Since the end of the Cold War, the nature of intra- and interstate wars has changed dramatically. On the one hand, a more positive understanding of peace – focused on social justice – has emerged. On the other, violent conflict has increasingly impacted on civilians, with a dramatic associated increase in the scope of humanitarian tragedies. This is forcing the international community to change the way it responds to conflict. We are witnessing a shift in the type of interventions undertaken by the United Nations (UN), and by regional bodies such as the African Union (AU).

Peacekeeping is thus a concept in flux, as the world within which it operates changes rapidly. This lesson is designed to equip those entering the peace mission environment with a functional understanding of key concepts and terms such as conflict prevention, preventive diplomacy, peacemaking, peacekeeping and peacebuilding.

Key Things to Learn

• Get a grasp of the political landscape within which peacekeeping does its work
• Understand key concepts in peacekeeping
• Understand the importance of coordination in a peace mission

The New Conflict Paradigm

As in so many other fields, the changing world order has fundamentally altered our perception of peace and conflict. During the Cold War era, our understanding of peace and conflict used to focus on the absence of war in the context of the nation state. The end of the Cold War allowed a more positive understanding of peace – as an individual centred presence of social justice – to reclaim the stage.

Most peace researchers are, however, more comfortable with studying conflict than peace. As a result, the study of peace has been intrinsically linked to how we understand violence. For most, peace is still defined as the absence of violence, but our understanding of violence has considerably developed and broadened over the years. For Johan Galtung, for instance, violence does not only mean direct physical violence, but also structural violence, cultural violence and environmental violence. He has broadened the concept of violence beyond direct physical violence to include institutional or systemic violence caused by an unjust system such as apartheid, the cultural legitimisation of violence against others, and violence to the environment. Peace should be understood holistically as a state free of violence in all these spheres. (Galtung, 1985: 141-158)

Our understanding of conflict has also changed. In most of the conflicts that have occurred since the end of the Cold War, the traditional distinction between soldier and civilian has become almost irrelevant. In the new conflict paradigm, civilians have become both the targets and the instruments of war. The growing impact of civilians on conflict and, indeed, of conflict on civilians, has resulted in almost all post-Cold War conflicts being closely associated with massive humanitarian tragedies.

The changing nature of conflict has also changed the way in which the international community has responded to conflict. In the 21st century, the focus of international conflict management is increasingly shifting from peacekeeping, which is about maintaining the status quo, to peacebuilding, which has to do with managing transitions (Barth Eide et al, 2005). Most UN peace operations since 1989 have, in effect, been peacebuilding operations in that their focus was on supporting the implementation of comprehensive peace processes, which included classic peacebuilding tasks such as Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration (DDR), justice sector reform, organising elections, training and restructuring new police forces and facilitating the transition from interim to transitional, and eventually to democratically elected, governments.

The development from peacekeeping to peacebuilding has emerged as new, mostly civilian, dimensions were added to traditional military peacekeeping mandates. These new dimensions were aimed at assisting the host country to sustain the momentum of the peace process, by supporting transitional arrangements; establishing new, or reforming existing, national institutions such as the defence force, police service and the judiciary; assisting with the organising of elections; supporting constitution drafting processes; and facilitating restorative justice initiatives. The civilian dimension of peace operations is thus closely linked to the peacebuilding nature of modern complex peace operations.

UN Areas of Action to Pursue Peace

The United Nations has identified four major areas of action in pursuance of peace: preventive diplomacy, peacemaking, peacekeeping and peacebuilding.

Preventive diplomacy seeks to resolve disputes before violence breaks out.

Peacemaking and peacekeeping are required to halt conflicts and preserve peace once it is attained.

Peacebuilding is aimed at preventing the recurrence of the violent conflict.

These four areas together represent the UN’s comprehensive response to violent conflict and its holistic approach to peace.

The United Nations has identified four major areas of action in pursuance of peace: preventive diplomacy, peacemaking, peacekeeping and peacebuilding. Preventive diplomacy seeks to resolve disputes before violence breaks out, peacemaking and peacekeeping are required to halt conflicts and preserve peace once it is attained, and peacebuilding is aimed at preventing the recurrence of violent conflict. These four areas together represent the UN’s comprehensive response to violent conflict and its holistic approach to peace.

