Has U.N. lost its peacekeeping mandate?
September 3rd, 2012
12:05 PM ET

Has U.N. lost its peacekeeping mandate?

By Brian Klein, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Brian P. Klein is an economic consultant and former U.S. diplomat. The views expressed are his own.

Now that Kofi Annan has stepped down from his position as U.N. Arab League Envoy to Syria and peacekeeping troops are being removed from the country one has to wonder – does the United Nations have any role to play in conflict resolution?

The reality is that the Annan Plan, which supported an interim government to shepherd Syria into a post-dictatorship future, was doomed from the start. Bashar al-Assad was to unilaterally step down in the middle of ongoing hostilities while his forces held the momentum against a popular uprising.

Al-Assad of course played the statesman, met with U.N. officials and allowed troops to enter Syria. No one was fooled for long. His military began an all-out assault soon after Annan’s plane took off. Helicopter gunships and fighter jets strafed cities as civilian casualties mounted. Nearly $17 million was authorized for the 150 military observers and 105 civilians. While a paltry sum considering the more than $7 billion peacekeeping budget, that money could have funded, for example, 2,400 water projects for creating wells to bring safe drinking water to over a million people in need.

Instead, United Nations’ efforts lengthened by weeks if not months a concerted move by regional powers to openly oppose Syria’s indiscriminate attacks on its citizenry.  The General Assembly then voted to censure its own Security Council for failing to do more.

The absurdity of the U.N. divided against itself is compounded by the poor track record of stopping violence. Despite the main charter of the U.N. beginning with lofty ideals to “take effective collective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to the peace, and for the suppression of acts of aggression…” the supra-national force has never been a realistic fighting military. It lacks the command, control, intelligence and weaponry to stop war once it has begun.

With the world economy tilting dangerously towards stagnation, U.N. budgets will inevitably be forced to shrink. The world body would therefore be well advised to focus on its humanitarian strengths and less on the intractable, hard-scrabble world of armed conflict.

This isn’t the first time that poorly conceived efforts failed to turn aggression into peaceful resolution. In the 1990’s, U.N. forces were withdrawn in the face of overwhelming evidence of Rwandan genocidal atrocities. In Kosovo, it took then President Bill Clinton committing U.S. forces to protect a Muslim minority from being massacred by their neighbors.

These days, violence still flares in the Democratic Republic of the Congo despite a U.N. presence dating back to July 2010 that now numbers over 23,000 personnel (including 19,000 in uniform) and a budget of $1.4 billion. To keep the peace in Darfur, Sudan (17,000 military) and newly created South Sudan (over 5,500) the U.N. is spending nearly $2.5 billion. And with all those forces in place, tens of thousands still flee fighting as the humanitarian situation continues to worsen. Doctors Without Borders highlighted in an August report the ongoing health crisis in Batil Camp, South Sudan with diarrhea causing 90 percent of deaths and malnourishment rates in those under two years-old hitting 44 percent. Of all the tragedies of war, these are imminently solvable problems, and yet too many continue to die because of misallocated priorities and resources.

Security Council resolutions, sanctions and other tools of the diplomatic trade do very little to change the on-the-ground reality of war. Arms continue flowing across porous borders despite calls for embargoes. While world leaders make grand speeches defending their non-intervention or the inalienable rights of humanity in the green marbled U.N. headquarters, countries continue to act with or without U.N. sanction. Spending on “political affairs” and “overall policymaking, direction and coordination” accounts for nearly 40 percent of the United Nations’ current $5.1 billion operating budget. Peacekeeping operations total another $7 billion for 2012-2013.

Yet where the United Nations excels, in disaster relief, health initiatives, education, and support for refugees, programs remain woefully underfunded often requiring public appeals with Hollywood A-listers to bolster their sagging budgets. Few would argue against feeding a malnourished child on the verge of starvation with Angelina Jolie passing out the collections tin. Many would argue for weeks and at considerable expense, mincing words in watered-down, grand sounding political statements on the inherent value of peace.

Certainly, peacekeeping has done some good, but the disproportionate amount spent on these efforts, with such poor results overall and over such a long period of time, need re-examination. A U.N. force has maintained a presence in the Western Sahara since 1994 and has been “stabilizing” Haiti for the past 8 years, costing hundreds of millions of dollars.

