Speeches: The Future of UN Peace Operations

Good morning, it’s very, very good to be with all of you, and Sheba, thank you for a wonderful introduction. We’ve been colleagues off and on for the past couple of decades, although you couldn’t tell by looking at Sheba. And it’s great to be with you.
It’s particularly good to be here at the Institute of Peace. One of the wonderful things about my relatively new job is that I get to look out my window at this building. And when I need a little bit of inspiration and a little bit of calm in the day I look out the window, and I look here. Not just because the building is so spectacular, but because of what goes on in this building. The efforts to add to our storehouse of intellectual capital and thinking about issues of foreign peace is so important.
So I’m grateful to the Institute and the United Nations Foundation for hosting this dialogue and for a long-standing commitment on this critical issue.
But let me begin first of all by thanking Excellency José Ramos-Horta and the distinguished panelists for your tireless work over the course of this year. What you say, what you write, what you advise through this process will help set the course of peace for the next decade. It’s hard to think of a more important charge.
The United States stands firmly alongside you in this effort to modernize UN peace operations and strengthen this essential contribution to global security.
This is not easy task. Nearly seven decades ago, the first two UN peacekeeping missions were composed of unarmed military observers. With the consent of warring parties, they monitored ceasefires along contentious borders and built confidence on both sides of a conflict.
Today, as we already heard this morning, we ask our peacekeepers to face a world of far greater challenge where—sometimes—there seems to be little peace to keep.
It is a world where heavy weaponry and drugs slip quietly across borders—fomenting instability and financing criminality. A world where young boys can be conscripted as child soldiers and girls enslaved as child brides. A world where civilians are not the occasional victims but often the frequent targets of unspeakable atrocities.
From northern Nigeria to the Somali coast, state fragility and endemic violence repeatedly undermine hopes for a lasting peace. And we know that extremism finds fertile ground in this vacuum of authority—threatening our security and challenging our most basic values.
In this world, where conflict poses a danger to all of us, peacekeeping remains a responsibility from all of us.We cannot close our eyes and bury our heads in the sand, but we also cannot—and should not—have to face these global challenges and global responsibilities alone.
When violence erupts or political transitions break down, UN peace operations are often the best tool we have to protect civilians, to stop the violence, to facilitate peace, and rebuild states and societies.
Today, unfortunately, those involved in peace operations are in the growth industry, the demand for their services is at an all-time high, nearly 130,000 brave men and women carry out 16 missions worldwide—by far the most peacekeepers that have ever been active in history.
Two-thirds of them serve in conflict areas, where they operate under robust and demanding mandates, often at great risk to themselves. Just this past weekend, as you all know, an attack in Mali killed a peacekeeper and injured other people—a tragedy that only serves to deepen our common commitment to peace.
We turn to peacekeepers to protect civilians from atrocities in the Central African Republic; to disarm rebels and prevent sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo; to help re-establish state authority and stability in Mali.
We also turn to UN political missions to work for diplomatic solutions in Libya and Yemen; to press for security and governance in Iraq and Afghanistan; and to support efforts for peaceful transitions in Somalia and in Burundi.
In virtually all of these circumstances, we are asking the UN to carry out their duties in countries where governments are extremely weak and often unable to meet the basic needs of their people.
So while challenges to peacekeeping have fundamentally changed, the truth is that we, as a peacekeeping community, largely have not. And this goes, I think to the heart of the challenge that we face.
Too often, missions are deployed with long and overly complicated mandates, inadequate planning, weak leadership.
Too often, staffing shortages, competing chains of command, uneven commitments undercut success from the very beginning. In the worst of cases, these failings conspire to create an environment where abuses go unchecked and civilians unprotected.
We know we have to do better—to equip UN peacekeepers with the flexibility, with the capacity, and the political backing to meet 21st century challenges.
The United States is deeply invested in this effort. Since the very start of his administration, President Obama has emphasized and recognized our nation’s commitment to multilateral security initiatives.
In 2009, he chaired an unprecedented roundtable meeting with top troop and police contributing nations at the UN General Assembly—pledging our support for new proposals that strengthen peace operations.
And as Sheba referenced just a few moments ago, just last year, Vice President Biden co-hosted the UN Summit on Peacekeeping Operations. And just yesterday, as was referenced, Ambassador Power was in Brussels to urge greater commitment from European nations.
In the face of volatile, asymmetrical threats from Mali to the DRC, we know it won’t be enough to make small changes, small tweaks around the edges of the existing system. We have to embrace big, bold thinking that fundamentally redefines peacekeeping for a new era.
That is why Secretary General Ban Ki Moon wisely convened this important panel and sought the expertise of each of you.
As you formulate your recommendations, I urge you to take this opportunity to think not only strategically, but also progressively about the future of peace operations.
To this end, with your permission, I’d just like to outline a few areas where our Administration would like to encourage the Panel to take a close look.
First and foremost, we have to significantly strengthen the capacity of the peace operations we deploy.
This means expanding the base of contributors; facilitating rapid deployment; improving command-and-control; and working aggressively to prevent abuses and corruption.
It means investing in strategic planning in a way that anticipates modern threats, like organized crime, IEDs, suicide bombers.
And it means prioritizing leadership and management skills—rigorously assessing the performance of senior mission leaders and taking action to remove ineffective leaders.
The international community took a meaningful step forward in bolstering peacekeeping capacity in September at the UN Summit. Nearly one-third of the more than 30 countries in attendance announced they were considering new contributions of infantry battalions or force enablers to UN missions.
Some nations re-affirmed their long-standing commitments, including Bangladesh and the Netherlands, and others offered to participate for the first time, like Colombia.
