The COVID-19 pandemic is having a significant impact on United Nations peacekeeping missions worldwide, but they are rising to the challenge in ways that align with their respective mandates and the unique situations that they each face on the ground, three Force Commanders said during a 4 June videoconference meeting* of the Security Council.
The interactive dialogue — on the heels of the International Day of United Nations Peacekeepers on 29 May — is an annual fixture on the Council calendar, but it took on added significance this year after the traditional Head of Military Components Conference at Headquarters, which brings together the heads of the Organization’s 13 peacekeeping operations, was postponed due to the novel coronavirus outbreak.
Tage Dennis Gyllenspore, Force Commander of the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), expressed pride in the Mission’s accomplishments — including the recent deployment of a reconstituted and integrated national army and the fielding of its first echelon. In Gao and Timbuktu, MINUSMA handed over operational coordination mechanisms and the reconstituted units are engaged in patrolling and basic security operations. The disarmament, demobilization and reintegration process is scheduled to begin again on 5 June following a recent agreement, and on 17 May, a company-sized unit of the Malian Armed Forces redeployed to Labezanga. That move was a major milestone towards re-establishing State authority, he said, also outlining the Mission’s protection-of-civilians efforts. It responded to several attacks and warnings by sending ground forces and helicopters, and while not all casualties were prevented, further carnage likely was. Evidence shows that violence has dropped in areas where the Mission conducts at least bimonthly patrols. However, due to the long distance, difficult terrain and numbers of attacks, the current posture and configuration is not fit for purpose.
Turning to efforts to combat COVID-19 in Mali, he said MINUSMA has been coordinating with the Government to provide support and ensure conformity with national regulations. “We realize the importance of maintaining health and security during this pandemic, not only for the benefit of the Mission’s peacekeepers but also for MINUSMA’s reputation as an entity that assists and in no way harms the population,” he said. The Force has put in place a range of preventive measures to curb the spread of the virus, such as a strict quarantine policy, strict prioritizations of air operations and specific instructions for patrols to limit interactions with the population. “Notwithstanding these measures, I have made it clear that this is not the time for the force to take a step back,” he said, emphasizing that the Mission will continue to strive to fulfil its mandate while acting prudently and mitigating risks.
Describing adaptation to Mali’s evolving situation as crucial, he said efforts to adapt MINUSMA’s mandate and enhance performance have already begun. The focus is on striking a proper balance between ends, ways and means. Underlining the importance of the Mission’s proactive posture — characterized by mobility, flexibility and agility — he outlined several best practices that have helped troops build confidence, enhance security and protect populations. However, such operations require means, including additional utility and armed helicopter units and resources. Noting that the mindset of MINUSMA’s peacekeepers must also adapt, he stressed that the force is not, nor will it ever be, a counter-terrorism unit. However, it will take immediate and decisive action to protect civilians, regardless of who the perpetrator is. As such, the Mission will employ a mobile task force with a range of capacities and the ability to quickly assembly in an ad hoc manner. Outlining ongoing efforts to improve the peacekeepers’ safety, he noted that MINUSMA troops are continuously targeted by explosive devices and indirect fire. Six troops were lost in May, including two who succumbed to the effects of COVID-19, he said.
Shailesh Tinaikar, Force Commander of the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), said that COVID-19 presents the Mission with the challenge of maintaining an “infection free” profile while also implementing its mandate. Personal hygiene and distancing norms have prompted changes to administrative and operational procedures while also not causing undue alarm. He outlined the steps that UNMISS has taken, including the provision of handwashing facilities and personal protective equipment, regular disinfection of vehicles and premises, 14 days’ medical observation for troops returning from operations, restricting the number of personnel in Mission vehicles and helicopters, and stress management initiatives. Overall, he said, contingents are operating “exceedingly well in the COVID environment”.
He underscored the Mission’s commitment to protecting civilians at camps in Juba, Bentiu, Bor, Wau and other locations, saying that troop levels have been adjusted to make it possible to dispatch “blue helmets” to respond to threats in other areas as required. The sustained presence of peacekeepers outside established bases, and in areas of conflict and violence, is key to resolving disputes, saving lives, building peace and encouraging the return of internally displaced persons. In that regard, troops are deployed with civil affairs and human rights personnel to temporary “hub” bases for up to three months, from where they carry out day and night patrols into outlying areas — or “spokes” — to build confidence, deter violence and encourage returnees. He also noted the role that UNMISS peacekeepers play in forging negotiated settlements at the community level, recording human rights violations, supporting humanitarian efforts and educating the population on COVID-19 prevention measures.
