Amidst a lack of public confidence in UN Peacekeepers globally, I assess their current status and future within a world of growing instability.
According to the United Nations Peacekeeping Report for 2015, the largest contributors of peacekeepers were Bangladesh (9432), Ethiopia (8309), India (7794), Pakistan (7533), and Rwanda (5591). The first recognised ‘Western’ state comes in place 26, with Italy contributing 1126 people. Shockingly, western states have troop contributions that lag far, far behind their apparent impact on the world, in the terms of economy, global reach and military resources. In 53rd place sits the United Kingdom, contributing just 288 troops, whilst somewhat incredibly, the United States languishes in 76th place, with just 80 American troops deployed under the flag of the UN. Considering the military footprint of this nations in recent conflicts, some of which have cause major regional destabilisation (Iraq), this is a truly mindboggling fact, and not in a good way. Economically, however, it is another story, with the USA footing nearly 25% of the bill for UN Peacekeeping globally, and other western states making major contributions. Historically, Canada, the USA and other Western nations were much more prominent troop contributors to UN Peacekeeping. US ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, noted that European commitments used to account for 40% of UN Peacekeeping contributions, and this has now fallen to a paltry 7%.
What do those numbers represent, though? Bangladesh, Ethiopia and Rwanda are not known for their military prowess, nor for their economic might, and yet they are the leading troop contributors. India is a future global superpower and thus their position on this list is logical, as they seek to be seen as a ‘responsible citizen’ of the global community. Pakistan is contributing a huge number of troops despite already fighting a major conflict on their home soil, in regions such as Waziristan (It is also worth noting that Pakistan’s major role in UN operations in Somalia was completely ignored by Hollywood in the blockbuster ‘Black Hawk Down’, causing a political furore). Each of these nation’s commitment should not be derided however, and should be lauded for incredible contribution that is, showing that economic development is not a barrier to contributing to global peacekeeping. This a very noble notion that other states should certainly be looking at as laying down a marker for the future.
The United Nations peacekeeping forces are struggling, however, in some parts of the world. Troops trained to patrol towns and cities as a deterrent are faced with brutal asymmetric warfare in areas such as Mali and South Sudan, something they are simply not equipped for. Whereas soldiers from more economically developed countries can often rely on technical superiority on the battlefield, troops from Bangladesh, for example, are to an extent fighting on a level playing field, with the same Kalashnikov series of rifles, placing more troops at risk. With some missions becoming increasingly difficult and dangerous, it is essential that troops from some of the world’s elite militaries are deployed alongside other UN counterparts in order to help break the deadlock. The troops are supposed to be able to prevent death, and be ‘Peacekeepers’, but at the moment it is questionable whether this is being achieved. Additional technical support from helicopters in particular is badly needed.
Year on year, a familiar scandal sullies the name of the UN Peacekeeping brand, that of sex scandals. This is something that every nation recognises is an issue, and every nation appears keen to take decisive measures to stamp it out, however it keeps occurring. This issue is a thorn in the side within the battle for local hearts and minds. It is easy to assume that this is simply due to the stationed forces being undisciplined, and that it is limited to soldiers from poorer countries, however this is not the case. Venezuelan forces have gathered a particularly bad reputation for such issues, but even the French military has recently had serious issues in this area. See recent child sex claims in Burkina Faso, or the current child-sex-for-food scandal in the Central African Republic, both of which appear to be heinous crimes. There seems to be a level of inevitability around the international attitude towards the Peacekeeper’s long documented sex issues, yet the damage each scandal does to the UN Peackeeper ‘brand’ both internationally and within the host country cannot be underestimated. It is very easy for local public opinion to turn against you after a sex scandal is announced, and a national perception of doing more harm than good is a poisonous thing indeed. Amazingly, despite the evidence, few prosecutions regarding such matters tend to occur, something that has to sop in my opinion. If a soldier of your country abuses their position and thus commits a sexual crime, or any crime for that matter, then is must be investigated. If evidence is found, they must be prosecuted, either in their home country or by the host country. If it is illegal at home, the soldiers should not be doing it in the very nation they are trying to protect. Gita Sahgal, an influential activist, has said previously that “The issue with the UN is that peacekeeping operations unfortunately seem to be doing the same thing that other militaries do. Even the guardians have to be guarded’, and this still rings true some years later. Whether the United Nations Peacekeepers should be blamed as an entity for such issues, or the contributing country of the accused troops, is another matter.