Throughout this introduction the terms ‘peacekeeping’, ‘peace operations’ and ‘peace missions’ are used to refer to UN and AU field missions that may incorporate all four of these spheres. In fact, in Liberia, Sudan or Burundi, and in most of the new UN and AU peace missions, all four of these dimensions are addressed simultaneously. The one does thus not necessarily follow on the other, nor do they occur in a specific sequence. Preventive diplomacy, peacemaking, peacekeeping and peacebuilding should thus rather be seen as different dimensions –  each focusing on a slightly different angle – of the same peace process or conflict management system.

A Holistic Approach to Conflict Management

Violent conflict is inevitably political. Even in cases where competition over scarce resources – for example, water – is the primary cause of the conflict, the parties would normally have organised themselves in some kind of political formation to affirm their claim to the resource. In order to manage that dispute, one needs to find a political solution that will satisfy all the parties to the dispute, that even if all their interests are not being met, they have achieved the most fair, just and sustainable settlement to their dispute possible under the circumstances.

Dimensions in the Peace Process

Preventive diplomacy (try to prevent conflict)

Peacemaking (make peace through negotiation)

Peacekeeping (monitor ceasefire or assist implementation of agreement)

Peacebuilding (rebuild country and put in place measures to address root causes of conflict)

Preventive diplomacy does not only occur in the phase before violent conflict breaks out. There would be various efforts to prevent instances of violent conflict, and an overall effort to keep the peace process on track. Similarly, many conflicts are not singular events. Instead, they go though cyclical phases and, although the UN and AU may be busy with implementing a previous agreement, a new conflict may break out. Peacebuilding may thus be a post-conflict activity in theory, i.e. it occurs in a later phase of a peacekeeping mission, once stability has been restored. In reality, however, conflict may break out again and the peacebuilding efforts underway at that point may become preventative, in that they are aimed at trying to stop the reoccurrence of the conflict.

Preventive Diplomacy

Preventive diplomacy is not limited to the pre-conflict stage, but continues throughout steps to deal with conflict, as the conflict flares up and new conflicts emerge.

Conflict Prevention and Preventive Diplomacy

Everybody would agree that prevention is better than cure, and almost every conference, seminar and international meeting held over the last decade or more that has discussed peacekeeping would have stressed the importance of improved preventative action. It is easier said than done, however, and despite many attempts to come up with an improved preventative response, very little has been achieved to date.

UN peacekeepers patrol in Buedu, Sierra Leone, in July 2002. Sierra Leone, known for some of the decade’s worst war crimes, was keeping a fragile peace as its neighbour Liberia spiralled into more intense fighting. Liberia’s rebels had waged an insurgency for three years, but had recently stepped up attacks against President Charles Taylor’s government. The heavy toll on civilians in the fighting posed a threat to the stability of other countries in the region, including Sierra Leone. There were about 50 000 refugees in Sierra Leone, according to the World Food Programme, and 100 000 internally displaced people in Liberia. Sierra Leone, which at the time had the UN’s largest peacekeeping mission, with 17 300 troops, was recovering from a ruthless 10-year war.

The preventative process works as follows. Various early warning systems and mechanisms indicate that a certain situation is about to get out of hand. The UN or AU reacts by focusing more resources on the trouble spot. These include increased humanitarian assistance, and perhaps more focus on human rights monitoring and education, if that is appropriate. At the overall diplomatic level, the UN Secretary-General or the Chairperson of the AU Commission is likely to dispatch a fact-finding mission or a special envoy. These actions are designed to focus special attention on the problem by dedicating certain specific resources to it, and by creating the impetus for special reports on the situation to be developed for the Secretary-General and the UN Security Council – or, in the case of the AU, for the Chairperson of the Commission and the Peace and Security Council. The special envoy or fact-finding mission visits the conflict situation and surrounding countries, meets with as many of the relevant role players as possible, and makes an assessment of how the UN or AU can best try to alleviate the problem. The UN Security Council or the AU Peace and Security Council then formulates a response that covers as wide a range of actions and areas of action as possible. These may include various humanitarian, rehabilitation, recovery and reconstruction actions, perhaps a specific human rights monitoring and education programme, and normally a peacemaking role for the special envoy.

