Crucial UN Peacekeeping Is Stretched to 'Absolute Limits'

Thursday, June 11, 2015
George Moose

The alarming state of the overtaxed United Nations peacekeeping system endangers human rights, genocide prevention, development and the prospects for sustainable peace, USIP board Vice Chairman George Moose told an audience June 5 at the annual membership meeting of the United Nations Association of the National Capital Area.

Photo Courtesy of UN Photo/Martine Perret

“Of all the issues on the U.N.’s agenda in this year, none is more urgent or critical than modernizing and revitalizing U.N. peacekeeping,” Moose, a former U.S. assistant secretary of state for African affairs, said in the gathering at the United Nations Foundation in Washington D.C. The event also honored USIP Senior Advisor Princeton N. Lyman, a former U.S. Special Envoy for Sudan and South Sudan, and one-time ambassador to South Africa and Nigeria, with the Arthur W. Johnson Leadership Award.

“Rightly, peacekeeping is viewed as the U.N.’s signature brand.  It is what earned the U.N. the Nobel Peace Prize in 1988.”  -- USIP Vice Chairman George Moose

USIP’s training and professional education arm, the Academy for International Conflict Management and Peacebuilding, conducts trainings for peacekeeping contingents in non-violent responses to potential confrontations such as at checkpoints and in principles such as the protection of civilians.

Moose detailed his points in the remarks below, as prepared for delivery:

This year, 2015, is certain to be an important year for the United Nations – possibly an inflection year. For starters, it marks the organization’s 70th anniversary.  It is also the year when the U.N. will seek to agree a comprehensive new development agenda to succeed the MDGs [Millennium Development Goals].  And, of course, there is the unfinished task of leading the international community to agreement on an urgently needed global response to climate change.

But my purpose here this evening is to make the case that, of all the issues on the U.N.’s agenda in this year, none is more urgent or critical than modernizing and revitalizing U.N. peacekeeping, and ensuring the survival and sustainability of this essential international security tool.  Why do I say this?  First, because it is increasingly clear that the U.N.’s peacekeeping capacities have been stretched to their absolute limits.  And secondly because it is equally clear that the absence of a robust capacity for peace operations would jeopardize a good many of the other goals on our international agenda.

If you are concerned about advancing the human rights agenda, then you should worry about what would happen in the absence of the human rights protections afforded by peacekeepers.

If you are concerned about genocide prevention, then you should worry about what the collapse of U.N. peace operations would mean for our already limited ability to respond to situations of mass atrocity.

If you are concerned about development, then you must acknowledge the reality that peace and stability are the absolute prerequisites.

And if you share with my colleagues at the U.S. Institute of Peace a concern for building sustainable peace in fragile states and conflict-affected zones, then you know that the presence of U.N. peacekeepers is often essential to creating the context for our peacebuilding efforts.

But why should we be concerned about the current state of the U.N.’s peacekeeping capacities?  It is because over the past two decades the international community has placed increasing demands on the institution of peacekeeping, without a corresponding investment in preserving and strengthening the U.N.’s ability to conduct these increasingly difficult and dangerous operations.

Today, United Nations peacekeeping has assumed an importance that the framers of the U.N. Charter would never have imagined – especially when one recalls that the term peacekeeping appears nowhere in that Charter.  At this moment, the U.N. ranks first in the number of operational forces deployed around the world, with some 130,000 peacekeepers assigned to 16 missions.

Even Combat Missions

As the number of peace operations has grown, so have they grown in size and complexity.  From relatively simple tasks such as truce supervision and peace observation, U.N. operations have expanded to take on complex demands of peacebuilding and state building, democracy building and human rights protection, transitional justice and civilian policing and, even more broadly, development. Increasingly, U.N. forces are being asked to go beyond keeping the peace among parties that have pledged to make peace, to imposing and enforcing peace on would-be spoilers.  Indeed, some of its current operations, such as those in Somalia, the Eastern Congo and Mali, have moved beyond even the traditional understanding of peace enforcement, into what amounts to combat missions against criminal syndicates and international terrorists.

Moreover, we know that the demand for these kinds of international peace operations will only grow in the future.  One need only consult the list of fragile and failing states to know that, at any given moment, more than one will require – indeed, demand – the attention and likely assistance of the international community.  The recent example of the Central African Republic is, unfortunately, instructive.

