United Nations peacekeeping has long been regarded as a cost-effective response to international security challenges, and a relatively successful means to reestablish stability and enable lasting peace agreements. However, there are growing concerns that downward pressure on peacekeeping budgets—particularly, though not exclusively from permanent members of the Security Council—is negatively impacting the ability of missions to implement ambitious mandates.
As part of the Declaration of Shared Commitments on Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ Action for Peacekeeping (A4P) initiative, member states committed “to seek measures to enable greater coherence between mandates and resources.” The question of how to do this is a longstanding challenge—yet finding a solution is a critical priority.
UN missions are deployed in some of the most complex and difficult crises, whether facilitating political settlement in Mali, extending government control in the Central African Republic, or providing physical protection for hundreds of thousands of civilians amid a fragile peace agreement in South Sudan. In response, the UN Security Council has mandated peacekeeping missions to undertake a wide range of ambitious tasks, from protecting civilians and supporting state security forces, to disarming militia and supporting local dialogue. The steady accretion of these tasks, increasingly specific and often without prioritization, has been criticized for diluting the UN’s efforts and diminishing its impact.
At the same time, peace operations budgets have been under intensifying scrutiny from major financial contributors in the Fifth Committee of the UN General Assembly, particularly the United States, China, and Russia—all permanent members of the Security Council. The administration of US President Donald Trump has sought to drastically reduce the US share of the UN peacekeeping budget by paring back individual mission budgets in annual negotiations and electing not to pay its assessed contributions beyond a US government-mandated cap of 25 percent.
The US administration has tried, at least in principle, to link these reductions to peacekeeping reforms. Meanwhile, China and Russia have also pushed for deep cuts, including to human rights and gender posts. Even the G77, generally supportive of expenditures associated with uniformed personnel, have resisted consultancy costs that provide short term, and often much needed, external expertise on everything from conflict analysis to reducing gender-based violence. Countries and regional groupings also take different approaches to budget negotiations. The US, for example, tends to push for an overall budget number as a way of providing some discretion to the UN Secretariat on how any reductions fall. Others tend to push for line items cuts, often without regard to mandated tasks.
In June 2018, the Center for Civilians in Conflict published a report on the impact of financial and personnel reductions for the UN Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) in which it noted that resource constraints “drove the closure of a number of bases ahead of schedule,” while “reduced travel budgets and aviation assets linked to the 2017 budget cuts will make it difficult for MONUSCO to be more mobile.” The report argued that “reducing peacekeeping resources could be particularly detrimental if decisions on whether, when, and how to reduce budgets and personnel are not clearly linked to conditions on the ground and to assessments of how downsizing is likely to affect the safety and security of civilians.” A follow up report, in October 2019, noted that MONUSCO preemptively reduced its 2019–2020 budget request in order to “proactively decide where to cut costs rather than leaving decision-making on reductions to the UN General Assembly’s Fifth Committee.”
For MONUSCO, the reductions were made by both the Council and the Fifth Committee without a commensurate shift in expectations for the mission’s ability to protect civilians. The UN Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA) faced a different challenge in 2018, when the Security Council included an additional task in the mission’s mandate to “provide limited logistical support for the progressive redeployment” of the country’s armed forces “within existing resources.” This was a rare case of the Security Council pronouncing itself on financial implications, requiring the mission to “absorb” the additional costs associated with the task by shifting funding from other budgeted tasks. Yet, the practice is becoming more common, largely due to concerns from the current US administration that additional tasks may come with requests for significant cost increases. Expansion of protection of civilians responsibilities for the UN Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) in 2019 followed a similar pattern.
The disconnect between, on the one hand, Security Council decisions on UN peacekeeping mandates and, on the other, budgetary agreements by the Fifth Committee on financial resources and staffing for those missions, is often cited as one of the main obstacles to effective mandate implementation. This, of course, belies the volatility and unpredictability of environments in which UN peacekeeping operates, where events are frequently beyond the control of the UN. But it does underscore a truism that peacekeeping missions need adequate funding to carry out the tasks outlined in their mandates.
