Green light for reform of UN’s blue helmets

As top leaders gather at the United Nations, they must back reform of UN peacekeepers in order to prevent abuses and assure better performance in new types of conflicts. 

Peacekeepers from 41 different national contingents that make up the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), attend a ceremony last March to mark the 40th anniversary of its peacekeeping presence in southern Lebanon.

World leaders, including President Trump, gather at the United Nations next week to tackle a host of issues. Yet no issue deserves more attention than fixing the one activity that has embodied the UN’s highest ideals over seven decades: peacekeeping.

The blue-helmet soldiers and police who help keep war at bay and create space for political solutions are due for a 21st-century upgrade.

Today’s wars are wholly different than in the past, or they drag on longer. Many involve nonstate militants with little respect for the lives of UN soldiers or civilians. The big powers, too, disagree more often on when peacekeepers are needed or add too many mandates to a mission.

A minority of the UN forces have been involved in sexual abuses of the very civilians they were sent to protect. In addition, the United States, which is the largest contributor to peacekeeping, threatens to cut its $1 billion share.

Reform of UN peacekeeping began in earnest a year ago under a new secretary-general, António Guterres. He set a priority of preventing war – rather than reacting to it – through mediation and peacekeeping. “As bad as the situation is in many parts of the world, I am convinced that it is within our power to tackle and reverse these trends,” he said this week.

More than 96,000 UN soldiers and police are deployed in 14 missions from Africa to the Mideast and to Haiti. While their past work had notable lapses in judgment, such as inaction during massacres in Rwanda and Bosnia, peacekeepers of late have helped bring peace or relative calm to Liberia, Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast, and South Sudan.

In recent months Mr. Guterres has won commitments from more than 100 countries to a set of reforms that he says will make peacekeepers “fit for the future.” The reforms include more training, better equipment, more transparency in operations, and more accountability for mistakes. In addition, women now make up 21 percent of all personnel, although the pace of adding women remains slow.

In all, more than 3,700 blue helmets have died while serving over the past seven decades. One possible result of recent changes: Killings of UN peacekeepers dropped in 2018 compared to previous years.

The UN’s ability to quell conflict and intervene in fragile states, as scholar and UN watcher Richard Gowan notes, rests on an assumption of inevitable progress from “anarchy to some degree of sustainable order.” The first order of business at the UN in coming days should be to earn full support for reforms that will ensure peacekeepers perform well in new types of conflicts.  If peace is a universal ideal for the UN, it needs all of humanity and its peacekeepers to defend and protect it.

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