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UN Peacekeeping: Big Budget Cuts but at What Cost?


A camel race in Ed Alfirsan, South Darfur, on May 20, 2017, organized by the UN peacekeeping mission in Darfur, Sudan, to encourage a “culture of peace” among communities. The UN is planning to make large cuts to the mission’s budget. AMIN ISMAEL/UNAMID

LONDON — With little fanfare at the end of June, the United Nations General Assembly agreed to a peacekeeping budget for the financial year from July 2017 to July 2018. The budget contained significant cuts as well as a shift in focus toward the UN’s more complicated missions in Francophone Africa and away from missions in East Africa, where Britain has a vested interest.

This shift can be interpreted as evidence of Britain’s decreased clout in the General Assembly or in its decreased investment in these missions.

The budget covers the costs of 13 of the UN’s 15 peacekeeping missions as well as the costs of the UN’s field-support office in Somalia and the UN’s regional service center, logistics base and support account. For historical reasons, the UN’s two oldest missions — UNTSO (the UN Truce Supervision Organization, which provides observers in the Sinai and other Israeli border areas) and UNMOGIP (the UN Military Observer Group for India and Pakistan, working in Kashmir) — are funded from the UN’s regular budget.

The United States sought cuts to the peacekeeping budget of around $1 billion but the Americans were willing to compromise. The budget contained a year-on-year reduction of $493 million, to $1.06 billion; the final amount will be known once the UN’s missions to Haiti and joint mission with the African Union in Darfur, Sudan, receive their final budgets in December. The General Assembly granted them six-month budgets, with the budget for the second half of the year to be determined after a further review.

The United Nations Association of the UK (UNA-UK) looked through the budget and its changes, as discussed in a recent article. Analyzing the figures, we see that the UN finds itself in a difficult position: balancing short-term operational needs with a desire to reshape peacekeeping in the long term.

Budget cuts — and increases — to missions

Although the process for approving a peacekeeping budget is complicated, in essence it has two phases: first is an internal process that produces a budget request — a representation of what the UN Department for Peacekeeping Operations thinks it will need for the coming year. Then comes a political process of negotiation within the Fifth Committee of the UN General Assembly.

This year, perhaps optimistically in light of US pressure, the peacekeeping department presented a budget that called for a modest 1 percent increase in funding. However, there were some radically suggested changes in mission allocations, namely a 16 percent increase in the budget for the UN mission to Mali, a 9 percent increase in South Sudan and a 30 percent increase in UNDOF (the Disengagement Observer Force in the Syrian Golan Heights), all to be paid primarily from savings made by closing the UN mission in the Ivory Coast and winding down the one in Liberia.

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The common characteristic of the three missions that received increases is that they have experienced a significant level of violence in recent years. Mali was the UN’s most lethal mission in 2016; the crisis in Syria is well known; and the UN mission in South Sudan is still implementing the recommendations from a report about the upsurge of violence that occurred in Juba, the capital, in 2016. The UN is attempting to protect itself by increasing resources and support to missions where it perceives a direct threat to its soldiers.

The Fifth Committee turned the broadly revenue-neutral peacekeeping budget into one that could result in a cut of up to 14 percent overall. A large portion of this notional saving came from the deferral of the second half of Haiti and Darfur’s budgets, with the expectation that there will be major cuts in the latter half of the year. Other budgets also received a trim, although, accepting the UN’s logic, the missions in Mali and Golan were allowed much of their requested budget increase.

Fred Carver, the author.

The exception was South Sudan, which saw the biggest change in fortunes from the Fifth Committee: a requested 9 percent increase turning into a 1 percent cut. This change, alongside the severe cuts to the mission in Darfur, have been interpreted by some UN experts as a failure of Britain to stand up for what many see as “their” missions.

Britain is the “penholder” — lingo for a UN Security Council permanent member overseeing certain chores — for the Darfur mission, and it has contributed a significant number of troops to the South Sudan mission. It may be that Britain, along with the US, would rather shift resources to such missions as Mali and the field support office in Somalia, thinking that doing so could have a greater impact on international terrorist networks.

Or the reduction in support for South Sudan and Darfur may signal Britain’s weakened global ambition, particularly in contrast to France.

Ever since 1997, the head of the UN peacekeeping department has been French, and there is a perception that as a consequence France has invested both more political capital (and boots on the ground) in peacekeeping and received a greater rate of return.

Certainly, the cuts to the missions in Francophone Africa were smaller, although Mali aside, still considerable. The mission in the Central African Republic took a 4 percent cut; modest, but in light of the rapidly deteriorating security situation there, problematic. Meanwhile, the UN itself felt savings could be made in its enormous mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo, but a nearly 8 percent cut may stretch an already complicated mission.

More peacekeeping changes afoot

In the long run, the UN’s problem is that there aren’t many places where huge savings can be made. Cuts to the UN’s smaller missions do not save much money, while cuts to larger missions bring even larger risks. Making significant sustainable savings will require missions to achieve their objectives and wind down. This will happen in Liberia and Haiti soon enough, but — besides a reduction to the scope of the Darfur mission — further closures do not seem likely or prudent for some time to come.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres is expected to announce his strategy for peacekeeping shortly, perhaps at the end of August. Rumors abound as to its content: at one stage, it was suggested it might involve a merger or partial merger of the peacekeeping department with the Department for Political Affairs.

A later variation of this idea was that the strategy would move the job of de-escalating conflict away from peacekeepers and toward building peace, using high-level mediators and political missions. Some experts in New York think this strategy could mean that the US has agreed to reduce its demands for cuts to the UN’s regular budget in exchange for greater reductions to the peacekeeping budget. It is thought that whatever Guterres’s plans for peacekeeping, he has managed to secure US approval for them.

Such a switch would have certain advantages: political missions are far cheaper than peacekeeping missions. They are also more resistant to “mission creep” — a perennial criticism of UN peacekeeping is that they often remain in situations where there is no longer peace to keep. And political missions address more directly the political root causes of a conflict and therefor offer a more straightforward approach to finding a lasting solution.

There are things that political missions do not handle, however, notably human-rights monitoring and protecting civilians. Indeed, while some UN observers may criticize peacekeeping missions for not leaving once a peace evaporates, others cite their continued presence as the only thing preventing atrocity crimes.

As such, UN peacekeeping often represents one of the few tangible manifestations of the international community’s purported doctrine of “responsibility to protect”: safeguarding civilians from atrocity crimes. Peacekeepers’ record is far from perfect but it is better than nothing. Peacekeepers famously failed to stop genocide in Rwanda and Srebrenica, yet they may have managed to stop atrocities in the Central African Republic and Mali. They didn’t stop such crimes from taking place in South Sudan last summer, but they do almost every day in Darfur and in the Congo, to name a few examples.

The challenge for Guterres will be to balance the protection needs of the often-voiceless civilians in such conflict areas with the louder voices closer to New York clamoring for more cuts.

Fred Carver is an adviser to UNA-UK, where he was the head of policy, specializing in peacekeeping and other topics, from 2016-2020. From 2011 to 2016, Carver ran the Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice, an NGO that advocated for peace in Sri Lanka based on justice and accountability for crimes committed in the civil war. Carver has a master’s degree in Asian politics from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) and started a Ph.D. at Kings College London on the effects of urbanization on political violence in Pakistan.

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