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Guest Post: Looking Forward on UN Peacekeepers Day

May 28, 2015

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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

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Amelia M. Wolf is a research associate in the Center for Preventive Action and the International Institutions and Global Governance Program at the Council on Foreign Relations.

In 2002, the UN General Assembly designated May 29 as the International Day of UN Peacekeepers to honor current and former peacekeepers, and well as those who have lost their lives. In the sixty-seven years since the first peacekeeping mission was established, more than one million people have served in seventy-one peacekeeping operations, and 3,358 military, police, and civilian personnel died while serving.

Over the past twenty-five years alone, the mandates, composition, and deployments of peacekeeping operations have grown dramatically in size and complexity. The number of UN member states contributing personnel increased from 46 to 122 countries, and total deployed peacekeepers grew from 10,304 to 107,805, a reflection of the more than doubling of overall missions. However, the composition of peacekeeping forces has seen the starkest change. While Eastern European countries, the United States, and Canada accounted for 71 percent of personnel in 1991, those same countries now contribute just 5 percent.

Whereas Canada (1,002), Finland (992), and Norway (924) were the top contributors in 1990, they now collectively contribute just 583 personnel. Today, Bangladesh (9,307), Pakistan (8,163), and India (8,122) are the top troop-contributing countries, accounting for almost 25 percent of all personnel. The United States, which pays for 28 percent of UN peacekeeping, provides merely 54 military personnel and 41 police.

The UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) faces numerous challenges, including limited, outdated, or inadequate resources and supplies, a more lethal and asymmetric operating environment that is not reflected in Security Council mandates, and demands for technologies that have not been adequately adopted into missions. As the UN reflects on the “past, present and future of UN Peacekeeping” and reaffirms its “commitment to working ’Together for Peace’,” it should keep in mind a few particularly important issues.

First, a persistent problem facing peacekeeping missions is sexual exploitation and abuse, which has garnered international attention. According to DPKO estimates, some progress has been made; reported allegations decreased from 357 in 2006 to 51 in 2014. However, the UN itself does not have the power or jurisdiction to hold suspected perpetrators accountable. Subsequently, the responsibility lies with member states, some of which lack strong judicial systems, have weak laws governing sexual crimes, or simply are not willing to report on the status of a trial. Last year, nineteen allegations were referred to the troop-contributing countries for investigation, seven of which did not reply or declined to investigate.

Second, a chronic and significant gender gap still exists at all levels. Women make up less than 4 percent of peacekeeping personnel—3 percent of military and less than 10 percent of police. More importantly, since the UN began collecting gender data for both military (in 2009) and police (in 2005) personnel in peacekeeping operations, the number of women has increased by less than 1 percent. Additionally, between 2011 and 2013, women leading peacekeeping operations decreased from six to four. Gender diversification is important not only because women are more suitable to carry out certain tasks essential to peacekeeping operations, such as working with victims of gender-based violence or child soldiers. It also has other benefits, including enhanced situational awareness and increased acceptance of a UN force by local populations.

Third, while the diversification and growth of contributing countries has had great benefits, such as faster deployment in cases of close proximity, or a better understanding of the culture or operating environment, it has also created new challenges. Neighboring contributing countries may have a greater stake in the outcome of a peacekeeping mission or political objectives that differ from the Security Council mandate, or personnel may have biases that affect their ability to impartially fulfill the mandate.

Fourth, over 87 percent of UN peacekeepers are deployed in Africa, but collaboration between the UN and the African Union (AU) remains underdeveloped. In a recent Center for Preventive Action report, Enhancing Support for Peace Operations in Africa, Paul D. Williams, associate professor in the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University, writes that “partnership peacekeeping”— two multilateral institutions or bilateral partners collaborating on an operation—is now the norm. This includes the transition of authority from the UN to AU in Mali, coexisting missions in countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, or the hybrid mission in Darfur. “No single actor can cope with Africa’s security challenges,” writes Williams. Therefore, greater collaboration is needed to utilize the unique strengths of the UN and AU. Williams recommends that the United States support these efforts by assisting the AU to “adopt appropriate standards for its peace support operations” and develop training standards.

The International Day of UN Peacekeepers provides an opportunity to not only reflect on the service of peacekeepers but also constructively think about how to enhance their safety and better support them in future missions. This is particularly important this year given that the High-level Independent Panel on UN Peace Operations, established by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in 2014, is expected to soon submit a joint report to the UN Secretariat. Though similar reviews and assessments of peacekeeping operations have been undertaken regularly since the late 1990s, subsequent action was inadequate in addressing the challenges listed above. Ultimately, reform will depend on whether member states listen to the panel’s recommendations and do anything to faithfully implement them.

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