Situation Unlikely to Improve as Social, Political Root Causes of Conflicts Persist, Says Under-Secretary-General
After declining for several years, 2021 has seen an alarming uptick in deadly attacks against United Nations peacekeepers, senior officials told the Security Council during a videoconference debate today, as members adopted a presidential statement reiterating their support for blue helmets deployed amid some of the world’s most complex conflict environments.
Through the statement (document S/PRST/2021/11) issued by the representative of China in his capacity as President of the 15-member Council for May, delegates expressed grave concern about the security threats and targeted attacks being launched against peacekeepers in many missions around the globe. Paying tribute to all those who have been injured or killed, they underscored the need for stakeholders — including the Secretary-General, troop- and police-contributing countries and all Member States — to work in concert to ensure that missions are adequately resourced and all peacekeepers are “willing, capable and equipped effectively and safely” to implement their mandate.
Noting progress made by the Secretary-General in mobilizing partners and stakeholders in support of more effective United Nations peacekeeping, through both his “Action for Peacekeeping” (A4P) initiative and its next iteration, the “A4P+” initiative, the Council also recalled a recent report titled “Improving Security of United Nations Peacekeepers”, its related action plan. It also noted the recent establishment of the Group of Friends on the Safety and Security of United Nations Peacekeepers, which is a collaboration between dozens of Member States representing all the world’s geographic regions.
By other terms of the statement, the Council underscored that the primary responsibility for United Nations personnel’s safety and security rests with the States hosting missions and condemned all violations of status-of-forces agreements. It called on States hosting missions to promptly investigate and effectively prosecute those responsible for attacks on United Nations personnel. Members also requested the Secretary-General to take steps to improve the safety and security of peacekeeping personnel; continue to review and ensure uniformity of United Nations standards on training and performance; and submit an independent review of United Nations peacekeeping operations’ responses to the growing threat posed by improvised explosive devices by 15 December.
At the meeting’s outset, the Council heard briefings by three senior officials with responsibilities related to peacekeeping, missions’ operations and safety and security. Jean-Pierre Lacroix, Under-Secretary-General for Peace Operations, said peacekeepers continue to operate in challenging environments and face increasing attacks. Since 1 January alone, 15 peacekeepers have been killed by malicious acts. Additional challenges, such as illnesses and vehicle accidents, also pose significant challenges to peacekeepers’ safety, and have been compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Building on progress made through the Secretary-General’s A4P strategy, he said safety and security will remain a top priority as the United Nations takes forward its next iteration, known as A4P+. Efforts in recent years have contributed to a sustained decrease in peacekeeper fatalities due to malicious acts, from 59 in 2017 down to 13 in 2020. Missions continued to strengthen camp protection. For example, the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) centralized command, control and coordination in its integrated camps, leading to more efficient threat responses. The use of specialized units also improved intelligence, situational awareness and early warning.
He reported that United Nations peacekeeping has updated its existing guidance, processes and tools, and developed new ones. It revised its casualty evacuation policy and is in the process of establishing a systematic tracking system for violations of status-of-forces agreements. Training is being provided on improvised explosive devices threat mitigation, with notable results. In MINUSMA, the rate of improvised explosive devices detection and neutralization has increased from 11 per cent of devices detected before detonation in 2014, to nearly 50 per cent in 2020. New technologies have also helped detect rocket and mortars in advance of impact, enabling staff to take refuge in bunkers and helping to save lives.
Outlining progress in supporting host States’ work to hold perpetrators of crimes committed against peacekeepers accountable, he said recent years have seen an increase in the identification of alleged perpetrators and rising numbers of investigations and convictions. Noting that good performance can enhance peacekeeper safety, he said in-mission evaluations — with a new tool to evaluate performance in line with tasks, conditions and standards — will soon roll out in MINUSMA and the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), and to all missions by October. Enhancements are also under way in such areas as tactical and operational intelligence, force protection, situational awareness, improvised explosive devices training and strategic communications.
Atul Khare, Under-Secretary-General for Operational Support, next briefed the Council on the Department of Operational Support’s key security initiatives, aimed at mitigating and responding to malicious acts against peacekeepers. Citing one recent example, he said the Office of Information, Communications and Technology recently launched a new initiative in the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA), which offers a comprehensive, integrated approach to situational awareness and information analysis for field missions.
