Hopes High for New Capacities After Obama’s Peacekeeping Summit

US President Barack Obama addresses the recent high level summit on peacekeeping. New York City, September 28, 2015. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Last week’s high-level peacekeeping summit hosted by United States President Barack Obama was another sign that world leaders see the increase in demand for United Nations peace operations as a critical issue. President Obama and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon co-hosted the “Leaders’ Summit on Peacekeeping” along with the governments of Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Japan, the Netherlands, Pakistan, Rwanda, and Uruguay. One of the main objectives was to ask UN member states to provide more resources to strengthen current and future interventions.

The summit comes a year after US Vice President Joe Biden hosted a summit focusing on the capabilities member states could provide in areas of rapid response, aviation, engineering and medical assets, and intelligence. Missing from that event were significant concrete pledges from member states, with only commitments to participate in regional meetings to discuss them. These regional meetings were held over the past year in Ethiopia, the Netherlands, Uruguay, and Indonesia and addressed common interests along with the challenges faced by member states when contributing troops and police.

In the aftermath of the Obama summit, it is important to consider what kinds of pledges were made and what were the innovative contributions. Do the outcomes signify a renewed commitment of the US to the UN in general and to peace operations specifically? Will the UN be able to turn these pledges into contributions, and will this result in more effective peacekeeping?

The event included 50 countries and three regional organizations (European Union, African Union and NATO) and was intended to “generate contributions from member states to close persistent military and policy gaps in current peacekeeping operations; generate rapid deployment commitments from member states to deploy specified units within 30, 60, or 90 days to an expanded or new operation for a defined period of time; and generate commitments from member states to make available specified units that could be called up to deploy to an expanded or new operation or to backfill units transitioning out of current operations.”

Leading from Behind

Although reluctant to place US troops in any large numbers in UN peacekeeping operations, under the Global Peace Operation Initiative (GPOI), the US has trained and equipped thousands of peacekeepers from other countries. The US provided close to 30% of the assessed contributions to UN peacekeeping operations in 2013-2015; in 2009, President Obama also ensured that Congress paid monies in arrears to the UN. In Darfur and Somalia, the US has provided strategic airlift, logistical support, and engineering services to and for African troop-contributing countries (TCCs); most recently, it provided these services during the height of the Central African Republic (CAR) crisis in 2013, by airlifting Burundi peacekeepers directly into CAR. After the disastrous intervention in Somalia in the early 1990s, US engagement with UN peacekeeping shifted to leading from behind and supporting other countries that were better suited to deploy to UN peace operations.

Obama’s announcement of an executive directive on US support to UN peace operations, the first in 20 years, also confirmed renewed US support, which calls for expanding the number of US staff officers to UN peacekeeping operations by providing greater logistical and engineering support, and helping to build UN capacity.

Success in Numbers and Capabilities

The summit also confirmed the renewed European interest in UN peacekeeping. The most innovative pledge was Italy’s announcement of the development of a nationally specialized unit consisting of civilian experts and carabinieri (Italian paramilitary police) focused on protecting national cultural heritage sites. Another innovative pledge was Germany’s announcement of a recently signed memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the UN Department of Field Support (DFS) to deploy a civilian engineering company to UN peacekeeping operations when needed. Finland was the first to pledge special forces and a chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear mobile laboratory. Apart from other resources, the Netherlands pledged a financial contribution to the development of a UN planning capability.

From Asia at large, China pledged 100 million USD to develop the AU’s capacity for rapid deployment, and promised to develop an 8,000 troop stand-by force that could be deployed quickly to UN peacekeeping missions. Armenia pledged to train a company of troops in countering improvised explosive devices (IED). South Korea pledged to contribute a hospital to the AU, an engineering unit, and increase financial contributions to the UN. India pledged an additional 850 troops and the formation of three police units (FPUs) that include women. Japan pledged support to training military, police and civilians, providing more staff officers, engineering capacity, rapid deployment. Pakistan pledged a K-9 unit, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), field hospitals, transport, aviation, and maintenance.

Not to be outdone, regional organizations also made significant contributions. NATO pledged counter-IED support and strategic airlift for rapid deployment. The EU pledged increased funding for training African peacekeepers. The AU pledged to appoint a special envoy for women in conflict and to increase their member state contributions to peace operations by 25% over the next five years.

Many countries pledged support to the AU and promised to assist the organization with developing its capacity to manage conflict and rapidly respond to crises on the continent. In addition to the pledges mentioned above from China and Korea, the United Kingdom pledged 70 specialized troops to the AU Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), and Norway pledged capacity building support. All pledges could potentially increase the effectiveness of AU peace support operations.

UN peacekeeping represents a collective endeavor that is strengthened by diverse participation, including from countries that have experienced UN peacekeeping operations, which is why it was noteworthy to see contributions pledged by countries such as Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Cambodia, El Salvador, Nepal, Croatia, and Liberia.  This is truly a nod to the international community’s efforts to restoring peace in these post-conflict countries and highlights the distance these countries have traveled. These countries pledged not only troops and police but also medical, aviation and engineering enablers and in some cases special weapons and tactics (SWAT).

In sum and substance, these pledges are significant because they can potentially make UN peacekeeping operations in highly complex operational environments marked by asymmetric warfare more responsive by providing them with the capabilities they need to rapidly deploy to remote areas, assess information and respond rapidly. In terms of accountability, a pool of more troops increases the UN Secretariat’s options and leverage when deciding which TCCs/PCCs would be appropriate for a given environment. These capabilities can potentially have great force multiplier effects in CAR, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Mali.

Overall, the leaders’ summit was a success because the pledges exceeded expectations, but this was also the result of a well-prepared process that included regional meetings co-organized by regional troop-contributing countries and strategic outreach by the US to individual member states, which highlighted a key role the US can play with regards to enhancing UN peacekeeping. The US efforts as outlined in its executive directive mentioned above highlights a new direction, but if it is not followed through by the next administration, it could pose severe risks to momentum.

The Way Forward: Turning Pledges into Effective Contributions

In total, member states pledged 40,000 new troops/police, 40 utility and attack helicopters, 15 military engineering companies and 10 field hospitals during the summit.

How will these pledges translate into more effective peace operations? Currently there are capability gaps in most peacekeeping missions, from in-field aviation assets urgently required in Northern Mali and Somalia to “level 2” hospitals in South Sudan and CAR. Deciding on which peacekeeping operations get priority will depend on the UN’s ability to absorb these pledges. The newly inaugurated Strategic Force Generation and Capability Planning Cell, together with the Force Generation Service, will have to manage this process and ensure pledges are either absorbed in a timely fashion, or put in stand-by as part of the new Peacekeeping Capabilities Readiness System.

Another factor that could potentially slow the summit’s momentum is dealing with member state caveats; what happens when capabilities are earmarked for use in certain missions like Mali or South Sudan but not others like Darfur, CAR, or the DRC, where they may be needed the most. Other types of national caveats can also stem the effectiveness of UN peace operations and it will be important for the UN to know what capabilities it is really getting before deciding to deploy them to a mission.

President Obama’s hope is that these new capabilities will help to prevent mass atrocities and ensure that peace agreements are enforced. However, more capabilities and resources should not distract from important conflict resolution/prevention tasks under the pretext that it can deploy more stabilization missions, as acknowledged in the summit’s declaration that “UN peacekeeping operations are a means to support sustainable political solutions to armed conflicts and to contribute to the conditions for durable peace.” More peacekeeping capabilities are important and can potentially make UN peace operations more effective, but only if they are not conceived as a substitute for sustainable political solutions.