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Top Official Says UN Peacekeepers Are Overstretched

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By Edith Lederer

Mail & Guardian
January 24, 2009

After a decade of unprecedented growth, the UN's peacekeeping efforts are overstretched with 113 000 military, police and civilians deployed in 18 missions on five continents, a top UN official said on Friday. UN peacekeeping chief Alain Le Roy told the Security Council he believes 2009 will be a pivotal year with several missions facing risks so significant there is a potential they fail. He pointed to eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, where the UN force was "hard-pressed" to manage the recent upsurge in fighting, and the joint UN-African Union force in Darfur, which faces daunting challenges even when fully deployed.


Le Roy spoke at a council meeting called by Britain and France to start a wide-ranging discussion on peacekeeping challenges. Britain's UN Ambassador John Sawers said "UN peacekeeping is not in crisis" but it is "to some extent a victim of its own success" and is struggling to cope with new challenges. Today, he said, a UN peacekeeper can be not just a soldier but a police officer, a provider of humanitarian aid or a human rights expert. "And often, they will have little in the way of a peace to watch over," Sawers said. The challenges of keeping and building peace have become more demanding as many conflicts now involve rebel groups and other "non-state actors", he added. Le Roy said a new surge in peacekeeping in 2000 saw deployment figures leap from less than 14 000 to nearly 40 000 people. "This has turned out to be a sustained surge that continues until today, exactly a decade later," he said. "United Nations peacekeeping is clearly overstretched," Le Roy said. "We face operational overstretch and, I would argue, political overstretch, too ... with 18 operations deployed in five continents, with 78 000 military, 11 500 police and 23 500 civilians deployed."

He noted that a landmark report on UN peacekeeping in 2000 by UN troubleshooter Lakhdar Brahimi envisaged the UN launching one peacekeeping operation per year. Yet, this year, the United Nations is trying to cope with four major missions: adding 3 000 troops to about 17 000 already in the DRC; beefing up the UN-AU force in Darfur to its authorised strength of 26 000; putting together a newly authorised 5 200-strong UN force to replace a 3 300-strong European Union force in Chad and Central African Republic; and assessing the situation in Somalia for a future UN peacekeeping operation while planning to strengthen the AU force now on the ground in the conflict-wracked Horn of Africa nation. At the same time, Le Roy said, the mandates for virtually all UN peacekeeping missions have become much more complex. "Many are fundamentally political operations supporting complex transitions to peace within deeply divided countries," he said. "Yet for many of our missions, there is no consensus in the international community regarding the optimal political direction."

Susanna Malcorra, the undersecretary-general for a newly created UN department responsible for staffing and equipping UN field-based peace operations, said it now supports 16 peacekeeping missions and 18 special political missions. It also administers 22 000 international and local civilian staff and operates and maintains more than 250 medical facilities, 300 aircraft, 18 000 vehicles and 40 000 computers, she said. Malcorra said the rapid expansion in breadth, scope and complexity of peacekeeping missions, the increasingly hostile security landscape in some locations, and the gap between mandates and available resources to perform them has created "great strain". In Darfur, which is thousands of kilometers from the nearest seaport, the UN has to move heavy equipment and supplies for the construction of 35 camps to house almost 26 000 troops and police when roads are unreliable and unsafe and airfields are poor, she said. Chad will be even more difficult, Malcorra said, and supporting the AU force in Somalia "will require logistic resources and efforts that surpass even those being made in Darfur and Chad".

Le Roy said three sets of fundamental questions must be answered: Is peacekeeping being deployed beyond its capabilities and is the current peacekeeping model up to the challenges of the new mandates? Is the UN set up to manage the complexity of peacebuilding challenges? Where does peacekeeping fit in the international community's overall response to complex crises? He said he expects some answers from the wide-ranging discussion in about six months.


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