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U.N. credibility is at stake

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The United Nations is struggling to reaffirm its raison d’etre as the vanguard of international peace and security amid the threat from the U.S. Trump administration to cut its funding and the continued inability of the Security Council to take collective action.

The U.S. has indicated that it will slash its U.N. funding by as much as 50 percent to help offset the $5.4 billion increase proposed for its defense budget by President Donald Trump. The main target of its belt-tightening drive is the U.N.’s peacekeeping operations which deploy nearly 100,000 troops and police in 16 missions throughout the world with an annual budget of close to $8 billion.

As a permanent member of the Security Council, the U.S. foots 28 percent of the bill, or roughly $2.2 billion, more than the contributions from the next three largest donors — China, Japan and Germany — combined. If contributions to the U.N. regular budget and its various agencies such as UNICEF and UNHCR are included, the annual U.S. spending for the U.N. as a whole reaches $5 billion.

Peacekeeping operations are arguably the most powerful tool that the U.N. has come to develop for the maintenance of global peace and security. However, the environment in which Blue Helmets are being deployed has changed dramatically over the last 25 years or so. Until the end of the Cold War, peacekeepers were deployed mainly to observe truces between two protagonists involved in interstate conflicts. As intrastate conflicts triggered by clash of cultures, races or religions within a country replaced traditional conflicts between states in the post-Cold War era, peacekeepers have been tasked to undertake more complex missions involving not only peacekeeping but also peacemaking, peacebuilding, and protection of civilians and human rights in difficult, and sometimes hostile, environments.

At a recent session of the Security Council, which authorizes the establishment of peacekeeping missions, Nikki Haley, U.S. ambassador to the U.N., pointed out that a significant number of peacekeeping operations are operating today on the basis of old mandates that are no longer supported by a political environment conducive to achieving the council’s aim. For peacekeeping operations to be successful, she said, certain conditions must exist, including effective political process, host-country cooperation, clear and achievable mandates, exit strategies and so forth.

Singling out U.N. missions in Darfur, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Lebanon and Kosovo as lacking one or more of these necessary conditions, Haley requested that the Security Council conducts a “honest and strategic” review of each of the 16 peacekeeping operation when it renews their mandates.

In response to the U.S. calls, the Security Council reduced the size of the DRC mission by 500 soldiers to a little over 16,000 troops in March and decided to wind down the mission in Haiti when it reviewed its mandate earlier this month. More missions in Africa are expected to close when their mandates expire later this year.

In addition to the change in environment in which Blue Helmets have been deployed, the U.N. peacekeeping operations have come under harsh criticisms for the sexual abuse and exploitation committed by troops deployed in several countries, including Haiti and the Central African Republic. So a thorough review of the U.N. peacekeeping operation is not only necessary but also welcome. The challenges in the review exercise, however, are how to strengthen, and not to weaken, the existing peacekeeping tool, while ensuring its cost-effectiveness.

The U.N. learned hard lessons from its failures to prevent massacres in Rwanda and Srebrenica in the 1990s. The soul-searching exercise that followed the tragic experience led to a set of recommendations calling for, among others things, renewed political commitment on the part of U.N. member states, significant institutional changes and increased financial support. To date, however, these recommendations aimed at making U.N. peacekeeping more robust and capable of achieving complex tasks in difficult environments have not been fully implemented.

What the U.N. needs, first and foremost, is firm political commitment from the member states, and particularly the Security Council, to provide it with effective and better equipped forces that could be more costly under certain circumstances but are able to deliver results as a credible deterrent. The review exercise should not be conducted on the premises that its goal was to just identify savings.

No reform efforts will be productive if the Security Council is divided as it is today. The U.S. and Russia are at loggerheads over the alleged use this month of chemical weapons by the Syrian authorities, with Washington firing 59 cruise missiles at the Syrian air base from which it believed the attack was launched and Moscow vetoing recent resolutions aimed at punishing the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad. The inability of the council to act collectively, reminiscent of the Cold War era, could push the Trump administration further away from the U.N. for unilateral paths that it considers are more useful in securing its own national interest.

Despite its shortcomings, the U.N. remains a good investment for the international community considering that the costs for its peacekeeping operations, albeit not a small sum, account for less than 0.5 percent of the total military expenditures the worldwide. The U.N. should and can continue to be a credible tool to safeguard international peace and security as long as member states are prepared to provide it with their political commitments and corresponding financial support. If the Security Council remains divided and continues to fail to act collectively, however, it will not be before long that the U.N.’s raison d’etre as the guardian of peace will be reduced to sheer irrelevancy.

A former United Nations official, Hitoki Den is a commentator based in New York. He is the author of “Kokuren wo Yomu: Watashino Seimukan Noto Kara” (“A Story of the U.N.: From the Notes of a Political Affairs Officer”) and many articles on U.N. and Asian issues.