).

Moreover, SPMs are different from PKOs in terms of budget and financing arrangements. In terms of UN peacekeeping financing, the budget for peacekeeping operations is provided by the UN and other contributing countries (International Peace Institute 2019). The budget for SPMs comes from the program budget of the UN which is prepared by the Secretary-General (General Assembly Meeting 2013). SPMs do not have access to the “Peacekeeping Reserve Fund”. Instead, their funding should be based on a mechanism for unforeseen and extraordinary costs (Special political missions – Peacekeeping references 2016).

The regular program budget of the United Nations covers the special political missions (Durch, Holt, Earle & Shanahan 2003; Better World Campaign 2019) and the UN peacekeeping budget covers the activities of most peacekeeping operations (United States General Accounting Office 2000). Documents indicate SPMs’ funds are provided by the member states and account for about one-fifth of the regular budget of the United Nations (Better World Campaign 2019). To draw a comparison, political missions generally operate with a limited budget. For instance, in 2009-2010, the United Nations spent about $7.9 billion on peacekeeping missions, compared to about $600 million for political missions (Kugel 2011). Therefore, there is separate funding mechanisms for PKOs and SPMs.

Another significant aspect of the distinction between PKOs and SPMs is derivative of the concept of consent from the host country. In terms of consent, SPMs more consider the autonomy of parties and respect the sovereignty of government in host countries (Dorussen, Böhmelt & Clayton 2022). The performance of special missions mainly depends on the permission and cooperation of the groups involved in the war and participate in the peace process. Political missions predominantly do not use force and threats in order to change the behavior of hostiles. In contrast, the peacekeeping mission normally faces challenges to obtain the consent of the involved parties in conflict. Deploying peacekeepers imposes more costs for the host government than deploying political ones (Dorussen, Böhmelt & Clayton 2022). One reason might be warring parties are reluctant to internationalize the problem (Kugel 2011). The acceptance of peace officers is considered a limitation on the sovereignty of the host government. However, it is important to note that deployment of peacekeeping missions depends on the consent of the warring parties (Piccolino and Karlsrud, 2011; Tull, 2013). Although there is one exception, which includes Chapter VII of peacekeeping missions. According to Chapter VII, missions are often accompanied by the consent of at least some of the parties in conflict (Charter of the United Nations 1945; Dorussen, Böhmelt & Clayton 2022).

In addition, SPMs are different from PKOs in a number of other respects. Generally, SPMs are smaller than PKOs and are expected to fulfill their mandates in a limited period of time. However, some SPMs have operated for a long time depending on the environment, such as in Guatemala and Burundi (United States General Accounting Office 2000). Political missions vary from small missions (Burundi and Haiti) to multidimensional missions (Iraq and Afghanistan) (Dorussen, Böhmelt & Clayton 2022). In contrast, peacekeepers are longer-term development (Sarfati 2021) and have larger numbers of troops. Subsequently, peacekeeping operations are more military-oriented compared to political missions and they comprise civilians plus military forces. While political missions focus on peace and security, they do not primarily engage military forces. Special political missions are mainly civilians or light military, but peacekeeping missions are more military administrated and aim to physically mediate between armed groups. (Clayton, Dorussen, & Böhmelt 2021).”

As previously stated, deploying peacekeeping missions is expensive and assign a remarkable part of the UN budget. The pressure and supervision on the performance of peacekeepers is very high due to the military expenses (Dorussen, Böhmelt & Clayton 2022). Although special political missions withstand the pressure to perform better, they are judged less because of their political character, not military function, and being far from the war fronts. However, field base political missions are more costly and face more challenges for authorization than other types, such as technocratic and diplomatic missions (Dorussen, Böhmelt & Clayton 2022). Large political missions impose a lot of costs on the United Nations. The costliest political missions have been the two large-scale operations in Iraq and Afghanistan (Kugel 2011).

With respect to function and tasks of missions, while the tasks of political missions are analogous to peacekeeping missions (United States General Accounting Office 2000), there are a number of differences between PKOs and SPMs. Martin (2010) provides definition of peace operations based on the Annual Review of Global Peace Operations on as ” in-country operations that are authorized by a multilateral body, that are multinational in their composition, that have a substantial military or police component, and that are deployed in support of a peace process or conflict management objective. “(Martin 2010; 1) Special political missions are defined as “in-country field operations that seek to strengthen or develop the political and governance capabilities of states.” (Clayton, Dorussen, & Böhmelt 2021, p 25). SPMs can deploy alongside PKOs (UN Political Office for Somalia) or in the absence of PKOs (UN Mission in Nepal) (Clayton, Dorussen, & Böhmelt 2021). Special political missions have political mandate and political engagement in the form of diplomacy, meditation, good office, sanction (Kugel 2011). The responsibilities of SPMs are very diverse, including “supporting political dialogue and reconciliation processes; facilitating free and fair elections; monitoring human rights violations; and encouraging the development of effective rule of law institutions.” (Better World Campaign 2019, p.44). SPMs tend to solve and manage conflict by robust diplomacy and mediation. In fact, SPMs involve in a great number of activities from development to humanitarian actions and aid with a focus on political function via their assistance of political proceedings. For example, The UN Mission in Iraq (UNAMI) made efforts to foster political dialogue. In the case of Afghanistan, SPMs helped the intermediation after fraud in the presidential elections in 2014. UN Assistance Mission in Somalia (UNSOM) assists the government to stabilize the country and creating a stable central government by providing technical assistance and political advice on state building and promoting the government’s capacity (Better World Campaign 2019). When some sort of security is established, political missions can also replace peacekeepers (Kugel 2011). The scope of SPMs involvement is eventually determined by the stage of a conflict cycle (Kugel 2011).

With regard to peace missions, peacekeepers’ order differs in different cases and is defined based on the nature of the war and its needs (Scartozzi 2022). Initially, PKOs were deployed to perform three main tasks: “monitoring of cease-fire and peace agreements, supervision and assistance with the implementation of agreements, and interposition ‘as a buffer’ between conflict parties.” (Scartozzi 2022, p. 491) Over time, PKOs expanded into other areas as well. Today, PKOs are involved in a wide variety of activities and task with the aim of sustaining peace, which include “disarmament and demobilization, rule of law-related activities, protection of human rights, electoral assistance, capacity building, and promotion of socio-economic development.” (Scartozzi 2022, p. 491). Table 2 summarizes the distinctions between SPMs and PKOs.

Table 1: Distinction between SPMs and PKOs

Distinction Political Missions Peacekeeping Missions
Source of Authority Security Council + General Assembly

(The UN Secretary-General may also create SPM in consultation with the affected member state.)

Security Council
Mission Funding Comes from the UN’s regular budget PKOs have their own, separate funding
Cost Lower cost mission Costly mission
Components Mainly Civilians + Light Military Civilians + Military Forces
Consent of Host Country More important Less important
Size and period of time Smaller and expected to fulfill their mandates in a limited period of time Larger and are longer-term development
Functions Political function and engagement. Mostly seek diplomatic solutions to end conflicts- More military and physically engagement


[i] Chantal De Jonge Oudraat (1996) defines whether a case is a threat to international peace on the basis of whether the war spills over its borders to pose a larger regional threat.