Peacekeeping in the United Nations: An Unequal Burden?

Edmund McKiernan

Contingent of Nepalese Peacekeepers arrive in Juba, South Sudan. Photo source: United Nations Photo via Flickr Creative Commons

Contingent of Nepalese Peacekeepers arrive in Juba, South Sudan. Photo source: United Nations Photo via Flickr Creative Commons

The argument can be made that the United Nations is poorly equipped to deal with the complexities of social and political issues in the 21st century. Often fatal combinations of arduous bureaucracy and the Security Council veto have proven fatal – most recently in Syria – to numerous prospective peacekeeping or economic mandates. The peacekeepers, themselves authorised to assist in conflict zones, find the thankless and poorly publicised task of preserving peace impossible where there often is none to keep. Intervening in border disputes and war crimes no longer committed by nation states but by rogue actors and terrorist organisations has immeasurably complicated modern peacekeeping. Yet despite these hurdles, critics tend not to criticize the role of the UN but rather take exception to the disposition of its peacekeeping forces within recent years.

The noble enterprise of peacekeeping has arguably no finer champion than the UN: while its forces fall short of the twenty divisions and plethora of military hardware envisioned by its founders it maintains a significant military presence which is currently mandated to undertake 16 disparate peacekeeping operations across the globe. Yet of more than 100,000 personnel involved in UN missions less than 4% were contributed by Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States – permanent members of the Security Council. Meanwhile less affluent nations such as Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Ethiopia, Fiji and Rwanda have consistently ramped up their contributions of personnel to 35% of the UN’s standing forces as of December 2014.

Critics argue that the soldiers contributed to the UN by developing nations are likely to be ill equipped and poorly trained for the conflict zones that they enter. On the 28th August last year this was demonstrated to the international community when the al-Nusra Front stormed the UNDOF refereed border crossing on the Golan Heights – a disputed region between Israel and Syria. In a brief struggle two contingents of Philippine peacekeepers were routed and 45 Fijian soldiers were abducted by the insurgents.

Fortunately after two weeks of negotiations the Fijians were released unharmed, yet critics were quick to seize upon the plight of the small archipelago nations peacekeepers as a wider indication of the need for reform. It is unlikely that soldiers from more affluent nations, by virtue of their superior training and equipment, would have been put in a similar position, they argued. Indeed the Golan Heights incident is a relatively happy tale compared to the regular casualties sustained by the UN on a day to day basis. This month alone a string of attacks have claimed the lives of a number of Senegalese peacekeepers and most recently a Chadian stationed on MINUSMA – the UN mission in Mali.

Blue helmets from Benin attend a funeral in honour of 2 Senegalese peacekeepers killed in Kidal, Mali last year. Photo Source: Mission de l'ONU au Mali - UN Mission in Mali via Flickr Creative Commons

Blue helmets from Benin attend a funeral in honour of 2 Senegalese peacekeepers killed in Kidal, Mali last year. Photo Source: Mission de l’ONU au Mali – UN Mission in Mali via Flickr Creative Commons

Ongoing UN missions are likely to continue deep into 2015; while the deterioration of talks between General Khalifa Haftar’s Dignity and the Islamist Libya Dawn have raised the spectre of fresh UN intervention in Libya. Likewise the failure of the FDLR to disarm in the Democratic Republic of Congo after extensive talks have led to combined government and UN offensives – likely to be the first steps in an arduous campaign in the hills of Eastern Congo. As though this were not enough, the predations of Boko Haram in Northern Nigeria have elicited calls for UN intervention, both to stymie the rapid exacerbation of the humanitarian crises and to support the formation of a pan-African response force.

In all of these existing and prospective conflict zones it will most likely be soldiers from less affluent nations that don blue helmets to occupy the trenches of conflict resolution – is this fair?

There are a number of factors to consider when answering this question, but perhaps the most important is to recognise that all contributions of personnel to UN missions are voluntary.

The permanent members of the Security Council have steadily reduced contributions of manpower to the UN either to avoid overextension or to avoid unpopular foreign policy; however it is important to note that alone, they continue to finance over half (52%) of the UN’s budget. Furthermore developed nations or middle powers – Canada, Germany, Italy, Japan and Spain – provide an additional 28% of the financial muscle of the UN. This level of funding is integral to the viability of continued peacekeeping and more often than not cannot be matched by developing nations. For these nations contributions of personnel provide a better way to demonstrate commitment to the mandate of the UN – and considerable advantages besides.

For a start, as mentioned earlier, members of the UN commit soldiers to peacekeeping roles on a voluntary basis. These soldiers are still paid by their government according to their rank and national salary scale; however the UN also pays their government a stipend for each peacekeeper. The money is a fixed amount paid universally for all peacekeepers by the UN and can be an incentive for developing countries to take a more active role in peacekeeping abroad. In addition to this stipend the UN will also reimburse the cost of supplied equipment and will pay the wages of police and civilian personnel from the budget of the mission on which they serve.

During the Cold War, sending UN peacekeepers abroad was the preserve of middle powers – intermediate states on the fringes of the struggle between the major powers. These nations could act as plausible unbiased brokers of peace, and by assisting the UN could simultaneously strengthen their own international position and renown. The same is still true today, though the burden of peacekeeping has increasingly been shouldered by poorer developing nations, as critics are quick to point out. The top contributors of manpower to the UN – Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Rwanda – among others have found a way to assist in a noble enterprise and simultaneously demonstrate to the international community their stance as champions of international peace and cooperation. The UN provides affordable soft power and recognition to nations determined to bolster their standing in an increasingly connected global community.

A Bolivian peacekeeper plays with a child in Cité Soleil, Haiti. Photo Source: United Nations Photo via Flickr Creative Commons

A Bolivian peacekeeper plays with a child in Cité Soleil, Haiti. Photo Source: United Nations Photo via Flickr Creative Commons

It is also important to consider that the colonial histories of many developed nations make them unsuitable as peacekeepers; using soldiers contributed from regional neighbours has been proven to be more conducive to peace.  Drawn from nations with similar backgrounds to those they assist, they can mediate in conflict zones without bias and without raising the ire of the local populace through ignorance of customs or an inability to empathise; a factor critical to the difficulties experienced by the forces of developed nations in Afghanistan and Iraq. A poignant example of this can be seen in the failure of the US led UN efforts in Somalia during the 1990s, a stark contrast to the gradual successes of the African Union over two decades later.

The perceived injustices surrounding the shouldering of front line peacekeeping duties should be dispelled and recognised for what they are: a step towards a reasonable public policy that allows all nations to play to their strengths, and in so doing benefit. If developing nations wish to contribute to protecting their fellow man, it should be encouraged under the unifying blue helmet and not criticized on the basis of the national uniform.

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