Thank you General, it is great to be back in Brussels. It goes without saying in 2015 that we live in a time of myriad crises. Conventional and unconventional, aggressive state actors and marauding non-state actors, nearby and far away.
The United States and Europe have a vital stake in curbing conflicts beyond our borders. These conflicts can displace millions of people, upend markets, spill over into neighboring countries, and disproportionately hurt people who are already poor and marginalized. The instability created by these conflicts increasingly attracts violent extremist groups, who seize upon the vacuum of authority to terrorize and abuse civilians. Battle-hardened extremists can use the territory they seize to plan more attacks – increasingly relying on foreign terrorist fighters, thousands of whom carry EU or U.S. passports and can move easily between conflict areas and our cities. And, in a vicious cycle, the suffering caused by these conflicts can help propel individuals toward the violent ideology of extremist groups, as well as serve as a powerful recruitment tool.
As you well know, few of today’s crises stay contained within national borders. Of the more than 3.4 million refugees displaced by the conflict in Syria, more than 60,000 Syrians crossed the Mediterranean in 2014 alone. Italy spent $150 million in 2014 on its Mare Nostrum operation – which was dedicated to patrolling the Mediterranean passage, and which saved thousands of lives. When the operation was deemed too costly for one country to bear, a more limited $40 million EU operation took its place. And in the last few months, nearly 400 migrants have died trying to cross the Mediterranean.
We also have a moral stake in ending the suffering and atrocities endemic to these conflicts. Over the last century, many Europeans experienced first-hand the horrors of living under regimes that brutally violate human rights. We don’t want to live in a world where people drown at sea while fleeing abuses like those committed by the Assad regime. We don’t want to live in a world where Sudanese soldiers can rape more than 200 women and girls in Darfur with impunity, as they are alleged to have done last October in the town of Thabit; or where Yazidi and Assyrian Christian men and boys are rounded up and executed by ISIL simply because of their faith, and women and girls sold like animals in open auctions. And we don’t want to live in a world where a girl believed to be as young as seven years old is used to set off a suicide bomb in a market in northern Nigeria, killing herself and seven other people.
I am going to speak today about the ways in which the United States and Europe need to pool our resources and capabilities to address today’s threats, and I am going to emphasize, in particular, the importance of strengthening UN peacekeeping.
Given the costs of conflict and the strain of trying to tend to so many humanitarian emergencies at once, it bears repeating that we need to improve our ability to prevent conflict in the first place.
Long-term investments in development are of course key. European governments like Norway, Sweden, Luxembourg, and Denmark’s are models of generosity, giving more development aid relative to their size than any other countries in the world. Nonetheless, while we know that countries that do a better job of educating girls are generally more peaceful, some 62 million girls worldwide are not in school. We have to change that.
Mediation, good offices and preventive diplomacy are also vital weapons in our prevention arsenal, and it is notable that European governments provide three-quarters of the United Nations’ extra-budgetary funding for these tasks. European leaders have also been at the forefront of efforts to seek a political solution to the Ukraine crisis, while European diplomats – Bernardino Leon in Libya, and Staffan de Mistura in Syria – have put their own safety at risk to try to broker an end to needless violence.
For diplomacy to work, we also need to raise the costs on those who escalate violence or pose a threat to international security – as the United States and Europe have done by ratcheting up sanctions on Russia for continuing to fuel deadly violence in eastern Ukraine. Tough multilateral sanctions on Iran have also played a critical role in bringing Tehran to the negotiating table to work toward a comprehensive plan aimed at preventing the country from acquiring a nuclear weapon.
Crucial as these tools are, however, there are conflicts that cannot be resolved by mediation or salved by humanitarian assistance.
Even though education investments can help prevent the rise of violent extremist groups – when Boko Haram abducts hundreds of schoolgirls, it underscores how dependent these educated kids are on basic security and how irreconcilable certain armed actors are. In those instances, the international community may have to resort to military force, and we – and by “we” I mean here the United States and Europe – must each have the capacity and the will to do our fair share in marshaling that force.