He catalogued several impediments to UNMISS executing its protection mandate, including the inability to know when and where the next act of violence will occur. For example, the Mission knew that a clash between Murles and Nuers in Jonglei was likely, and troops were deployed, but the incident happened earlier than expected, at multiple locations on 16 May, well away from where the blue helmets were positioned. He also stressed the need to balance the safety and security of troops with the probability of success of a particular mission; the complex nature of conflicts involving tribal loyalties, land and grazing rights, and food insecurity; and the way in which poor weather in May through November considerably restricts helicopter operations. Nevertheless, he said, “every military contingent is faring well considering the challenges of a very demanding operational environment”.
Maureen O’Brien, Force Commander of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF), said the mission has been implementing a detailed COVID-19 Action Plan designed to maintain operational capability and limit the spread of the virus. It includes screening upon entry to all of UNDOF’s 14 positions and restrictions on movement between positions, with most national and international staff working from home. A COVID-19 Crisis Management Team comprising the mission leadership and special staff officers meets weekly to discuss new measures based on United Nations and World Health Organization advice. As restrictions are lifted in Syria and Israel, risk analysis is being conducted on projects which require national civilians to enter camps and mitigating protective measures are being put in place. Describing those approaches as highly collaborative, she said dedicated quarantine and isolation facilities have been identified and specialized medical equipment has been sourced.
Noting that no cases of COVID-19 have been recorded in UNDOF to date — due to those proactive measures — she said the mission’s hospital will be capable of dealing with mild cases if necessary. However, more serious cases will require medevac elsewhere. While mitigating the virus has been a challenge, it has had little impact on UNDOF’s ability to fulfil its mandate. In Syria, curfew and inter-governorate travel restrictions have now been lifted, allowing for the resumption of night patrols. There are positive signs that inspections of Syrian military positions in the Area of Limitation on the B side, which had been stopped for security reasons, may resume on a phased basis. In the Israeli Occupied Golan (A side), most COVID-19 restrictions have also been lifted and inspections are expected to resume soon. Both parties have been supportive of the mission, allowing specialized personnel and medical equipment to cross. Noting that rotations of contingents and personnel have been postponed until 30 June per the Secretary-General’s directive, she said plans are under way for their resumption.
Outlining interactions between UNDOF and the parties, she said meetings with the senior Syrian Arab Army delegate have continued, and a meeting was facilitated by the Chief of Israel’s International Cooperation Unit. UNDOF has conducted virtual meetings with troop-contributing countries, providing updates on issues and challenges including the implications of COVID-19. The mission continues to make progress on plans towards full mandate implementation on the B side, following the partial troop withdrawal in 2014 due to security concerns. Spotlighting efforts to increase UNDOF’s operational footprint, she said it now has access to over 95 per cent of the Area of Separation for patrolling purposes. The mission continues to operate in a complex and sensitive environment, with ongoing violations of the Disengagement of Forces Agreement and Israeli attacks on positions within the Area of Separation and Limitation. While there is no sign that UNDOF is being targeted, security incidents have moved closer to its area of operations. The situation in Dar’aa governorate is deteriorating, with Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh) claiming responsibility for attacks there, she added.
Jean-Pierre Lacroix, Under-Secretary-General for Peace Operations, delivered opening remarks, saying that over the past few months, peacekeeping operations have demonstrated their capacity to adapt to the new context imposed by the pandemic. “Our response has been guided by four main objectives: first, protecting our personnel and their capacity to continue critical operations; second, containing and mitigating the spread of COVID-19; third, supporting national authorities in their response; and fourth, protecting vulnerable communities while delivering on mandate implementation.” Each peacekeeping mission has responded in its own way, taking local conditions into account, but they share a commitment to stopping the spread of COVID-19 while also working to fulfil their mandates. The Action for Peacekeeping initiative still guides efforts to strengthen United Nations peacekeeping, but in light of the pandemic, priorities have been adjusted to ensure a focus on specific objectives that should be met in the next few months, he added.
