Global Policy Forum

SHIRBRIG: A promising step towards a United Nations that can prevent deadly conflict


By H. Peter Langille, MA, PhD

Spring 2000

Empowering the United Nations -- providing it with the capacity to fulfil its assigned tasks -- seldom captures headlines, even in the aftermath of Rwanda, Kosovo and East Timor. Most concede the 'international community' was simply unprepared for the complex conflicts that characterised the former decade; hopefully a temporary situation, albeit one confirmed repeatedly by that community's failure to stop organised mass murder. Mischievously, many use the UN as a scapegoat to spread cynicism and stem reform. Yet, it is evident that the Organisation has been denied adequate financial and personnel resources, as well as appropriate mechanisms. What few have recognised, however, is that something quite new is in the works: a rudimentary UN foundation for the prevention of deadly conflict.

Recall that four years ago, a group of supportive member states engaged in diverse efforts to enhance UN rapid deployment capabilities. In co-operation with the UN Secretariat, Canada, Denmark and The Netherlands studied the requirements and mobilised an international coalition of Friends, attempting to provide the Organisation with some new ideas and options for peacekeeping, rapid deployment and, if necessary, eventually a UN standing emergency capability. There are finally grounds for renewed hope and additional measures.[1]

Notably, there is now a far more substantive UN Standby Arrangement System (UNSAS) -- a growing list of personnel and resources that governments have offered to provide on a conditional basis. Wide participation in UNSAS is already evident. By March 2000, eighty-eight member states confirmed their willingness to provide standby resources, representing a total of 147,500 personnel [2]. Many are at a high level of readiness. Hopefully, the current level of redundancy will enable the UN to draw on alternate sources if those initially selected are unwilling, unable or too slow to respond to an emergency.

Next year, a permanent UN rapid deployment mission headquarters (RDMHQ) should be ready to manage the early stages of field operations. Once funded and staffed, it will enable the prompt co-ordination and control of diverse missions agreed to by the Security Council. By conventional standards, this is a small, 'stop-gap' measure, but one that is critical to avoid delays and early problems.

Far more significant is the recent development of a multinational standby high readiness brigade (SHIRBRIG), designed specifically for UN peacekeeping [3]. This Danish-led initiative succeeded in attracting thirteen other participants, including Argentina, Austria, Canada, Finland, Italy, Jordan, The Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Romania, Spain and Sweden. As well, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Ireland, Portugal and Slovenia are participating as observers but have yet to sign a Memorandum of Understanding indicating their specific commitments.

SHIRBRIG is likely to provide a number of advantages. First, it is more cost-effective to pool our defence resources in co-operative arrangements, particularly when they are designed to assist the United Nations. Second, there are indications that coalitions in other regions are thinking of adopting a similar model [4]. The idea is attractive and it appears to be spreading. Third, SHIRBRIG offers the UN relatively prompt access to a pre-established, versatile force comprising a balance of peacekeeping capabilities. As the Danish Chief of Defence Staff suggested, it should provide the UN Stand-by Arrangements with a 'jump start capability' to deal with the first phases of an emerging or spreading conflict. Deployments are to be limited to six months. Hopefully, this will mean fewer excuses and faster responses. If all goes smoothly, response times (from initial notification to actual deployment) will be within 15-30 days, rather than the 1990's average of 3-to-6 months. Nations can still decide whether they will participate in any specific mission, but there will be more flexibility and a larger pool to draw from. Gradually, with a wider commitment to standardised training and operating procedures, familiar equipment and joint exercises, national decision-making processes may also speed up in times of crisis. Finally, the SHIRBRIG may eventually facilitate the development of a more ambitious, dedicated UN mechanism. In the words of its initial commander, Brigadier-General Finn Saermark Thomsen, the brigade "is the most realistic step towards a standing UN force."[5]

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has repeatedly expressed enthusiasm for this initiative. As he stated, "I truly believe that SHIRBRIG is a model arrangement that finally can begin to address the need and the potential that we all recognise: a small, well-trained, well-equipped force rapidly deployed with an adequate mandate and sufficient support can stop a conflict before it engulfs an entire society."[6] Officials have declared that the SHIRBRIG is now available for deployment.

