An overhaul of peacekeeping begins?

European states face a common, and interconnected, dilemma at the UN and in NATO ? how to project force credibly

This piece was first published in European Voice on 4 August 2008

While Anders Fogh Rasmussen was spending his first day in Brussels as NATO’s secretary-general promising the world that the alliance will make a “success” of its mission in Afghanistan, diplomats at the UN were gearing up for a Security Council debate affected by the commitments of the US and European states in Afghanistan: the state of UN peacekeeping.

The Security Council’s deliberations will not get much coverage, but a lot is at stake – the success of the UN’s missions. The UN commands over 90,000 troops and police worldwide, costing $8 billion (€5.5bn). It is struggling to maintain that commitment, because the financial crisis has stretched governments’ ability to cover the costs of missions.

At stake too is the UN’s reputation, damaged in recent years by repeated setbacks in Darfur and the Democratic Republic of Congo, where its biggest missions are deployed. Last year’s crisis in the Congo – in which UN forces were outflanked by rebel troops and 250,000 civilians were displaced – prompted France and the UK to launch a review of peacekeeping procedures that culminates in tomorrow’s discussions.

At the end of this sometimes difficult eight-month process, the Security Council will come to some sensible, if unspectacular conclusions. It will endorse better planning processes for new missions and mechanisms to help the Council track how operations are going. There will also be language on boosting dialogue with troop contributors – perhaps a sign that the Europeans cannot ignore the wishes of India, which provides more personnel to the UN than all EU members combined and has argued that the Europeans should not dictate terms to others’ soldiers.

Those conclusions will not, though, resolve some of the hard questions about how peacekeeping should work. When should the UN use force? How long should it stay in a war-battered country to ensure stability? 

More seriously still, the Security Council’s focus on process may have distracted the UN from resolving real crises – not least in the Congo, where another half million people have been displaced since the start of the year. Last December, the Council approved an extra 3,000 troops for the Congo mission. As of mid-July, almost none of these had arrived.

Nonetheless, the Franco-British initiative has been more than just diplomatic game-playing. It has set the stage for a more thorough overhaul of how the UN runs operations. It is crucial that there is an overhaul.

In a period in which NATO is fully engaged in Afghanistan, the UN is often the only organisation available to deploy to new trouble-spots – think not only of Darfur but also of Lebanon. But the Security Council has had an unfortunate habit of mandating new missions without thinking through the consequences. If peacekeepers are to face off against Hizbullah in southern Lebanon or Darfur’s janjaweed (who have killed far more civilians than the Taliban in the past five years), they need to project credible military force.

In Lebanon, the UN has been able to do this thanks to the presence of European units, which make up two-thirds of the force. In Darfur, it has not. On average, EU members supply fewer than 2% of the troops who serve in the UN’s African missions (although there are more in Chad).

If the Security Council is serious about planning and monitoring operations more effectively, balancing mandates and military resources will be among its priorities. It is doing so, to some extent. This year, it has already backed away from deploying Blue Helmets to Somalia – on the very reasonable grounds that the UN simply could not find the forces needed to bring order to Mogadishu. But, with resources so stretched, matching resources and mandates poses questions for the entire peacekeeping system, not just individual missions.

Indeed, there is a broader question: Will it even be possible to find sufficient forces for future UN operations?

A July report from the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations (with which, for reasons of full disclosure, we should admit some involvement) calls for an “expanded base of troop and police-contributing countries” for “collective burden-sharing and to meet future requirements”.

That’s UN-speak for “we urgently need more and better soldiers – as soon as possible.” 

The Obama administration has recognised both the importance and the fragility of the UN’s role. Last week, the US ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, told Congress that “UN peacekeeping is an effective and dynamic instrument for advancing US interests.” The diplomats gathering in the Security Council are aware that a constructive approach will win them American applause. Will that spur them to make new troop commitments?

This is an especially sensitive question for EU members – not least France and Britain.

Many European governments can justifiably argue that they are so heavily committed in Afghanistan that they cannot make big new commitments to the UN (France, Italy and Spain can add that they make up the bulk of the UN presence in Lebanon already). But, with public opinion turning against the Afghan war, those commitments may decline.

If European countries start to pull back from Afghanistan, leaving the US to fight it out with the Taliban, they could compensate by reinforcing UN missions. Washington might welcome the move. France and the UK have been right to push new thinking on UN peacekeeping this year. Perhaps next year they will send troops to the Middle East and to Africa.

Richard Gowan and Jake Sherman are associate directors at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation. Mr Gowan is also the UN Policy Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Associate Senior Policy Fellow

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