The United Nations Security Council will this week examine its international peacekeeping role – an increasingly costly operation that in some parts of the world is failing to meet the tough challenges set for it.

A UK-sponsored debate forms part of a broad rethink of peacekeeping strategy. The UN secretariat noted in an internal document last month: “Today, UN peacekeeping is stretched like never before and is increasingly called upon to deploy to remote, uncertain operating environments and into volatile political contexts.”

The so-called New Horizons paper added: “There is no sign that the need for peacekeeping will diminish. Threats such as environmental changes, economic shocks, transnational crime and extremism threaten many states and contribute to growing political and security instability.”

Peacekeeping has evolved from the ad hoc groups of military monitors and observers that survive from the early years of the UN to oversee ceasefire agreements between rival nation states. Unmogip, which monitors the India-Pakistan ceasefire line in disputed Kashmir, marked its 60th anniversary this year.

Chart showing the UN peacekeeping force rates

In more recent conflicts, however, the UN’s “Blue Helmets” often find themselves holding the line against what diplomats like to call non-state actors, such as insurgents or sometimes self-serving armed militias that frequently bring hardship and death to the very civil populations they claim to be liberating.

This has put UN peacekeepers in the line of fire in several conflicts – notably in the Democratic Republic of Congo last year. It has also raised tensions among the security council that orders peacekeeping mandates, the UN secretariat that carries them out and the troop-contributing countries, mainly from the developing world, that send their soldiers into the field.

Britain and France have taken the lead this year in pushing a review of how the 15 security council members should approach peacekeeping. Both governments believe that no new mandates should be embarked on unless the council has an exit strategy, and that as much focus should be placed on overseeing political solutions as on simply keeping the peace.

There has been criticism from within and outside the UN that security council members have been too ready to launch new mandates – often in response to pressure from their own electorates – without adequately assessing the consequences, thereby stretching peacekeeping to its limits.

Two years ago, the council ordered the UN’s biggest ever mission in Darfur, Sudan, in partnership with the African Union. Today, it is still not up to strength, and continues to lack helicopters, despite appeals by Ban Ki-moon, UN secretary-general, for member states to help supply them.

Britain called this week’s debate as part of its one-month presidency of the council. The interest of the European powers in establishing a more cost-effective approach is not entirely divorced from pressure on government budgets in the economic downturn.

They are looking forward to a more supportive stance from the new US administration after the conflictive relationship between Washington and the UN for much of the middle years of the George W. Bush presidency.

Susan Rice, US envoy to the UN, told a US congressional committee last week that increasing the effectiveness and efficiency of peacekeeping was one of the Obama administration’s top priorities at the world body.

Ms Rice defended the cost-effectiveness, saying: “The total cost of UN peacekeeping is expected to exceed $7.75bn [€5.4bn, £4.6bn] this year. As large as this figure is, it actually represents less than 1 per cent of global military spending.”

The US covers a quarter of the budget.

Much of the money goes to troop contributors to pay for national contingents in the field. For growing economies such as India, traditionally a big troop contributor, the income is no longer as important as it was, and they are becoming restless at being left out of decision-making.

India has criticised demands for peacekeepers to be more proactive in defending civilians in theatres of operation where adequate resources are not available. Hardeep Singh Puri, Indian envoy to the UN, told the security council in June: “Mandates are increasingly ‘robust’ and place peacekeepers – most of whom come from member states not represented in this council – in non-permissive environments.”

In Congo, national troop contingents had been notified of changes in rules of engagement at a consultation meeting. Being informed was not the same as being consulted, he said.

A central feature of the current rethink is to ensure the continued co-operation of countries such as India by bringing them into the dialogue on mission planning at an early stage.

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