Credit: MINUSMA/Harandane Dicko

by Arthur Boutellis

As the United Nations prepares to celebrate its 75th anniversary, multilateralism is in crisis. UN peacekeeping, the most visible conflict management tool at the disposal of the multilateral system, has, however, proven particularly resilient and to some extent sheltered from attacks on multilateralism and rising global disorder. Peacekeeping mission mandates continue to be adopted largely by consensus, and an overwhelming majority of member states supported the Declaration of Shared Commitments on UN Peacekeeping Operations (A4P). But for how much longer will peacekeeping be able to weather the growing global disorder?

In a recent article published in the Fudan Journal of the Humanities and Social Sciences, I argue that widening fault lines — within the UN Security Council, but also over finances and principles — are threatening the traditional global consensus over peacekeeping. As the group of countries that provides the bulk of the peacekeeping troops is increasingly different from the countries who mandate and pay a larger portion of the UN peacekeeping budget, “burden-sharing” is once again at risk of becoming unsustainable.

The first set of fault lines are among the permanent five (P5) members of the Security Council. Until recently, peacekeeping missions have been largely insulated from Council divisions — whether over Syria, Ukraine, the South China Sea, or, more recently, Venezuela, Libya, Yemen, Sudan, and Iran. Before 2017, when Secretary-General António Guterres took office, the Council had demonstrated a unique ability to “compartmentalize” their differences.

Of the P5, the United States, United Kingdom, and France (P3) have traditionally lead the drafting of Council peacekeeping resolutions, while Russia and China (P2) have long shared their disagreement with the interpretation of the core principles guiding peacekeeping. But these differences have usually not affected the ability of the 15 members of the Council to agree on language and unanimously approve peacekeeping mandates.

Over the past fifteen months, these differences have started seeping into both thematic debates and mission-specific discussions. This was clear in September 2018 when Russia circulated a draft presidential statement which deleted twenty paragraphs from a draft resolution the US shared on peacekeeping performance during its presidency. In June, Security Council Report Executive Director Karin Landgren reminded the Council that in 2018, four peacekeeping missions did not enjoy unanimously supported mandates, and that by the summer of 2019, three missions had already experienced the same fate.

Russia, which has taken a renewed interest in Africa and deployed military trainers to the Central African Republic (CAR) and other African countries, challenged France over the peacekeeping operation in its former colony. The disagreement, based on Russia’s concern that the draft mandate renewal did not recognize its mediation efforts with the Sudanese through the “Khartoum process,” forced a delay in the renewal of the UN Mission in CAR’s (MINUSCA) mandate. In March 2019, Russia abstained again on a new mandate for the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) over a minor point of language. The International Crisis Group has noted more systematic opposition towards P3 initiatives by Russia.

The rivalry between the US and China is also increasingly playing out over peacekeeping mandate renewals. In 2014, as China began significantly stepping up its contribution to peacekeeping by sending its first infantry units (when it had previously focused its contributions on medical, engineering, and logistics) to South Sudan and Mali, Beijing requested that the UNMISS mandate include a reference to the protection of oil infrastructure. The US initially resisted, but eventually accepted the reference, recognizing China’s growing role as a power broker in South Sudan.

In 2019, the US blocked a regular renewal (instead granting a “technical rollover” for six months) of the mandate of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) over a reference to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which was included in the resolution the previous year. The representative of Germany (the co-penholder on Afghanistan together with Indonesia) publicly regretted that “issues that have nothing to do with UNAMA’s mandate emerged, making it impossible to pass the resolution that the penholders sought.” China and Russia have signaled their misgivings regarding the pen-holder system and cautioned against “steamrolling divisive draft resolutions.” Should China request to hold the pen on more files in the future, however, deadlocks between the US and China could become a regular occurrence.

New divisions have also emerged between traditional allies like the US and France, notably over the cost of peacekeeping in Francophone Africa, from Mali, to CAR, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). In 2018, the US blocked the one-year renewal of the UN Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), with the Council ultimately reaching a compromise of a six-month review and new benchmarks. At the 2019 MINUSMA renewal, the US pushed for the redeployment of peacekeepers from northern Mali to protect civilians in the center of the country using existing resources, when France argued that this risked allowing jihadists back into the north. Differences will likely arise again during the June 2020 mandate renewal since the US just called for a reduction in the number of UN peacekeeping troops in Mali.