The reputation of the UN is tainted by 2 very well-known failures of their peacekeeping operations, formerly in Rwanda, 1994/5, and latterly in Bosnia in 1995, with the infamous Srebrenica massacre. These two events shocked the world, and marked the lowest ebb of peacekeeping efforts since the foundation of the United Nations. The Rwandan Genocide was probably not entirely preventable, however many hundreds of thousands of deaths were. The failure of countries of the United Nations Security Council to commit troops to General Dallaire’s task force was a devastating failure of the United Nations to support its core principles, and it is a spectre that continues to dog the region to this date. Bosnia was a similarly shocking failure, this time more military than bureaucratic, to protect civilians within a dedicated safe zone due at least in part to the incompetent actions of the Dutch Battalion. Twenty years on from these two horrific tragedies, and the world has still not moved on. Any argument relating to UN peacekeeping evokes Rwanda and Bosnia, and therefore the Peacekeeping efforts- many of which have been successful- are forever unacknowledged, lying in the shadow of two terrible genocides. Perhaps this is right; but how can UN Peacekeeping ever been seen as successful without slowly disentangling the three? Whilst retaining those past dreadful experiences, and learning from them, it must be time to move on. It must be time to move forward, especially as regional instability is currently a major threat.
Thankfully, some changes are occurring. This week saw a major meeting of the United Nations general assembly, and a US-led push for more troop commitments from European countries has met with some success. The United States seems to be supporting a strong UN Peacekeeping mandate once again, something that harks back to the heady days of Clinton when he suggested that the UN should have its own army. This is a time of increasing instability, with major recent military-related crises in Ukraine, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Burundi, Central African Republic, South Sudan and Somalia coming to mind. The spread of the Islamic State ideology in Northern Africa (Libya in particular) is of significant concern, whilst the scourge of Boko Haram, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Al-Shabaab are all major regional if not global threats. In such a time of risk, it follows that a strong United Nations is a valuable one, and efforts are now being made to ensure that this is the case, unlike in the 1990s. The UN Peacekeeping forces need the numbers, the expertise and the equipment in order to be fully effective, and for what might be the first time, the world will see the UN as a truly capable fighting force. Whether this remains to be followed properly by the lumbering bureaucracy of the UN itself remains to be seen, but at least steps are being taken to radically change their efforts in order to equip them properly to respond to future crises.
In the final few years of his presidency, President Obama’s persistent petitioning of nations to contribute more troops looks to be paying dividends, with TIME reporting that some 40,000 new troops are to be added to the existing ‘pool’ (http://time.com/4053412/united-nations-peacekeeping-forces/). With 125,000 peacekeepers currently deployed globally, this represents, in real terms, a 32% increase in manpower. This is a very impressive figure, and bodes well for future. In securing an increase of this scale, bringing overall peacekeeper numbers up to 165,000 men, Obama has not only increased the capacity of the UN but also the relevancy and pressure upon it. With a 32% increase, nations will be looking for a more successful period of peacekeeping with actual positive results, and an unintended consequence could be more pressure for intervention due to the suddenly increased capacity for such operations. Within this 40,000 troops comes a major commitment of an additional 8000 for a ‘Standby Police Force’ from China (and a significant economic contribution to boot), 2700 troops from Indonesia and a doubling of the USA’s meagre 78 men. European contributions were once again scarce, however the UK committed to sending 80 men to Somalia and a more impressive 280-300 to the Central African Republic. Some 40 more helicopters are also due to be committed by a number of nations, which are essential to UN operations and will hopefully lead to an increase in capability. With the drawdown of forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, it was somewhat inevitable that UN contributions would increase, and I thus I suspect that Obama will be a little disappointed in the relatively small scale commitments from Europe, regardless.
I have written this blog in a period of deteriorating international security, with numerous previously mentioned threats underpinning the need for a much stronger United Nations on a global level. I believe that the 32% rise in contributions represents a renewed belief in the importance of the United Nations, and this in itself is arguably long overdue. This is best explained, in my opinion, by a quote from the inspirational Sergio Vieira de Mello, a leading light of the United Nations until his tragic death in a car bomb in Iraq, 2003. In his biography, compiled by the previously mentioned Samantha Power, de Mello is quoted as saying ‘The one thing you have to remember, is that the major powers will kick the UN. They’ll scream at the UN. But at the end of the day, they are getting the UN that they want and that they deserve. If the United States and Europe wanted a muscular peacekeeping operation here (Serbia), they would insist on adding muscle. If they really wanted to stop the Serbs, they would have done so long ago’. To this end, the international attitude is changing. Member states evidently do wish to prevent outbreaks of violence that threaten so many lives, and are willing to put their soldiers under the blue flag of the UN once again.
Ultimately, for all it’s faults, faith has been put in the United Nations both economically and in terms of manpower increases in order to ensure that is prepared and able to react to today’s growing number of issues. There must be no second mistakes- no Rwandas and no Sbrenicas, and there should not be a similar event again due to the vast increases in resources. Sex scandals will not disappear, and peacekeeping mandates and the rules of engagement will no doubt be as vague as ever, but it is evident that lessons have been learned. These lessons will be employed and the UN should, or rather must do better this time around. In a period of media and public derision at the role of the UN, perceived as useless by some, they have received a huge vote of confidence from member states. The blue helmets will stand back on their parapets to protect people the world over with renewed vigour, risking their lives for the good of mankind. Make no mistake about it, some of these ‘few good men’ will bleed. The colour of their blood however, will be blue.