Academic journal article Global Governance

Local Ownership and Un Peacebuilding: Discourse versus Operationalization

Academic journal article Global Governance

Local Ownership and Un Peacebuilding: Discourse versus Operationalization

Article excerpt

The UN asserts that local ownership boosts the legitimacy and sustainability of peacebuilding by preserving the principles of self-determination and nonimposition in an activity that can contravene them. At the same time, it also perceives local ownership to imperil the achievement of its operational goals, thus bringing its normative and operational obligations into conflict. This article evaluates the UN's discourse and operationalization of local ownership, showing that despite the UN's invocation of ownership discourse, it operationalizes ownership in restrictive ways that are intended to protect the achievement of operational goals but that consequently limit self-determination and increase imposition. Moreover, because of contradictions in the UN's practices of ownership, it also undercuts its ability to realize the very operational goals that it is trying to protect. Keywords: UN peacebuilding, local ownership, discourse vs. practice.


Since the beginning of the century, the United Nations has displayed a near orthodox commitment to local ownership in its peace operations in postconflict states. Local ownership is believed to render peacebuilding more legitimate and sustainable by protecting self-determination and minimizing the degree of external imposition on the host country, and most UN guidelines, best practices, and lessons learned documents assert a causal relationship between local ownership and enhanced legitimacy and sustainability. (1) The purported benefits of local ownership appear to be commonsensical: if international actors build peace on behalf of local actors, then it will be externally imposed and therefore perceived as illegitimate and it will not be based on local capacities and therefore likely to fail once the UN departs.

Despite the anticipated benefits of local ownership, however, the UN also perceives the excessive devolution of agency to local actors as endangering the achievement of two key operational goals--the liberalization of the postconflict state and the delivery of demonstrable outputs in the short term. (2) This concern derives from the perception that local actors in war-tom countries have weak capacities and that they may be illiberal, divisive, and focused on sectarian gain rather than the common good. Accordingly, the UN constrains local ownership in practice in order to protect the achievement of these objectives, thus making the operationalization of local ownership diverge significantly from the discourse of it. Importantly, this limited form of ownership on the ground decreases the degree of self-determination of the host country and deepens the degree of external imposition, thus diminishing or even eliminating the benefits of legitimacy and sustainability that local ownership is thought to bring.

The clash between the principles of self-determination and nonimposition and the UN's peacebuilding objectives reveals a broader contradiction facing the UN--specifically, situations where the UN's operational and normative duties conflict. (3) Because they entail intervention, interference, and the violation of self-determination, peace operations after civil wars may inherently contradict some of the most fundamental principles of the international system, principles that the UN upholds and promotes and that are enshrined in its Charter. (4) At the same time, the UN is mandated to act in situations that are deemed threats to international peace and security, actions that at times involve the deployment of a peacekeeping operation. In peacebuilding then, the UN is, in a way, obliged to choose between remaining compliant with its principles and satisfying its operational duties. However, local ownership is thought to enable the UN to overcome this difficulty by allowing it to continue to act according to its principles while also allowing it to undertake effective interventions.

In this article, I explore local ownership in UN peacebuilding, first by examining the discourse of local ownership and demonstrating how local ownership is strongly associated with self-determination and nonimposition, compliance with which is a key normative imperative for the UN. …

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