Should the UN Send Peacekeepers to Libya?

The blue helmet missions have been more frequent, but are they sustainable?

Patrick aug25p.jpg


With the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) preparing to meet tomorrow for a "thematic debate" on UN Peacekeeping, and NATO calling for a UN force to lead any post-war operation in Libya, it's time to take stock of the world's multilateral efforts to field troops in post-conflict zones.

The number of "blue helmets" deployed under the UN flag has grown from 20,000 in the year 2000, to 100,000 as of March 2011, with Bangladesh, Pakistan, and India ranking as the top three troop-contributing countries (TCCs). Peacekeepers are currently active in fifteen missions around the globe.

Peacekeeping is an excellent deal for U.S. taxpayers. For every U.S. quarter dollar contributed, foreign donors provide 75 cents. These operations are squarely in U.S. national interests, allowing the United States to respond to humanitarian crises and threats to regional stability, without putting its own troops in harm's way.  Without the UN missions, the United States would likely shoulder this entire burden itself--or sit idly by as violent conflagrations erupted and atrocities ran rampant.

UN peacekeeping can also boast some major successes. In 2003, the UN Security Council (UNSC) deployed a peacekeeping force to Liberia after a 15-year civil war had devastated the country, displaced almost a third of the population, and led to over 250,000 deaths. The mission oversaw the disarmament of soldiers, while simultaneously providing political space for a new, civilian led government as well as security for UN agencies and non-governmental organizations to deliver desperately needed humanitarian aid and restore vital infrastructure. As a result, Liberia is on the verge of another round of peaceful postwar elections.

Today, UN peacekeepers underpin a tenuous peace in Lebanon, maintain social order in post-earthquake Haiti, and patrol the volatile Kashmir region. Most recently, they supported the peaceful referendum resulting in the independence of South Sudan, the site of some of the world's most horrific violence during the past two decades.

The critical question is whether such activism can be sustained. As Alain Le Roy, the departing UN undersecretary general for peace operations, recently explained, the United Nations is struggling to keep pace with the broadening scope and quickening tempo of peace missions. Meanwhile, fiscal pressures are threatening the financial support traditionally provided by major donors, including the United States.

This is hardly the first crisis in UN peacekeeping. In 2000, a high-level review panel led by former Algerian Foreign Minister Lakhdar Brahimi released a ground-breaking report on UN peace operations. The so-called "Brahimi report" envisioned a slew of reforms designed "to make peacekeeping faster, more capable, and more effective," proposing extensive changes to existing management, organization, doctrine, training and personnel systems.  Many of these were approved and implemented.

Still, fundamental shortcomings remain: The UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) still lacks its own analytical capabilities, forcing it to rely on member states for timely intelligence relevant to its field operations. Missions often suffer from poor senior leadership, inadequately trained (or unprofessional) peacekeeping contingents, a dearth of civilian experts and police units, and a chronic shortage of logistical and military capabilities, especially when it comes to "heavy lift" aircraft and attack helicopters. The actual rules of engagement are often unclear to field personnel. Finally, a damning 2005 report cited "grave concern" over widespread sexual abuses by UN peacekeepers--a black mark from which DPKO has yet to fully recover.

Perhaps most problematic, the Security Council too often saddles missions with dozens of ambitious objectives, ignoring the major Brahimi recommendation, to set realistic goals.  "The Secretariat must tell the Council what it needs to know, not what it wants to hear," the report insisted. Likewise, the Council does not adequately allocate funds and resources or provide sufficient political follow-through to ensure mission success. A case in point is the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO), which charged a  20,000-person force with responsibility for protecting all civilians in a vast, often impassable area the size of Western Europe.

A final, gnawing problem is the often fractious relationship between the UNSC and major TCCs. Hoping to bridge this gap, President Obama held a sidebar meeting with representatives of leading troop contributors in his first trip to the United Nations in September 2009. There has been little follow up to this outreach, however, and some TCCS are growing reluctant to provide troops. Earlier this month, India moved to address the gap, circulating a note to other UNSC members in preparation for tomorrow's meeting. It highlighted overstretched mandates of UN missions and inadequate communication between the Security Council and TCCs.

In 2009, DPKO adopted a promising New Horizons initiative, a multi-year blueprint designed to improve UN peace operations in four critical areas, but implementing it will take time.

In the face of such strains, would it be responsible for the United States to advocate an ambitious UN Assistance Mission in Libya?

Certainly, the need is great. As my friends Richard Gowan, Bruce Jones and Jake Sherman noted in an April commentary, regardless of Qaddafi's future, Libya will be left "in an unholy mess:"

Cities have been pummeled by artillery bombardments and refugees cluster on the Tunisian and Egyptian borders. The tribal political settlement that underpinned Gaddafi's [sic] rule has broken down. The rebels have armed thousands of ill-disciplined young men who may not lay down their arms willingly. In these circumstances, there will be no easy transition to peace.

It's almost certain that some sort of international peacekeeping force will be required to stabilize the situation.

NATO is wise to resist sending ground troops to stabilize Libya. Not only is it preoccupied in Afghanistan, but a U.S.-European occupation would "fuel Arab suspicions that the West wants to occupy the country for its oil." Nor does the African Union possess sufficient capabilities, particularly given its arduous mission in Somalia. Which leaves UN peacekeepers as the obvious choice.

Accordingly, the United States should work within the UNSC, with its coalition partners, and with Libya's Transitional National Council to win support for a UN Peace Operation in Libya (UNPOL). The forces should be drawn primarily from African and Arab militaries, supplemented by troops from select European countries and rising powers like India, Brazil, and China.

Washington's call for a UN force will be more credible if it formulates a coherent peacekeeping policy and demonstrates a clear commitment to meet its financial obligations to the United Nations. The Obama administration should promptly re-launch the peacekeeping policy review it suspended abruptly in the wake of the Haiti earthquake. And Congress must reject the ongoing efforts of House Republicans, including Representative Illeana Ros-Lehtinen of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, to slash the country's annual assessed contributions to UN peace operations. Such efforts to evade legal commitments will only encourage other states to pick and choose among their own international obligations.

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