To be clear, I am not advocating the use of military force in the place of the other tools in our shared tool kit. Even when military action is necessary – such as against ISIL – it cannot be the only, or even the primary, component of our response. We have to counter the messaging of violent extremist groups in social media, cut off the flow of foreign terrorist fighters, and lift up the voices of Muslim leaders who preach a different message. We also know that without inclusive governance that allows citizens to hold their leaders accountable, military efforts will not succeed. Indeed, it is our military leaders who constantly stress the limits of using military force.
The United States looks to Europe as a strong military partner in our efforts to address the range of threats we face today. That starts with NATO. NATO has been the bedrock of our transatlantic security for more than 60 years and, in President Obama’s words is, “the strongest alliance the world has ever known.” That cannot, and will not, change. We must keep NATO strong not only to ensure the territorial integrity of each and every member state, but also to confront rising perils that NATO’s architects could never have imagined, like those emanating from violent extremist groups.
Beyond NATO, European military force can be brought to bear in other ways in service of our shared peace and security.
A country may choose to deploy troops outside of a formal institutional arrangement, as a number of European countries – Denmark, France, the Netherlands, Spain, the UK and others – are doing today as part of a 60-nation coalition against ISIL. Acting in support of African-led efforts, France has also deployed troops under its own flag – in Mali in 2013 and again in the Central African Republic later that same year. As President Hollande has said, the Mali intervention was recognized globally as, “useful for Mali, useful for the Sahel, useful for the fight against terrorism, and useful for security and peace in the world.” And while horrific atrocities have been committed in the Central African Republic, the bloodshed would likely have been much worse had the French not stepped in to support African troops on the ground.
A country may also choose to provide military support under the auspices of the European Union. The EU has deployed several targeted missions, including 700 troops who helped protect the Central African Republic’s main airport – a key hub for humanitarian supplies, where thousands of people also took refuge; 600 troops who are now helping keep the peace in Bosnia; and 1,200 sailors who protect ships and carry out counter-piracy operations off the Horn of Africa. Since 2007, the EU Battlegroups have offered rapidly deployable battalions of between fifteen hundred and two thousand troops, which could make a critical contribution to international security. But the Battlegroups have not deployed in the eight years since they were created.
That is regrettable, given the many worthy causes. And the Battlegroups are extremely costly; in the first six months of 2008, Sweden spent $130 million on its turn in the rotation. These rotations tie up thousands of troops, who might otherwise be deployed in the field to save lives.
Another means by which a European country can advance our collective security – and one I will argue today has a lot to offer – is UN-led peacekeeping operations. Some critics claim that UN deployments detract from NATO’s core mandate or missions. Others claim that the United States does not respect these deployments, or views them as “soft.” Both claims are false. The United States values Europe’s military contributions to peacekeeping. NATO’s current Strategic Concept itself calls for working with UN and regional organizations to enhance international peace and security. Blue helmets carry the unique legitimacy of having 193 Member States behind them – from the global North and South alike. In addition, these missions allow burden sharing – European nations can provide high-value niche contributions and force-multipliers to UN missions, without having the burden of fielding the entire operation – a division of labor that both plays to European militaries’ strengths and spreads risks across a larger pool. And UN peacekeeping is the only mechanism that pays contributors – covering almost all operational costs for equipment, and even defraying some personnel expenses.
Now I’m not here today to say which of the range of options I mentioned – governments deploying under their own flag, through regional bodies, or in UN peacekeeping missions – I’m not here to say which is the right fit for any particular European country or countries. We understand different organizations and configurations bring distinct advantages and disadvantages, which must be weighed on a case-by-case basis.
But, the United States and Europe each must find a way to do our fair share in protecting our common security interests.
Today’s UN peacekeeping is not your mother’s peacekeeping. We are asking peacekeepers to do more, in more places, and in more complex conflicts than at any time in history. There are currently sixteen UN peacekeeping missions worldwide, made up of nearly 130,000 personnel, including 90,000 troops and more than 12,000 police; this is compared to just 75,000 total personnel a decade ago. And that number does not include the more than 21,500 troops and 500 police deployed to the African Union-led peacekeeping mission in Somalia. This is far and away more peacekeepers than have ever been active in history.