Still, there is little cause for complacency. The existing arrangements have a few inherent limitations. Both the SHIRBRIG and the UN standby arrangement system depend upon national approval and appropriately trained national units -- conditions that have frequently stymied and slowed responses. National military units are to remain in their home bases. UN officials will still face the onerous task of negotiating with each national government selected for a particular operation. Once deployment is authorised by the UN Security Council and approved by participating members, national units will stage independently from various locations and assemble together for the first time in close proximity to armed conflict. Operational command of the brigade will then be passed to a special representative of the UN Secretary-General. Obviously, the multinational planning of the past four years will help, but it may still be difficult to assure sufficient interoperability and a cohesive response.

Moreover, as currently stipulated, these arrangements are for Chapter VI peacekeeping operations, constraining their use in fast-breaking crises that necessitate humanitarian intervention or preventive deployments that require a Chapter VII mandate permitting the use of force. It is noteworthy that over the past year, all UN Security Council resolutions for new missions have included Chapter VII mandates.

While there are exceptions, the majority of nations participating in the SHIRBRIG are white, wealthy and from the North. It does not sufficiently reflect a universal composition. Moreover, although the SHIRBRIG has already been declared available, some defence officials are concerned that it is not operationally ready. There appear to be insufficient communications and logistics, as well as shortages of strategic air and sea lift. A few supportive nations may have to take the lead in forming a multinational unit. In short, there remains an urgent need for additional 'building blocks'.

While the onus now is on UN member states to demonstrate the viability of their preferred arrangements, the peace research community also shares some responsibility to demonstrate how related efforts might be expanded and accelerated. Many share a common interest in developing more sophisticated responses for the prevention of armed conflict, as well as in identifying the processes and policies that might empower the UN.

Clearly, there are options that might enhance the effectiveness and the reliability of the SHIRBRIG. First, it will be essential to supplement combat readiness with comprehensive prior training for diverse UN peace support operations. SHIRBRIG training plans acknowledge this requirement, yet some participants have been reluctant to move beyond general-purpose combat capability and mission-specific training once notified of an assignment. Second, to ensure legitimacy, impartiality and consent, political efforts should be devoted to attracting broad regional representation and additional participants. Third, while the initial planning of the brigade has focused on the development of a multinational force, plans should now be expanded to include civilian peacebuilding elements that address 'human needs', providing hope and further incentives for co-operation. Fourth, given the evolving nature of UN peace support operations, SHIRBRIG participants must re-negotiate the terms under which they may accept more demanding operations, including those that entail Chapter VII mandates and even the potential use of force.

Gradually, consideration could be given to co-locating military and civilian SHIRBRIG elements at a dedicated UN base.[7] Aside from the likelihood of faster and more sophisticated responses stemming from prior training and staging out of one location, common basing might foster the political confidence necessary to speed up decisions, as well as the consideration of more ambitious arrangements. In effect, co-located national elements would represent a multinational standing capability – an arrangement similar to units assigned to NATO's former central front, although with the emphasis on conflict prevention and the protection of civilians.

This option would not incur great expense for either the UN or participating member states. Supportive members would simply re-locate national elements in service and assign them to a UN base for a one-to two- year period. In the event of a national crisis, they would be subject to recall. As they would remain multi-tasked to national and UN service, their governments would retain primary responsibility for their administration, pay and benefits. The UN might assume responsibility for incremental costs, including transportation to and from the site, maintenance of facilities, as well as provision of accommodation. Participation in such a UN capability might provide a degree of recognition and prestige for the contributing nations and the various services involved.

With corresponding changes in the UN's Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO), one can foresee the prospect of far more sophisticated and rapid responses to complex political and humanitarian emergencies [8]. Such reforms are critical not only for their practical benefits in UN operations but also as part of a wider process. Combined, these arrangements -- the SHIRBRIG, the UNSAS and the permanent mission headquarters -- may have the potential to restore wider public and political confidence in the UN. Support and confidence are likely to be pre-requisites to stable funding. In short, they offer further hope, both for the Organisation and its capacity to prevent conflict.

There remain, nevertheless, diverse expectations as to what a UN rapid deployment capability should address. The earlier 1993-95 debate reflected both the 'visionary' desire for a dedicated UN standing capability that would provide a more sophisticated capacity for conflict prevention, including forceful intervention, and the 'official' preference for pragmatic modifications to the existing arrangements for peacekeeping. While the latter was actively pursued, one can see modest progress in both respects. The lessons learned through recent experience, as well as the doctrine developed for 'wider' peacekeeping and its recent elaboration to 'peace support operations', now permits greater flexibility, including the limited use of force when mandated.

