Charles Hunt, political scientist

More “robust” peacekeeping by United Nations peacekeepers working to calm or resolve conflicts comes with its own dangers, and it’s fertile ground for Charles Hunt’s research. Once, UN peacekeepers were strictly prohibited from ever using force for anything other than self-defence, no matter the provocation. Hunt, now an Australian Research Council DECRA Fellow at RMIT university, has investigated the UN’s increased willingness to use force to protect civilians and stabilise conflicts, and the sometimes unfortunate results of this increased aggression.

“International intervention may be well-meaning but sometimes has negative, unintended consequences,” he says, pointing to conflicts where peace enforcement by UN “blue helmets” has provoked reprisals against locals, or against humanitarian organisations that may have only a distant connection to peace-keeping forces.

“It’s where the UN is particularly vulnerable and also susceptible to being instrumentalised in that way.”

The UN is now grappling with the difficult balance of permitting limited peacekeeper force in missions around the world, policed by often inadequately trained peacekeepers from donor nations. It’s even more difficult when aggrieved parties including host states are doing everything in their power to impede UN missions.

Certain groups in Mali, Somalia, Yemen, Syria won’t recognise the legitimacy of the UN, they see it as part of an illegitimate global order, Hunt adds. “In Mali for example, today it’s very clear that some of parties to the conflict do not recognise the legitimacy of the UN. The UN is now being targeted for who it is, rather than just where it is.”

“It’s much more difficult for the UN to stay the course in the face of that kind of targeting, than it may be for some other kind of military intervention, for example in Afghanistan, with the Coalition of the Willing,” Hunt says.

Hunt’s main research focus is Africa, particularly the post-colonial states of sub-Saharan Africa, nearly all of them troubled with conflict.

After undergraduate studies in political science, philosophy and economics at the University of Birmingham in Britain, Hunt began working on a master’s degree in international security, specifically on the role of the UN in conflict prevention, management and resolution.

During an internship at a UN-affiliated training centre in Ghana he came to know the complicated bureaucracy of the giant body, and difficulty of making practical decisions according to wildly varying circumstances. “That was instrumental in me becoming more aware of what was really going on, and I wanted to bring a research lens to that, to develop practical, policy-relevant research,” he says.

Hunt spent three years working in Africa, working in at least three different countries and visiting many more, for the UN, with both peacekeeping missions and a range of NGOs. In 2008 he began his doctorate at the University of Queensland. “The idea was to bring back knowledge and experience from the field to the ivory tower and write the PhD,” he says.

More recently Hunt’s research fieldwork has been on the UN’s five biggest missions in Africa, including fieldwork in Mali, in the Central African Republic, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and in South Sudan, and, asked by the Australian government, he has written a handbook for peacekeepers. He has also been commissioned by the UN to help plan for the possible mission scenarios of the future.

“Small wins,” he says, “like having materials that reflect today’s reality and raise the risks of both action and inaction, is useful, I think.”