We’re giving peacekeepers broad and increasingly demanding responsibilities in increasingly inhospitable domains. We are asking them to contain – and at times, even disarm – violent groups, like the countless rebel groups in the Democratic Republic of Congo. We’re asking them to ensure safe delivery of life-saving humanitarian assistance, such as by escorting emergency shipments of food and medicine to civilians, as peacekeepers have done in South Sudan. We’re asking them to protect civilians from atrocities, as in the Central African Republic. We’re asking them to bolster stability in countries emerging from brutal civil wars, as in Liberia and Cote d’Ivoire, as well as to prevent new outbreaks of violence in long-running conflicts, as in Lebanon.
And in virtually all of these missions, we are asking them to carry out these duties in countries where governments are extremely weak, and often struggle to meet the basic needs of their citizens.
Today, two-thirds of UN peacekeepers are operating in active conflict areas, the highest percentage ever. Peacekeepers often deploy to areas where rebel groups and militia have made clear that they intend to keep fighting. And the warring parties in modern conflicts now include violent extremist groups, who increasingly terrorize civilians and treat peacekeepers as legitimate, or even desirable, targets.
Some say that we’re asking too much of UN peacekeeping. But we are asking more of peacekeeping because today’s threats demand peacekeepers play such a role.
These new challenges and responsibilities are the reason that UN peacekeeping needs European militaries more than ever. European troops have extensive training, professionalism, and high-end equipment. European countries can also provide high-value niche capabilities, like medical units, engineering companies, attack helicopter units, and teams to conduct intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, or ISR.
UN peacekeeping would benefit exponentially from the kinds of contributions that European countries provided to the NATO-led mission in Afghanistan, ISAF. Four years ago, European countries had approximately 35,000 troops in ISAF.
Today, that number has decreased to 2,000, freeing up troops who could make a tremendous difference elsewhere. Germans and Danes who piloted utility helicopters in Afghanistan, moving essential supplies and equipment across territory, could provide the same critical mobility assets to peacekeepers across large swaths of Darfur. Italians and Spaniards who ran military hospitals in Afghanistan could provide the same high-quality medical care to peacekeepers combating violent extremists in Mali. Romanians and Czechs who protected ISAF bases by patrolling, manning checkpoints, and conducting cordon-and-search operations, could do the same for UN bases in South Sudan, where more than 100,000 displaced civilians have fled to UN bases for their lives.
Beyond the direct impact of these contributions, greater participation by European militaries will also help improve standards and modernize systems within UN peacekeeping missions. To be sure, troops accustomed to the planning, operations, and logistics of their own militaries or NATO will find it challenging to adjust to UN systems, as the Dutch and Swedes in the UN’s Mali mission have experienced. That mission, for example, had to change key practices to accommodate an “All Sources Information Fusion Unit,” an innovation created by NATO. But the UN mission in Mali adapted, and as a result, peacekeepers there now have improved military intelligence to counter asymmetric threats. And in this way, some of the inefficiencies in the existing UN machinery will get fixed – from the inside out.
Just as it will strengthen UN peacekeeping if European militaries play a greater role, so European militaries could also benefit. In ISAF, European troops honed their battlefield skills, commanders gained tactical and leadership experience, and equipment was put to the test.
Deployments to peacekeeping allow European militaries to preserve this level of preparedness, rather than allow it to degrade. Training and combined exercises like NATO’s are extremely valuable, and must continue, but there is no substitute for experience in theater. There is a reason the military dictum that, “no battle plan survives contact with the enemy,” is repeated so often.
The benefits are no less significant for European police. By deploying to environments like Mali – where transnational criminal networks are smuggling drugs, weapons, and migrants – Europe’s advanced gendarmeries could build investigative skills useful for eliminating similar networks at home. And because Europe is the ultimate destination for many of the illicit goods moved by these trafficking networks, dismantling them at their source would provide direct domestic benefits at home.
Twenty years ago, European countries were leaders in UN peacekeeping. 25,000 troops from European militaries served in UN peacekeeping operations – more than 40 percent of blue helmets at the time. Yet today, with UN troop demands at an all-time high of more than 90,000 troops, fewer than 6,000 European troops are serving in UN peacekeeping missions. That is less than 7 percent of UN troops. European police account for less than 4 percent of the UN’s police forces. Now, that is not in any way to to diminish the Italian, Spanish, French and other troop contributions, these forces are currently risking their lives to keep a precarious peace in Lebanon – a mission to which Spanish Corporal Francisco Javier Soria Toledo gave his life six weeks ago – nor is it to diminish the 130 Irish troops serving bravely in the Golan Heights. But it is to speak to the reality that European countries have drawn back from peacekeeping.
