As Blue Helmets Face Increasingly Hostile Environments, Rapid Spread Of Disinformation, Engaging Local Communities Key for Success, Speakers Say
Underscoring the importance of strategic communications in implementing United Nations peacekeeping mandates and ensuring the safety and security of both troops and civilians on the ground, the Security Council today welcomed the Secretary-General’s ongoing efforts to include such communications in planning and decision-making, noting that a whole-of-mission approach facilitates confidence-building with local communities.
In a presidential statement (to be issued as document S/PRST/2022/5) presented by Ronaldo Costa Filho of Brazil, Council President for July, the 15-nation organ stressed the need to improve the culture of strategic communications across peacekeeping operations’ civilian, military and police components and highlighted the critical role played by mission leadership in that regard.
By the text, the Council also underscored that strategic communications can be an important tool to prevent conflict-related sexual violence, and encouraged peacekeeping operations to invest from the outset in dialogue and engagement with local actors, particularly women and youth, in order to build from the bottom up a protective environment for civilians.
Noting the development of a strategy for the digital transformation of peacekeeping, the Council also encouraged missions as well as troop- and police-contributing countries to support and make full use of available field-focused, reliable and cost-effective communication technologies to support mandate delivery.
The Council asked the United Nations Secretary-General to provide, by 15 April 2023, a strategic review of strategic communications across the Organization’s peacekeeping operations, including at the Headquarters level, which should assess existing capabilities and impact on local communities, identify gaps and challenges, and propose measures to address them.
The Council adopted the text during its first ministerial-level open debate on the theme “United Nations peacekeeping operations: The key role of strategic communications for efficient peacekeeping”. Speakers said that with peacekeeping operations deployed in increasingly hostile environments and digital technology rapidly spreading disinformation and hate speech, the United Nations must adapt to new realities and engage, not just inform, audiences in support of its vital mission.
Secretary-General António Guterres, opening the debate, underscored that more than ever strategic communications is central to the success of the United Nations work amid global geopolitical tensions and complex conflicts where peacekeepers are facing terrorists, criminals and armed groups who use misinformation, disinformation and hate speech as weapons of war. Disinformation is dangerous and potentially deadly, transforming “our blue flag from a symbol of security into a target for attack”, he said, adding that strategic communications is a top priority within the Action for Peacekeeping+ initiative.
He said the United Nations is adopting a whole-of-mission approach which will hold mission leaders accountable to lead strategic communications in mission planning and decision-making, and work with partners to better detect and counter mis- and disinformation and hate speech. For United Nations peacekeeping to succeed, “all of us must play our part”, he said, with the Organization having a more deliberate role as a trusted information actor in conflict environments.
Marcos de Sá Affonso da Costa, Force Commander of the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO), noting an anti-mission sentiment in some parts of the country, warned that fake news diffused by militias through social media is difficult to distinguish from reality and will soon be virtually undetectable. He called on the United Nations to communicate with local stakeholders in person, from village chiefs to national and regional actors, as those voices play a crucial role in countering the criticism.
Jenna Russo, Director of Research of the International Peace Institute, pointed out that missions can also train reporters in conflict-sensitive journalism, as has been done in South Sudan, where hate speech has been described as nearly as dangerous as the proliferation of weapons. Emphasizing the need for a dynamic dialogue between missions and communities, she said: “Communication is not only about informing; it is also about being informed.”
During the day-long debate, many delegates, echoing concerns about the proliferation of hate speech inciting violence, emphasized that missions must adjust to local contexts and meaningfully engage with host Governments, local populations and civil society organizations to build trust and support, while others also stressed the sovereignty of host States.
The representative of the United Kingdom, spotlighting a significant increase “in the volume of dangerous lies” being spread about the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali’s (MINUSMA) mandate and activities since the Kremlin-backed Wagner Group deployed in that country, said this puts peacekeepers’ lives at increased risk and sows distrust that discourages local communities from sharing information with the Mission, thwarting its ability to prevent attacks. She welcomed the efforts of British and German peacekeepers in MINUSMA to meet local women’s associations and help local radio stations reach out to female audiences, which has helped build mutual understanding.
Gabon’s representative said communications efforts must be combined with other outreach activities to create a positive perception of United Nations forces and ensure better protection of peacekeeping staff. Operations must also have a sound ecosystem of technology and innovation that enhances situational awareness and facilitates more robust implementation of peacekeeping mandates.
Saurabh Kumar, Secretary (East) of India’s Ministry for External Affairs, noting that situational awareness empowers strategic communication, said platforms such as UNITEAWARE, which India helped the United Nations implement last year across four peacekeeping missions, are key in that regard. The first step begins at the Security Council with the drafting of comprehendible, implementable mandates. “No strategic communication in any manner should try to encroach upon the sovereignty of the host State or undermine its interests,” he said, adding that: “Trust and coordination between the mission and host State is essential for success.”
China’s representative, underscoring that the host country remains the most important stakeholder in ensuring the security of personnel, said the United Nations must therefore strengthen that communication. Citing the increased challenges “Blue Helmets” face, he noted that last October, due to a lack of trust between the United Nations Interim Security Force for Abyei (UNISFA) and local tribes, medical aid was delayed, leading to the death of a peacekeeper. Host Governments could consider an information-sharing mechanism to avoid misunderstandings, he said, adding that the Secretariat must integrate strategic communications in all components of its operations.
Also speaking were ministers and representatives of Brazil, Ghana, United Arab Emirates, Norway, France, Albania, Ireland, Kenya, Russian Federation, United States, Mexico, Indonesia (for the Group of Friends on the Safety and Security of United Nations), Japan, Thailand, Denmark, Egypt, Morocco, Uruguay, Portugal, Switzerland, Republic of Korea, Germany, Guatemala, Lithuania, Ecuador, Australia, South Africa, Bangladesh, Malta, Philippines, Slovakia, Belgium, Israel and Algeria, as well as the European Union, in its capacity as observer.
The meeting began at 10:07 a.m., was suspended at 1:05 p.m., resumed at 3:09 p.m. and ended at 3:57 p.m.