UN Strengthens Peacekeeping Despite U.S. Scepticism
UN Strengthens Peacekeeping Despite U.S. Scepticism
Reaffirming Ukraine’s Sovereignty and Territorial Integrity at the UN
Reaffirming Ukraine’s Sovereignty and Territorial Integrity at the UN
UN peacekeepers (UNIFIL) patrol the border with Israel near the village of Kfar Kila, Lebanon 04 December 2018. REUTERS/Ali Hashisho
Q&A / Global

UN Strengthens Peacekeeping Despite U.S. Scepticism

This Friday, the UN hosts the 2019 Peacekeeping Ministerial Conference, an opportunity for politicians and diplomats to fill gaps in blue helmet missions. In this Q&A, Crisis Group’s UN Director Richard Gowan previews the agenda.

What is the point of the conference?

This is the latest edition of a series of conferences that former U.S. President Barack Obama kicked off with other leaders at the UN General Assembly in 2015. Vice President Joe Biden had chaired a trial run the previous year. The basic idea is to get senior figures together to pledge military units, or other forms of help like training, to UN Peacekeeping.

This process was the Obama administration’s response to major gaps in the UN’s forces revealed by crises such as the collapse of South Sudan in 2013. The president used his convening power to get other leaders to pledge high-grade units from advanced militaries that the UN was unlikely to attract otherwise.

The initiative, which included defence minister-level talks in the UK and Canada in 2016 and 2017, has worked quite well. The British sent medics to work with the UN in South Sudan, Portuguese special forces have deployed to the Central African Republic (CAR), and a number of NATO and EU members have sent air assets and intelligence specialists to Mali. Well-established UN contributors, such as Rwanda, have also upgraded the range of forces and types of units – like helicopters – that they offer the UN.

We are likely to see some additional steps in that direction this week. This year’s conference is not quite as high-powered as some of the earlier ones. One hundred and twenty countries will participate, but only half are sending ministers. Nonetheless, there are still countries that want to get involved in blue helmet operations. Mexico, for example, will make its first concrete pledge of a fully-fledged peacekeeping unit this week.

What sort of resources do peacekeepers need?

While peacekeepers often get stereotyped as shambolic and ill-disciplined, the overall picture is actually rather better. Only a limited number of troop contributors – mainly under-resourced African militaries – now consistently deploy ill-equipped or untrained contingents.

These ministerial meetings have helped raise the overall standard of forces. More broadly, the UN is able to be somewhat selective about which troops to deploy, as the total number of peacekeepers worldwide has dropped in recent years. When President Obama hosted his peacekeeping summit in 2015, the organisation was responsible for 105,000 soldiers and police officers worldwide, and UN officials had to scramble to find even quite basic infantry battalions to meet this level of demand. That figure has dropped to 88,000 as missions in places where they are no longer needed, like those in Liberia and Haiti, have closed down. This has allowed the UN to reject particularly ill-prepared contingents. The global number of peacekeepers is likely to drop further – the Security Council is slowly winding down its mission in Darfur, which has been a huge drain on the UN and is now well past its prime.

UN officials also want to use this opportunity to push governments to deploy more female troops and police as peacekeepers.

I facilitated a warm-up conference for this week’s meeting focusing on training peacekeepers in Uruguay last December, and it was striking that major UN troop contributors are working hard to standardise and upgrade deployment systems so that their troops will be attractive candidates for UN missions (a useful source of income for some militaries).

Nonetheless, the UN still has difficulties finding enough troops and military equipment for especially risky missions. Mali, where over 120 personnel have been killed in hostile acts by jihadist insurgents, is the most pressing case. UN officials hope that ministers attending this week’s conference will pledge help on problems like countering roadside bombs for the Mali force. They also need helicopters there, but these aircrafts are perennially difficult to find, and governments often place burdensome caveats on how these costly assets can be used.

UN officials also want to use this opportunity to push governments to deploy more female troops and police as peacekeepers. The UN Secretariat would like to double the number of women in its military and police units. The current figure is under 5 per cent. Defence officials – including Western ones – gripe that this request is unreasonable given the overall lack of women in their forces. But militaries including the Ethiopians, Rwandans, Ghanaians and Tanzanians have made good progress against the UN’s target. Angelina Jolie will be at the UN on Friday to encourage the laggards to do better.

Is the U.S. still a fan of the process?