Echoing Mr. Lacroix, he pointed out that camp security and early warning technologies are readily available to peacekeeping missions and help save lives by alerting personnel to mortar and rocket attacks. They also help pinpoint the origin of the attack to assist with the allocation of patrol and defense resources. The Department is currently focusing on mobile solutions to extend these capabilities to convoys and patrols, he said, adding that support for casualty evacuation continues to be a key focus for the Department. An updated casualty-evacuation policy was issued in February 2020 — following stress tests conducted in high-risk missions — and field missions are now amending local procedures.
Noting that a new series of stress tests are planned for 2021, along with the implementation of a data-based trauma system, he went on to spotlight the Department’s ongoing to work on its COVID-19 response. That includes the delivery of vaccines to all peacekeeping missions that have requested support, as well as the establishment of criteria for the safe, partial resumption of uniformed rotations, repatriations and deployments. The Department also established the MEDEVAC Mechanism, an Organization-wide system to ensure that personnel, uniformed and civilian, “can stay and deliver in some of the most difficult duty stations in the world”.
Gilles Michaud, Under-Secretary-General for Safety and Security, declared: “Traditional and non-traditional security factors, including increasingly deadly weapons, pose serious threats to the entire United Nations family.” Adding that the global security landscape is unlikely to improve in a generation as economic, social and political root causes of conflicts persist, he said the international community therefore has an urgent and collective responsibility to improve the security of United Nations personnel. Among other things, such improvements will better enable the Organization to deliver on its peace, security, human rights and humanitarian mandates.
Noting that the Department of Safety and Security directs and leads the Security Management System — with representatives working on the security of more than 180,000 United Nations personnel and their dependents across the globe — he said that system does not cover troops deployed in military contingents, nor those in formed police units. Peacekeepers that are included under Department’s purview include United Nations civilian personnel in missions and individually deployed military and police personnel working in peace operations.
Outlining the System’s policy guidance and operational support, he said it provides security threat and risk analysis and increases security awareness through tried-and-tested programmes. Crucial mechanisms are in place to support dialogue and collaboration among Secretariat departments and Member States. For example, the Department worked closely with other United Nations system focal points to develop guidance on improvised explosive devices, and crisis mechanisms continue to connect staff in the field with those at Headquarters for daily coordination.
Meanwhile, he underlined the crucial need for adequate resourcing, emphasizing: “Security involves resources and cannot be an afterthought.” Truly improving the safety and security of peacekeepers requires that security considerations and their corresponding resources become an integral part of mandate deliberations and be included in the design and planning of all missions, he stressed.
As Council members took the floor, many echoed the expressions of gratitude by Under-Secretaries-General to the peacekeepers and civilian staff risking their lives under the United Nations flag around the world, as well as those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice. Many voiced concern about the emerging threats facing Blue Helmets — including improvised explosive devices, targeted and asymmetrical attacks by armed groups, the impacts of climate change and the spread of COVID-19. While many speakers underscored the importance of peacekeeping as one of the United Nations most effective tools, some also emphasized the need for missions to act in strict accordance with their mandates, respect the priorities of host States and adhere to the basic tenets of peacekeeping — namely, the consent of parties, impartiality and the non-use of force except in self-defence and defence of mandate.
The representative of China, Council President for May, speaking in his national capacity, said that while peacekeeping operations cannot be zero-risk, every effort must be made to reduce security risks to a minimum. To this end, risk assessment — based on the situation on the ground — must be incorporated into all aspects of decision-making regarding peacekeeping operations, and such operations should enjoy increased equipment levels and improved personnel quality. Noting that COVID-19 poses a new challenge to the safety and security of peacekeepers, he urged that all such personnel be vaccinated against the virus as soon as possible. He also called on the Secretariat to compile a report on responding to the threat that improvised explosive devices pose to peacekeepers. Further, the Security Council must form clear, realistic mandates — avoiding needless sacrifice due to inappropriate ones — and the Fifth Committee (Administrative and Budgetary) must provide sufficient resources to all peacekeeping missions; on this, he called on all Member States to pay their peacekeeping assessments on time and in full. “We must keep abreast of the times,” he added, to stay ahead of risks and reduce casualties through preventive action as much as possible.
The representative of Tunisia, associating himself with the Group of Friends on the Safety and Security of United Nations Peacekeepers, described peacekeeping as the cornerstone of the Organization’s work. Its missions have saved lives amidst a range of conflicts and contributed to peace and stability in many parts of the world. Today, however, peace operations operate in increasingly complex environments, largely due to the rise of terrorist groups and organized criminal networks. Voicing deep concern over the recent spike in attacks against peacekeepers, he welcomed the Secretary-General’s Action for Peacekeeping initiative and underlined the importance of the status-of-forces agreement, as well as the need to collect and analyse information on all potential threats prior to the establishment of a peacekeeping mandate. Predeployment training must address potential threats and raise awareness among personnel, and missions must be equipped with the necessary tools to tackle threats. In addition, he expressed support for closer cooperation with host States, as well as more effective partnerships and cooperation between the United Nations and regional and subregional organizations, especially the African Union.
