Ambassador Power to Europeans: Come Back to UN Peacekeeping!

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Percentage of western European troops in UN Peacekeeping missions


UN Peacekeeping used to be a decidedly European project. Twenty Five years ago, Europeans contributed the bulk of troops to UN Peacekeeping. Today, all European countries combined account for only about 7% of Blue Helmets deployed around the world.

This decline in European participation in peacekeeping mission occurred as the demand for Blue Helmets has exploded in recent years and the complexities of missions they are tasked to undertake have reached unprecedented levels. UN Peacekeeping needs more and better troops than ever before. But European countries that used to deploy highly trained and well equipped troops to UN missions have generally stopped doing so.

It’s a recipe for disaster–and one that the US Ambassador to the UN is seeking to remedy.

In a speech today in Brussels, Samantha Power issued a friendly and earnest plea to America’s European allies to come back to the institution they helped invent. Power pressed Europe to increase their participation in UN Peacekeeping, arguing that as NATO scales back its mission in Afghanistan those European units can and should be deployed to UN Missions worldwide. “UN peacekeeping needs European militaries more than ever,” she said in a long speech before assembled European military and civilian leaders.

Whither European Contributions to UN Peacekeeping? 

Back when Europeans wore the majority of blue helmets, UN Peacekeeping looked a lot different then it does today. Generally, peacekeepers were sent to a region only after warring factions agreed to a ceasefire. Blue Helmets were deployed to monitor the peace agreement and give both sides the kind of breathing room necessary for a more enduring peace to take hold.

Then came the twin disasters of the 1990s: Bosnia and Rwanda. In both cases, Peacekeepers operating under this old model were thrust into situations that demanded something entirely different. And in both cases, Europeans were on the forefront: Dutch peacekeepers were unable to stop a slaughter unfolding in front of them in Srebrenica; and in Rwanda, a tiny and ill-equipped Belgian peacekeeping force sustained numerous casualties and withdrew in the midst of an ongoing genocide. Peacekeeping was a broken enterprise from which Europe withdrew.

“Not your mother’s UN Peacekeeping”

Much has changed since then. New missions now explicitly include civilian protection as part of their core mandates. And the United Nations is now far better equipped to provide peacekeepers with the tools they need to carry out that mandate. It’s far from perfect, but the institution of UN Peacekeeping bears little resemblance to its incarnations in the 1990s. “UN peacekeeping is not your mother’s peacekeeping,” said Power.

This is also true of the kinds of missions that UN Peacekeepers are being asked to undertake. Unlike the old era, new missions are generally not deployed to patrol an unsteady peace, but to enforce a non-existing one and protect civilians in the crossfire. The missions are exceedingly complex; with peacekeepers operating in environments rife with asymmetric threats from terrorists; competing militias; and sometimes uncooperative host country governments.

As the complexity increased, so did the the number of missions. Today, there are more than 130,000 personnel serving in 16 missions worldwide–the most ever. By far, the vast majority of these troops come from the developing world; Southeast Asian countries like Bangladesh and African countries like Rwanda and Ethiopia making up the bulk of blue helmets. (For its part, the USA contributes exactly 36 troops and 84 police officers.)

The toughest missions, like South Sudan, Mali, and Darfur, have the protection of civilians at the heart of their mandate. But troops lack certain basic capacities that would enable them to effectively protect civilians. These missions demand the contribution of peacekeepers from militaries with sophisticated capabilities. And here, says Power, is where Europeans can add significant value.

These new challenges and responsibilities are the reason that UN peacekeeping needs European militaries more than ever. European troops have extensive training, professionalism, and high-end equipment. European countries can also provide high-value niche capabilities, like medical units, engineering companies, attack helicopter units, and teams to conduct intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, or ISR.

UN peacekeeping would benefit exponentially from the kinds of contributions that European countries provided to the NATO-led mission in Afghanistan, ISAF. Four years ago, European countries had approximately 35,000 troops in ISAF.

Today, that number has decreased to 2,000, freeing up troops who could make a tremendous difference elsewhere. Germans and Danes who piloted utility helicopters in Afghanistan, moving essential supplies and equipment across territory, could provide the same critical mobility assets to peacekeepers across large swaths of Darfur. Italians and Spaniards who ran military hospitals in Afghanistan could provide the same high-quality medical care to peacekeepers combating violent extremists in Mali. Romanians and Czechs who protected ISAF bases by patrolling, manning checkpoints, and conducting cordon-and-search operations, could do the same for UN bases in South Sudan, where more than 100,000 displaced civilians have fled to UN bases for their lives.

It’s a bit tough for an American to tell Europeans to give more troops to UN Peacekeeping when Americans make up only a tiny percentage of UN Peacekeepers worldwide. But the fact is, the political environment in Europe is far more amenable to the contribution of these niche capabilities than in the USA. There’s already some hopeful signs that Europeans get this: the Dutch are providing crucial helicopter assets to the mission in Mali; and the French and Europeans backstopped the newest UN Peacekeeping mission in the Central African Republic. Incidentally, these are the two newest missions.

Still, Peacekeeping is at an exceedingly fragile juncture. In particular, the missions in Central African Republic, DRC, South Sudan, Mali, and Darfur, are stretching the institution of peacekeeping to a breaking point. The troops are too few and too ill-equipped to live up the promise of UN peacekeeping. Hundreds of thousands of civilians demand protection, but the troops best able to provide civilians sanctuary remain in short supply.

Europeans left UN Peacekeeping back in the 1990s amid the world’s collective failure to protect civilians in harms’ way. Europeans now might be just the ones to save it.