In the discussion that followed, speakers echoed their support for United Nations peace missions, paid tribute to those blue helmets who have died in the service of peace, and put questions to the Force Commanders that reflected their concern about COVID-19’s impact on operations and, more widely, the future of peacekeeping operations.
South Africa’s representative, speaking also on behalf of Niger, Tunisia and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, emphasized the need to improve the safety and security of peacekeepers by adopting the use of modern technology in peace operations, amongst other measures. Smart technology can help peacekeepers counter attacks by armed groups and other asymmetrical threats. The United Nations must mitigate the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on peacekeepers and force commanders must ensure that all necessary measures are implemented to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus from peacekeepers to civilian populations. Otherwise, the Organization’s reputation could be damaged and anti-international sentiments aggravated, he said, recalling the lessons of the 2010 cholera outbreak involving the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH). Turning to other peacekeeping issues, he said that the performance of missions must be assessed in a fair and evidence-based manner. As a beacon of hope for many civilians, United Nations personnel must uphold the Organization’s values and abide by its rules and regulations, with no tolerance for misconduct. Greater emphasis should also be put on cultural awareness of peacekeepers in host countries. He went on to call for transformative strategies to advance the women, peace and security agenda, including increasing the number of uniformed women in military and police units. He also encouraged the Organization to strengthen its cooperation with regional organizations in the field of peacekeeping.
Indonesia’s representative said that his country — the largest troop- and police-contributing country among Council members — is proud to have contributed women peacekeepers to MINUSMA and UNMISS. It is, however, deeply concerned about the growing number of COVID-19 cases and loss of life among blue helmets. He urged the Secretariat to further strengthen the medical support capacity of peacekeeping missions. At the same time, missions must focus their efforts on the most important aspects of their mandates and do more to help local authorities and people to mitigate the pandemic’s impact. He went on to emphasize the importance of training and capacity-building for peacekeepers, including on basic medical care and community health, and reiterated Indonesia’s advocacy for community engagement as a way to win hearts and minds in peacekeeping zones. He asked the Force Commanders if Council mandates were sufficiently clear and whether it had been possible to turn mandates into practical action on the ground.
Germany’s representative said that direct communication with the Force Commanders is crucial as the United Nations learns how to better integrate COVID‑19 responses into the daily work of its peacekeeping missions. Expressing support for broad efforts to increase the number of uniformed women and to bolster cooperation with host States, he stressed: “Without their consent, no life-saving goods and equipment will reach the missions.” Offering Germany as a possible medevac destination, he welcomed MINUSMA’s Force Adaptation Plan and highlighted Germany’s recent decision to further expand its unmanned aircraft system into Gao. On UNDOF, he voiced concern about increased violations of the disengagement of forces agreement and about the fact that personal protective equipment cannot reach peacekeepers in all cases. Regarding UNMISS, he said all Status of Forces Agreement violations must end. The Mission must take a cautious approach given South Sudan’s medical and logistical conditions, he said, noting that combating COVID-19 must not divert Government attention from implementing the peace agreement.
The United Kingdom’s representative joined other speakers in paying tribute to those peacekeepers who lost their lives in the field, including those who died recently of COVID-19 in Mali. Underlining the need to ensure the safety and security of peacekeepers while ensuring that they can fulfil their mandates, he stressed: “We can't afford to let up on either imperative.” A central priority in implementing the Action for Peacekeeping initiative must be enhancing planning and improving the collection and use of data in decision-making. Spotlighting the related issue of performance, he said more efforts are also needed to increase the number of uniformed women peacekeepers and strengthen the delivery of protection-of-civilians mandates. Posing a range of questions, he asked the Force Commanders whether their missions’ medevac pathways are adequate and what they expect after 30 June, when the freeze on rotations is lifted. He also asked Mr. Tinaikar about the impact of COVID-19 on sexual and gender-based violence and on the rate of voluntary departures from protection-of-civilians sites.
Belgium’s delegate said that, like other European Union member States, it is not withdrawing the troops it has contributed to three peacekeeping missions on account of the COVID-19 pandemic. He asked how MINUSMA’s engagement with local communities is being impacted by social distancing and how coronavirus-related restrictions on mobility are affecting UNMISS’s ability to protect civilians in remote areas. He went on to ask the Force Commanders what, from their perspective, are the main challenges that peacekeeping will face in the coming years and how the Council can better help missions to be “fit for purpose”.
