The following is a guest post by Megan Roberts, associate director of the International Institutions and Global Governance program at the Council on Foreign Relations.
United Nations peacekeeping confronts a make-or-break moment. That was the main takeaway from last week’s meeting of senior UN officials and peacekeeping experts in Washington. The gathering came on the heels of two pivotal events: the release of a troubling independent report on the parlous state of UN peace operations, and the peacekeeping summit President Obama himself hosted on the sidelines of the September opening of the UN General Assembly. After years of inaction, UN member states may finally be willing to close the yawning gap between the expanding mandates of peace ops and the resources and capabilities devoted to them.
In June, an independent panel of experts appointed by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon released the first in-depth report on UN peace operations since 2000. That document laid bare the massive challenges the endeavor confronts, starting with the inconsistent political and financial support member states give to peacekeeping.
In late September, President Obama convened a special session on improving UN peacekeeping, unveiling the first new U.S. policy on peacekeeping in twenty years. He also announced several concrete U.S. commitments ranging from new training to logistical support, in addition to increasing the number of military officers provided to UN peacekeeping. The summit generated other commitments from more than fifty world leaders, including the promise of more than 40,000 additional troops, as well as desperately needed specialized assets ranging from helicopters to engineering units, hospitals, and airfield maintenance crews. The standout was China, whose president, Xi Jinping, announced that it would provide eight thousand stand-by troops, as well as a standing police unit, and would provide one hundred million dollars to develop the standby capacities of the African Union.
Behind this flurry of commitments is the stark recognition that peacekeeping is at a breaking point. There is no way to disguise the gaping chasm between the ambitious mandates approved by the UN Security Council and the meager resources—military, financial, and human—that the United Nations actually possesses to get the job done. To be sure, this alarm has been sounded before. But the gap has continued to grow. The average length of peacekeeping missions has climbed, as has their scale of ambition. Today, there are sixteen UN peacekeeping missions globally, over half of which are in Africa, with more than 125,000 troops, police, and civilians. Missions struggle to implement multiple tasks assigned by the Security Council, such as protecting nearly two hundred thousand civilians in South Sudan. At the same time, UN peacekeeping faces new sorts of threats, including violent insurgents and Islamic extremists, in the Central African Republic and Mali. The latter has become the UN’s most dangerous operation, accounting for over 30 percent of security incidents in all UN peacekeeping missions and over fifty fatalities since the mission was deployed in 2013.
The sudden high-level attention to peacekeeping has two major potential benefits.
First, for the first time in years, these new contributions give the UN an opportunity to be picky. For too long, the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations has had to make do with the troops and police on offer, regardless of whether they are appropriately trained or outfitted. With new offers of contingents from the likes of Brazil and the United Kingdom, the UN has a better chance of matching the best troops to each situation. The availability of high-quality detachments also creates an incentive for existing troop and police contributors to provide the UN with higher performing, better equipped, and professional soldiers and police that are prepared to adhere to UN rules, particularly when it comes to discipline and sexual abuse.
Second, the new attention to peacekeeping, particularly from the United States and China, opens the door to a more productive relationship among the Security Council, which authorizes missions; the UN Secretariat, which plans and implements those missions; and member states that provide the troops, police, and financial resources. Among the most important recommendations of the high-level panel was that a political strategy drive the design and deployment of peace operations. It also underscored the need to harmonize UN peacekeeping, which has a military component, and UN civilian political missions. Success will require greater coordination, continual communication, and mutually reinforcing efforts among the Council, the Secretariat, and member states. To be sure, the current environment remains a challenging one, not least given deep divisions between the Western P3 (the United States, United Kingdom, and France) and Russia on how best to handle international crises on the Security Council.
Despite these promising developments, three remaining questions will determine whether 2015 marks the beginning of a new, more hopeful era for UN peace operations.
The first is whether the United Nations will take up the high-level panel’s recommendation to institutionalize a “culture of prevention,” by seeking to avert—rather than simply respond to the outbreak of—violent conflict. The Secretariat has already taken steps in this direction, including by undertaking monthly horizon scans intended to alert the Security Council to emerging crises. The secretary-general has also launched a new initiative, Human Rights Up Front, geared to prompt early action in the face of impending, large-scale human rights violations. Unfortunately, prevention remains a controversial subject at the UN, as some member states view it as potentially undermining their sovereignty. Without an additional push from the P5 and a broad base of member states, the UN may move no closer to achieving a culture of prevention.
Second, the UN must prioritize among the many reform proposals emanating from the high-level panel report and peacekeeping summit. Many areas need fixing, but resources are limited, raising the question of where to start. The three most important places to begin—since they will determine the fortunes of the overall effort—are (1) strengthening the analysis and planning capacities within the UN Secretariat, (2) developing rapidly deployable capacities, to stabilize deteriorating environments, and (3) breaking down silos between peacekeeping operations and civilian missions. In the midst of all of this, the UN will need to respond quickly and transparently to allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse—the credibility of the UN rests on demonstrating zero tolerance.
Third, making good on the laundry list of recommendations will require the United Nations—including both the Secretariat and member states—to overcome its fiercest foe: its own bureaucratic inertia. Many proposed changes will require overhauling long-standing, inflexible administrative mechanisms that restrict quick response to emergencies. The UN needs to streamline its ability to mobilize and deploy assets, reallocate budgets, conduct strategic planning, and recruit civilian expertise from outside the Secretariat and UN agencies. Despite years of promised reforms to its human resources, the UN still finds itself unable to deploy the right people with the right expertise at the right time. This is particularly true when it comes to recruiting women. Changing how the UN does business will require more than cosmetic changes—and it will require influential member states to champion these reforms.
Finally, the UN and interested member states must figure out how to sustain momentum for reform, given the crowded peace and security agenda, the slow moving pace of bureaucratic change, and looming leadership changes both at the UN and in the United States at the end of 2016. Implementing wide-ranging reforms, particularly on less than scintillating but critical administrative procedures, will require leadership not only within the UN but also outside it—from the Secretariat’s 193 collective bosses.