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UN Peacekeeping Week 2016

Volume 611: debated on Tuesday 7 June 2016

I beg to move,

That this House has considered UN Peacekeeping Week 2016.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Pritchard, and it is a privilege to have secured a debate on United Nations peacekeeping in a week when British troops have arrived in South Sudan as part of a UN peacekeeping mission.

[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]

UN peacekeeping began in 1948, when the Security Council authorised the deployment of UN military observers to the middle east. The mission’s role was to monitor the armistice agreement between Israel and its Arab neighbours. Since then the UN has undertaken 69 peacekeeping operations, and at present there are 16 peacekeeping operations under way across the world, with troops deployed in Africa, Asia, Europe, the Americas and the middle east. In the years since 1948, hundreds of thousands of military personnel, along with tens of thousands of UN police and civilian support workers, from more than 120 countries, have taken part in UN peacekeeping operations.

The International Day of UN Peacekeepers was on 29 May, and last week was UN Peacekeeping Week. Those events were established to honour the memory of UN peacekeepers who have lost their lives in the cause of peace and to pay tribute to all those who have served, and who continue to serve, in UN peacekeeping operations for their high level of professionalism, dedication and courage.

I was at the Cenotaph on 25 May, along with my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Steven Paterson) and other Members of this House, to attend the UN peacekeepers memorial ceremony and commemorate more than 3,400 peacekeepers from some 120 countries who have died from acts of violence, accidents or disease while serving under the UN flag. It was striking to see the variety of nations represented at the ceremony; it was a clear illustration of the global nature of peacekeeping and of the danger facing those who enter challenging situations to support peace and a better future.

The group at the Cenotaph commemorating the lives of those who had died was diverse in many ways, which reflects the profile of the peacekeepers themselves. Six women lead peacekeeping missions across the world. In Cyprus, Kristin Lund is the first woman to be a force commander. It was positive to hear about the recent proposals by the UN for Scotland to provide support for the training of female Syrian peacekeepers, which illustrates the importance of engaging as widely as possible in the name of peace.

Peacekeeping is truly a global concern. Many of the 193 member states of the UN have contributed personnel, equipment or funds in support of the common goal of peace. In March 2015, 128 nations were contributing troops, police or civilian support personnel to the UN. The 2015 leaders summit heard about the 125,000 peacekeepers who are deployed across the globe.

The principles that underpin the operation of UN peacekeeping require the deployment of UN peacekeepers to happen only with the consent of the main parties involved in a conflict. Those parties must commit to a political process, and that consent and commitment give the UN the freedom to act politically and physically to undertake a peacekeeping operation in a situation where there may be significant instability.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the brave members of the armed forces who get involved in the UN peacekeeping forces do so out of a commitment to world peace and stability, and that they are truly an inspiration to all of us?

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. He makes an important point that we must reflect on, namely that the people who go and serve in dangerous situations in pursuit of peace are very brave and deserve our admiration.

The idea that UN peacekeepers are impartial is also vital for them to continue to receive support from the parties involved in a conflict, which cannot be underestimated. A study by the RAND Corporation found that deploying peacekeepers reduces the risk of a country sliding back into all-out war by 50%. Of course, there can be genuine difficulty in maintaining impartiality when the peacekeepers are called upon to act in one direction or another. Often, UN peacekeeping missions have to perform a dual role, providing the agreed impartiality but also the robustness required to stand up for what is right for agreements, international law and human rights. That is highly challenging, but UN peacekeepers deal with such situations every day.

Does my hon. Friend recognise the early work done by Andrew Carnegie, who was born in my constituency, in funding the Peace Palace in The Hague, and does she think that establishing a link between The Hague and Carnegie’s home town of Dunfermline would encourage young people to take an interest in peacekeeping initiatives, which would be important, and in honouring peacekeepers worldwide?

I thank my hon. Friend. Anything that we can do to encourage young people to work in the pursuit of peace is absolutely admirable, and I echo his remarks entirely.

Fifteen years ago, the UN deployed 40,000 military and police personnel. Today, there are more than 125,000 personnel, including civilian staff and UN volunteers, and they put themselves in highly dangerous situations to help countries progress from conflict to stability. In fact, if UN peacekeepers are considered collectively, they represent the largest deployed military force in the world. It is striking, therefore, that UN peacekeeping accounts for less than 0.5% of the world’s military expenditure.

