Justice and security

Sustaining Peace through effective transitions in the Rule of Law (RoL) engagement: overcoming old obstacles, applying new lenses

United Nations System Staff College

UN peacekeeping operations and special political missions are going through an accelerated period of reconfiguration and drawdown (e.g. the withdrawal of UNAMID and the establishment of UNITAMS, the transition of MINUJUSTH to BINUH, the reconfiguration of MONUSCO). The challenges that UN faces during these moments of ‘transition’ have been well documented. In reviewing previous studies and literature concerning transitions, one is struck in fact by the repetition over time and over transition contexts of many similar recommendations, notably: the need to plan the transition early and collectively on the basis of a shared vision of transition outcomes, the need to align UN plans with those of national authorities; the importance of genuine engagement with civil society and the inclusion of local actors; the need to anticipate capacity and funding needs of national institutions and the UNCT.


There seems to be very little disagreement on these recommendations. Yet, their recurrence indicates on-going difficulties in implementing them.  As these studies show, consensus on what should be done differently does not always translate into change in practices and attitudes.


There are many reasons why these recommendations are not always fully implemented. On the one end, we may point to external factors that are beyond strictly UN control. Several studies have showed how host government consent is crucial for the success of a UN presence in a country, and for successful transitions in particular. The absence of a host government consent or “consent delivered in the wrong place and at the wrong time” can prevent the UN from achieving its mandate, by obstructing movements and activities - especially when the government’ stated interests conflict with those of the United Nations, which undermines effective transitions. 

Security Council mandates often compromise transitions by offering at times a linear understanding of progressive handling of responsibilities to the national authorities. And a lack of adequate international donor support has often hampered any coherent transition planning from the UN in support of national ownership.


This paper is based on a dual hypothesis: in addition to these external constraints, there are still obstacles within the UN that prevent the organization from adhering more consistently to established good practice – and the paper begins with an examination of these obstacles. In essence however, overcoming them, while necessary, will never fully get to the core of the challenges the UN faces in transition.


Indeed, this paper suggests a deeper, more fundamental challenge to transitions, one that relates to assumptions, concepts and metrics of success. This interrogation is done through the prism of the UN’s engagement in Rule of Law (RoL), and what “transition” means, or should mean for RoL.


The reason for honing in on RoL is manifold: because RoL is core UN mission mandate, it relates to fundamental issues of legitimacy and conflict resolution that are foundational to peace and security, but also because it is disputed as a concept and challenged in practice; and finally, because it brings together, sometimes in harmony, and sometimes in cacophony, a range of UN departments, agencies, funds and programmes; as such, how the UN manages RoL transitions  is highly instructive for other mandate areas, and for transitions more generally.



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