The Trump administration’s attitude to this Obama legacy initiative is ambiguous. The U.S. is still one of the formal co-conveners of the process. Deputy Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan represented Washington at the last meeting in the series in Canada (and his boss, then-Secretary James Mattis, only declined to attend that summit for scheduling reasons). This Friday, the senior American representative will be the Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, David Hale. He is a highly experienced diplomat, but it is clear that the U.S. interest in the process is down.

That fits with the administration’s broader and growing scepticism toward UN peace operations. The U.S. has been pushing hard for budget cuts to blue helmet missions since President Trump took office. Washington is now reportedly preparing to call for some hefty reductions to the size and budget of the UN mission in Mali, despite its struggle for security.

It is not clear whether Washington’s dislike for peacekeeping is motivated by budgetary concerns, principled aversion for multilateralism or practical doubts about what the UN can achieve – or all three at once. It is fair to point out that, while the Obama initiative may have motivated NATO members to send high-grade units to Mali and South Sudan, neither is close to stable. National Security Advisor John Bolton gave a harsh speech criticising “unproductive” and open-ended UN missions in Africa in December.

If the U.S. is retreating from this process, will other powers replace it?

European countries, which have a direct security interest in the UN managing threats in places like Mali and Lebanon, are taking this conference reasonably seriously. France has pressed its European allies to send personnel to Mali, and French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and his German counterpart Heiko Maas will be in New York. The UK is sending a comparatively junior minister, but London is a little busy with other political concerns right now. British officials thought that their recent deployment in South Sudan was good operational experience, and would like to make another significant contribution to the UN fairly soon.

If Washington’s mounting scepticism toward UN peace operations creates a vacuum, it should not be surprised to see others start to fill it.

But as so often happens when the U.S. steps back from multilateral institutions, eyes will turn to China this week. There are currently 2,500 peacekeepers from the People’s Liberation Army on UN missions, which is 1,000 more than deployments by all the other permanent Security Council members combined. Beijing is not sending a top political figure to this week’s meeting, and may not make any big new pledges. But back in 2015, President Xi Jinping promised to deploy up to 8,000 new troops on UN missions. Chinese and UN officials have taken some time to identify and assess suitable additional units, but this technical process is now largely complete. There is a good chance that the number of Chinese peacekeepers will expand quite considerably in the coming years, and Beijing has signaled that it wants senior UN posts and envoy-ships in recognition of this investment.

That could make the current U.S. administration, which has repeatedly raised concerns about China’s rising influence in international institutions in recent months, uncomfortable.

But if Washington’s mounting scepticism toward UN peace operations creates a vacuum, it should not be surprised to see others start to fill it.

A man waves the Ukrainian flag as protestors demonstrate outside the United Nations headquarters in Manhattan, New York. February 28, 2022. REUTERS / Mike Segar
Commentary / Global

Reaffirming Ukraine’s Sovereignty and Territorial Integrity at the UN

The UN General Assembly will convene soon to discuss Russia’s planned annexation of four Ukrainian regions. With many non-Western states wary of taking sides, Ukraine’s friends would be wise to seek affirmation of sovereignty and territorial integrity principles rather than condemnation of the Kremlin.

The UN General Assembly will meet in the second week of October to debate Russia’s attempt to annex the Ukrainian regions of Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk and Zaporizhzhia. Assembly members will also vote on a resolution, tabled by Ukraine and its allies, rejecting Russia’s move. The resolution is a chance for UN members to reaffirm Ukraine’s sovereignty within its internationally recognised borders – and also the UN Charter’s clause prohibiting “the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state”.

These basic principles of international law may sound simple enough, but the vote will also be a test of how non-Western states view the seven-month-old conflict. As the war has dragged on, Russia has tried to persuade African, Asian and Latin American states that Moscow is their natural ally. In a 30 September speech at the ceremony marking Russia’s purported annexations, President Vladimir Putin claimed to be engaged in an “anti-colonial” struggle with the West. Ukraine’s allies have made the same argument in reverse, painting Russia as an imperialist and colonialist power. The forthcoming UN vote will give some indication of which narrative has found greater traction. But only some: many non-Western countries do not want to take either side in this crisis – numerous speakers at the mid-September high-level session of the General Assembly called simply for an end to the war – making the diplomatic manoeuvring around the resolution that much more sensitive and difficult.