The challenge for diplomats, if not the Secretariat, is determining what resources are required to fulfill the Security Council’s expectations—and, where necessary, tempering those expectations if member states are unwilling to bear the costs, whether in terms of troops and resources. This is not a new challenge. Nearly twenty years ago, the Brahimi Report recommended that the Security Council leave resolutions authorizing missions in draft until the secretary-general has hard commitments of troops and critical enablers.
But determining what is sufficient is a matter of interpretation. Budget submissions based on inputs and outputs, rather than results, enable delegates to haggle over the number and level of posts and budget lines for travel or infrastructure, instead of deliberating over how much funding is required to achieve a particular result, e.g., effective community engagement or supporting peace talks.
Council decision-making is not entirely insulated from financial advice. When considering a new mission or a major reconfiguration, there is a formal process for the Secretariat to provide a cost estimate. The Security Council President’s statement on April 6, 2009 requires that the Secretariat provide the Council with the financial implications of major proposals—essentially the level of commitment authority the secretary-general intends to seek for new peace operations or major reconfigurations, though it is not clear how consistently the latter is applied or what the threshold of “major” is.
There is, however, no requirement or mechanism by which the Security Council is informed of the operational implications of the approved budget for an individual mission on its mandate. The secretary-general’s regular reporting to the Council focuses on how well a peacekeeping mission is achieving its mandate. Typically, the reports cite recent developments under issues relevant to the mandate—security incidents, political developments, etc., while analysis is relegated to the section providing the secretary-general’s observations. Reports to the Fifth Committee (which reportedly receives more documentation than any other General Assembly body) focus on how a mission has expended its budget against the previous appropriation, and provides justification for the upcoming year’s budget—down to the number of planned workshops and patrols. Neither set of reports addresses the impact of one on the other.
The Department of Peace Operations, largely in response to requests from the Special Committee on Peacekeeping (C34) and the Security Council, is developing an analytic capacity for field missions to better track their impact and inform internal decision-making, known as the comprehensive performance assessment system (CPAS). According to Under-Secretary-General Jean-Pierre Lacroix, “This system will also help Member States craft more targeted mandates and direct resources towards areas where we can make the biggest difference.” If achieved, this result would be significant, but such a paradigm shift is still aspirational.
One option to remedy these challenges in the interim is to institutionalize a dialogue between the Security Council and the Fifth Committee regarding the results of the annual peacekeeping budget. The Security Council and the Fifth Committee closely guard their respective decision-making prerogatives. The chair of the Fifth Committee could transmit a short note from the Secretariat, via a formal letter to the president of the Security Council following the peacekeeping budget session. The note could present the approved mission budgets, identify reductions against the secretary-general’s request, and provide information on how the missions would readjust plans to offset any potential operational impact. This would maintain the respective prerogative of the two bodies, while recognizing that it is the interest of the Council to be apprised of the consequences of budgets on its mandates.
In fact, some tentative ad hoc efforts in this direction have recently been tried, which could serve as a model for further institutionalization. The Secretariat presented the approved 2018–2019 peacekeeping budget to Security Council members’ military advisers. While articulating the impact of reductions on missions’ mandate delivery is sensitive, the Secretariat is getting bolder. In June, during the 2019–2020 budget negotiations, the Fifth Committee was provided with an analysis of the potential impact of member states’ proposed budget reductions on the delivery of each mission. According to a UN official, the paper helped keep the peacekeeping budget envelope relatively intact.
Creating a better link between the Security Council and the Fifth Committee will not in and of itself change mandating practices in the former or budget negotiations in the latter. But it would enable a layer of accountability and transparency that does not currently exist, and could help inform expectations within the Security Council and Fifth Committee for what a mission should or should not achieve.
Within permanent missions, this could encourage greater coordination between Council and Fifth Committee experts, and improve alignment between the intended results of mandates and the resources needed to implement them. Within the Council, it could encourage members to more closely monitor operational impact, and, where necessary, adjust the scope of mandates based on realities on the ground. Within the Fifth Committee, it could encourage delegates to make more informed decisions about budget levels and operational tradeoffs.