It is incumbent on major donors like the U.S., Japan and the U.K., which collectively fund nearly half of annual peacekeeping efforts, to weigh in heavily on reform. Direct the limited amount of resources to programs that make a difference and stop relying on antiquated dreams of stateless noble actors bequeathing peace from above. Build on peace from the ground up instead.

Brian P. Klein is a freelance writer and macroeconomic/geopolitical strategist.

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Topics: United Nations

soundoff (89 Responses)
  1. brown

    When the disfunctional League of Nations went to hell, what followed? Be careful what you ask for, the world situation
    today is more dangerous than anytime since WW II. The last thing thing any of us need is another world war. Preach peace not war. I have no desire to surrender my life for geo politics.

    September 4, 2012 at 3:44 pm | Reply
  2. Karim

    Where did my comment go !? some times it seems even data,s smell bad and shout out the comment to recycle-bin!??

    September 4, 2012 at 4:13 pm | Reply
  3. Adam

    CNN has gone way down the ladder of media objectivity and I am sure there are millions of freelance reporter who write excellent article then this non sense. 1)The UN entered Syria as a player for the West and the Qatar-Saudi controlled Arab League . 2) Syria gave consent to the UN observers because they had to show willingness to resolve the crisis peacefully. 3) Under cover of the UN observers restraining orders of the Syrian Army, rebels and arms were infiltrated into Syria via Turkey, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq. 4) Rebels were ordered to attack cities and villages to show gains so that talks prepared by Kofi Annan would sound between equal parties. 5) Syrian Army removed heavy arms from cities which were in turn invaded by international mercenaries brought in by Hariri-Qatar-Saudi alliance. 6) Saad Hariri son of killed Rafic Hariri swore to avenge his father even if all of his billions were to be spent, hence the destructionof Syria. 7) Failed UN attempt because Syrian Army did not fall in the game and responded to fire by stronger fire and to mercenaries by special units that fought back regaining "rebel gains"... Now does the world believe that the Syrian Army and its people will not defend their country? Where is this western illusion take the UN to? The UN has indeed become a wasted and unnecessary organization which was playing the western powers rules but that cannot anymore because the rest of the world has taking control of their destiny.

    September 4, 2012 at 6:21 pm | Reply
    • Ekram

      well said, adam!

      September 10, 2012 at 3:29 am | Reply
  4. rickirs

    You don't need to infiltrate when you live in Syria. Asaad is a dictator whom controls the loyalty of his henchmen armed forces. The population is only neede for his luxories, power and wealth. This time next year he will be Kadafy's neighbor.

    September 4, 2012 at 7:19 pm | Reply
  5. dd

    The UN has become a useless political organization with no principles, no vision, no mission statement. The US should withdraw all funding from the UN until it drafts a mission statement and principles accepted by the members. Kick anyone out who doesn't agree.

    September 4, 2012 at 11:08 pm | Reply
    • Ekram

      dd, i think un should abandon its new york headquarter and move somewhere in asia......let us have the building for themselves! Asia would bea better place for smaller and developing countries of the world.

      September 10, 2012 at 3:42 am | Reply
  6. Brian in Toronto

    The science parts of the UN work well such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) but the political arm of the UN is a joke especially the Security Council with its veto powers. East and West drew their sides decades ago and nothing has changed because its easy to use your veto.

    September 5, 2012 at 1:04 am | Reply
  7. adifarid

    The world nations n its members has to respect the efforts given by U.N thru their peacekeeping team or resolutions passed thru the Security Council n so far what we have seen diplomacy gone astray resulting frm political ideologies that taught their soldiers even policymakers to 'fight' against any form of peace efforts frm U.N n they dare to appear bfore U.N n speak of human rights n obligations even rule of law less they realize making a mockery of U.N!

    September 5, 2012 at 8:17 am | Reply
  8. J. Foster Dulles

    Who says peace is acquired through peace?
    You gotta knock a few muslim heads.
    Then, they pay attention.

    September 5, 2012 at 4:01 pm | Reply
  9. Willie 12345

    If muzzies bomb you once, you, in turn, bomb them 100 times, wait 20 minutes and bomb them another 100 times.

    September 5, 2012 at 4:03 pm | Reply
  10. Frank

    We should emplode the UN building, kick all the alleged ambassadors out of the country, and build something useful on that lot with the river view. Just think of all the money we would save and use elsewhere like funding schools or funding a live bugler to play taps for our fallen heros.