The representative of Viet Nam, aligning himself with the Group of Friends for the Safety and Security of United Nations Peacekeepers, pointed out that “good preparations save lives” and called on troop- and police-contributing countries, the United Nations and other partners to work together to improve the preparedness of deployed personnel. Further, he stressed the importance of proper equipment and resources for peacekeeping missions, noting by way of example that the use of unmanned aerial vehicles improves real-time situational awareness, which in turn facilitates better decision-making. Critical mission intelligence can also be gained by building trust and good relations with the host country and local communities. He also highlighted the need to protect peacekeepers from emerging threats, such as COVID-19 and improvised explosive devices, calling on the United Nations, its partners and Member States to fully vaccinate such personnel against the former and to equip, inform and train peacekeepers to mitigate the threat posed by the latter. He added that special protection and attention must be given to women peacekeepers to ensure stronger participation by the same.
The representative of Kenya, noting his country’s troop and police contributions over almost 50 years, said that the protection of peacekeepers is a collective effort and, to that end, called on the Council to establish clear mandates informed by the situation on the ground, on contributing countries to ensure their personnel are adequately trained and on host countries to facilitate the operations of peacekeeping missions. The United Nations should also continue using the triangular partnership programme to provide all troop- and police-contributing countries access to quality training, and he pointed out that the International Peace Support Training Centre in Nairobi remains available for that purpose. Further, as traditional intelligence mechanisms are no longer adequate, relevant modern technology and equipment should be provided to facilitate improved situational awareness. He also stressed that proper management of communicable diseases and other safety-related issues must be part of the medical strategy for peacekeeping missions, calling for the prioritization of responsive medical support defined by high mobility and better-equipped field facilities, including MEDEVAC.
The representative of India, noting that his country has contributed more than 250,000 troops to 49 United Nations peacekeeping missions — cumulatively, the most of any country — agreed that COVID-19 has posed additional severe challenges on the ground. During the pandemic, India readily answered the Secretary-General’s call by upgrading its hospitals in UNMISS and MONUSCO, and it has delivered some 200,000 doses of Indian-made COVID-19 vaccines for uniformed personnel. Noting the cardinal principles of peacekeeping — consent of the parties, impartiality and non-use of force except in self-defence and in defence of the mandate — he said ever-expanding mandates with limited resources have only added to the challenges that peacekeepers face. “The strategy of peacekeepers needing to do more with less is setting us all up for a potential crisis,” he warned. Citing increasing numbers of casualties, he cautioned against the growing tendency to burden peacekeepers with responsibilities that ought to primarily lie with the host State or other relevant international organizations. The Council should authorize carefully thought-out mandates in close consultation with troop-contributing countries. Among other things, he called for more training on the growing threat posed by improved explosive devices; advance patrol parties; and direct authority for force commanders over medical evacuation air assets, including the use of the use of helicopters with night flight capability and night retrieval operations.
The representative of the Russian Federation said United Nations peacekeeping operations frequently face asymmetric threats as well as unexpected and dangerous new challenges, such as the COVID-19 pandemic. To respond, missions require sound planning and organization as well as intelligence gathering carried out in strict compliance with the mandates handed down by the Council. Stressing that States bear the primary responsibility for investigating and holding accountable those who perpetrate attacks against peacekeepers, he pointed out that the number of peacekeepers wounded and killed has fallen overall in recent years. As a strong supporter of United Nations peacekeeping, the Russian Federation welcomes the presidential statement being issued today and has joined the Group of Friends of the Safety and Security of United Nations Peacekeepers. Turning briefly to the tragic eruption of a volcano in Goma, in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, on 22 May, he said the event clearly demonstrates how unpredictable peacekeeping contexts can be. Pilots deployed from the Russian Federation, as well as other personnel, are currently helping the civilian population in Goma under very difficult conditions, he said.