China’s representative said that the COVID-19 pandemic is a big test for peacekeeping. The Secretariat and peacekeeping missions should formulate epidemic response policies, regulate the activities of peacekeepers and increase medical support facilities. They should also adjust troop rotation policies and enhance each mission’s anti-epidemic capability. Through joint efforts, the risk of transmission within missions can be fundamentally reduced. On the wider issue of safety and security for peacekeepers in dangerous environments, he said that medical support and evacuation for wounded blue helmets should be improved. The Council should also draw up mandates based on the situation on the ground, ensure adequate resources for missions and respect the sovereignty of host countries. He went on to note that China is the second-largest financial contributor to United Nations peacekeeping operations, in addition to deploying 2,500 peacekeepers in nine mission areas.
The Dominican Republic’s representative spotlighted the link between capacity-building and the security and protection of peacekeepers, while noting that they are often deployed in deteriorating, complex environments and face asymmetrical threats. Extending his condolences to the families and colleagues of the MINUSMA peacekeepers who lost their lives to COVID-19, he said the loss underscores the importance of closely monitoring and assessing the pandemic’s impact on peace operations — especially on the protection of civilians — and of prioritizing, readapting and likely expanding resources. Missions’ responses to COVID-19 must support and collaborate with national authorities. Noting that many warring parties have not responded to the Secretary-General’s call for a global ceasefire, he asked Mr. Gyllenspore to address increasing reports of sexual violence in Mali amid the pandemic. Voicing concern about the expanding threat of COVID-19 in South Sudan, he asked Mr. Tinaikar to evaluate the effectiveness of the UNMISS awareness-raising campaign. He also asked all the Commanders how their missions’ mandates can help reinforce the implementation of resolutions 1325 (2000) and 2250 (2015) on women and youth, respectively.
The Russian Federation’s delegate said that the COVID-19 pandemic is negatively affecting peacekeeping efforts. Given such unprecedented circumstances, the safety and security of peacekeepers must be ensured and steps taken to lower the risk of the coronavirus spreading within missions and among civilians. He suggested that missions might support host countries’ responses to the pandemic, within their respective mandates and upon request from national Governments. He wondered if there were any signs or attempts in Mali and South Sudan to use COVID-19 as a pretext to hinder political processes or positive developments on the ground. He also stressed UNDOF’s stabilizing role in reducing tensions between the parties to the 1974 Disengagement Agreement.
Viet Nam’s representative echoed expressions of condolence for the peacekeepers killed by COVID-19 and wished a speedy recovery to the more than 150 others infected. Against that backdrop, missions must have adequate medical tools, personal protective gear and ventilators. All protocols to contain the virus within missions must be strictly implemented and regularly adjusted in light of the evolving situation. Also spotlighting the importance of regular information-sharing, awareness-raising and smooth cooperation between peace operations, United Nations country teams, local authorities and communities, he went on to pose several questions to the Commanders. Among other things, he asked them to assess the response of their host countries to the Secretary-General’s ceasefire appeal and whether humanitarian aid has been able to reach recipients without impediment amid the pandemic. He also asked the Under-Secretary-General to share his plan for peacekeeping rotations in the second half of 2020.
The representative of France, Council President for June, spoke in his national capacity, saying that despite the COVID-19 epidemic, some actors are continuing their destabilizing actions. He commended the Secretariat and each peacekeeping mission for adapting so quickly and effectively while implementing their mandates to the best extent possible. Both MINUSMA and UNMISS have kept up their protection-of-civilians activities, despite numerous cases of COVID-19 within MINUSMA and significant restrictions on movement for UNMISS. France condemns violations of freedom of movement in South Sudan and welcomes the fact that things are improving. He went on to ask questions about MINUSMA’S force capabilities, UNMISS’S efforts in addressing intercommunal and sexual violence, and the way that COVID-19 constraints might be hampering UNDOF inspections in the Bravo Zone.
Also participating in the meeting were representatives of Estonia, Germany and the United States.
* Based on information received from the Security Council Affairs Division.