While Rwanda is the most frequently cited example of where such a capability could have made a decisive difference, the SHIRBRIG, had it been operational, might have facilitated a prompt response to the tragedy in East Timor. It is conceivable that early UN intervention in a conflict on a scale similar to Kosovo may be feasible within the next five years. Most now concede that early preventive action, with a sophisticated combination of incentives to address human needs and disincentives to ensure compliance, is far more cost-effective than later, larger efforts once armed conflict has erupted.

Aside from the direct deployment of such a UN capability, another overlooked advantage is its potential deterrent effect on those who might perpetrate hostilities and war crimes. Protecting civilians in armed conflict is central to the new human security agenda. Irrespective of reservations pertaining to sovereignty, the international community has indicated it will intervene when there are gross violations of human rights and genocide. Warlords and violent leaders will find it increasingly difficult to assume immunity from the consequences of their actions. Although the process is still too selective and slow, there are now at least a few indications that international law will gradually be enforced by international organisations. To ensure wider, if not universal support and legitimacy, future efforts must be co-ordinated by, and under the auspices of, the UN. Despite its shortcomings, it is the only organisation with a Charter commitment to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, to secure wider disarmament, social justice and well-being,

Finally, after fifty-five years, the UN has a rudimentary foundation upon which to plan and prepare for its assigned tasks in preventing deadly conflict. Of parallel importance, it also has a foundation upon which to establish more durable and ambitious 'building-blocks'. Rather than await another catastrophe, it is time to consider how additional SHIRBRIGs and standing UN military and civilian elements might be introduced as a complementary expansion on current arrangements. As an alternative to the official preference for pragmatic incrementalism, there is need to initiate a vision-oriented, ongoing cumulative development process, as well as far wider educational efforts directed not only at the governments of UN member states, but also at global civil society.

Modest progress has been made since William R. Frye made the case for a planned evolution in his seminal 1957 study, A United Nations Peace Force. We have yet to achieve Frye's objective, but it is worth recalling his words:

Establishment of a small, permanent peace force, or the machinery for one, could be the first step on the long road toward order and stability. Progress cannot be forced, but it can be helped to evolve. That which is radical one year can become conservative and accepted the next.[9]

The case for such a small, permanent UN capability is now premised on the need not only to avert human suffering, but also to reduce the high costs of major peacekeeping and enforcement operations, not to mention the reconstruction of war-torn societies [10]. As Sir Brian Urquhart writes, it"…should be seen as a vital investment for the future, and one which by its very nature, is designed to act at the point where action can be most effective, thus eliminating or reducing the necessity for later, larger, less effective, more costly options."[11]

A standing emergency capability with dedicated UN volunteers might respond to a crisis within twenty-four hours of a decision by the Security Council. Expanding the operational and tactical structure of this capability to include dedicated UN personnel would also expand the range of options at the political and strategic levels. As the Commission on Global Governance reported in 1995, "the very existence of an immediately available and effective UN Volunteer Force could be a deterrent in itself. It could also give important support for negotiation and the peaceful settlement of disputes."[12] The Report of the Independent Working Group on the Future of the United Nations expressed its preference for a standing UN Volunteer Force to enhance the UN's performance in both time and function [13]. The Carnegie Commission report acknowledged that "a standing force may well be necessary for effective prevention".[14] A Canadian discussion paper on the issue acknowledges that:

It would provide the UN with a small but totally reliable, well-trained and cohesive group for deployment by the Security Council in urgent situations. It would break one of the key log-jams in the current UN system, namely the insistence by troop contributing nations that they authorise the use of their national forces prior to each deployment. It would also simplify command and control arrangements in UN peace support operations, and put an end to conflicts between UN commanders and contingent commanders reporting to national authorities.[15]

The Danish study on the SHIRBRIG did not rule out permanently assigning military units to the UN, but acknowledged that it was a long-term option [16]. A study by The Netherlands demonstrated that many of the technical obstacles are surmountable [17]. And the Canadian study noted that, "no matter how difficult this goal now seems, it deserves continued study with a clear process for assessing its feasibility over the long term."[18]

The phenomenon of 'too little', 'too late', 'too lame' or 'too lethal' has led to a lot of unnecessary suffering. Thankfully, there are some indications of progress: the SHIRBRIG, the UN Standby Arrangement System and the permanent UN mission headquarters are promising steps. They also provide a critical foundation for more ambitious steps. With further co-operation, we can still do better.