What happened? As many of you know, a seismic shift followed the back-to-back catastrophes in Rwanda and Bosnia.
In July 1995, Bosnian Serb forces seized the UN safe area of Srebrenica, where some 25,000 Bosnian Muslim civilians had sought protection under the UN flag. Fewer than 400 lightly-armed Dutch peacekeepers were overrun by 5,000 heavily-armed Bosnian Serbs, and at least thirty Dutch peacekeepers were taken hostage.
When one Dutch peacekeeper tried to secure access to a bus so he could keep watch over the civilians who were being driven away by Serbs, the general leading the assault, Ratko Mladic, told him, “I am in charge here. I’ll decide what happens.” And decide he did, ordering the killing of more than 8,000 Muslim men and boys, the largest single massacre in Europe since World War Two. The barbarous acts committed by the Bosnian Serbs in Srebrenica gutted the idea that the UN could keep people safe.
The Dutch and most of Europe left peacekeeping twenty years ago not because of Srebrenica as such, but because Srebrenica laid bare a fatally flawed enterprise. Operations designed to monitor static lines of a ceasefire had been thrust into open war zones, and the consequences were deadly, both for the people who peacekeepers were supposed to protect and, as was clear, also when ten Belgian peacekeepers were massacred by Hutu soldiers in Rwanda a year before, even for peacekeepers themselves.
The few hundred UN troops in Srebrenica were outnumbered twelve to one, outgunned, and surrounded; they lacked clear orders as to whether they could use force to protect civilians, and they never got the air support they thought that they had coming. The fault lay with the system that put them in that position.
At the root of the failures in Bosnia and Rwanda was a paralyzing – and indeed dangerous – confusion as to whether peacekeeping missions were authorized to use force to protect civilians under attack, or whether their role was limited to self-defense. Perpetrators probed this line and brazenly exploited peacekeeping’s structural weaknesses and contradictions. Even if peacekeepers had been given more explicit direction to use force – which they were not – it is not at all clear that they would have had the capabilities to marshal it effectively.
But peacekeeping since then has changed. Peacekeeping missions now have clear authority to use force and clear mandates to protect civilians. Twenty years ago, no peacekeeping operations had an explicit responsibility to protect civilians; today, 98 percent of peacekeepers serve in missions that do. Today, the challenge is ensuring consistent fulfillment of these new authorities and mandates.
UN peacekeeping is stronger than it was two decades ago. To be sure, serious institutional challenges persist, including inadequate planning, uneven mission leadership and troop performance, breakdowns in command-and-control, and a set of rules around human resources and procurement designed for the conference rooms of New York, and not the streets of Bangui.
But while admittedly there is much that still needs to be fixed in peacekeeping – and the Secretary-General has convened a High-Level Panel on Peace Operations to try to catalyze a new wave of reforms – peacekeeping has evolved since many European countries left it in the mid-1990s.
UN peacekeeping has improved logistics and sustainment through its Department of Field Support, it has modernized supply chain and asset management, it has strengthened lines of communication with headquarters, it has created an inspector-general function to evaluate candidly the UN’s performance, it has introduced a capabilities-based reimbursement system for troops, and it has developed a far more integrated approach to crisis situations, drawing on military, police, and civilian tools.
This is why, after several national inquiries into the breakdown at Srebrenica, after parliamentary hearings, and after a very difficult domestic debate, in late 2013 the Dutch government decided to make its most noteworthy contribution to UN peacekeeping since Bosnia, sending troops to Mali. Prime Minister Rutte wrote to the Dutch Parliament, “We have learned the lessons from the past.” He argued that, unlike in Srebrenica, the nature of their deployment and the institutional framework of peacekeeping would ensure that Dutch soldiers would be able to fulfill their duties while protecting themselves. The Prime Minister recognized that, to protect Dutch security, the country had to take on missions “far from home.” He said, “Because of the terrorist threat, this conflict is not just a major problem for Mali, but it affects the entire region and the international community as well.”