Ukraine and its friends at the UN should not frame this resolution as a test of non-Western powers’ loyalties, lest that tactic backfire, with nervous UN members opting to abstain. Instead, the resolution’s backers should make it clear that their text aims primarily to restate and reinforce the UN Charter’s core principles. That will be a rebuke for Russia, showing that its effort to recast its war of aggression as an anti-colonial project has fallen flat.

A New Sense of Caution

While Western powers have been solidly in Kyiv’s’s corner since Russia launched its assault on 24 February, many other states have hedged their positions over time. In the first week of March, 141 of the body’s 193 members – including majorities from all regional groups – backed a resolution condemning Russia’s aggression. From April onward, however, Western diplomats have worried that many of their non-Western counterparts were succumbing to “Ukraine fatigue”. Troubled by rising food and energy prices, anxious about irritating Russia and surprised by the war’s length and ferocity, many UN members signalled that they did not want to participate in more votes against Moscow.

This sense of caution was evident during the annual high-level session of the General Assembly in the third week of September, when presidents and prime ministers gathered in New York for the first full-scale in-person gathering at the UN since the COVID-19 pandemic broke out. Leaders from the members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and European Union (EU) were united in condemning Russia, putting any differences over how to handle the war aside. By contrast, non-Western leaders adopted a wide range of positions on the war and how to end it, with some ignoring the issue altogether. Indeed, an analysis by Crisis Group shows that some 54 of the 156 speakers to address the General Assembly representing states that are members of neither the EU nor NATO chose not to mention the war at all. A further 38 referred to Ukraine but did not name Russia as an actor in the conflict, presumably to avoid friction with Moscow. Sixty-four called out Russia by name. Overall, leaders from Latin America and the Caribbean were the most likely of the non-European speakers to refer explicitly to Russia’s role. Only eighteen of the 53 African speakers did so.

[The] African, Asian and Latin American speakers who [addressed] the war generally favoured a rapid diplomatic solution.

Those African, Asian and Latin American speakers who did address the war generally favoured a rapid diplomatic solution. Of these, 48 either called for a ceasefire, a negotiated settlement (or related options such as “dialogue”) or both. Very few made straightforward calls for Russian withdrawal. Many made vaguer proposals, for example calling on one or both sides to show restraint. The member state with the most detailed set of proposals in New York was Mexico, which tabled a plan for Russia and Ukraine to commit to a five-year truce, and called upon the UN Secretary-General, the Pope and Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India to lead mediation efforts. This notion appeared to gain little purchase at UN headquarters: Secretary-General António Guterres had warned prior to the high-level week that it would be “naïve” to expect a peace deal in the near term.

Mexico aside, few of the leaders who floated ideas for resolving Russia’s war in Ukraine appear to have thought in detail about what a ceasefire or negotiations would entail. In a video address, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy did his best to disabuse his counterparts of any illusions about the chances of successful diplomacy, explaining that a ceasefire at this stage would merely give Russia time to prepare for new hostilities and that Moscow is not serious about talks of any type. Western delegations gave the video a standing ovation, but many of their non-Western counterparts remained seated. (Ukraine had already scored a modest victory when 101 UN members voted to waive UN rules requiring in-person speeches so Zelenskyy could appear on screen, which most diplomats saw as a common-sense exception under the circumstances.) In their own speeches, the leaders of many poorer countries focused less on the war itself than on the impact of related food and economic shocks on their own nations. Some, such as Senegalese President Macky Sall – the current chair of the African Union and the first African speaker in the high-level week – made it clear that they did not feel bound to make an explicit choice between Russia and the West.

The Annexation Effect

It was not clear whether the speeches at the General Assembly fully took into account Moscow’s late September manoeuvres. Leaders had prepared their speeches in advance of arriving in New York. Few rewrote them to respond to the news on 20 September (the first day of the high-level debate) that Russia would be staging sham referenda in Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk and Zaporizhzhia the following weekend on uniting with Russia. But if UN leaders were able to get by in New York with general references to the need for diplomacy and peace in Ukraine, they will now have to take clearer stances on Russia’s move to take formal ownership of these territories.

Western diplomats at the UN have been anticipating a Russian push to annex Ukrainian territory for months – and preparing their response. Since detecting “Ukraine fatigue” in the General Assembly in the second quarter of the year, U.S. and European officials have refrained from tabling new substantive resolutions concerning the war, fearing diminishing returns and preferring to keep their diplomatic powder dry. At times, this tack has frustrated the Ukrainian delegation in New York. Nonetheless, as Crisis Group noted in previewing the General Assembly, Ukraine’s partners have always said a Russian attempt at annexation would demand a UN response – assuring Kyiv that it could reasonably expect a high level of support.