The cost of war is high: refugees crowd along the banks of the Akagara River at the border of Rwanda and Tanzania in May 1994. Hutu refugees fled to Tanzania in order to escape reprisals by Tutsi rebels.

All of these actions are aimed at preventing the conflict from escalating or, if a violent conflict has already broken out, are designed to limit its impact on innocent civilians, and to try and stop the violent hostilities as swiftly as possible. The special envoy, supported by a number of political affairs and support staff, is thus essentially busy with diplomatic-type activities that engage the various parties and other relevant actors, such as civil society, neighbouring countries and organisations, in dialogue. This is likely to take the form of shuttle diplomacy and may, in some instances, include some form of mediation or joint negotiations, with the aim of achieving some kind of formal agreement.

Successful conflict prevention is not often reported, because the situation was averted or resolved before it became violent – and thus newsworthy. It is also difficult to say that a situation would have become violent before it actually happens, and it is thus very difficult to say for certain that a specific initiative was successful in preventing conflict. It is generally agreed, however, that many conflict situations could have been avoided had there been timely preventative intervention, and everybody is in agreement that prevention is much more effective – and much cheaper – than peacekeeping.


The UN or AU would describe peaceful diplomatic efforts towards achieving a ceasefire or peace agreement as peacemaking.

The immediate focus is on achieving an agreement that will end the hostilities. Once that has been achieved, more time and effort can be dedicated to achieving a comprehensive peace agreement over a longer period.

The dilemma with conflict prevention is that the political will to allocate the necessary resources to prevention is often lacking, because the decision makers are not yet convinced of the seriousness of the situation until it is too late. Very often, the political leadership in a country about to experience conflict is unwilling to read the early warning signs themselves, and their friends in the international community are too embarrassed to act against the wishes of the country’s leadership.


Peacekeeping is the monitoring and facilitation of the observance of a ceasefire agreement. It includes assistance with other aspects, such as some form of election or popular consultation, human rights investigations, humanitarian relief and/or the rebuilding of certain state and physical infrastructures.

In exceptional circumstances, the UN may deploy a preventive force (preventive deployment) even before violent conflict has broken out, as it did in Macedonia in the earlier days of the conflict in former Yugoslavia. In this case, it appeared highly likely that the conflict would spread to Macedonia, and the UN decided to deploy a force on the border to act as a deterrent. This approach was successful in that particular set of circumstances, and the conflict did not spread to Macedonia. This was the only case of a preventive deployment until now, but it is not unlikely that this tool may be used again in future, provided the necessary political will exists to undertake this potentially costly –  both financially and politically – step.

Preventive diplomacy is not, however, limited to the pre-conflict stage. In any conflict situation – either prior to, during a formal peacekeeping mission being deployed, or even after a mission has withdrawn – there would be various instances where a smaller dispute erupts within the larger conflict. This may be between two of the parties, in a certain zone or location within the larger conflict area, or even between two allies – as was the case between Rwanda and Uganda, when a dispute erupted between their forces within the Democratic Republic of Congo. In such cases, a dispute will require special attention by the AU and UN to prevent it from escalating into violent conflict or, if violence has occurred already, to prevent its further escalation. There are many ways in which preventive diplomacy can be undertaken, and many actors – civilian and military – that can play a role. At its core, however, it requires a person, or persons, with political and diplomatic skills who can negotiate (or perhaps mediate, depending on the circumstances) with all the parties to the conflict, to de-escalate the tensions or achieve an agreement to resolve the specific issue at hand. This may be a land dispute between villagers in East Timor, a dispute over the use of a bridge between Serb and Albanian residents in Kosovo, or a dispute over the position of a border crossing point between Ethiopia and Eritrea. But, large or small, the point is that conflict prevention and preventive diplomacy initiatives continue to take place throughout the conflict cycle.


When a violent conflict has broken out, the focus will be on bringing an end to the violent conflict, that is, achieving a ceasefire. The UN or AU would describe these peaceful diplomatic efforts towards achieving such a ceasefire or peace agreement as peacemaking. The immediate focus is on achieving an agreement that will end the hostilities. Once that has been achieved, more time and effort can be dedicated to achieving a comprehensive peace agreement over a longer period. The immediate goal is to stop the fighting so that the suffering of the people and the destruction of the environment, economy, property and infrastructure can be halted.


