United Nations peacekeepers patrolling areas around Bentiu, in South Sudan, last month. More than 200,000 civilians are sheltering on United Nations bases in the country.CreditTyler Hicks/The New York Times
They are the ubiquitous face of the United Nations system: blue-helmeted peacekeepers scattered around the world’s war zones.
But with the Trump administration threatening to cut funds for the United Nations and rethink the very utility of peacekeeping, the blue helmets are facing a significant overhaul that could affect the lives of civilians and, ultimately, the organization’s reputation.
The American ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki R. Haley, has promised to undertake a mission-by-mission review of peacekeeping, as part of her get-tough approach to international diplomacy. The United Nations secretary general, António Guterres, meanwhile, is striving to slim down operations himself, in an effort to prevent an increasingly insular United States from gutting the organization altogether.
Ms. Haley wants her fellow Security Council members to debate early next month whether peacekeeping is still “fit for purpose,” according to a note from her office to fellow council members.
The note, seen by The New York Times, poses existential questions that are raising concerns among world powers, like France, that advocate robust peacekeeping operations. “Council members are encouraged to review missions and identify areas where mandates no longer match political realities,” it says.
Peacekeeping is the organization’s most costly undertaking, but it is still relatively inexpensive for the United States. It costs $7.87 billion to fund 16 peacekeeping missions worldwide, from Cyprus to Mali to a tiny observer mission in Kashmir. American taxpayers pay just over 28 percent of that budget — about $2.2 billion, equivalent to the cost of two B-2 bombers. (The United States Air Force has 20.)
In 2015, the United States was the country with the most procurement contracts for the United Nations peacekeeping system, with $1.6 billion in goods and services.
Among the nearly 92,000 uniformed personnel, there are fewer than 70 American soldiers and police officers. The largest numbers come from Ethiopia, India and Pakistan — and diplomats here say some troop contributors, who after all have a financial incentive to maintain the status quo, will push back if they sense that Mr. Guterres is bending over backward to please the Trump administration.
A demonstration against the Democratic Republic of Congo’s president, Joseph Kabila, in December. With elections in Congo coming up at the end of the year, France has warned against making deep cuts to the peacekeeping operation in the country. CreditJohn Wessels/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
The drive to revamp peacekeeping represents Ms. Haley’s first foray into the changes she says she wants at the United Nations. Her first challenge, set to unfold in the coming days, is over how to deal with the United Nations’ biggest mission: in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the largest peacekeeping operation with 18,700 troops and police officers.
Ms. Haley is pushing to pare it down, and soon. France has warned against making deep cuts now, with elections in Congo coming up at the end of the year and civilians still subject to grisly killings and rapes. Closing the mission now, the French ambassador to the United Nations, François Delattre, said this past week, would be like “playing with fire.”
Mr. Delattre said he was all for making operations more efficient, but not at the expense of protecting civilians.
“Do we want to downsize U.N. peacekeeping operations so they are no longer able to react in case of massacres or when terrorists threaten the existence of fragile states and even our own security?” he said. “Or do we want to make U.N. peacekeeping operations more efficient and right-sizing so they can help stabilize countries and protect civilians when they are in real danger? For France, there’s only one option.”
The United States’ move comes at a time when China has stepped up its support for peacekeeping — deploying an infantry battalion to South Sudan, for instance, and pledging to build a 8,000-strong standby force. And it stands in sharp contrast to the Obama administration’s approach: Two years ago, President Barack Obama leaned on other countries to deploy their troops for peacekeeping, and in turn promised more American logistical support, including air and sea lift capacity.
For the United Nations, the stakes are not just about money.
By the world body’s own admission, peacekeepers have not always been effective in protecting civilians. Cases of sexual abuse have sullied the organization’s reputation, and United Nations forces are blamed for bringing cholera to Haiti, and then bringing little relief to Haitians. Still, cutting back forces from conflict zones carries enormous risks; the memory of Rwanda, where a genocide unfolded after United Nations peacekeepers pulled out, looms large.
The note prepared by Ms. Haley’s office asks fundamental questions about the value of peacekeeping operations. It asks whether it is “advisable” to deploy troops to a country where the government does not want them. This echoes the national sovereignty arguments that China and Russia often make in seeking to minimize United Nations involvement in other countries’ affairs.
If political talks break down in a country in conflict, it continues, how long should a United Nations mission remain? This could apply to a mission like Darfur, the ravaged western swath of Sudan where atrocities against civilians continue, with slim prospects for a political settlement between the government and Darfuri rebels.
A small clinic in Rendel, Haiti, overflowing with cholera patients. United Nations forces are blamed for bringing the disease to the country. CreditMeridith Kohut for The New York Times
And even if peacekeepers “serve a valuable protection role,” Ms. Haley’s note adds, how long should a mission continue to operate? The continuing mission in the Golan Heights, for instance, was established in 1974.
United Nations peacekeeping missions were originally designed to make sure warring parties kept a negotiated peace. That is less and less the case. Now they are increasingly engaged in active conflict zones, and in some places, like in northern Mali, they find themselves easy prey for terrorist groups.
Peacekeeping has been confronting an identity crisis for the last couple of years, with a host of review panels issuing a variety of recommendations on how to revamp it for the modern age. Now, pressure from the Trump administration could bring about the most radical changes — including, potentially, slashing its budget.
Mr. Guterres, who took over the United Nations in January, has cast himself as a reformist secretary general, and the pressure from the Trump administration may give him the leverage he needs to make cuts and otherwise overhaul peacekeeping.
José Ramos-Horta, the East Timorese Nobel Peace Prize winner, who led a high-level panel on improving peacekeeping last year, acknowledged in an email this past week that some operations needed to be thought through more carefully. Some missions are too big, he said, while others need more planes to get around affected territories more quickly, and others need a political strategy that justifies deployment. “Numbers alone do not guarantee efficiency and success,” he said.
United Nations officials say they were already planning to draw down several missions: in Liberia, Ivory Coast and Haiti, where all but a few hundred police officers are scheduled to remain.
The mission in Darfur, with more than 17,000 soldiers and police officers, is a prime target of cuts. The government in Khartoum has been accused of atrocities against its own people in rebel-held areas, and the United Nations, which says it is often blocked by the government from moving around freely, of doing little to protect them.
Then there is South Sudan, where the United Nations has warned of the risks of genocide and a looming famine. More than 200,000 civilians are sheltering on United Nations bases in the country.
It is unclear what Ms. Haley has in mind for South Sudan, except to question, publicly, how a mission can operate in a country where the government does not want peacekeepers.
(c) 2017 New York Times