The EU should do more to support UN peacekeeping in Africa

The EU should do more to support UN peacekeeping in Africa

Bulletin article
Richard Gowan
01 June 2009

The EU likes to highlight its commitment to tackling failed states, addressing humanitarian disasters and bringing order to unstable regions. Ten years ago it established the European security and defence policy (ESDP) to help it fulfil those tasks. The EU has generally left the United Nations to handle conflicts in the Middle East and Africa, though it has offered some support to UN missions in those areas. But with European forces heavily committed in Afghanistan and the Balkans – and defence budgets being squeezed – there is now a danger that diminishing EU support will undermine the effectiveness of UN peacekeeping.

UN missions worldwide currently comprise more than 90,000 troops and policemen. The EU has helped: of the 23 ESDP operations to date, 15 have deployed alongside UN operations, including in Africa. Last year, for example, an EU peacekeeping mission in Chad assisted UN efforts to help refugees from Darfur.

But recent events have also shown the strains in this relationship. In 2008, when UN forces were unable to contain rebels in the eastern Congo, Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon asked for an ESDP mission to help. Some EU members, including Belgium and the Nordic countries, were ready to act. But Britain and Germany, despite having forces available on stand-by as part of the EU’s ‘battlegroups’, blocked the proposal. They feared military overstretch in case NATO needed more soldiers in Afghanistan. In the same year Italy was more justified in citing limited resources when it responded coldly to suggestions from the UN secretariat that it should lead peacekeepers in Somalia. In early 2009, Poland announced that it would pull out of some UN operations to save money. At UN headquarters, European diplomats worry that their governments will call for cuts to the UN’s $8 billion peacekeeping budget, two-fifths of which is paid by EU members.

European troops make up the bulk of UN forces in Lebanon and Chad, but those are the exceptions. In the rest of the world Europeans account for less than 1 per cent of UN forces. Yet UN missions in places like Darfur, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Côte d’Ivoire support EU policy objectives. The EU should not disengage from UN peacekeeping. The recession has put new pressures on fragile states, and blue helmet operations remain a cost-efficient way of managing the fall-out. “If we push missions to draw down now,” a European official admits, “we’ll take the blame when the massacres follow.”

Humanitarianism aside, there are good strategic reasons for the EU to reinforce its ties to the UN. The Obama administration cares about peacekeeping. Influential voices in the US are asking if European forces might be better employed in Africa than Afghanistan. A thousand more European soldiers can make little difference in Kabul, but could stiffen UN resolve in Kinshasa.

The EU’s support for UN operations is also important for its relationship with rising powers like India (a top supplier of blue helmets) and China (which says that its growing role in peacekeeping is proof of its responsible approach to global security). India has been irritated by the EU’s halfhearted approach to the UN, and is talking increasingly seriously about limiting its own troop contributions. The Chinese will not be impressed by an EU that lectures them about multilateralism but fails to support the UN on the ground.

In return for more financial and military support, the Europeans can and should demand that UN peacekeeping be better managed. The UN’s management systems are far better than they were in the days of the UNPROFOR mission to Bosnia in the 1990s, but remain unwieldy. There are credible reports that some UN units refused orders during last year’s Congo crisis. France and Britain have launched an initiative to improve Security Council oversight of UN operations, with modest success. Rather than turning away in frustration, the Europeans need to work more closely with the UN and back up reform initiatives with offers of money (for example, to support reform of the UN’s logistics and procurement systems). The forthcoming EU presidency of Sweden – strongly committed to the UN – is well-placed to take such initiatives.

The Europeans should talk to the US about deploying more ESDP missions to support the UN if and when they pull back from Afghanistan. If the Afghan campaign has shown the limitations of Europe’s military clout, working with the UN could give the EU a chance to show that its talk of ‘effective multilateralism’ is backed up by muscle.

Richard Gowan is an associate director at the NYU Centre on International Co-operation, and UN policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

Copyright is held by the Centre for European Reform. You may not copy, reproduce, republish or circulate in any way the content from this publication except for your own personal and non-commercial use. Any other use requires the prior written permission of the Centre for European Reform.