Any actions undertaken in a conflict situation, which are aimed at addressing the root causes of the problem so as to prevent a reoccurrence of the conflict are referred to as peacebuilding.

Peacemaking efforts take place at all levels, but those at the highest level naturally attract the most attention. Depending on the nature of the conflict, these efforts may include several neighbouring heads of state or government representatives, as well as representatives of regional organisations. High-profile peacemaking efforts – such as the Lusaka process in the conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Dayton peace process for former Yugoslavia and the Lomé process in Sierra Leone –  are examples of this kind of high-profile multilateral ceasefire and peace agreements. However, many others may occur only between the parties themselves and the mediator or facilitator, such as the Arusha Burundi peace process, led by former president Nelson Mandela. In this case, most of the actual negotiations took place in a number of committees, each facilitated by experts in those fields. The progress made in the committees was summarised and agreed in plenary and, from time to time, milestones were solidified in high-profile meetings attended by the principals of the parties to the conflict, regional heads of state and other dignitaries.

The peacemaking aspect of the peace process thus refers to the negotiations between the warring parties, usually with the aim of achieving a ceasefire agreement. This is essentially a diplomatic effort, but it may be supported by various other efforts, such as the threat of military intervention, or sanctions against all or some of the warring factions. The process normally deals with establishing trust, agreeing to issues to be discussed and the format and process in which talks will unfold, getting the parties to the table, mediating the actual talks, achieving and formalising the agreement, and implementing the agreement. Although it is a diplomatic, and therefore a civilian-driven process (although that civilian may be a retired officer, as has been the case with some special envoys), many other disciplines should inform the process. ‘Lessons learned’ studies have found, for instance, that peace agreements fail because politicians have agreed to ceasefire provisions that were impossible to implement on the ground. Special envoys should thus ideally be supported by a range of specialists, including military specialists, who can advice them on the practical aspects of ceasefire implementation.

June 2003: A boy watches as UN peacekeepers from Uruguay drive through Bunia, the capital of Ituri province in the Democratic Republic of Congo. French troops arrived in Bunia in June under a UN mandate to secure the city, which had been plagued with a wave of ethnic killings. The war in the north-eastern Ituri province had claimed 55 000 lives so far, leaving thousands homeless and living in refugee camps.


Once a ceasefire agreement, in whatever form, has been reached, the UN or AU may be called on to monitor and facilitate the observance of the warring parties to the ceasefire. It may assist with other aspects, such as some form of election or popular consultation, human rights investigations, humanitarian relief and/or the rebuilding of certain state and physical infrastructures. 

As the demands for these political and humanitarian tasks has grown, the UN has increasingly turned to civilian experts in these fields and, as a result, modern peace missions have large numbers of civilian personnel. This was not always the case, certainly not to the extent, size and proportionality that is typical of peace missions today. One of the ways in which this change has manifested itself is in the management of modern peace missions. Since 1989, appointing a civilian head of mission, normally in the form of a Special Representative of the Secretary-General (SRSG) in UN missions, has become the norm.

A typical management structure in a classical peacekeeping operation would see a force commander at the head of the operation. A typical modern peace mission, in contrast, will be headed by a civilian SRSG for UN operations, or a Special Representative of the Chairperson of the Commission (SRCC) for AU missions. The SRSG/SRCC is normally assisted by one or more deputies (DSRSG/DSRCC). The SRSG/SRCC will have a Mission Management Team, comprising the divisional heads of all the components that make up the peace mission. These will differ from mission to mission, depending on the specific mandate and circumstances, but a generic Mission Management Team can be said to include, apart from the SRSG/SRCC: one or more DSRSGs/DSRCCs; a force commander; a chief military observer, if there is a separate military observer mission; a UN/AU police commissioner; and several heads of substantive civilian components, such as Political Affairs, Civil Affairs, Human Rights, Public Information, Electoral Affairs, etc. The last member of the Mission Management Team is the head of Mission Support, also known in some missions as the director of Administration or chief administrative officer.

In contemporary peace missions, the various dimensions are intimately interlinked to form a holistic web, network or system of interrelated and mutually supportive functions that have a combined, collective and cumulative impact on the peace process.


