Blue Helmets: UN’s Unloved Stepchild Needs Leadership

Peacekeepers part of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon in 2008. (Alexandra Novosseloff)

There are countless articles that criticize the United Nations blue helmets, the 106,338 civilian and military personnel dispersed among 15 missions that vary in duration but sometimes last decades. The successes of peacekeeping missions never make headlines—from Namibia and Mozambique, to Cambodia, East Timor, and Sierra Leone, through to Liberia, and to a lesser extent Côte d’Ivoire and Haiti. The world had ignored these crises, and who would have been there to assist these populations in distress, had the UN not been deployed? And several studies have shown that a country is less likely to fall back into civil war after a peacekeeping operation has helped restore some of its institutions.

The fact of the matter is that peacekeeping is complex and not without its challenges. The UN’s relationship with its most visible and well-known activity is one of an unloved and often misunderstood stepchild, as peacekeeping operates in an uncomfortable grey zone between war and peace. One hears of incapacity, inconsistency, ineffectiveness, and never-ending missions. One hears of blue helmets committing sexual abuses or failing to respond when populations fall victim to the worst violence mere kilometers from their camp.

All of this is true, and unforgivable. But such criticisms never delve into the real reasons for these failures and faults, nor do they identify those who are truly responsible. While they are often easy to levy, their explanation is more complex and less “juicy.”

To be certain, many operational limitations persist, and yet it would be inaccurate to simply blame “the UN,” which encompasses multiple realities, entities, and actors. Unfortunately, in order to find solutions, it is necessary here to broach a number of sensitive subjects.

Operating on a Shoestring

First, peacekeeping is accused of being too costly. But what is $7.3 billion for the deployment of more than 100,000 people, considering that this represents 0.4% of worldwide military spending? Let us recall that one American soldier can “cost” over $800,000 per year, a blue helmet only $20,000. Thus, the first explanation is that states favor the logic of security and war over the logic of peace.

The major financial contributors are particularly stingy when it comes to providing sufficient resources to accomplish the goals assigned to these operations. Consequently, peacekeeping has always been an activity carried out on a shoestring budget, from the creation of “security zones” in Bosnia in the 1990s (when 3,000 troops were only authorized over 8,000 requested by the Secretary-General) to today’s protection of civilians mandates.

Indeed, though 80% of peacekeeping operations expenditures are military-related, they are financed through limited civilian budgets and not through the larger military budgets, where peacekeeping spending (for military components) could be more easily absorbed. This budget was reduced yet again in 2017, under pressure from the US administration as well as European states.

Fragmented Responsibilities

Since the end of the Cold War, the goals and mandates enacted by the fifteen members of the Security Council have been increasing in complexity, piling up tasks and objectives without a grand unifying strategy.

Here then is a second explanation for the weakness of peacekeeping operations: over decades, the Council has also become divided as to how to keep the peace. Of course, actors on the ground then take advantage of these conflicting voices, creating incentives for instability to endure. In addition, those who authorize and finance mandates are not the ones who manage and implement them.

This fragmentation of responsibilities causes even those who create these operations in the Council to reduce resources for them in the General Assembly—who has the authority to approve budgets—with little consideration for demands on the ground related to mobility, protection, and intelligence.

Weak Military Components

Peacekeeping operations are, first and foremost, managed politically. The military is poorly regarded at the UN, both in the Secretariat where the Office of Military Affairs has little influence, and in the Security Council where it is practically absent and the Military Staff Committee has no substantive role. Little consideration is taken for operational limitations, and military officers are almost completely excluded from logistical planning. This is the third explanation for the military weakness of these operations.

Because of the political nature of peacekeeping operations, the UN has had a tendency to neglect the importance of a military component that needs to be both strong—equipped with a clear chain of command, and adapted for quick reaction and protection capabilities—and robust, i.e., able to command respect, which would allow for better support to political activities. Civilian and military personnel also need to work closer and better together. As a consequence, both the Secretariat and the Security Council often believe that the number of troops can compensate for the mediocrity of certain contingents.

In the name of political or financial interests, and in order not to offend certain countries, no one speaks out against the elementary failures of certain contingents. For a long time there has been reticence to dismiss contingents and to reject others. This has resulted in turning a blind eye to certain practices, for example, the sending out of civilians in uniform and operating without basic means of protection, not to mention cases of sexual misconduct.

Countries tolerate actions in the UN that they would never tolerate in any other circumstance where their strategic interests are at stake. This is indeed the fundamental weakness of peacekeeping operations: they are conducted in places where neither the strategic interests of sponsors nor those of troop contributors are at stake. As a result, the risks taken by blue helmets are minimal. The public in any country does not want their children to die for Juba, Bamako, or Goma. And who can blame them?