The Netherlands has now deployed more than 450 UN peacekeepers to Mali. They did not pick an easy mission; the asymmetric threats posed by armed groups in the country’s north make Mali one of the UN’s most challenging engagements – a reality brought home by the vicious attack on a Bamako bar over the weekend, in which five people were killed, and by yesterday’s rocket attack on the UN base in Kidal, which killed a Chadian peacekeeper and two children who were living in a nearby camp. The Dutch contingent includes special forces, a 220-person intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance unit; a combined attack and support helicopter unit, consisting of 4 Apache and 3 Chinook helicopters; and police and civilian experts. And others have joined the Dutch in Mali, including Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and Finland. The peacekeepers are not just hunkering down on the base, they are venturing out daily to carry out their mission.
Unfortunately, even as the world demands more of UN peacekeeping operations, and even as some European countries like the Netherlands are returning to peacekeeping, a deep imbalance in troop contributions persists. Low-income countries, with per capita income less than about $1,000 per year, account for around 12 percent of the world’s population. Yet they contribute 43 percent of the UN’s troops. And while many soldiers from these countries have shown tremendous bravery and resilience, they are the first to say that they often lack the training and equipment for the circumstances in which they find themselves.
Obviously it is not the job of the United States – or any government – to tell European countries how to maintain peace and security. But it is essential that each of us does our fair share. And to that end, let me tell you how the United States is doing our part.
As we speak today, the United States has military personnel deployed to over 100 countries in every region of the world. Our 10,000 troops remaining in Afghanistan under Operation Resolute Support are committed to sustaining Afghan national security forces in support of the Afghan government and people. Throughout the Middle East, we are pursuing violent extremists in the region, both directly and through local partners, and we currently have 2,600 troops serving in the global coalition to combat ISIL.
In recent years we have deepened our already strong security ties in the Asia-Pacific region. From deterring North Korean aggression to providing life-saving humanitarian aid following Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, forward-deployed U.S. service members continue to provide for the collective security that has helped enable Asia’s remarkable rise. Our forces in Africa are working with a broad range of partners – including many of you – to build stronger governance and defense institutions and professional, capable military forces. We recently deployed 2,800 troops to Liberia to help stop the spread of Ebola, just as in 2010 we sent 17,000 troops to Haiti in the aftermath of that country’s devastating earthquake. The U.S. Navy remains forward deployed 365 days a year to ensure that the world’s vital sea lanes – from the Strait of Malacca to the Strait of Hormuz – remain open to global commerce and use by all. And finally, I don’t have to tell this room that the United States’ continued commitment to the collective security of NATO and peace and stability in Europe remains absolute.
Another key part of shouldering our security burden is ensuring that each country takes on its fair share of the costs. The United States and our European allies have committed to dedicate to defense spending a minimum expenditure of two percent of our countries’ respective GDPs.
Given the range and severity of the crises we face today, one could reasonably argue that – even in trying economic times – that proportion should be higher. Yet only two allies are even meeting the benchmark, and most allies are reducing, not increasing, military spending. Given the threats that exist around the world, this is deeply concerning.
The United States is no stranger to the pressures of austerity – as you all have seen from our vigorous and seemingly eternal domestic debates on spending. And like many European countries, we have been forced to endure significant military cuts – which President Obama is working to reverse, together with crippling reductions to social services. But the United States is cutting from a much bigger pie. We allocate nearly four percent of our GDP to defense spending; our next closest ally spends around half that. And the United States is paying a disproportionate share toward defending our collective security, including 75 percent of NATO’s budget. This imbalance is not only unsustainable; it is dangerous.
In his last policy speech in Europe, delivered at this very forum in 2011, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates urged European governments to boost their defense commitments – or at the very least to deploy more strategically their decreasing resources – to prevent our security partnership from becoming what he called a “two-tiered alliance,” in which a few countries bear the disproportionate responsibility for the security of many. Secretary Panetta delivered a similar message, as did Secretary Hagel after him. And you can expect Secretary Carter will, too. The message has not changed because the imbalance persists – an imbalance that will put our collective security at risk.
