How the UN Can Shield Civilians From War

Armed, but not ready.

Photographer: Ashraf Shazly/AFP/Getty Images

Of all the efforts the United Nations undertakes to make the world a better place, none is more vital than its work to keep people safe from war. Yet the organization's global peacekeeping missions are among its most troubled endeavors. This month's annual General Assembly opening offers an opportunity to do something about that.

The UN has 16 peacekeeping operations going on at the moment, the largest in hot spots such as the Central African Republic, Congo, Darfur and Lebanon. Most are undermanned: The Congo mission has 24,000 troops and police to quell violence among a population of more than 68 million. And most are either inadequately protecting civilians or mired in scandals. They are also outgunned: Many of the 56 peacekeeping deaths in Mali, which has been desperately short of armored vehicles, have come from ambushes involving homemade bombs. 

One main reason: UN peacekeeping has become less a serious military effort than a job-creation program for poor countries.

Consider that the country now contributing the greatest number of troops is Bangladesh -- 9,400 of the UN's 105,000 uniformed personnel -- followed by Ethiopia, India, Pakistan, Rwanda and Nepal. While these nations may well be committed to protecting civilians, there is no doubt that, for their militaries, the $1,000-a-month-per-soldier paychecks are a big part of the appeal. And while it's understandable that many impoverished African countries are involved, given that nine of the 16 missions are on that continent, most of the African troops come from poorly run, corrupt militaries and thus lack sufficient training for the job.

The world's richer countries mainly contribute money. The U.S. provides about 28 percent of the $7 billion in annual funding, Japan chips in 11 percent, and the three European powers -- France, Germany and the U.K. -- give a combined 21 percent. 

But the world's best militaries send few of their own well-trained and experienced troops. Only 78 Americans, 76 Russians and 287 Brits serve as peacekeepers.

This system is exactly backward. The UN forces would be far more effective if they were manned by well-trained troops and led by experienced commanders.

With NATO drawing down its troops in Afghanistan and the U.S. playing only a supporting role against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, tens of thousands of battle-hardened Western troops and commanders are available to better protect at-risk civilian populations in the developing world. Peacekeeping would also provide Japan, which this summer passed legislation relieving restrictions on sending combat forces overseas, an opportunity to give its troops frontline experience.

In exchange, the rising nations that gain the most economic or political benefits from UN peacekeeping efforts -- including Brazil, China and Russia -- should shoulder more of the financial cost.

No doubt, there would be political backlash in the U.S. over putting American soldiers under the control of UN bureaucrats. That need not happen: These missions should be put at least in part under the established command-and-control structures of the NATO nations, a military cooperation system that the U.S. is comfortable with.

Other reforms are needed, as well. Among the most urgent identified in a 2015 report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute is to set stricter mandates for when UN troops engage hostile forces to protect civilians: Too often, peacekeepers stand by or retreat in the face of danger. Also, UN missions need the freedom to cross national borders when hostile forces do, as in Sudan and West Africa. And the UN could do a far better job of coordinating its actions with regional peacekeeping forces such as those of the African Union.

In June, a UN panel headed by Nobel Peace Prize winner Jose Ramos-Horta turned in a 100-page review of peacekeeping operations to date; this and the Swedish report will be high on the agenda when world leaders meet next week in New York. But until the powerful nations commit to doing more on the ground, such discussion won't save civilian lives in the world's war zones.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.