U.S. and European diplomats hope that when it comes to a vote, a significant majority of UN members will stand up for basic principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity. These are central to the UN Charter, and non-Western countries have long been dedicated to defending them, sometimes invoking them in the face of Western pressure on human rights, governance and other issues. Kenya’s ambassador to the UN, Martin Kimani, won widespread praise in the run-up to Russia’s all-out invasion in February with a speech to the Security Council noting that African countries had “settled for the borders we inherited” from European colonial powers, in part because the alternative would have been “new forms of domination and oppression”. Western leaders raised similar themes in their UN speeches – with U.S. President Joe Biden emphasising “the sovereign rights of smaller nations” – in a concerted effort to appeal to the Global South.

Ukraine and its backers now hope that non-Western UN members’ interest in shoring up these principles will lead them to vote in favour of a General Assembly resolution affirming Ukraine’s territorial integrity and rejecting Russia’s “annexations”. The U.S. set the process leading up to this vote in train on 30 September by tabling a Security Council resolution condemning Russia’s actions in tandem with Albania (the current Eastern European member of the Council). Russia predictably vetoed it. Brazil, China, Gabon and India abstained, while the remaining ten members of the body backed the measure. While the number of abstentions was a disappointment – not least because Brazil and Gabon had voted to deplore Russia’s aggression in the Council in February – U.S. officials were relieved that China did not oppose the resolution, and indeed made positive references to Ukraine’s territorial integrity.

The EU delegation to the UN has since been working with Ukrainian diplomats, the U.S. and other friends on a draft General Assembly resolution on the issue. There is little doubt that it will pass, but the exact level of support, which remains to be seen, will also be important. In 2014, Ukraine tabled a resolution affirming its sovereignty over Crimea, which passed with 100 votes. In the ensuing years, the Assembly passed further resolutions renewing its position on Crimea, but the number of supporters dwindled. In December 2021, the latest version of this resolution passed with just 62 UN members backing it, 22 taking Russia’s side and the vast majority either abstaining or declining to vote.

Western diplomats hope that … they can secure a much bigger majority for their forthcoming text.

Western diplomats hope that, given the urgency of the situation in Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk and Zaporizhzhia, they can secure a much bigger majority for their forthcoming text. A sensible target would be to get a majority of at least 130 votes, or two thirds of the UN membership, which would be close to the 141 states that backed the March Assembly resolution on Russian aggression. Some of the biggest countries by population, including China and India, are unlikely to vote with the Western powers, affording Moscow an argument that the world is not as lopsidedly with the West as such a vote count might suggest. But that logic only goes so far at the General Assembly, where sovereigns have equal status, and vote counts do matter.

Securing Support

To secure maximum support, Ukraine and its backers should calibrate their messaging to the rest of the UN membership carefully. As Crisis Group’s analysis of leaders’ speeches at the high-level week suggests, many states are now wary of taking strong stances on Ukraine and would simply like to a see an early resolution to the war. They do not want to line up behind fierce denunciations of Russia. Yet if Ukraine, the U.S. and European countries can emphasise that this vote is narrowly focused on protecting the UN Charter principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity, many UN members will feel it serves their interests to sign on. Some will contrast the U.S. opposition to Russia’s annexations with the Trump administration’s recognition of Israel’s claim to the Golan Heights and Morocco’s absorption of Western Sahara, which the Biden administration has not renounced. But at the end of the day, most UN members should be reluctant to go on the record as disregarding Ukraine’s – or any country’s – right to maintain its borders.

This resolution will also inevitably play into the broader “battle of narratives” between Russia and the West over what is at stake in Ukraine. As noted above, both sides have lobbed accusations of colonialism and imperialism in the course of the war. There is no doubt that references to the history of colonialism still resonate strongly at the UN. In recent years, states from the Global South have drawn linkages between the abuses of their former colonisers and complaints about inequity in the West’s approach to issues such as the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines in 2021. It is little wonder that President Putin is trying to harp on this theme. Yet much as Russia’s narrative may resonate in some quarters, the protection of territorial integrity has the potential to strike a yet deeper chord. The resolution’s sponsors will be wise to focus their attention on safeguarding this fundamental pillar of the UN Charter, which every member of the General Assembly has committed to respect.


UN Director
Senior Analyst, UN Advocacy and Research