New York, United States – US President Barack Obama has announced that more than 50 countries have pledged tens of thousands of new personnel to bolster the UN’s overstretched and underequipped peacekeeping operations.
Obama said that about 40,000 new troops and police had been committed to the UN’s blue helmet operations, which increasingly face hardened armed groups, shortages of hardware and have been rocked by sex abuse scandals.
“Put simply, the supply of well-trained, well-equipped peacekeepers can’t keep up with the growing demand,” Obama told delegates during a series of meetings at the UN General Assembly in New York.
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“Peacekeepers head into more difficult and deadlier conflicts. They’re given ambitious mandates and charged with increasingly dangerous and complex missions.”
China’s President Xi Jinping made one of the largest pledges, saying his country would establish a permanent 8,000-strong quick deployment force to respond to global crises and offered $100m to fund a similar scheme under the African Union.
Xi also said China would offer helicopters, other equipment and provide funding, training and hardware for 10 mine-clearing schemes. Britain committed 250 to 300 troops to the UN mission in South Sudan.
‘Source of optimism’
Other announcements included drones and a signal communications unit from Pakistan, an infantry battalion and a helicopter from Italy and engineering support or personnel from Sri Lanka, Japan, and South Korea.
Peacekeeping expert Richard Gowan, a fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations think-tank, told Al Jazeera the pledges were a “much-needed source of optimism” for UN operations that have struggled in such hotspots as Mali and South Sudan.
The UN has no standing army, meaning that its 193 member states supply people and equipment to protect civilians and keep the peace in 16 operations spread across 11 million square kilometres of terrain.
Operations have mushroomed in recent years. Since 2000, the number of deployed military and police has more than tripled from 34,000 to 106,000.
“UN peacekeepers are sheltering 200,000 civilians in South Sudan. United Nations missions have never been designed to accommodate such large number of refugees,” UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told delegates.
“We are monitoring a fragile peace agreement in Mali and working to prevent another outbreak of widespread violence in the Central African Republic.”
The peacekeeping 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 about a quarter of the bill.
Obama says the US will work to double the number of US military officers serving as peacekeepers and offer logistical support and the capacity to perform air-lifts and sea-lifts.
The composition of peacekeeping has changed. In the early 1990s, blue helmets were mostly worn by Eastern Europeans, Americans and Canadians. Nowadays, the top five contributors are Bangladesh, Ethiopia, India, Pakistan, and Rwanda.
But following NATO drawdowns in Afghanistan, more Western forces are becoming available and returning to fight under the blue flag.
Plagued by scandals
A review in June found that UN missions are under-resourced, overstretched and cannot deploy quickly enough. Also, they are increasingly battling “violent extremist and terrorist groups” and getting sucked into civil wars where there is “little or no peace to keep”.
As well as military shortcomings, peacekeepers have been 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 were claims that UN peacekeepers raped women and children in Central African Republic – the latest in a line of blue helmet sex scandals, which led to last month’s resignation of the head of mission to the country.
Follow James Reinl on Twitter: @jamesreinl