Not for the first time, I find myself asking the House to consider priorities in military expenditure. Many countries, including the UK, are enthusiastic about spending eye-watering sums on the most offensive of weapons. They are sometimes much more reluctant to provide proper training, kit and conditions for their troops, and in the case of UN peacekeepers they are much less keen to provide resources to foster and sustain peace than they are to provide the capacity for war.

The UK Government’s commitment in deploying 70 British military personnel to Somalia, in addition to the personnel who were sent to South Sudan yesterday, is very welcome, particularly because it represents a doubling of the commitment of British personnel to UN peacekeeping forces. I note that the Minister for Armed Forces has said that she believes this represents a turning point in UK involvement in global peacekeeping operations; I hope so.

It is interesting to examine the detail behind how countries co-operate to facilitate UN peacekeeping operations. The cost of peacekeeping is allocated using a complicated formula, and I commend the USA, Japan, and China in particular for their willingness to provide funds. In the case of personnel, however, the pattern is very different. The 10 biggest budget contributors are estimated to supply just 6% of peacekeeping troops. Although China features in both top ten lists and has committed to significant increases in the funding that it provides to the UN, there is a clear pattern of African and Asian countries providing the UN with the vast majority of troops. In fact, peacekeeping can be relatively lucrative for some countries, with the UN paying more than $1,300 per soldier per month. For instance, Rwanda contributes more than 6,000 troops to the UN but contributes just $16,500 in funds every year. The scope for nations to provide the support they can for the maintenance of peace in the way they can best manage is therefore important.

Looking at the bigger picture, however, the UN peacekeeping budget of about £8 billion annually, which protects more than 125 million people globally, is less than the annual budget of Transport for London. Moreover, because the peacekeeping personnel put their lives on the line to try to bring stability to some of the world’s most vulnerable populations, the scope and complexity of the tasks they undertake have increased significantly. The risks that they face have also increased. The blue helmets of UN peacekeepers are increasingly being targeted directly. Last year saw 129 fatalities of peacekeepers, who came from 46 countries.

When UN peacekeepers first began operations, the Security Council often froze into inaction as the cold war began to bite. Initially, peacekeeping operations often involved supporting the maintenance of ceasefires and stabilising situations on the ground, so that there was the opportunity to resolve conflict peacefully by political means. Consequently, peacekeepers tended to be unarmed observers with a remit to monitor and report what was happening.

Some of that early activity continues to this day. The deployment of peacekeepers to India and Pakistan continues, and their deployment to Cyprus is long-standing. However, as global issues changed, the UN continued to develop its approach to peacekeeping. The Congo operation, launched in 1960, was the first large-scale mission, with nearly 20,000 military personnel deployed. Sadly, that operation demonstrated all too well the risks involved in trying to bring stability to war-torn regions. In total, 250 UN personnel died, including the UN Secretary-General, Dag Hammarskjöld.

In 1999 the UN returned to the Congo, which by that time was the Democratic Republic of Congo. However, in a country the size of western Europe that has just 300 miles of modern road, the challenge and cost of long-term deployment are immense. The DRC is one country that illustrates the need for a twin-track approach of both peace and development if countries are to be stabilised.

In 1988, UN peacekeepers were awarded the Nobel peace prize. At that time, the Nobel prize committee stated that

“the Peacekeeping Forces through their efforts have made important contributions towards the realization of one of the fundamental tenets of the United Nations. Thus, the world organization has come to play a more central part in world affairs and has been invested with increasing trust”.

With the end of the cold war, the strategic context for peacekeeping changed dramatically and the focus of peacekeeping missions shifted as the nature of conflicts changed. There was also more of a focus on laying the foundations for sustainable peace. The range of tasks carried out by peacekeepers broadened significantly, with peacekeepers helping to build sustainable institutions of governance and carrying out human rights monitoring and the reintegration of former combatants.