France’s push for financing non-UN African counterterrorism operations under the UN peacekeeping assessed budget since 2017 — which Secretary-General Guterres has been advocating for in his reports to the Council — apparently played a big part in upsetting the US. The US even threatened to veto French resolutions on the Joint Force G5 Sahel in 2017, and another resolution tabled in December 2018 by African members of the Council, supported by France, that proposed a new system for UN funding for African Union (AU)-led operations. In 2017, the US also threatened to veto the annual renewal of the mandate of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) over the mission’s failure to contain Hezbollah.

The ten elected members of the Council (E10) have also asserted themselves in a context of worsening P5 tensions and the wider erosion of the Council’s credibility, for example over its failure to act in Syria. In 2019, Germany becoming co-pen holder on the peacekeeping mission in Darfur as an E10 member was a modest but symbolic change. However, France reportedly turned down Germany’s suggestion to co-pen the resolution on MINUSMA. Similarly, Russia and the US joined up to block a resolution on improving mandates for peacekeeping operations tabled by Côte d’Ivoire and the Netherlands in November 2018 in the context of A4P. In December 2018, the US blocked a resolution floated by the three African E10s calling for the UN to finance AU peace operations because of its possible cost implications.

The financial issue has been another important widening fault line at the UN beyond just the financing of AU operations. While financial crises at the UN tend to be cyclical, the latest started in 2017 when the new US administration became more assertive in its efforts to cut UN peace operations costs. Despite significant reductions in the UN peacekeeping assessed budget in the past two years due to the closing of three missions, recent cash-flow problems related to the late payment and withholding of assessed contributions by the US placed a new strain on peacekeeping. This undermined the delivery of mandates and reform efforts, and the timely reimbursement of troop- and police-contributing countries (TCCs/PCCs).

This context has made Security Council-led discussions on performance particularly contentious, reflecting a broader crisis in what is called “burden-sharing” or “triangular cooperation” between the Council, major financial contributors, and TCC/PCCs from Africa and Asia. While Council members and financial contributors tend to prioritize increased accountability for under-performing TCCs, the latter generally ask for more support in terms of training and equipment (including for self-protection in high-risk environments), and argue for broadening the focus beyond uniformed personnel to include the roles of the Security Council, the UN Secretariat, and mission leadership in overall mission performance.

A final set of fault lines exist around the very principles that guide UN peacekeeping. Although these are constantly recalled in Council resolutions, they have been under strain for some time, while norms around gender and human rights are also being contested. As peacekeepers have increasingly been sent into situations where there is little or no peace to keep, two camps of member states have emerged. On the one side, the P3, some host countries, and some African TCCs have been pushing toward more “robust” peacekeeping, which could use force against armed groups or at least support parallel non-UN forces to do so. On the other side, China and Russia, with a number of other TCCs, defend a return to the core principles and approaches which align more with national sovereignty and development of the host state, arguing that peacekeeping has become overstretched with too many mandated tasks.

In this debate over principles and norms, China will likely play a decisive role as it is in a unique position of power. China is the only member of the P5 that has become a major financial contributor to peacekeeping, behind only the US, which accounts for 15.22 percent of the approximately $7 billion budget in 2019. China has also become a major TCC, ranking number 11 overall and first among the P5 since 2007. China also benefits from its unique proximity to and influence over the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and the G77, an influential group within the General Assembly’s Special Committee on Peacekeeping Operations (C-34) and the Fifth Committee that is responsible for administrative and budgetary matters.

In conclusion, despite the surface level consensus expressed in the A4P Declaration of Shared Commitments, which has proven a useful platform for the secretary-general to engage in dialogue with member states, many fault lines between member states persist and seem to be widening when it comes to peacekeeping.

In order for UN peacekeeping to continue playing its role as what Secretary-General Guterres called a “remarkable enterprise of multilateralism in international solidarity,” a number of things will need to happen. Continued engagement between the US — whose new representative at the UN shows a fresh interest in Africa — and other key financial contributors over the immediate cash crisis as well as the medium-term sustainable financing of peacekeeping is necessary. The Security Council will need to do more for TCCs to feel genuinely consulted and to demonstrate its ability to collectively advance political strategies which peacekeeping missions should support on the ground rather than substitute for. Member states will also need to continue formally and informally discussing how peacekeeping principles and capabilities can evolve without compromising the very foundations of the tool and values of the UN. And when carrying out the necessary reforms, greater emphasis should be put on achieving more just and equitable burden-sharing and on rebuilding consensus and coherence both in New York and in field missions.

Arthur Boutellis is a Non-resident Senior Adviser at the International Peace Institute, where he was previously Director of the Brian Urquhart Center for Peace Operations. This piece first appeared in IPI’s Global Observatory.


Will Peacekeeping Weather the Crisis of Multilateralism? was originally published in We The Peoples on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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