1. The additional measures described in this paper are explained in more detail in H. Peter Langille, "Conflict Prevention: Options for Rapid Deployment and UN Standing Forces", International Peacekeeping, (forthcoming) Spring 1999.
2. United Nations, Department of Peacekeeping Operations, "Monthly Status Report: United Nations Stand-by Arrangements", Status Report as of 1 March 2000. (
3. For an overview of the initial SHIRBRIG proposals see, Denmark, Chief of Defence, "Report by the Working Group on a Multinational UN Stand-by Forces High Readiness Brigade", August 15, 1995. Also see, Denmark, "United Nations Stand-by Arrangements for Peacekeeping: A Multinational UN Stand-by Forces High Readiness Brigade", January 25, 1995.
4. Although the arrangements are preliminary, there has been related progress in Central and South Eastern Europe, as well as in the South African Development Community (SADC) and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).
5. Cited in Arslan Malak, "The beginnings of a UN army?", Behind the Headlines, Summer 1999, pp. 14-17.
6. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, cited in UN Press Release, SG/SM/6310, September 2, 1997, p.2.
7. This option was proposed in a former context by Peter Langille, Maxime Faille, Carlton Hughes and James Hammond, "A Preliminary Blueprint of Long-term Options for Enhancing a UN Rapid Reaction Capability, in David Cox and Albert Legault, (eds.), UN Rapid Reaction Capabilities: Requirements and Prospects, (Cornwallis: The Canadian Peacekeeping Press, 1995), pp. 179-190.
8. Among the corresponding changes within the UN DPKO were the establishment of a Situation Centre, a Civilian Police Unit and a Training Unit in 1993, a Mission Planning Service and Standby Arrangements Management Team in 1994 and a Lessons Learned Unit in 1995.
9. William R Frye, A United Nations Peace Force, (New York: Oceana Publications, 1957), pp. 106-107.
10. For a recent variation of this argument see, Lionell Rosenblatt and Larry Thompson, "The Door Of Opportunity: Creating a Permanent Peacekeeping Force", World Policy Journal, Spring 1998, pp. 36-42.
11. Brian Urquhart elaborates on this point: "experience of recent UN operations shows that even a small, highly-trained group, with high morale and dedication, arriving at the scene of action immediately after a Security Council decision, would in most cases have far greater effect than a larger and less well prepared force arriving weeks or even months later. The failure to come to grips with a situation before it gets completely out of hand usually necessitates a far larger, more expensive and less effective operation later on." See Urquhart, "Prospects for a UN Rapid Response Capability," in Cox and Legault, UN Rapid Reaction Capabilities, pp. 3-35.
12. Report of the Commission on Global Governance, Our Global Neighbourhood, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 112.
13. The Report of the Independent Working Group on the Future of the United Nations, The United Nations In Its Second Half-Century, (A project supported by Yale University and the Ford Foundation) 1995, pp. 21-23.
14. Carnegie Commission on Preventing Deadly Conflict, Preventing Deadly Conflict: Final Report, (Washington, DC: Carnegie Commission on Preventing Deadly Conflict, 1997), p.66. It should be noted that this report did not endorse UN volunteers but proposed the establishment of rapid reaction force of 5,000 to 10,000 troops to be drawn from sitting members of the Security Council.
15. Canada, DFAIT, "Improving the "UN's Rapid Reaction Capability: Discussion Paper," 29 April 1995, p. 3.
16. "Report by the Working Group on a Multinational UN Stand-by Forces High Readiness Brigade," p. 7.
17. Government of The Netherlands, The Netherlands Non-paper, "A UN Rapid Deployment Brigade: A preliminary study", (revised version) April 1995, p. 3.
18. Government of Canada, Towards a Rapid Reaction Capability for the United Nations, September 1995, p. 62.

H. Peter Langille, MA, PhD
Global Human Security: Ideas & Initiatives
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Dr. Peter Langille teaches Canadian Foreign Policy and International Conflict Management in the Department of Political Science at the University of Western Ontario. In 1994-95, he worked on the Government of Canada's study to Enhance United Nations Rapid Deployment Capabilities. He was a co-author of the initial proposals and blueprints to develop a Canadian, Multinational Peacekeeping Training Centre at CFB Cornwallis. Earlier, he was the author of Changing the Guard: Canada's Defence in a World in Transition, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1990). More recently he completed a book manuscript, "A Rudimentary Foundation for UN Peace Support Operations: Initiatives to Enhance Training, Role Specialisation and Rapid Deployment".

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