Of course, the military personnel who were deployed remained, and still remain, the key focus of peacekeeping operations, but a wide array of other functions were coming to the fore, as the breadth of the task that was now required became apparent. There is now a need for those with skills in humanitarian work, economics, law and mine clearance to name but a few.

In tandem with the increased scope of peacekeeping operations, the number of operations continued to increase after the end of the cold war. Sometimes the peacekeepers faced action in locations where the guns had not yet fallen silent. It was not possible to keep the peace in the former Yugoslavia, or in Somalia and Rwanda, because peace did not exist in those places at those times. It is no wonder that there was no success in areas where warring factions continued to do battle.

The missions, and the situations surrounding the conflicts, underscored the necessity for clear parameters and robust support for peacekeeping forces. Peacekeepers were dispatched to areas as diverse as Angola, Bosnia and Haiti in the ’90s, and Cyprus has seen continued deployment, with 64 soldiers from 1 Scots recently receiving medals at a ceremony in Nicosia for service as UN peacekeepers on the island.

UN peacekeepers have acted as administrators in Kosovo—in the former Yugoslavia—and in East Timor, as it progressed towards independence from Indonesia. In East Timor, the responsibility to protect human rights came to the fore, which is particularly important when there is a vast disparity in the size of the power of adjoining nations. One of the roles of UN peacekeepers can be to underpin the process by which a new country joins the international community. This new country, East Timor, was for hundreds of years part of the Portuguese empire. After world war two Portugal reasserted control, but the Dutch were unable to do the same in all their former colonies and an independent Indonesia emerged. As Portugal abandoned its former colonies in 1974, Indonesia incorporated East Timor. An Indonesian invasion then started a brutal occupation in East Timor and, after many years of the world looking away, international pressure, including from this House, led to Indonesia agreeing to hold a referendum, in which the Timorese overwhelmingly backed independence. The Indonesian military and local militia began an orgy of destruction, which ended only after UN peacekeepers, led by Australian troops, arrived to supervise the Indonesian withdrawal.

The international community faces many peacekeeping challenges, including in East Timor, and there is rightly increasing scrutiny of the work of peacekeepers and of the problems and concerns that arise when they are deployed. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon tasked a high-level independent panel on UN peace operations with making a comprehensive assessment of the state of peace operations and the emerging needs of the future. He said:

“The world is changing and UN peace operations must change with it if they are to remain an indispensable and effective tool in promoting international peace and security.”

He imposed a zero tolerance policy following allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse by UN peacekeepers in host countries. I strongly urge the UN to ensure that it deals properly and robustly with such allegations, for instance against peacekeeping troops in the Central African Republic. To do otherwise not only damages victims who are already in the most vulnerable of situations but devalues the work and reputation of UN peacekeeping.

It is vital that the UN learns lessons and uses that learning to develop further capability in planning, increasing participation and working towards positive and sustainable outcomes. The most vulnerable people in the world rely on the good work of peacekeepers to improve their future, and we must work with others to ensure that that key aim remains at the centre of the work. The British troops setting off to undertake peacekeeping duties in South Sudan will join 12,000 UN troops from more than 50 nations, and they will undoubtedly face challenges as the fractured country looks to the future, with the need to strengthen infrastructure being apparent.

With such missions, UN peacekeeping finds itself stretched like never before and increasingly called upon to deploy to remote, uncertain operating environments. In the increasingly complicated global framework, the work of the UN and its peacekeepers has never been more important, and peacekeeping missions will continue to be needed to deal with a multitude of challenges and increasingly to focus on capacity building for sustainable societies.

The benefits are more than the obvious ones. The World Bank assesses that UN peacekeeping missions have a positive effect on GDP, with growth rates nearly 2.5% higher in post-conflict countries where peacekeepers are present. Although the numbers of UN peacekeepers have recently fallen slightly, they represent a significant increase on the numbers deployed 20 or so years ago. However, that by no means indicates that the challenges faced by the UN are diminishing.

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming

To continue where I left off, although the number of military peacekeepers may be decreasing slightly, the demand for field missions will remain high and peacekeeping will continue to be one of the UN’s most complex, specialised and demanding operational tasks. Moreover, the political complexity that peacekeeping operations face and the scope of their mandates, including on the civilian side, remain very broad. There are strong indications that certain specialised capabilities, including policing, will be in especially high demand over the coming years.

