Why Joe Biden is Talking About UN Peacekeeping at the United Nations Today

UN Peacekeeping is at a breaking point. There are currently over 100,000 UN Peacekeepers serving in 17 missions across the globe. This is near an all time high–and the kinds of missions that are being undertaken are radically different today than they were just a few decades ago. So far, the international community has has a tough time adapting.

This could change with a big meeting chaired by Joe Biden at the United Nations today.

The challenge is deep: Missions in places like South Sudan, the Central African Republic, Mali, and Darfur are exceedingly complex. There are multiple warring factions, some of which are non-state actors and terrorist groups who do not respect the neutrality of the United Nations. In the meantime, since the failures of Rwanda and Bosnia in the 1990s UN Peacekeeping has evolved from simply serving as a buffer between two warring factions to making civilian protection as its core operating principle. But the resources required to fulfill this mandate are sometimes not there.

For example, the sudden outbreak of ugly sectarian civil war in South Sudan caught the entire international community by surprise. But Peacekeeping did not have the capacity to rapidly summon new resources to deal with it. Rather, it pulled troops from other missions. The UN Peacekeeping mission was able to protect civilians who fled to their compounds, but was too under-equipped (for example, did not have enough helicopters) to provide the kind of pro-active patrols that the people of South Sudan deserved. Similarly, the mission in Central African Republic is struggling to get off the ground, even as the international community warns that ethnic cleansing is underway. And in places like Mali, UN Peacekeepers are increasingly the target of attacks, with tactics used against them (like suicide bombing and IEDs) imported from Afghanistan and Iraq.

This is the backdrop to today’s big UN Peacekeeping summit convened at the request of Ban Ki Moon and the United States. Vice President Joe Biden, who has a long history of support for UN Peacekeeping, is charing the meeting.

This is significant.

The fact that the USA is chairing the meeting means that other countries are coming to it with concrete pledges in hand. The USA is the largest financial contributor to UN Peacekeeping, picking up about 28% of the cost of each mission. From an American perspective this is a bargain: the rest of the world picks up 72% of the cost of each mission, and there are very few US boots on the ground in these dangerous conflict zones (118 to be precise). UN Peacekeeping’s budget is just north of $7 billion. (For comparison’s sake, the US Department of Defense’s budget is $600 billion).

“When we ask them to do more, we owe them more,” said Biden at the start of the meeting. Ban Ki moon then listed six concrete and urgent needs of UN Peacekeeping: enhanced rapid reaction capacity when a sudden crisis breaks out; more helicopters; more medical units; protection against IEDs; better intelligence assets; and better coordination with regional organizations in Africa.

Many of the pledges made at this meeting are commitments against these needs. For example, the USA used the summit to showcase a $110 program to bolster rapid response peacekeeping capabilities among African countries. (The program, known African Peacekeeping Rapid Response Partnership as was announced just last month at the African Leaders Summit in Washington, DC.) Japan announced that it will deploy more engineers; France pledged to train 20,000 African peacekeepers per year; Tanzania pledged to contribute another infantry battalion; China pledged to contribute helicopter units for the first time; and in advance of this summit Mexico announced that it would contribute Blue Helmets for the first time in decades.

There are, in all, 30 countries speaking at this conference and each is expected to bring something concrete on the table. @UNPeacekeeping is compiling most of these pledges through out the conference.

This demonstration of political, financial and material support to UN Peacekeeping is key. UN Peacekeepers are sent to places in the world to put a lid on humanitarian crises when no country is able or willing to do so alone. The international community has an obligation to help UN Peacekeepers live up to the promise of UN Peacekeeping. Or, as the German foreign minister said succinctly: “UN peacekeeping can only be as strong as the commitment of its member states.”  What we are seeing today is a much needed display of support–and it’s coming at a critical time.