Missions Without a Strategic Compass

This whole system could survive if blue helmets were to still operate limited missions as in the past, in the context of peace accords respected by all parties. But in the current asymmetrical contexts with multiple, less-benevolent actors, the UN—due to the weaknesses outlined above—long ago became an easy target, the weakest link in any international presence in a country.

The Security Council assigns more robust mandates, imagining they can just be carried out by troop contributors increasingly tired of taking risks for a Council that is indifferent to their limitations and interests. But Troop Contributing Countries (TCCs) actually believe that the Council assigns them impossible missions that go above and beyond the principles that established the specificity of peacekeeping since 1956. Therein lies yet another weakness.

Rethinking Peacekeeping

Now is the time to redesign peacekeeping around a more political approach, and not an all-out use of force as the recent report of Lieutenant General Carlos Alberto dos Santos Cruz seems to prescribe. One must acknowledge that financial contributors wish to reduce the peacekeeping budget and that TCCs are unwilling to take the necessary risks.

Any approach must include a number of well-targeted pressure points to bring actors to reason: conditioning development aid, enacting individual and targeted sanctions, or threatening to withdraw the UN mission. The approach must be comprehensive.

Peacekeeping must be redesigned on a realistic, more modest basis. Cutbacks should be made without sacrificing professionalism or the solidity of resources made available for military components. An organization like the UN could never lead counter-terrorist activities that require substantial means, particularly in terms of intelligence. Fundamentally, the UN was created in 1945 to prevent war, not wage it.

Peacekeeping must also be redesigned for the long term, with multiple stages in mind in which security stabilization comes before state reconstruction—with all that that entails in terms of stability of political, security, and judicial institutions, rule of law, and economic viability—which can only be accomplished over several generations.

Moreover, this work must be undertaken through partnerships in order to share the load and not merely transfer it to organizations that do not have the means to deliver.

Rethinking the Ambitions of a Worthy Idea

Peacekeeping operations are not a solution to everything—the UN Secretariat has indeed never claimed that they are. They cannot unilaterally bring an end to any crisis, and it is futile to nurture overly ambitious goals for them. Their scope needs to be redefined and delineated. They need to once again have a compass that allows the military to truly support political development.

It is also necessary to acknowledge that peace cannot be imposed or enforced, whether in Iraq, Afghanistan, Mali, or eastern Congo. Imposed or enforced peace is an oxymoron: parties in conflict have never agreed to a peace settlement designed by outsiders. Parties come to the negotiating table when they feel they have an interest in being there, when their resources are low and war has depleted their troops and funds. At that point, the UN can help and support a peace process and secure an agreement. But the UN cannot work miracles where neither side sees the benefit of putting down arms.

If we want peacekeeping to succeed, it can no longer be the go-to for crisis management or the post-crisis sweep vehicle, i.e., certain countries’ exit strategy, or indeed the last resort put on the table in lieu of a real political settlement strategy for a crisis. Peacekeeping needs to have set limits in accordance with its actual resources.

Knowing How to Say No

All this means that the Secretariat must be firmer in its relationship with the Security Council and relearn how to tell the body what it doesn’t like to hear, namely, to decline missions that would be “off limits.” It must also be able to refuse contributions that don’t meet certain standards.

For their part, states must be serious about the personnel and capacities they contribute to the UN. Contributing inadequate personnel or equipment will do nothing but weaken these missions.

Finally, the UN must regain its impartiality vis-à-vis host countries in order to once again become a true arbiter and not merely bolster existing governments if it wants to remain relevant and engaged in internal conflicts.

Peacekeeping is a worthy idea; what needs to be reexamined is how member states use it. Successful peacekeeping missions require that everyone be mobilized. They also require a genuine strategy that is understood by all actors, with the Security Council acting as an orchestra conductor and providing political support, while troop contributors manage the military support, the Secretariat oversees quality control of contributions, and partner organizations supply any political or military services within this strategy.

Each actor must demonstrate goodwill and play its part seriously, or else peacekeeping will continue in its current mistakes, like a poorly-tuned orchestra: dissonant, inharmonious, and cacophonous.

Alexandra Novosseloff is a Senior Visiting Fellow at the Brian Urquhart Center for Peace Operations at the International Peace Institute (IPI). She works on UN peacekeeping and Security Council related issues.

A version of this article was originally published in The Conversation. It is being published on the Global Observatory as part of a series in February on the report of Lieutenant General Carlos Alberto dos Santos Cruz on peacekeeping fatalities and injuries. The Cruz report comes amid a broader strategic review of peacekeeping missions, focused on how the UN can adapt to the changing nature of conflict.