UN peacekeeping missions operate in the most dangerous and difficult environments in the world, dealing with the conflicts, and their aftermaths, that others cannot or will not address. We can achieve what others cannot, but the success of our contributions is never guaranteed. In future, multidimensional peacekeeping will face many demands, including with regard to the political process, protecting civilians, assisting in disarmament, the demobilisation and reintegration of former combatants, supporting the organisation of elections, promoting human rights and restoring the rule of law.

Peacekeeping has always been highly dynamic and has evolved in the face of new challenges. UN peacekeeping is a unique global partnership, with its strength being in the broad spread of contributing countries that participate and provide precious resources. I wish the peacekeepers well with their important task. The people they protect depend on them, and those who rely on their bravery and hard work also wish them well.

I congratulate the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald) on securing the debate and welcome the opportunity to discuss the challenges faced by UN peacekeeping operations and how we should try to address them. She spoke very well about the scale of the task that UN peacekeeping missions face in some of the most dangerous operating environments around the world, and about the vital role they play in trying to keep vulnerable civilians safe in the face of some of the most appalling threats of violence that any society can be confronted with. I was pleased that she was able to attend the Cenotaph ceremony on 25 May, at which my right hon. and noble Friend Baroness Anelay of St John’s laid a wreath on behalf of Her Majesty’s Government as a demonstration of the Government’s support for the work of United Nations peacekeeping missions past and present.

Peacekeeping remains a vital tool of the UN, and one on which the international community depends heavily. The past five years have seen an increase in both the number and the type of threats faced by UN peacekeepers. I echo the tribute that my noble Friend Baroness Anelay paid on 25 May to the men and women in blue helmets who put their lives on the line in order to protect the vulnerable.

UN peacekeeping operations are under strain, and peacekeepers are increasingly being asked to do more than they did in the past. In addition to protecting civilians and helping to restore the rule of law, we now look to them to try to ensure the safe transit of humanitarian aid supplies. Changes are needed to respond to those evolving demands. The Secretary-General’s review of peace operations, which took place last year, highlighted the need for reform. The Government welcomed that review, which provided us and our international partners with the opportunity to reflect on our approach to UN peacekeeping. This country already provides it with significant support, both through our permanent seat on the Security Council and through our financial contributions. We provide £303.6 million towards UN peacekeeping as part of our assessed United Nations contribution. Additionally, we have committed £1 million of programme funding to specific priorities identified by the UN on which more work or help is needed.

However, we are committed to doing more. I acknowledge the kindness of the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire in referring to the extra commitments that the Government have made as part of the Secretary-General’s review, and at and since the leaders summit hosted by President Obama in 2015. At that summit, the UK pledged our support, along with more than 50 nations and international organisations, for Ban Ki-moon’s efforts to strengthen UN peacekeeping for the future. The Prime Minister pledged to double our military contribution to peacekeeping by sending up to 70 troops to support the peace operations in Somalia and between 250 and 300 to South Sudan.

The first of those personnel deployed to Somalia last month, as the hon. Lady said, and we are preparing the ground for the bulk of our deployment over the next few months. We are offering logistical, medical and engineering expertise and short-term training teams, all in support of enhancing the capability of the UN operation, as well as to support troops from the African Union Mission in Somalia and the Somali national army. In South Sudan, the United Kingdom will make a significant contribution to the effectiveness of the UN peacekeeping mission. We plan to stagger our deployment; as the hon. Lady said, we have just deployed our first troops to South Sudan, and we intend that the main contingent should arrive at the end of the year. We are working with the UN now to identify exactly where this country’s expertise will be most effective. That may well include vital engineering work, which is one area in which it seems both to us and to the UN that we could make a particular contribution.

Our pledge to double our military commitment is part of a wider approach designed to help improve UN peacekeeping operations. We want to ensure that the UN is able to get the right people and equipment to the right place at the right time. I can boil that down to three overall objectives: first, encouraging more countries to pledge additional support; secondly, securing improvements in UN planning procedures; and thirdly, boosting the overall quality of troop and mission performance.

