President Obama convened an unprecedented meeting with the leaders of countries who contribute troops and police to peacekeeping operations around the world. On the rare occasions when UN blue helmets have made the news in the past, it has unfortunately too often been in the context of situations where peacekeepers have failed to shield civilians, or even when the peacekeepers themselves have been involved in abuse. But every day more than 113,000 peacekeepers around the world go unrecognized as they put their lives on the line to patrol tense front lines, assist the delivery of humanitarian aid, and protect civilians in harm’s way. In light of his administration's commitment to global burden sharing and to peace and security, President Obama felt that it was important to gather those who have put troops in the line of fire to express his appreciation for their sacrifice, and to solicit their views on how best to strengthen peacekeeping, a vital instrument for U.S. security and global stability.
(President Barack Obama and U.N. official Ahmad Fawzi lay a wreath at the memorial honoring United Nations staff members killed in the line of duty, Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2009, at the United Nations. Looking on at left are U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations Susan E. Rice and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
Shortly after noon today President Obama sat down with Heads of State from Bangladesh, Rwanda, Italy, Pakistan, Ghana, Senegal, Nepal, Uruguay on the challenges faced by peacekeepers in the field. Observers to the gathering of Heads of State included Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, U.S. Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice, and Foreign ministers and/or UN permanent representative from other leading contributors, China, Egypt, Ethiopia, Jordan, Nigeria. [Prime Minister Singh of India, the second largest troop contributor to UN peacekeeping, sent his sincere regrets, as he was unable to attend the 64th UN General Assembly.]
The meeting included lively interventions from each of the assembled heads of state. A few highlights: President Obama thanked President Kagame of Rwanda for the fine service of his forces in Darfur, and the Rwandan President expressed the hope that the United States and other UN member states would help reenergize political processes so that peacekeepers would in fact have "a peace to keep." President Zadari of Pakistan, the UN's leading troop contributor (with more than 10,000 soldiers active around the world) expressed tremendous pride in his country's forces and emphasized the salutary effect of UN missions of so many nationalities mingling in service of a common cause. Prime Minister Nepal of Nepal – a country active in peacekeeping for more than five decades – stressed the peacekeepers' need for greater logistic support, and greater clarity in Security Council mandates. [He also said he had brought President Obama the gift of a large Gurkha knife, to symbolize Nepal’s commitment to peace – a knife that the U.S. secret service could not allow him to deliver!] And President Vasquez of Uruguay declared peacekeeping a bargain investments, as its benefits to all countries dramatically outweigh its financial costs. He also said that President Obama’s attention to the issue "had not gone unnoticed" around the world.
President Obama, who listened and took notes during much of the meeting, concluded by summarizing what he took to be the key message from the troop contributing countries represented: UN member states needed to work together to: ensure that the resources provided to peacekeepers are sufficient to enable them to carry out the mandates given to them; improve and expand the training, equipping, and transporting of peacekeepers; invest in prevention and conflict resolution so that peacekeeping is not simply what he called a "band-aid for where there is insufficient diplomatic attention;" support, listen to, and, above all, protect local populations. The President pledged to those gathered that his administration "would follow up on a bilateral as well as a multilateral basis so that you receive the support, respect, and thanks that you deserve."
Samantha Power is the Senior Director for Mulilateral Affairs.