A Rare Moment of Bi-Partisan Consensus in Washington

Amidst all the partisan rancor in Washington, it’s a small miracle when any key piece of legislation is passed.

For the first time in 15 years, Congress passed what’s known as an “Authorities Act” for the State Department. Authorization bills like this direct how federal funds should or should not be used. They are distinct from appropriations bills, which set funding limits and are passed every Fiscal Year in some form or another. Rather, Authorities Acts provide more specific instructions on how funding can or cannot be used.

The act was signed by President Obama last Friday. It’s now the law of the land — and for UN Watchers it provides key insights into some priorities of the United States at the United Nations.

A portion of the bill, which covers the entire State Department, is dedicated to the United Nations. This includes policies that the United States believes could enhance the effectiveness of UN Peacekeeping.

The act addresses in fine detail one key challenge facing UN Peacekeeping today: punishing and deterring the abuse of civilians under the erstwhile protection of blue helmets. Over the past several years, there have been an increasing number of reports of peacekeepers sexually abusing extremely vulnerable populations. Four years ago, Uruguayan peacekeepers in Haiti were accused of sexually assaulting a boy; and in Central African Republic this year, entire units of peacekeepers from the Republic of Congo were sent home after numerous allegations of sexual assault. There are, sadly, many other examples.

About 100,000 peacekeepers serve in 16 missions around the world. But even limited incidents of abuse threaten to undermine the legitimacy of UN Peacekeeping as a whole: if people can’t feel safe in the presence of blue helmets, then what’s the point of deploying them at all? But punishing and deterring peacekeeper abuse is extremely difficult because troops serving in missions generally operate under the legal jurisdiction of their own military. So, a Congolese peacekeeper accused of rape in the Central African Republic is subject to prosecution in Congo–and those prosecutions sometimes do not even occur. The United Nations can — and has — stopped accepting peacekeepers from countries that have not credibly investigated allegations of abuse. But there is nothing much the United Nations can do to compel countries to prosecute their troops if those countries are unwilling to do so.

The act signed into law last week offers a creative way to leverage America’s global influence to compel peacekeeper troop contributing countries to investigate their own. It conditions bi-lateral military assistance to countries that “fail to ensure effective measures to discover, investigate, discipline, and provide detailed reporting on [sexual exploitation and abuse] by peacekeepers.” The act also directs the State Department to include incidents of peacekeeper abuse in annual human rights reports that the Department compiles for each country.

Other parts of the act also reflect some key points of  bi-partisan consensus regarding the UN. For one, the act contains no new language stipulating that funding for the United Nations be withheld pending the UN undertaking certain actions. It also includes language encouraging budget transparency, whistleblower protections, and encouraging the UN to hire more American staff. Finally–and this will be particularly interesting to UN nerds–the act directs the U.S. Government Accountability Office to produce a report that compares the costs, strengths and limitations of UN Peacekeeping operations to comparable US-led missions. This would essentially be an update of a 2007 report which found that UN Peacekeeping operations were effective and twice as cheap than similar US-led operations.

The USA is the largest single funder of the United Nations, paying about 25% of the regular budget and 27% of the peacekeeping budget. This gives individual legislators in the USA outsized influence in determining the priorities at the UN. Though Republicans and Democrats sometimes differ on their approach to foreign affairs in general and the United Nations in particular, the substance of the directives included in the act offer some evidence that there is broad, bi-partisan consensus when it comes to key issues at the UN. The major drivers of this measure was the Republican chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Bob Corker, his Democratic counterpart Ben Cardin; and the Republican Chair of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs Ed Royce and his Democratic counterpart Eliot Engel. From the UN’s perspective the timing of this bi-partisan affirmation of the UN’s role in global affairs probably offers a degree of relief as the new Trump administration takes office.