International Order & Conflict

Supporting Their Troops: America’s Role In UN Peacekeeping

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May 29th is the International Day of UN Peacekeepers, a day to commemorate the sacrifices of those who have lost their lives serving in peacekeeping operations and to celebrate the roughly 120,000 peacekeepers currently serving in missions around the world. As the UN Security Council continues to authorize large peacekeeping missions in highly dangerous and dynamic environments such as Mali and the Central African Republic, it’s also a good day for Americans to take stock of our role in UN peacekeeping and how we are supporting those peacekeepers.

US involvement in UN peacekeeping has changed considerably over the past 20 years. The US played an active role on the ground in the post-Cold War UN peacekeeping missions of the early 1990s, in Haiti, Bosnia and Somalia. After the Black Hawk Down incident in Somalia in October 1993, in which 18 American soldiers were killed, policymakers decided to scale back US troops’ participation in UN peacekeeping dramatically.

Today, only a couple dozen US troops serve in UN peacekeeping operations, and these troops serve as trainers and military advisers, rather than in operational roles. The vast majority of UN peacekeepers come from Global South countries like Bangladesh, Ethiopia, India and Pakistan. This has led to a discomfiting dynamic, where countries from the Global North push for and fund large and dangerous peacekeeping operations (notably the US, the UK and France who, as permanent members of the Security Council, also authorize these missions), while members of the Global South incur the actual risks to their personnel in implementing them.

Over the past year, there have been hints at a shift away from this trend, as European countries have shown an interest in taking a more active role in UN peacekeeping operations – perhaps a result of the drawdown of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan that has made European troops more available to serve elsewhere. Several European countries had already been contributing troops to UN peace operations, but these were largely concentrated in Middle East missions with a relatively limited scope, with only a small number serving in the more dynamic operations in sub-Saharan Africa. But starting in 2013, several major European powers have offered troops to support two of the newest and most dangerous African operations, in Mali and the Central African Republic.

In January of 2013, after a violent rebellion in Mali, French forces launched an operation to stabilize the country. Around 3,000 French troops remain in Mali, providing support to the UN peacekeeping operation there. At the end of the year, France launched another stabilization intervention in the Central African Republic and around 2,000 French troops remain in the capital, helping to pave the way for the recently authorized UN operation. Taken on their own, these actions are not that unusual – the French have a history of intervening during crises in their former colonies – but other European countries have also decided to lend their support to these missions.

In November of last year, the Netherlands agreed to send around 350 troops to serve in the Mali mission, reportedly providing intelligence and training expertise. This was the first significant commitment of Dutch troops to any UN land operation since Ethiopia-Eritrea in 2000-2001.* In February of this year, France and Germany decided to send a joint brigade to serve in the European Union support mission in Mali – the first time the Franco-German Brigade has ever deployed to Africa. And earlier this month, the European Union announced that it would increase its presence in the Central African Republic to more than 800 troops to help stabilize the capital city in support of the UN peacekeeping operation.

So where does this leave the US? Given the precedent against sending US troop units to UN operations, the American public’s fatigue after lengthy engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the generally hostile attitudes of Congress and the Defense Department toward UN peacekeeping, it is highly unlikely that the US will change policy and begin to provide combat troops for UN operations in the foreseeable future.

One way forward for the US is to serve in short-term, independent coalitions of the willing alongside the UN to provide initial assistance with stabilization, as the French have done in Mali and the Central African Republic. As Afghanistan winds down, troops and funding may be freed up to enable this type of mission. But there are also other important ways in which we can support the men and women from around the world who are working to implement the mandates that the United States and other Security Council members authorize.

First, the US should meet its obligations to fund UN peacekeeping operations. The US is roughly $400 million short on funding for UN peacekeeping operations, partly due to a funding cap imposed by Congress. Failing to pay our peacekeeping dues can have a serious impact on peacekeeping operations’ effectiveness and peacekeepers’ safety. The US can also provide invaluable support to missions through “enabling” assets such as transport and engineering.

Second, the US should step up its efforts to train peacekeepers, particularly African peacekeepers, whose governments are more willing than those of other regions to deploy them in high-risk emergencies on the continent, and make sure the training is adapted to likely deployment contexts. For example, in environments like the Central African Republic, troops often need to adopt policing techniques that are more appropriate to urban environments, but lack the training to do so. At the same time, we should demand effective monitoring and evaluation of the troops we train as a condition of providing this training.

Finally, the US can play a leading role in guiding the Security Council away from large, unwieldy and impracticable UN mandates to smaller and more efficient ones. The Brahimi Report, an influential, in-depth study of UN peacekeeping published at the turn of the century, recommended that the Security Council consult troop-contributing countries before authorizing a new mandate to allow those who would implement the mandates some say in their content. This would help to ensure, for example, that the Security Council does not greatly overstate the number of troops that could feasibly be deployed, or the tasks that those troops could be expected to accomplish. This crucial recommendation has still not been implemented, but strong US leadership at the UN could help to push it through.

Photo credit: United Nations Photo via flicker

* Jaïr van der Lijn and Stefanie Ros, “Contributor Profile: The Netherlands,” Providing for Peacekeeping, 2014.



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