UN: Obama’s boost for beleaguered blue helmets

Overstretched, underfunded, and reeling from sex scandals, UN peacekeepers could be getting a new lease of life.

central african republic UN
UN peacekeeping troops take part in a ceremony in the capital Bangui, Central African Republic [AP]
Correction29 Sep 2015
This story originally reported the UN was seeking 100,000 new troops and police. The correct figure is 10,000.

United Nations – If ever UN blue helmets needed a shot in the arm, it is now.

UN peacekeepers are overstretched, ill-equipped and increasingly outfoxed by fighters in hotspots around the world. Threats also come from within, with the UN accused of turning a blind eye when its troops rape and abuse the very people they should be protecting.

This could change on Monday when US President Barack Obama co-chairs a summit of about 50 world leaders that is expected to secure commitments of some 10,000 new troops, police, hardware, and training schemes for UN forces.

“After a period in which the UN has really struggled with crises such as South Sudan and Mali, the fact that so many countries are willing to offer fresh troops will be a much-needed source of optimism,” peacekeeping analyst Richard Gowan told Al Jazeera.

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Much of the pledging is expected to come from Europe, rather than African and South Asian states that undertake the bulk of peacekeeping, and feature advanced hardware and engineers, medics and bomb-disposal experts. 

UN peacekeeping spokesman Nick Birnback said UN missions face shortages of special forces, landmine-removal technicians, combat engineers, medical evacuation teams, and other specialized units. 

They also need more helicopters, military transport aircraft, armoured personnel carriers (APCs), and unmanned aerial vehicles – or drones – like the ones flying in north Mali and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), he added.

“UN peacekeeping needs more than boots on the ground to succeed,” Birnback told Al Jazeera. “We need personnel equipped with the needed enablers – the APCs, the air assets, all the facilities that are so necessary to ensure our operations can meet today’s threats.”

UN peacekeeping has mushroomed in recent years. Since 2000, the number of deployed military and police has more than tripled from 34,000 to 106,000 in 16 operations spread across 11 million square kilometres of terrain.

Its price tag has swollen to $8.3bn this year – four times the cost of the rest of the UN secretariat combined. While the US has only 82 uniformed personnel deployed in UN missions this year, it foots 28 percent of the bill.

The composition of its forces has changed. In the early 1990s, blue helmets were mostly worn by Eastern Europeans, Americans and Canadians. Nowadays, the top five contributors are from the less well-equipped armies of Bangladesh, Ethiopia, India, Pakistan and Rwanda.

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A review in June found that UN missions were under-resourced, overstretched and cannot deploy quickly enough. Also, they are increasingly battling religious extremists and getting sucked into civil wars where there is “little or no peace to keep”.

As a result, key operations are floundering. In Mali, peacekeepers struggle to “maintain an effective presence” as they are beaten back by asymmetric strikes. The mission to Sudan’s western province of Darfur is a “mere shadow of its original purpose” of protecting civilians.

After South Sudan descended into civil war, peacekeepers have been tied to bases that rapidly became refuges to tens of thousands of people. The UN’s biggest $1.3bn deployment of 19,000 uniformed personnel in DRC is “buffeted” by internal conflicts, the report said.

More than 100 peacekeepers are currently killed each year. Improvised explosive devices (IEDs) are particularly deadly in Mali, despite the bravery of Cambodian de-miners. Current missions drag on three times longer than they used to.


But there is light on the horizon, said the head of UN peacekeeping, Herve Ladsous. NATO forces being freed up by the drawdown in Afghanistan are deploying once again under the blue flag. This week’s summit is a “huge leap forward” he said.

The UN is also getting its hands on some new kit. Next month, an airborne sensor array will deploy to spot militants above Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic (CAR). Counter-battery radars in Kidal, Mali, will alert peacekeepers to incoming rocket attacks.

Rich countries are also helping African militaries more. Japan is training peacekeepers from Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and Tanzania to operate heavy military engineering gear. The US works with armies across the continent, with an emphasis on fighting terrorists and extremists.

Gowan, a fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations think-tank, said “high-end military assets” will help peacekeepers “respond to crises faster and project force rather than waiting at bases for trouble to arise”.

But he also offered words of caution.

“Presidents may promise engineers and helicopters, but may only be willing to deploy them to relatively safe spheres, such as Liberia,” he told Al Jazeera. “It is hard to ensure that everyone is willing to send troops to the toughest missions, like Darfur or Mali.”

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As well as military flaws, peacekeepers are also plagued by scandals. In Haiti, Nepalese blue helmets were blamed for bringing a strain of cholera into the country that killed more than 8,000 people and sickened more than 700,000.

More damaging are the claims that UN peacekeepers raped women and children in the Central African Republic – the latest in a line of blue helmet sex outrages, which led to last month’s resignation of the head of mission to the country.

The UN has a zero-tolerance policy on sex abuse. UN chief Ban Ki-moon describes stopping peacekeeper violations as a “number one priority” and said the countries they come from – not the UN – should prosecute wrongdoers.

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Jean Krasno, a Yale University scholar, said the UN should go further by nudging states that provide peacekeepers to discipline their own troops. The UN could withhold payments to governments or discharge errant soldiers and their commanders.

“The consequences really have to fall on the member state that’s sending the troops,” Krasno told Al Jazeera.

Paula Donovan, co-director of Aids-Free World, a charity that runs the Code Blue campaign against UN sex abuse, said the UN is being disingenuous because most abuse complaints are made against civilian officers, rather than uniformed blue helmets.

“This tiny minority of peacekeeping civilian personnel make up the majority of cases of sexual exploitation abuse that are reported to the UN every year,” she told Al Jazeera, saying they were behind 70 percent of accusations in 2014.

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The UN could have them sacked, disciplined or reported to local police, she said. Instead, it typically conducts opaque internal probes that turn the spotlight on accusers and whitewash staffers, she said.

“There’s no system of checks and balances,” she said. “The UN has been able to get away with disclosing what it wants, keeping secrets, manipulating the story while feeding us what we want to hear about infusing peacekeeping with high morals and ethics.”

Only a far-reaching inquiry by outsiders can clean up the world body, she added.

Peacekeeping chief Ladsous said the UN is doing its part and has suspended salaries of peacekeepers in CAR. US officials say the infusion of some 10,000 new troops on Monday will make it easier for the UN to switch out contingents that abuse civilians.

Even though the UN flag is flying under the shadow of scandals, there is a reason for cautious optimism, added Gowan.

“Sex abuse is a stain on the UN’s reputation. It will continue to be a problem. Ban’s new measures will not remove it completely. But there are over 100,000 soldiers and police serving under the UN banner today, and they’re not all rapists,” he told Al Jazeera.

Follow James Reinl on Twitter: @jamesreinl

 UN peacekeepers protecting DR Congo civilians