Africa: Calls Grow to Reform UN Peacekeeping Missions

Peacekeepers patrol Butembo in North Kivu in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (file photo).
6 December 2023

Africa has been a focal point for the United Nations peacekeeping missions for decades. For the first time, the continent has hosted a global ministerial meeting and urged the UN to reform its peacekeeping operations.

UN peacekeeping missions have received a significant boost from UN member states, who pledged their support and resources this week at the 2023 ministerial meeting in Ghana's capital, Accra.

Nearly 75 years after the first UN peacekeeping mission was established, more than two million peacekeepers from 158 countries have served in 71 operations.

But in the past decade, UN peacekeeping missions have faced many challenges, including reputational damage and mistrust, particularly in Africa.

In Mali and the Democratic Republic of Congo, for example, UN peacekeeping missions haven't achieved their goals and have often been accused of escalating tensions.

Both countries have called for an end to the peacekeeping missions in their respective nations and the blue helmets are already withdrawing from Mali following a request by the ruling junta.

Such reactions have cast doubt on the continuous relevance of peacekeeping missions worldwide, but delegates attending the fifth UN peacekeeping ministerial gathering in Accra have re-echoed their support.

UN peacekeeping missions are ongoing in the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, Western Sahara, and the Central African Republic.

Support for UN peacekeeping operations

The UN Under-Secretary-General for peace operations, Jean-Pierre Lacroix, told DW that the commitment of all nations was essential amid the many doubts.

"We have a more divided world, we have conflicts that are multiplying, we have more threats and deteriorating security environment in most of our peacekeeping operations," Lacroix said.

The UN top official said the Accra meeting gives hope of securing the support of political leaders towards peacekeeping operations.

"[Peacekeepers] have helped many countries successfully navigate the difficult path from war to peace, from Liberia and Namibia to Cambodia, Sierra Leone, Timor Leste and many other countries," Lacroix noted, stressing that UN operations have an exceptionally strong record of preventing and reducing violence as well as preventing wars from recurring.

This is the fifth UN peacekeeping ministerial meeting and the first in Africa.

Reforms needed in peacekeeping

Ministers and delegates from the over 85 countries attending the meeting focused their deliberations on how best to reform peacekeeping operations and adapt to prevailing challenges.

A peacekeeping mission that prioritizes the protection of troops and civilians, making operational environments safer and secure while rolling out effective and efficient technological tools, was key on the agenda of the meeting.

Ghana's vice president, Mahamadu Bawumia, told the meeting that reforms are inevitable if UN peacekeeping missions are to succeed.

"Our collective mission is to explore and navigate the gap in peacekeeping missions, evaluate options and work towards concrete outcomes that would enhance the effectiveness of peacekeeping operations," Bawumia said.

"In line with ongoing reforms efforts, particularly action for peacekeeping and the digital transformation strategy, our mission and objective is clear to generate high performing and specialized capabilities fostering partnerships and charting a path towards a more robust and more responsive peacekeeping apparatus."

Ghana's foreign affairs minister, Shirley Ayorkor Botchwey, also emphasized the need for adaptability and new approaches.

"The wealth of knowledge to be shared by participating nations would not only deepen our collective understanding but also provide a solid foundation for developing comprehensive strategies to address contemporary peacekeeping and security challenges," Botchwey said. "The challenges we face demand sustained commitment and collaboration."

Relevance of peacekeeping missions

Security expert Adib Saani told DW that despite the challenges of peacekeeping missions, especially in Africa, their work is still relevant.

"I can't deny that Africa cannot do it alone. We are not self-reliant. However, what I think should happen is for the UN to restructure," Saani said.

He called on local actors to get more involved in the missions' operations so there would be more trust and success.

Lacroix also made a case for the work of peacekeeping missions. "Peacekeeping operations continue to preserve ceasefires, protect civilians, mediate local conflicts, and strengthen institutions, wherever and whenever possible."

Fidel Amakye Owusu, a conflict resolution expert, said there is a need for urgent reforms that are far-reaching.

"Maybe UN missions going forward must be redefined, maybe to expand their mandate or to make them more fluid to support," Owusu told DW.

Lacroix, however, told DW that there is a need to prioritize UN peacekeeping mission mandates despite prevailing challenges.

"Supporting political efforts, protecting civilians, strengthening state capacities. At the same time, we need to make sure our peacekeepers have the right preparedness and mindset to make full use of their mandates."

Environmental impact of peacekeeping operations

Peacekeeping missions often have the mandate of preserving peace, but their operations over the years appear to have even exacerbated conflicts, according to the US Ambassador to Ghana, Linda Thomas-Greenfield.

She told a session on improving environmental management in peacekeeping that peacekeeping has an environmental impact.

"Today, peacekeeping is responsible for 92% of the United Nations' carbon footprint - 92%. By continuing down this path, we risk exacerbating the conflicts that we hope to contain," the US envoy said.

According to Thomas-Greenfield, "adopting new practices to switch to clean energy, peacekeepers can reduce strain on the fragile countries in which they operate and strengthen relationships with local communities."

"And improving environmental management can even help deliver peace dividends to those very communities, by leaving behind infrastructure to support a greener future," she added.

Funding peacekeeping operations

The Accra meeting was also part of the UN's high-profile resource mobilization efforts to get world leaders to pledge to support missions to fully implement their mandates.

Jean-Pierre Lacroix said financial, human and equipment contributions have become crucial for any successful peacekeeping operation.

"There is nothing we can do without the contribution of our member states, without the men and women, the units, the individual police and military officers, the support that all of us can provide in terms of training, in terms of technology, in terms of partnerships," Lacroix said.

The need to advance sustainable peace, protect civilians and improve the mental health of peacekeepers was also discussed with member countries pledging more women's participation and providing training that would benefit troops.

Edited by: Chrispin Mwakideu

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