Now, I also made the case today – persuasively, I hope – that as each European nation chooses its approach for doing its part to advance international security, UN peacekeeping is an attractive option. It allows European troops with key niche capabilities to have an outsized impact, and it raises the quality of the entire enterprise, at a time when we need peacekeeping to do more, in more conflict zones, than ever before. Given that I’ve made such a strong pitch for the value of deepening our commitment to UN peacekeeping, I’m sure a good number of people in this room are asking: Why doesn’t the United States do more for peacekeeping? Well, the short answer is that, alongside the range of ways we contribute to international security that I’ve already mentioned, we are also deepening our involvement in UN peacekeeping.
Recognizing the importance of UN command and control, in the Central African Republic, Mali, South Sudan, DRC, Liberia, and Haiti, we have deployed small teams of military staff officers who don blue berets to support mission leadership. We provide extensive support for training, equipment and airlift, whether that’s equipping African troops deploying to Mali, or rapidly airlifting Rwandan and Burundian troops into the Central African Republic at the start of the African Union peacekeeping operation there. We have just launched the African Peacekeeping Rapid Response Partnership, which will dedicate $110 million per year for three to five years to build the capacity of key African troop-contributing countries so that they can deploy more rapidly to peacekeeping missions – an initiative in which we would welcome the participation of European countries. We are also doing more to share our unique knowledge of confronting asymmetric threats, like the ones peacekeepers are confronting now in Mali and Somalia – lessons we learned, and many European governments learned, through more than a decade of war in Afghanistan and of course, for us, in Iraq. We are doing more to help peacekeeping missions make better use of advanced technology, such as counter-IED equipment, which can improve peacekeepers’ ability to project force and save lives.
We maintain 1,400 troops in peacekeeping operations in Kosovo and Sinai. We continue to look for gaps that we are uniquely positioned to fill, such as by building base camps for the UN peacekeeping operation in the Central African Republic, which we have just done. And of course we cover more than 28 percent of the costs of UN peacekeeping, more than $2.5 billion this year.
President Obama views strengthening UN peacekeeping operations as a strategic priority for the United States. Back in 2009, he gathered the leading troop contributors to peacekeeping to thank them for their contributions and to solicit their thoughts on how the enterprise should be improved. In 2010, in his Nobel Peace Prize speech, he underscored that, “we must strengthen U.N. and regional peacekeeping, and not leave the task to a few countries.” And on the President’s direction, last September, Vice President Biden convened a peacekeeping summit, alongside the UN Secretary-General and leaders from Japan, Rwanda, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, and ministers from another twenty countries. The goal of that summit was to encourage new, concrete commitments of support to missions. And, indeed, a number of countries stepped up notably.
Sweden announced that it would deploy 250 troops to Mali to conduct intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance. Indonesia announced that it will more than double its deployment of troops to peacekeeping from 1,800 to 4,000. China announced that it will continue to expand its participation – already at more than 2,000 troops, China is now the 13th largest troop contributing country. Latin America stepped up, with Chile voicing a willingness to make vital contributions to support UN peacekeeping operations outside Latin America, in Africa; Mexico announced that it would deploy troops to UN peacekeeping for the first time in 60 years, while Colombia announced an intent to contribute troops for the first time in its history.
Regional leaders are rallying their neighbors to do more. The Netherlands recently hosted a meeting of European countries, and in the months ahead, Uruguay, Indonesia and Ethiopia will each host senior-level regional meetings in their respective regions to urge new troop and police commitments. Rwanda will host a senior-level meeting focused on improving the protection of civilians in the field. And at the end of this month, Chiefs of Defense from almost a hundred countries will gather at the United Nations in New York for the first time ever to discuss how to strengthen peacekeeping.
Building on all of this momentum, I am pleased to announce today that, this coming September in New York, on the 70th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations, President Obama will convene a summit of world leaders to help catalyze a wave of new commitments.
It is in the interest of the United States and Europe to leave UN peacekeeping more capable, more nimble, and more reliable than it has ever been. The coming summit will take significant steps to strengthen peacekeeping, including by addressing three core needs that the United Nations has identified.
First, the UN needs countries to help it close the enduring gaps that hamper existing peacekeeping missions. The peacekeeping operation in Mali is still short two C-130 aircrafts that could transport troops and equipment across theater. The operation in the Central African Republic is still short attack helicopters that could reinforce infantry and help protect civilians. These are intolerable gaps and just a taste of the shortfalls today that are undermining mission performance around the world.