    September 6, 2012 at 12:25 pm | Reply
    • Joseph McCarthy

      Frank, you would have us build a mosque in place of the UN?

      September 6, 2012 at 1:11 pm | Reply
    • desert voice/troubledgoodangel

      Something like the UN is vital for the world. A real UN, not the present one. I therefore think that the idea of creating a new UN is not completely far-fetched.

      September 6, 2012 at 6:30 pm | Reply
    • Ekram

      frank, people like you can make anything unworkable! you show real arrogance so its reflected in your country's policies towards other humanity.

      September 10, 2012 at 3:48 am | Reply
  11. desert voice/troubledgoodangel

    The UN Security Council has a mandate to intervene when world peace is threatened. This is exactly the case in Syria. Like a referee between two boxers, the UN Security Council has a right and duty to stop the fight that represents too much of a threat and causes too much bloodshed! It is shameful that the Superpowers are staying on the sidelines, watching this massacre with the same pleasure some people watch a dog fight! The shame, primarily, falls on Putin and Hu Jintao, but also on Obama and the UN Security Council!

    September 6, 2012 at 6:26 pm | Reply
  12. Reprinted With Permission ©

    We now need to focus on India. The American invasion of Afghanistan brought to the forefront the irrelevance of India as a nation. With a population of over 1.2 billion people there was no value that this nation could bring to the table. Their soldiers (ragtag) 1.2 million continue hiding in the trenches scared from Talibans. A few teenage Talibans invaded the country and held it hostage for days on end showing how useless India is. It was embarrasing for the world to observe this humiliation of a nation that was being touted as a regional power.

    We continue to read with interest the thesis presented on CNN that "less is more" in a political context as applied to India. Although Mies Van Der Rohe adopted this in an architectural context, its economic and political connotations are indeed powerful. Empowering subjugated minorities in India by splitting it into smaller states would trigger uber economic demand for western nations who have given so much financial and technology aid to India with no return to show for the investment. We concur with this approach and find the premise to be on solid footing. Central Asian States (CAS) are a case in point on this successful approach. We need to understand that India has an unmanageable large population mired in poverty and we are spinning our wheels trying to feed it. It is also too big of a geographical unit to govern. Again, we saw how a few teenage talibans were able to invade it with a few BB guns. And that says a lot... in a negative way not only for a large unmanageable country like India but also for USA which is trying to prop it up against China. Besides, Americans cannot afford to look like losers in the midst of a terror war which has lasted for over ten years now.

    September 7, 2012 at 8:10 am | Reply
  13. Reprinted With Permission ©


    A recent report by United Press trust of India (UPI) stated that during the past three years more than 2,500 young boys and girls were sacrificed to goddess Kali in India. Another of AFP's recent reports say: hundreds of young boys and virgin girls are sacrificed every month for the deity Kali. In one case Rama Sewak hacked his eight year old son to death in broad daylight in Delhi because goddess Kali had told him he would come back to life and bring him good fortune. Bloodthirsty Kali is worshipped openly the length and breadth of India. Kali's statue stands naked astride the inanimate body of the Hindu deity Shiva, tongue stuck out with blood dripping from fang-like teeth. She holds a noose, a skull-topped staff, a blood-encrusted sword and a severed head. She is also known as Durga, Devi, Shaktima, Uma and Parvathi in other manifestations. The priest of Delhi, Kali Bari, says that a child sacrificed to Kali ensures a man the birth of a son. Human sacrifices are also made to these gods or goddesses, either to appease them or to ask favours of them.

    September 7, 2012 at 8:11 am | Reply
  14. Andrey

    If UN has lost peacekeeping mandate: it can always re-issue one. After all, it is the only organisation which was authorised to do so: at least the last time I have checked. Or have I missed something: and it is all under US control now?