But while the demand for critical peacekeeping services that we have come to look to the U.N. to provide continues to grow, the supply of peacekeeping capacity has not.  We routinely witness a scenario in which the U.N. Security Council, in its wisdom, determines that the establishment of a new peace operation is imperative, and then hands the new mandate over to the Secretary-General with the instruction, “Round up the usual suspects!” 

But if one looks around the table, it is immediately apparent that many of the traditional contributors to U.N. peacekeeping are no longer there.  And while a few new players have stepped forward, the reality is that demand continues to exceed the available supply.  Every one of the current U.N. missions is well below its authorized troop strength.

The deficit is even more apparent if measured in terms of capability and quality.  The nature of these new peace operations also demands an increase in the capacities and skills of those who would engage in them. 

Those at the U.N. who have been charged with managing this deepening challenge deserve both our admiration and our support.  With the support of many countries, including the United States, they have struggled to stretch the cloth of peacekeeping to its limits in order to cover these growing demands.  The question, however, is whether this approach is sustainable, and for how long. 

High-Level Review

I have felt for some time now that U.N. peacekeeping is facing an imminent crisis, one that cannot be resolved at the operational level.  But I am by no means alone in this view.  That, indeed, was the concern of former Secretary-General – and former head of U.N. peacekeeping – Kofi Annan when I met with him several months ago in Geneva.  It is also the concern of current Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who last fall established a high-level panel of distinguished political leaders and senior officials to examine the current challenges to U.N. peacekeeping.  Headed by former Jose Ramos-Horta, the former president of East Timor, the panel is to report to the U.N. General Assembly this fall.

In March, USIP and the U.N. Foundation had the honor of hosting President Ramos-Horta and several panel members during their fact-finding visit to Washington.  In his keynote address to that symposium, Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken affirmed the Obama Administration’s commitment to ensuring the vitality and sustainability of this critically important tool, but he also underscored his concerns about the current state of the U.N.’s peacekeeping capacities.

As he put it, “(W)hile the challenges to peacekeeping have fundamentally changed, the truth is that we, as a peacekeeping community, largely have not . . .  We know we have to do better – to equip U.N. peacekeepers with the flexibility, the capacity and the political backing to meet 21st Century challenges.”

'Signature Brand'

Those same sentiments were echoed most recently in an article by former U.N. Under Secretary for Peacekeeping Jean-Marie Guehenno, who in a recent article wrote: “The demands on peacekeeping have grown too fast; the operational role of the U.N. is clearly ahead of its capabilities . . . The U.N. has reached a new turning point . . .   A genuine international community, based on shared values, should remain our goal, but it will not exist unless we can shore up the imperfect states that are its building blocks.”

What becomes of U.N. peacekeeping is vitally important in its own right.  But it is also important to the reputation and the future of the U.N. as an organization.  Rightly, peacekeeping is viewed as the U.N.’s signature brand.  It is what earned the U.N. the Nobel Peace Prize in 1988.  It is what comes most immediately to people’s minds when they think of the U.N.  If U.N. peacekeeping is seen to fail, the impact on the credibility of the entire organization will be profound – especially at a time when there is a sense that the U.N. is not meeting either our needs or our expectations in other areas.

Let me close with this observation:  The challenges currently confronting U.N. peacekeeping are not merely operational.  At heart they are political, and they will require a political solution.   To echo Secretary Blinken, what is required, is a new political compact among those who recognize the critical importance that U.N. peacekeeping will continue to play, a compact on how the burdens of supporting this indispensable tool will be equitably and fairly shared.  That, I daresay, is a charge that can only be addressed by senior political leaders around the world.

The situation poses particular questions for the United States, which remains in both political and financial terms, certainly, the biggest contributor to the U.N. in general and U.N. peacekeeping in particular.  When discussing this topic two years ago at USIP, then Assistant Secretary Brimmer observed, “There are still some here in Washington intent on forcing a U.S. retreat from global leadership, by hindering our participation in the U.N. system. [But] U.S. engagement with the U.N. has never been more critical or more beneficial to our nation.”  On no issue is that more true than on the issue of the future of U.N. peace operations. 

In sum, we are presented with an urgent and vitally important challenge; but we also have, with the work of the high-level panel, the opportunity to find a meaningful solution.

Thank you.