The representative of Ireland pointed out that peacekeepers face increasingly complex threats, including the changing nature of conflict, improvised explosive devices, drone technology and COVID-19. Stressing the importance of responses that evolve alongside these challenges, she said that peacekeepers are safer — and their missions more effective — when quality training and capacity-building are consistently delivered. For its part, Ireland shares its 60-plus years of experience to help build capacity in other troop-contributing countries, including the provision of predeployment training and field training in countering improvised explosive devices. As non-State actors are becoming more innovative in their use of emerging technology, the international community must match its response by sharing information and understanding how the accessibility of information and technology is exploited. Further, she stated the importance of ensuring that peacekeepers enhance their understanding of their respective operating environments to improve situational awareness and facilitate better decision-making. Increased and meaningful female participation, she added, does not just benefit peacekeeping missions, but also those they seek to protect.
The representative of Estonia described the safety and security of peacekeepers as an integral benchmark of the ability of United Nations peacekeeping to adapt to the ever-changing circumstances of where and how it operates. Voicing support for the A4P initiative, he said enhancing the safety of peacekeepers means ensuring that their equipment and training meet requisite standards and are context appropriate. It also means using new technologies, including unmanned aerial vehicles, together with appropriate training to increase the capabilities of peacekeepers. Greater attention is needed to status-of-forces agreement violations, which can constitute a serious risk to the safety of peacekeepers and mandate implementation. Noting that COVID-19 has introduced new risks, he went on to condemn the deliberate targeting of peacekeepers and stress that more must be done to prevent it and hold perpetrators to account.
The representative of the United States, noting that more peacekeepers have been lost to date in 2021 than over the entirety of 2020, called on the Council to improve the safety of such personnel by establishing achievable, realistic mandates and by providing the same with the necessary resources and skills to implement these mandates. For its part, the United States has contributed more than $28 million to deliver hospital equipment aimed at reducing the critical time between when a peacekeeper is wounded and can receive care and has also provided counter-improvised-explosive-device equipment such as armed vehicles to protect MINUSMA’s peacekeepers. He also said that when peacekeepers sexually abuse or exploit the people they are sent to protect, the mission becomes more dangerous as it loses the situational awareness that relies on a strong relationship with the local population. Turning to status-of-forces agreements, he said cooperation between host Governments and missions is essential to keeping peacekeepers safe and called on the Central African Republic to respect its commitments in that regard. He also expressed concern over Russian Federation instructors engaging in security-sector reform in that country, urging the same to deconflict their activities, respect the status-of-forces agreement and ensure humanitarian access.
The representative of France, emphasizing the need to focus on the safety and security of Blue Helmets, said that highly performing and mobile peacekeeping operations both deter attacks and better protect civilians. Such missions must also possess adequate situational awareness — informed by realities on the ground — and must foster a good relationship with the local population, which can be aided by knowledge of the local language. She also expressed concern over increased violations of status-of-forces agreements, urging the Central African Republic to ensure the safety and security of those deployed to assist its population. The Council must combat impunity for crimes committed against peacekeepers, as the recent surge in such attacks is unacceptable. She pointed out, however, that there has been an overall decline in victims of these crimes in recent years, and that the upcoming independent strategic review on the threat improvised explosive devices pose to peacekeepers provides an opportunity to renew efforts towards this end.
The representative of Niger, citing recent attacks against peacekeepers, highlighted the need to protect Blue Helmets from the dangers they face in modern theaters of operation, including COVID-19. He called for full implementation of relevant Council resolutions, including resolution 2518 (2020), to strengthen peacekeeper training and adapt to new realities on the ground. While the responsibility for such training falls on troop- and police-providing countries, the Organization must send verification teams to ensure compliance with relevant standards and fill educational lacunae. He also urged that appropriate measures be taken to bring those who attack peacekeepers to justice and that no statutes of limitations or amnesties should apply to these crimes. Peacekeeping operations — the most visible United Nations tool for maintaining international peace and security — must be supported by all stakeholders, and he added that peacekeeping personnel must be adequately prepared to face complex threats like terrorism, improvised explosive devices and non-State actors.
The representative of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines said peacekeeping operations have become increasingly complex amid a plethora of emergent and contemporary risk factors, including COVID-19, the hazards of climate change and the asymmetric threats posed by armed groups and terrorists. The immense expectations placed on all mission personnel, both uniformed and civilian, demand the international community’s full support. Consistent political engagement between the Council, the Secretariat, troop- and police-contributing and host countries is essential. The United Nations must also ensure missions have adequate resources — human, technical and financial — and actionable mandates. All peacekeepers should be provided with safe and efficacious COVID-19 vaccines and professional development opportunities in such areas as language training and cultural enrichment, which will help them engage with local communities. Meanwhile, she said, the issue of sexual exploitation and abuse continues to demands urgent attention. Voicing support for the Organization’s zero-tolerance policy, she said swift and impartial investigations must be conducted whenever those incidents occur. She also welcomed efforts to streamline peacekeeping under the Secretary-General’s A4P initiative and ongoing efforts to include more women from frontline duty to senior leadership.
