The United Nations General Assembly has approved $6.8 billion in peacekeeping expenditures for the 2017/18 budget year. This total will increase, possibly to as much as $7.3 billion, since states only agreed on the first six months of funding for two ongoing operations. Yet even that total would still be some $600 million less than the amount requested by UN Secretary-General António Guterres and $500 million less than the approved resources for the previous year.
United States Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley has celebrated this reduction: “Just five months into our time here, we’ve already been able to cut over half a billion dollars from the U.N. peacekeeping budget and we’re only getting started.” The UN’s Africa Group has warned, however, that excessive budget cuts would “endanger the implementation of [mission] mandates.”
All states in the debate over funding have national interests to defend. The US is currently assessed for almost 28.5% of UN peacekeeping costs, and the Trump administration has pledged to decrease US financial contributions to the UN. Africa hosts nine of the 14 peace operations whose financing the UN just approved, representing 83% of approved expenditures, and African states furnish some 40% of UN peacekeepers. The standard cited by the Africa Group is appropriate for assessing the new budget, however. The General Assembly has the power to determine the budgets of UN peacekeeping operations, but is committed to doing so without compromising their mandates. As its financing resolutions routinely state, “all peacekeeping missions shall be provided with adequate resources for the effective and efficient discharge of their respective mandates.”
Whether this standard has been upheld in this year’s budget negotiations is difficult to assess in the aggregate. Not all operations face budget reductions, and individual budgets are best assessed against mandates and operational realities on the ground. A closer look at the case of MONUSCO, the UN operation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), thus provides important, though still partial, insights into this year’s budget cuts.
MONUSCO is the UN’s largest and most expensive peacekeeping operation, currently comprising some 17,000 military personnel, 1,500 police officers, and 3,500 civilians. Its budget for 2017/18 is $1.14 billion, almost $100 million less than in 2016/17, which represents an 8% reduction.
Yet over the past year MONUSCO’s operational tasks have expanded and become more challenging. In March 2017, the Security Council defined two “strategic priorities” for the mission. The first is long-standing: MONUSCO is charged with protecting Congolese civilians, including by neutralizing armed groups. However, a panoply of armed groups remain deeply ensconced in the eastern DRC, and their activity has increased in recent months. Armed conflict and intercommunal tensions have also arisen in previously stable provinces in southern and central DRC, including Tanganyika and, especially, the Kasai provinces. The number of internally displaced people within the DRC has skyrocketed to 3.7 million, including 1.3 million in the Kasais.
MONUSCO’s second strategic priority is to support the implementation of a December 31, 2016, transitional arrangement negotiated when President Joseph Kabila refused to relinquish power after his second term in office ended on December 19, 2016. The agreement provides for presidential and legislative elections by December 2017. MONUSCO’s support for the voter registration phase has included air lifting 4,000 tons of registration materials and technical support to the Independent National Electoral Commission.
The mission estimates its costs from this strategic priority at $42 million for 2016/17, and predicts at least a further $100 million in 2017/18 should the elections proceed. Having to absorb these costs within its existing budget would effectively double the funding cut for other mission activities this budget year. Yet progress toward elections has been halting at best, escalating political tensions throughout the DRC. There is a high risk of violence if elections are not held within the framework of the December 31 agreement.
In this context, what explains the recent budget cut? The DRC’s precarious political and security situation is not solely or even primarily due to UN failures, but it does not reflect well on MONUSCO or its predecessor mission, MONUC, which have cost UN member states almost $18 billion since 1999. A strategic review of the mission is certainly appropriate, given the evolving operational environment and ongoing challenges, not least of which is further progress toward MONUSCO’s goal of fielding a “more agile, proactive, and effective force,” the importance and difficulties of which the Kasais crisis again illustrated. Indeed, the Security Council called for just such a review when it renewed MONUSCO’s mandate in March 2017. Critically, however, the 2017 budget cut preempted the results of this review, and there is little indication that it was based on a clear vision for a more effective mission.
The first step toward the cut was already taken in the March 2017 Security Council deliberation. In line with the Trump administration’s commitment to trim UN peacekeeping expenses, the US sought a force reduction of some 1,700 troops below the roughly 17,600 then deployed. France and other Council members resisted this as incompatible with prevailing political and security challenges. Ultimately, the authorized troop “ceiling” was lowered to 16,875 military personnel. In April, the General Assembly’s expert Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions (ACABQ) estimated the associated cost reduction at $26.7 million, and recommended additional smaller adjustments to the Secretary-General’s proposed budget, for a total reduction of $36 million.
The June 2017 budget, however, is a further $59 million below the ACABQ’s recommendation. The operational justification is unclear. MONUSCO’s strategic review is only due to be completed in September, so its results remain unknown. The negotiations that produced the budget cut reflected states’ national political priorities. The US advocated reducing the total funding for military and civilian personnel. Russia and China championed diminishing resources for MONUSCO’s unarmed aerial systems. Aviation was another target for cost reductions, which may have been expedient given the costliness of air assets but is difficult to reconcile with the demand for a more agile MONUSCO force in a country two-thirds the size of Western Europe, with less than 3,000 kilometers of paved roads.
Ultimately, the budget cut imposed on MONUSCO was only half the $200 million reduction that appeared possible at the height of negotiations. In addition to inter-state diplomacy, UN Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Jean-Pierre Lacroix’s June visit to MONUSCO may have helped tip the balance toward a less draconian cut. Nevertheless, the dynamics behind the budget cut are concerning. The General Assembly is inherently and necessarily a political body. The challenge in financing negotiations is to find a balance between national political priorities and the operational imperatives in peacekeeping missions, given the mandates set by the Security Council and the strategic realities facing the missions. For MONUSCO, at least, this year’s negotiations tipped perilously toward cost-cutting as an end in itself, rather than reflecting a clear vision for a more effective mission, or a more peaceful DRC.
Katharina P. Coleman is Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, University of British Columbia