I shall say a little more about each of those three objectives. First, on pledges, our vision is that the UN should be able to draw upon a bigger pool of troop-contributing countries than is currently possible. That pool of potential contributions should have a wider range of capabilities than currently exists, so that the UN can pick the right contributions to suit a particular mission in a particular part of the world. That will allow the UN to deploy peacekeeping missions with the resources and abilities to carry out their mandates and the confidence that those objectives can be achieved. We are delivering on the pledge we made last year, and it is vital that others do the same. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence will host a ministerial-level meeting in London later this year, which we are looking forward to as, among other things, an opportunity to continue to press some of our international partners to deliver the pledges made at President Obama’s meeting last year.

Secondly, on planning, there is increasingly a gap between the expectation that the United Nations should intervene in difficult operating environments and the ability of peacekeeping missions to meet difficult demands in practice. To improve the co-ordination of peacekeeping efforts and the ability to respond effectively to new crises, there needs to be better planning and analysis. That starts with design and goes through to the set-up of operations and the eventual drawdown and conclusion of a peacekeeping operation. A mission needs at all times to have a clear focus on what it is seeking to achieve. We have already begun funding a new unit in the UN Secretary-General’s office to support improvements in planning and analysis.

Finally, better planning must be matched by improved performance. Increasing the number of available peacekeepers and improving the planning of missions will help, but that will work only if all peacekeepers, wherever in the world they come from, are appropriately trained, fully equipped and properly vetted before they are deployed. All countries that contribute either troops or police officers should deploy peacekeepers who have been trained to the highest standards. We will continue to push for that and for poor performance to be tackled constructively.

The hon. Lady mentioned the very serious allegations in respect of members of the peacekeeping operation in the Central African Republic. As part of our objective of improving the performance of the UN peacekeeping operations, it is a United Kingdom priority to work with the Secretary-General to tackle sexual exploitation and abuse, which, sadly, has been carried out by a small minority of peacekeepers. We welcome Ban Ki-moon’s recent report on special measures for protection from sexual exploitation and abuse and his appointment of Dr Jane Holl Lute as his special co-ordinator in improving the UN’s response. The extra £1 million of programme funding, which I referred to earlier, is being targeted in particular at efforts to help improve the capability of deployed peacekeepers to design a reporting system that local communities and potential complainants feel able to trust, and to ensure that, in the future, we get a stronger and swifter UN response to proven allegations.

The Government are committed to working with others around the world to achieve those reforms. As I said, my right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary will host a follow-up meeting to President Obama’s summit here in London in September.

I am delighted to hear about all the contributions that the British Government and the British military are making not only to UN peacekeeping on the ground but to future planning so that UN peacekeeping forces can better deliver their missions. To which regions of the world should Britain and the UN be looking to make further and bigger contributions? The Minister says that some are not doing as much as they could. I do not want him to identify countries, but which regions should be doing more, along the lines of the excellent work of our British Government?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for not inviting me to point the finger at particular Governments. I do not think it would be helpful for me to do that in public—it is something better done through intensive diplomatic work, including at the forthcoming meeting. One has to look both at developed countries and at some of the emerging economies that are looking to take a more active role in international affairs and politics, and say to them, “As part of that, we think that it would be a very good contribution for you to make resources available to the United Nations.” Looking around the world, it is striking that a country does not have to be one of the so-called great powers to make an effective contribution. Countries such as Norway or Finland have made some very effective contributions to different UN operations over the years. There are some fine examples that other countries can look at.

The UN peacekeeping defence ministerial will take stock of pledges delivered since the last summit and encourage others to make good on their pledges, but it will also focus on how to improve UN peacekeeping and make real progress on reform, including on how to include more women in delivering peace and security. I hope that the London meeting will make a critical contribution to improving UN peacekeeping efforts and, in doing so, deliver better protection for those most at risk and in most need.

The United Kingdom wants to see more effective, more responsive and better resourced peacekeeping operations. We have identified the areas where we can best support the United Nations and have a positive effect, and we have already started to work on them. Most importantly, we are asking others to join us. We are determined to lead the work to help deliver real change, to make a real difference to the quality of UN peacekeeping and to enable the United Nations to meet the challenges that it will face in the future.

Question put and agreed to.