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The Promise of Peacekeeping

The United States is committed to do our part to improve United Nations peacekeeping operations.

In his congratulations to newly-elected UN Secretary-General António Guterres, President Obama noted the importance of UN response mechanisms for meeting global challenges, including bringing peace and stability in the wake of conflict.  In recent years, the United States has placed a major focus on improving U.N. peacekeeping for exactly this reason. 


Indeed, a little bit more than a year ago--on September 28, 2015-- President Obama hosted a historic Leaders' Summit on Peacekeeping with the goal of strengthening the capacity of the United Nations to undertake peace operations.  At that landmark meeting of nearly fifty world leaders, President Obama described U.N. peace operations as "one of the world's most important tools to address armed conflict."  He also reaffirmed at this Summit the great value the United States places on peacekeeping and announced the release of a new Presidential Policy Memorandum on U.S. Support to U.N. Peace Operations, the first of its kind in over 20 years, to deepen the U.S. commitment to the success of these missions.


In the year since the Summit, U.N. peacekeepers have continued to play a crucial role in response to global crises.  Today around 100,000 troops and police are deployed in sixteen missions around the world, helping stabilize broken societies, building confidence between former warring parties, and protecting civilians.  Since last year's Summit, we've also been reminded of the risks that these peacekeepers take.  Last summer in South Sudan, U.N. peacekeepers became targets as a conflict re-ignited and, in Mali, they suffered casualties as extremist groups targeted U.N. convoys with road-side bombs.  During the first eight months of 2016, sixty-nine peacekeepers lost their lives.


Recognizing the critical importance of this work, the United States and its partners have worked this year to sustain the momentum generated by the 2015 Leaders' Summit.  We have been particularly focused on following up on the pledges that countries made at the Summit to contribute more than 40,000 new troops and police for U.N. peace operations, including specialized niche capabilities like field hospitals.  We recognize that, as U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations Samantha Power said on the one-year anniversary of the Summit, "While the pledges were important, the true test is the follow through."


So far, the results have been promising: One year after the Summit, more than 90 percent of the countries that committed troops and police have taken significant steps to deliver on these pledges and formally register them with the U.N.  The U.N. has conducted advisory and assessment visits to 20 countries to ascertain their ability to deploy more than 14,000 uniformed personnel pledged at the Summit.  Troops from 18 pledged new units have already been deployed, or are in the process of deploying, to peacekeeping operations.  Moreover, after the Summit ended, we continued seeking new pledges.  Since September 2015, more than 25 countries have announced wholly new contributions of troops and police for U.N. operations, cumulatively amounting to more than 12,000 uniformed personnel.  This personnel surge will give the United Nations more capacity to replace units that have violated U.N. conduct and performance standards, a critically important tool in advancing discipline and accountability in U.N. operations.  


The U.S. has also used the momentum generated by Summit for peacekeeping reform, including the need to improve leadership, enhance accountability for uniformed and civilian personnel, and set conditions for better performance.  For example, we've worked to empower capable leaders and are supporting the U.N.'s efforts to improve on-site performance assessments to promote common professional standards among peacekeepers.  To address the horrific problem of sexual exploitation and abuse, the United States led efforts last spring in the U.N. Security Council to adopt the first resolution exclusively focused on its elimination.  Operating from the premise that even if committed by only a small minority of U.N. peacekeepers, sexual exploitation and abuse threatens the integrity of the entire enterprise, this strong resolution endorsed many of U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's new measures to implement the U.N.'s zero tolerance policy.  


The United States has also worked this year to fulfill the pledges we made ourselves at the Summit to deepen our own contribution to U.N. peacekeeping.  Since the Summit, we have announced the assignment of an additional 34 military officers to five U.N. peacekeeping missions, as well as established new partnerships with the U.N. on logistics, new technology, engineering support, and in-mission training and mentoring. The Department of Defense has released a fact sheet outlining these contributions in greater detail.


To sustain the international focus on U.N. peace operations, on September 8 U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter attended a London gathering of Defense Ministers and senior military officials from over 75 countries to discuss military efforts to strengthen U.N. peacekeeping.  Secretary Carter outlined to his counterparts U.S. priorities for peacekeeping reform and pledged additional U.S. support, such as help filling personnel gaps in missions' efforts to combat improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and a new partnership with the U.N. on building peacekeeping camps that are efficient and environmentally sensitive. Secretary Carter also reaffirmed the value of U.N. peacekeeping to international security, noting that defense officials "appreciate that it is more efficient and effective to prevent the development of serious dangers, rather than confronting them later on." 


The United States will work to ensure that these high-level events lead to real and sustained improvements in U.N. peacekeeping—recognizing the importance of strengthening this tool to prevent mass killings, implement peace agreements, and help countries recover from recent conflict—and understanding that U.S. leadership will continue to be key to achieving these goals. 


Steve Pomper is Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Multilateral Affairs and Human Rights.