Mexico announced it would deploy troops to UN peacekeeping for the first time in 60 years.
Indonesia announced it would increase its troops from 1,800 to 4,000 and create a standby rapid response force.
Sweden announced it would deploy 250 troops to conduct intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance in Mali.
Latvia has already followed through on its commitment to provide 50,000 euros to two peacekeeping initiatives in the Middle East and Africa.
And China announced it will continue to expand its participation—already at more than 2,000 troops.
For our part, the United States will continue to do our part. As the largest financial contributor to UN Peacekeeping, we cover more than 28 percent of annual costs and provide extensive airlift, logistical support, and medical services for both UN and African Union peacekeepers.
Today, we maintain 1,400 troops in peacekeeping operations in Kosovo and Sinai, and we’re continuously working to identify gaps that the United States is uniquely positioned to fill.
But more must be done to ensure that peacekeepers can actually deliver against increasingly robust mandates. In South Sudan, peacekeeping operations were still more than 2,000 troops short a year after the Security Council authorized an emergency increase in troops. In Mali, the mission has had to spend millions of dollars just to transport water to its troops, and has yet to reach full capacity.
Equipping peacekeepers with the latest in advanced technology can help make up the shortfalls they endure.
In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, peacekeepers are using unarmed, unmanned aerial vehicles to help them patrol vast distances and dense forests. When a UAV detected a ferry accident on Lake Kivu last year, peacekeepers immediately deployed their speedboats and helicopters to the scene and were able to save 15 lives.
In Mali, UAVs are giving peacekeepers an advantage in the fight against armed insurgents over immense deserts.
By applying these high-tech advances, we help alleviate the pressure of expanded peacekeeping mandates, strengthen operations in treacherous territory, and—most importantly—save the lives of peacekeepers and civilians alike.
At the end of the day, however, the kinds of conflicts we are talking about—the kinds of challenges we are asking our peacekeepers to confront—will not be resolved simply with more helicopters or more troops.
They have political causes. They require political solutions.
Special Political Missions are uniquely designed in this regard, so it is especially fitting that they are part of this Panel’s review.
With expertise in everything from crisis management to peacebuilding, these missions can bring diverse voices and recalcitrant parties together in meaningful dialogue.
As the Secretary General has rightly noted, UN operations do not need to be a binary choice between peacekeeping and political missions. They can work alongside each other to mitigate violence and facilitate political settlements, and we urge the Panel to strengthen these tools at the same time.
Ultimately, we know that no country wants to rely on others for its own security—to outsource the protection of its own citizens.
That is why, this past summer, the United States answered the call from African countries for help building their own capacity to respond to crises in their own neighborhood.
At the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, President Obama announced the African Peacekeeping Rapid Response Partnership to help an initial group of six countries rapidly deploy and sustain peacekeeping operations. Because we know that the earlier that we can act, the more lives we can save.
Regardless of mission, regardless of nationality, there is one constant that must remain true in peacekeeping—one principle on which we cannot compromise. And that is the protection of civilians.
From the refugee camps of eastern Congo to the remote villages of South Sudan, civilians look to the blue flag of the United Nations with hope in the midst of desperate, deadly circumstances. There can be, sometimes, no greater symbol of hope, of possibility, of life than that blue flag.
But far too often, they find themselves on their own.
That is what happened on the evening of June 6, 2014, when armed rebels attacked at an outdoor church service in the Congolese town of Mutarule. Just five miles away, peacekeepers were stationed with a mandate to use force as necessary to protect them. But the blue helmets never showed. More than 30 people were massacred that night, including eight children. Among them a four-year-old child.
The United Nations must fulfill its responsibility to protect civilians with firm and urgent resolve. We cannot solve the challenges that face peace operations by narrowing mandates—and indeed doing would undermine the very path to peace.
Just last month, on February 10th, MINUSCA and French forces engaged rebels in the Central African Republic without a single death or injury among their forces or the civilians. Not long after the operation, the rebel leader ordered his troops out of government buildings and opened the door to peace by allowing grassroots consultations to proceed.
That is precisely the difference that peacekeepers can and must make.
So over the next six months, we will have a number of opportunities to continue this discussion. A discussion that will go forward today—in the days and weeks ahead leading to the fall. Yesterday in Brussels, Ambassador Power announced that President Obama will convene a summit of world leaders in September to ask the international community to focus further on UN missions and press for greater reforms.
I have heard the President speak to this in the confines of the White House with extraordinary passion and extraordinary focus. This is something that deeply matters to him. This mission is critical and the opportunity before us in the months ahead is absolutely vital.
Now, the Netherlands already hosted a meeting of European countries in support of this effort, and Uruguay, Indonesia, and Ethiopia will each host a regional conference in the coming months.
And at the end of March, United Nations will host Chiefs of Defense from almost a hundred countries for the first time ever.
Taken together, these efforts will make a powerful difference—provided we continue to work in partnership.
Because at the end of the day, this is a task we have to face together—with bold ideas and in anticipation of the challenges that await us tomorrow.
We owe nothing less to civilians who look to the United Nations as a last resort when their lives are on the line.
And we owe it to the peacekeepers and political missions that serve far from home under desolate and dangerous conditions to fulfill the most noble of causes.
Whether they are escorting convoys of humanitarian supplies or building confidence at a negotiating table, their service, their sacrifice embody our shared commitment to the rights, to the freedoms, to the dignity of all people.
The United States greatly looks forward to the findings of the Panel. We are grateful to you for the work you are doing, for the spirit you are bringing to this enterprise, and we’re grateful to everything that you have in front of you. Mostly you have our commitment to work in meaningful partnership to strengthen peace operations around the world and to strengthen the work of the United Nations.
Thank you very much.