The representative of the United Kingdom said that just as peacekeepers are asked to perform to the best of their abilities, it is the responsibility of troop- and police-contributing countries to provide the training and equipment that enable personnel to fulfil their roles safely. He advocated for mission-specific predeployment preparation as the key to understanding and tackling threats, noting that the United Kingdom provides a range of training and mentoring through its partnerships with other troop-contributors and training centres. For example, it has provided more than $1.4 million to the Humanitarian Peace Support School in Nairobi, helping to deliver 31 courses to more than 600 personnel from 12 countries. “Giving missions an accurate threat picture allows them to anticipate and mitigate risks, and challenge those targeting them,” he added, citing the United Kingdom’s reconnaissance task group which is helping MINUSMA connect with hard-to-reach communities and improve situational awareness in Mali. Concluding, he called on Council members to stand united in their efforts to hold perpetrators of attacks against peacekeepers accountable through adoption of sanctions and the pursuit of justice by host States.
The representative of Norway said the safety and security of peacekeepers has been a key concern for her country since its first United Nations deployments. Adequate training is essential to ensure that peacekeepers are prepared to deal with the complex operational situations that they will face in the field, she stressed, calling for such training to be as context-specific as possible. Urging fellow troop- and police-contributing countries to train and deploy personnel with the capabilities set forth in the Peacekeeping-Intelligence Policy, she called on the United Nations to optimize its use of technology and equipment, including by enhancing situational awareness and analysis and using renewable energy wherever feasible, thereby reducing missions’ fuel requirements and the frequency of long-distance fuel convoys that are vulnerable to attacks. Meanwhile, host States must take seriously their obligation to bring those who attack peacekeepers to justice. In that vein, she pointed out that Norway provides targeted capacity-building to support Malian authorities in their fight against impunity, including through a specialized police team deployed as part of MINUSMA.
The representative of Mexico, aligning himself with the Group of Friends for the Safety and Security of United Nations Peacekeepers, said that resolution 2518 (2020) and today’s presidential statement are important tools for addressing the threats impacting peacekeeping personnel, urging that they “must not become dead letters on the page”. International humanitarian law requires the protection of such personnel, and he said it is important to note that occupational health and safety hazards claim more peacekeeper lives than do violent attacks; in 2020, 104 people died because of work-related accidents and disease. On this, he called for the strengthening of preventative measures to improve occupational safety and sanitary conditions for peacekeepers. Further, such personnel require adequate capacity, resources and systems — including new technology and medical support — and a safe, gender-sensitive work environment must be fostered. He also highlighted the necessity of including input from those on the ground in the decision-making process, as they possess relevant information regarding the main challenges to the security and safety of peacekeepers.
The representative of the Russian Federation, taking the floor a second time in response to the statement delivered by the representative of the United States regarding troops deployed in the Central African Republic, stressed that Russian personnel are on the ground to provide support based on the invitation extended by Bangui. All necessary contacts are maintained on a bilateral basis, driven by the leadership of the authorities of the Central African Republic, she said.
The representative of Brazil, speaking in his capacity as Co-Chair of the Group of Friends on the Safety and Security of United Nations Peacekeepers and delivering a joint statement on behalf of its members, praised the accomplishments of peacekeepers throughout recent decades while expressing concern about a range of threats. Among them, regional conflicts, ethnic strife, terrorism and the use of improvised explosive devices — all of which have been compounded by the coronavirus — pose great risks. In the past 70-plus years, more than 4,000 peacekeepers from over 120 countries have lost their lives in the line of duty. While a discernible downward trend in casualties was registered since 2018, 2020 and early 2021 have seen an alarming spike in the number of fatalities among peacekeepers.
Against that backdrop, Brazil, China, Indonesia and Rwanda have jointly established the Group of Friends for the Safety and Security of United Nations Peacekeepers, whose early membership includes more than 50 countries — including troop- and police-contributors and former host States — from every geographic group, he continued. “It is our collective goal to build a platform with a view to strengthening information sharing, policy coordination and capacity-building, so as to support the achievement of substantive progress in enhancing the safety and security of peacekeepers in the field,” he said, spotlighting the Group’s inclusive and multidimensional approach and emphasizing that the “time is ripe” to strengthen such collective efforts.