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The UN is imperfect, but we need it more than ever

The disconnect between the public and the UN has given it an increasingly opaque image, compounded by dark scandals and media bias. But would the world be as safe without it?

Laura Bullon-Cassis
10 December 2015
UN Peacekeepers on patrol in Abyei. UN Photo:Stuart Price:Flickr. Some rights reserved.jpg

UN Peacekeepers on patrol in Abyei. UN Photo/Stuart Price/Flickr. Some rights reserved.There is no debating that recent news stories on UN peacekeeping missions have been particularly off-putting for readers worldwide. On 30 July, The Guardian revealed that the United Nations had knowingly continued employing a Russian company guilty of sexual abuse in the Congo. Just a few days later, on 11 August, Amnesty International alleged that UN peacekeepers shot dead a 16-year-old boy and his father, and raped a 12-year-old girl in the Central African Republic (CAR).

The latter incident prompted UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon to raise alarm bells with the Security Council, call for profound soul-searching within the Department for Peacekeeping Operations and ask, among other things, for the resignation of the head of the UN mission to the CAR. 

At the same time, it is becoming clear that UN peacekeeping operations are all the more relevant and deserving of the general public's attention. In 2014, conflict forced 42,500 persons per day to leave their homes and seek protection elsewhere, according to data from the UNHCR. A survey by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) estimated that 180,000 people died in 42 conflicts last year. Given the ongoing flow of distressing news about migrants in the Mediterranean and Calais, 2015 will probably not fare any better.

These numbers carry with them distressing narratives of uprooted families, of exclusion and radicalization, of untimely deaths and long-lasting enmities. They prevent the best-meaning governments, groups and organizations to effect sustainable progress: some level of peace and stability must be present for this to happen. They extend beyond the pain experienced by those directly affected to impact other peoples around the globe – whether one is liberal or conservative, migration flows in and around Europe are of great concern to all of us – as well as future generations.

They are also pervasively interwoven with our markets: conflict cost the global economy an estimated USD 14.3 trillion in 2014, according to the latest Global Peace Index. Conflicts affect the price of gas at your local petrol station. 

Army Reservists Receiving their United Nations Blue Berets. Defence Images:Russ Nolan:Flickr. Some rights reserved.jpg

Army Reservists Receiving their United Nations Blue Berets. Defence Images/Russ Nolan/Flickr. Some rights reserved.This is where conflict prevention, the “limitation, mitigation and containment of conflict” through mediation, peacekeeping, peacemaking, confidence building and diplomacy, comes into play as a fundamental first step. With the increasing number of countries vulnerable to becoming so-called “failed states” and the seductiveness of transnational terrorist groups, the need for preventive action is pressing.

By default, the responsibility often falls into the hands of governments, but this presents a number of issues. Foreign policies of countries such as the UK and the US are closely tied to the narratives of several countries now in turmoil and, more often than not, action will be taken according to national interests.

Conversely, while the UN is not always welcomed with open arms, the legitimacy conferred by its truly global composition remains unparalleled. 193 out of 195 countries in the world are UN member states. When UN peacekeepers are sent on a mission, their goal is not to conquer territories or fight against hostile groups. Under Chapter I, Article 1.1 of the UN Charter, the UN seeks “to maintain international peace and security [through] peaceful means, and in conformity with the principles of justice and international law. The good offices (the diplomatic skills) of its senior management, deployed through political missions worldwide, are often thought to be one of the UN’s greatest assets.

David Cameron addresses UNGA. Number 10:Arron Hoare:Flickr. Some rights reserved.jpg

David Cameron addresses UNGA. Number 10/Arron Hoare/Flickr. Some rights reserved.Moreover, UN peacekeeping missions are distinctively multidimensional. Alongside other UN entities such as agencies, missions provide support in strengthening the political, electoral and justice apparatus, thereby extending the notion of ‘peacebuilding’ past the containment or deterrence of violence and into the construction of a solid and more equitable nation-state. As of 30 April 2015, there are 16 peacekeeping operations mandated by the UN Security Council, employing 107,565 uniformed staff (which includes troops, police and military observers). These count a further 16,930 civilian personnel and almost 2,000 United Nations Volunteers.

The US, Japan, France, Germany and the UK are, respectively, the five most important funders of UN peacekeeping in 2013-2015. Bangladesh, Pakistan, Ethiopia, India and Rwanda contributed the most troops as of 30 June 2015. Despite these financial and human vested interests, the burden of which are paid by the citizens of these countries, almost no debate on UN spending exists in their media and politics. Undeniably, it is a hard one to have. There are two degrees of separation between a citizen and decision-making on peacekeeping: their government, and the UN Security Council.

The organization can thus seem distant, opaque. And the logical corollary of this is that the UN is often deeply misunderstood. A recent poll, commissioned by the United Kingdom’s United Nations Association, found that a third of the British public did not recognize the UN as an international organization. 19 percent said it was the “world's government”, and 15 percent believed it was a global police force.

UNAMID Night patrols. UNAMID:Albert González Farran:Flickr. Some rights reserved.jpg

UNAMID Night patrols. UNAMID/Albert González Farran/Flickr. Some rights reserved.But peacekeeping needs your interest to do its job properly. Low public interest fuels governments’ donor fatigue. Governments will say that missions are expensive – the approved budget for UN peacekeeping operations for the 2014-2015 fiscal year is USD 7.06 billion. But conflict is far more costly: US military spending alone is projected to total almost 600 billion in 2015, for example. Making UN spending an issue in the electoral agenda will encourage governments who prefer to spend where voters will later reward them with votes.

This must be treated with care, however: political rhetoric can also end up feeding nationalistic, short-term impulses to avoid such expenditures. The UN is a deeply political issue: Gallup’s yearly assessment of US citizens’ attitudes towards the UN shows that, in 2014, 52 percent of Democrats believe that the UN is doing a “good job”, compared with 28 percent of independents and 25 percent of Republicans.

The media has an important role to play. Its bias towards negative stories about peacekeeping further alienates readers worldwide. The United Nations has failed to match expectations in several cases, and it is undeniable that there are important limitations to its heavy and complex apparatus, but peacekeeping has had a documented preventive impact in Sierra Leone, Lebanon, El Salvador and Haiti, among others.

Where can we go from here? A good place to start would be to remember that the UN is neither a world government nor a global police force. It is a unique public organization, imperfect but increasingly important to you, wherever you are. As US social and environmental activist Anthony Kapel Jones put simply: “We focus on the places the UN has not been able to change human nature. But we are in a much safer world because of the UN than we would be without it.”

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