Second, the UN seeks to generate a set of rapid deployment commitments of troops and police that the UN can call upon if a new crisis erupts. Rapid deployment is critical to stemming emerging crises: the earlier we act, the better our chances of preventing full-blown conflicts, and the more lives we can save. Yet today rapid deployment is rare. To give just one example, in South Sudan, the Security Council rightly authorized an emergency increase in troops to stem violence in December 2013. Yet a year later – with civilians still in crucial need of UN protection – the peacekeeping operation was still more than 2,000 troops short.
For European countries, committing to rapid deployment would not require special arrangements or dedicated troops, as EU Battlegroups do. European countries demonstrated in Lebanon in 2006 that they can deploy troops to UN peacekeeping on very short notice. And these rapid deployment contributions would be for a finite period of time, allowing European troops to move quickly, establish a robust presence, and then hand off to the next wave of troops.
Third, the UN must generate a broader set of troop and police commitments that could be called upon to staff future missions or backfill contingents that are leaving current missions. UN peacekeeping needs a deeper bench, and a more capable one, with skills to match needs on the ground.
Some European governments may balk at the prospect of making a forward-looking pledge of troops and police. But the UN is not asking for automatic or self-executing personnel commitments, but rather a pledge that a country is willing to make available capabilities and troops on a mission-by-mission basis, retaining the future freedom of decision-making that any leader would need.
We can strengthen peacekeeping in other ways – contributing technology and helping build capacity of some of the leading troop or police contributors. But progress towards the UN’s three core goals is critical to ensuring that the institution can achieve what we – and the world – are asking of it.
Peacekeeping has changed a great deal since most European countries left – deployments are more robust and peacekeepers have clear mandates to protect civilians. But failures like the one last year in the Congolese town of Mutarule – where UN peacekeepers stayed on their base while more than thirty people were massacred a few kilometers down the road – are still too common.
These failures persist in part because some peacekeepers still question whether it is their job to protect civilians. But those holding this view are increasingly in the minority. More peacekeepers are embracing their core responsibility to keep people safe – with African countries like Rwanda and Ethiopia taking a leading role. And yet, in spite of this important evolution, UN peacekeeping operations often lack the full complement of capabilities to make these aspirations a reality.
That is where European troops could help most – providing niche assets to make peacekeeping operations more effective. Infantry troops can do more preemptively if they have good military intelligence on threats to civilians. Peacekeepers can take greater risks if they can count on high-quality medical support. Troops can patrol more actively if they know attack helicopters stand behind them.
In early January, a platoon of Bangladeshi peacekeepers in Mali moved into the northern town of Tabankort, with the aim of preventing fighting between hostile armed groups and protecting local civilians. As tension mounted, another Bangladeshi platoon reinforced them, and civilians took refuge in their camp. On January 20th, rebels advanced on the town, opening fire on the peacekeepers. The Bangladeshi troops held their ground, returned fire, and called for helicopter support. The Dutch peacekeepers – who had arrived in Mali only weeks earlier – swiftly responded to the call, striking the rebels with an attack helicopter unit and ending the assault on the town.
This is what a modern European contribution to a 21st century UN peacekeeping operation looks like. Targeted. Effective. Momentum-shifting. Beyond deterring individual attacks, such interventions demonstrate the force multiplying effects that Europeans bring to operations. The willingness to repel an attack makes other peacekeepers, like the Bangladeshis deployed to Tabankort that day, more confident in holding their ground, because they know that the Dutch have their backs.
Irrespective of which country they come from, blue helmets who fail to fulfill their mission undercut the enterprise of peacekeeping. Like Mladic at Srebrenica – warlords, militia, and violent extremists start to believe that they are the ones in charge. Emboldened, they are more likely to carry out brazen attacks on peacekeepers and to abuse civilians.
But acts of determination, like the Dutch and their Bangladeshi partners in Tabankort, also have resonance beyond individual incidents. They inspire confidence and build camaraderie. They help bring respect to the blue helmet, and they shift the balance of who is in control on the frontlines of the world’s conflict zones.
That is a balance worth shifting, and it is one in which European militaries’ participation can be decisive. Thank you.