Any actions undertaken by the UN in a conflict situation, which are aimed at addressing the root causes of the problem so as to prevent a reoccurrence of the conflict once the UN presence is scaled down or phased out, are referred to as peacebuilding. In its simplest form, peacebuilding is those actions aimed at preventing a recurrence of the conflict. These are normally longer-term developmental aspects such as physical infrastructure projects, agricultural development projects, health systems, etc., but also often include the disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration of former combatants. In some conflicts, such as in East Timor, this can include preparing a new country for independence, which means new civil servants, new judges, new teachers, new police personnel and new soldiers needing to be selected and trained, laws and systems needing to be put in place, and an overall political framework needing to be developed. 

The UN talks of two types of peacebuilding, namely preventive peacebuilding and post-conflict peacebuilding. Preventive peacebuilding is those efforts dedicated to preventing a conflict from developing into violent conflict, whereas post-conflict peacebuilding addresses the rebuilding of physical infrastructure, state systems and civil society organisations.

Peacebuilding is a complex system that consists of multiple short-, medium- and long-term programmes that simultaneously address both the causes and consequences of a conflict. In the short term, peacebuilding programmes assist in stabilising the peace process and preventing a relapse into violent conflict. In the long term, peacebuilding programmes, collectively and cumulatively, address the root causes of a conflict and lay the foundations for social justice and sustainable peace. Peacebuilding systems require a coherent and coordinated multidimensional response by a broad range of internal and external actors including government, civil society, the private sector, international institutions and agencies, and international non-governmental organisations. These actors undertake a range of interrelated programmes that span the security, political, socio-economic and reconciliation dimensions of society. Peacebuilding ends when a society can sustain its transition without external support, and it is replaced by a sustainable development period.1

Successful peacebuilding operations evolve through three broad phases, namely the stabilisation phase, the transition phase and the consolidation phase.2 These phases should not be understood as clear, fixed, time-bound or having absolute boundaries. One should anticipate considerable overlap in the transition between phases, and regression is possible, in which case a specific system may switch back and forth between phases (UN, 2004).

Mission Coordination and Coherence

The overriding lesson from all of the modern peace missions undertaken to date is clear: there is a need to improve coordination and cooperation among all the various multidisciplinary elements in a modern UN peace mission, and to do so during all the phases of the mission, that is, during the planning phase, during the execution, and at all the levels of the mission – strategic, operational and tactical.

We need to understand the new conflict paradigm as one where peacemakers are confronted with continuously evolving complex conflict systems. To manage them, we need to develop an equally complex conflict management response – one that addresses the conflict system holistically and in a coordinated fashion. Hence the modern peace mission formula that combines military, police, humanitarian and various other disciplines in one integrated effort to achieve one combined and interrelated objective – a meaningful and lasting peace, normally described in mission terms as the ‘end state’.

The most significant failure of modern peace missions, with their complex mix of political, civilian and military personnel and objectives, has been their inability to integrate these various components into a single holistic effort.

The need for synergy between the political, civilian and military contingents in modern peace missions also extends to the multitude of non-UN international organisations and NGOs, which have become part of the reality of any modern complex emergency. The success of each is dependent on the success of the other. Any factor that impacts negatively on any of the elements of the overall mission, whether it is in the political, military or humanitarian areas, eventually impacts negatively on the mission itself. If one element fails, e.g. the election in Angola during UNAVEM II, then everything achieved in the other sectors will be meaningless. One of the major challenges – if not the major challenge – of modern peace missions is thus the overall management and coordination of such a complex, integrated and multidimensional operation.

  1. This definition of peacebuilding was first formulated by Cedric de Coning and Senzo Ngubane for an ACCORD study on Peacebuilding in Southern Africa, commissioned by JICA in 2004. It was subsequently further refined by De Coning for NEPAD’s African Post-Conflict Reconstruction Framework.
  2. There are various different interpretations of these phases, but most convey the same essential progression from violent conflict to normalisation, e.g. the Association of the U.S. Army and Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington D.C. published Post-Conflict Reconstruction: Task Framework in 2002, in which they identify three stages, namely the initial response, transformation and fostering sustainability.