    September 7, 2012 at 9:53 am | Reply
  15. desert voice/troubledgoodangel

    Brian Klein's article is interesting but short on advocacy. So I will add what he has left out. First, his main premise is that "the UN supra-national force has never been a realistic fighting military. It lacks the command, control, intelligence and weaponry to stop war once it has begun." This is an excellent observation. What is sorely missing, is the conclusion. Syria example indicates that the UN supra-national force needs to be instantly quantupled!. In other words, it needs (1) 25 billion more for military peace-keeping operations; (2) it needs a standing army strong enough to disarm any smaller size country which is in a state of civil war; and (3) it needs a command that can act on an instant's notice! tens of thousands of lives would have been spared, if such a force wsa sent to Ruanda, or Syria! And by the way, 25 billion is lots of money, but not for 200 nations! Moreover,the peace that wold be created would pay for itself tenfold!

    September 8, 2012 at 4:53 pm | Reply
  16. Zoglet

    The problem is not with the UN it is with countries like the US who undermine the UNs position and seek to turn regional tensions to their own advantage.

    September 9, 2012 at 9:02 pm | Reply
  17. Onikami

    the un never had enough power to make lasting peace. it was a stop gap measure by the usa to look more peaceful and to bring major powers in line with our ecnomic agenda after ww2. it would have to have sweeping militarial powers that no country wants to give it. basicly it is a diplomatic front to resolve small issues and to keep tyrannical dictators at the meeting table. it is starting to fail and will collapse with the outbreak of ww3.

    September 10, 2012 at 11:46 am | Reply
  18. Lester

    This article totally misunderstands the meaning of peacekeeping. When troops are sent in to become another faction in a civil war, that isn't peacekeeping. When the two sides of a conflict have come to terms with the fact that neither is going to win, the UN can successfully introduce troops as a confidence building measure that will prevent reigniting the violence. Peacekeeping works when it is actual peacekeeping.

    September 10, 2012 at 11:45 pm | Reply
  19. hidude

    Mr. Brian Klein,
    Are you stupid or are you trying to sound stupid?

    What if guys from Brooklyn together with guys from LA, Chicago, etc all got armed by Russia and China saying we do not want Obama because he is black, because he is from a minority tribe (blacks in the US)?
    You have a sitting president in the name of Assad, in whatever way he got the job, he is still the president! He was not out killing people until the people were armed by you know who and were told to go and take him out.

    What can the UN do about it? Now we see Brahimi getting into the act as if he had nothing better to do!

    This is an all-out fight to get rid of Assad and Assad is not going to take it lying down! Would you?

    Who is the UN anyway? It is you and me!


    September 11, 2012 at 9:10 am | Reply
  20. Peacekeeper

    Brian, accepting your piece as a glass half empty contribution with a number of valid points, I would like to offer that a lot of peacekeeping on the ground involves individual relationships at micro level in order to improve lives. While UN missions provide security at an enormous financial cost, they do prevent conflict and save lives even if mostly by mere presence. Indeed I think perhaps most of the good done by the UN is at such a community-level that there is too many examples of micro-assistance but not enough in the middle to strategic level to broadcast/trumpet as successes.

    There are a littany of issues that need to be worked on as you have rightly pointed out, but I disagree that it is realistic to direct attention away from diplomacy and statesmenship to focus at micro-level. Indeed, in my opinion, any effort to go to either extreme will be destined to fail. Efforts to secure and develop populations need to be complemented by good governance and sustainable infrastructure (as well as realistic resourcing in all areas).

    The situations that the UN attempts to address are at the highest levels of complexity this world has to face and while the organization is a massive bureaucracy, I am not aware of any proposed bodies even remotely close to being capable of what the UN is. The veto system remains in place in order for the system to function. If one day the P5 feel they can surrender the veto process they may do so, but for now it is obviously a necessary evil in order to keep everyone at the table.

    Finally, Syria is another example of where the UN contribution was a toothless tiger and no doubt people continued dying throughout, but there have been other reasonable results in areas where the UN has been involved, such as the creation of South Sudan or Timor-Leste. Although these are among many UN examples where huge inefficiencies are the cost of bringing together so many nations to work alongside each other, they are examples where nations have achieved their goal of self-determination. There are many complexities, such as Abyei and Darfur in the Sudan/South Sudan process, but nonetheless, I would suggest the UN is still the best organization to administer world peacekeeping. I would suggest there remains a strong role for bilateral assistance and perhaps the EU, AU, NATO, ASEAN (one day) and other regional groups may forge some sort of ongoing agreement to provide more cohesive deployments, but for now on a global scale, I would stick with the UN and work on improving it rather than bringing it down.

    November 23, 2012 at 10:27 pm | Reply
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