International Order & Conflict

The Imbalance In Countries Contributing UN Peacekeeping Troops

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By Sangyoung Yun:

In advance of the U.N.’s upcoming September 28 leadership summit on peacekeeping hosted by President Obama, the U.N. received a long list of complaints about peacekeeping, including the recent exposés on sexual abuse by peacekeepers. Of course it would be impossible for the three-hour-long summit to work through each and every problem — but leaders would do well to place at the top of the agenda a core challenge: the imbalance of troop contributing countries to U.N. peacekeeping missions.

The imbalance of troop contributing countries seems like a corollary of the less-than-perfect structure of the U.N. peacekeeping system. Currently, the U.N. obligates every Member State to finance peacekeeping in proportion to the size of its economy. As such, the five permanent members of the Security Council account for the lion’s share, with the U.S. alone assuming about 30%. However, there is no such obligation for troop or police contributions and U.N. peacekeepers are recruited based entirely on the voluntary will of a Member State. While developed states were significant troop contributing countries over the decades from the U.N.’s inaugural mission in the Middle East in 1948 through the mid-1990s, the paradigm has shifted since then. There is a clear cleavage between “financial contributors” and “troop contributors,” especially in more complex and violent settings.

This divide may result from each country’s cost-benefit analysis. Less developed countries — mostly from Africa and South Asia — have compelling reasons to send their troops. Among others, peacekeeping operations serve as an opportunity for their soldiers to gain training and field experience and for countries to burnish their image and acquire a source of revenue.

In contrast, developed countries, particularly from the Western world, gradually shied away from sending troops and scaled back their role to paying for peace. Humanitarian crises in Somalia, Bosnia and Rwanda in the early-to-mid 1990s, largely ended Western contributions of peacekeepers to complex or conflict-ridden U.N. missions. European countries in this century have mostly dispatched troops under NATO or E.U. banners, rather than the U.N. flag, to directly serve their own national interest. Some countries, such as the U.S. and France, show a preference for unilateral and regional operations outside the U.N.

Moreover, the African Union has advocated “African solutions to Africa’s problems,” including problems of peace and security. With nine out of sixteen U.N. peacekeeping operations situated in Africa, it may sound reasonable for the countries in the region to contribute the bulk of U.N.’s troops. As President Obama pointed out in his speech in Kenya: “When I first came to sub-Saharan Africa as President, I made clear my strong belief that the future of Africa is up to Africans.” And, consistent with the nationwide public antipathy towards “American boots on the ground,” the U.S. channels its efforts to training local troops and training troop contributing countries rather than deploying American soldiers.  

Although certain European countries have contributed combat ready forces to current U.N. peacekeeping operations, such as combat ready forces in northern Mali alongside troops from major troop committing countries, the bulk of European deployments with the U.N. remain in more traditional settings. Relatively capable East Asian countries, such as China, Japan and South Korea likewise contribute sizable numbers of troops to U.N. missions. However, troops from those countries usually stay confined to non-combat situations and their troop contributions are subject to their domestic politics with dissonance for peacekeeping operations.

U.N. peacekeeping operations have evolved for more than half a century and increasingly require different capabilities of blue helmets in the face of new challenges on the ground. The diversified duties of mandate now include not only observing truces but protecting civilians, policing. The upcoming U.N. leadership summit may be an opportunity to achieve a better balance among troop contributing countries.  It is time for capable forces from developed countries to roll up their sleeves. Leaders at the summit ought to ruminate on the remark by Samantha Power, “Peacekeeping gets other countries to stand up, rather than stand by.”


Photo credit: Aoberg via flickr

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