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The coronavirus crisis has put the UK’s Integrated Security, Defence and Foreign Policy Review on hold and brought the significance of international organisations like the UN for the UK into sharper focus. Arguably, the UN is one area where the UK has delivered on some of what it promised in the 2015 National Security Strategy (NSS). Does that mean that the current Integrated Review should adopt a ‘steady as it goes’ approach to UN activities, or is there a case for reform?
Strengthening and Reforming the UN
Strategically, it seems unlikely that in the era of ‘Global Britain’ the UK will or should move away from the commitment to ‘strengthening the rules-based international order and its institutions’, which was a core part of the 2015 NSS. While there are politicians, academics and practitioners who remain sceptical about the nature of the international order, there is no doubt that the UN is a central element of the current international order. For Global Britain, therefore, being at the heart of this order means being active in the UN. Previously, while reiterating its support for the organisation, the UK government has also recognised the need for the organisation to both strengthen and adapt, and to give greater weight to growing powers. For example, as one of the so-called ‘P5’ permanent Security Council members, it has supported reform of the Council by expanding it to include permanent seats for Brazil, Germany, India and Japan as well as an African representative. While some might suggest that this is a safe policy to advocate given that unanimous support from the other P5 countries for a similar reform agenda remains unlikely, the UK’s position is consistent with the UN Secretary General’s broader efforts to reform the UN.
The breadth of responsibilities of the UN means that UK engagement, while led by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), requires commitment from a number of Whitehall departments. The Fusion Doctrine announced in the 2018 National Security Capabilities Review would seem like the appropriate tool to enable the cross-government effort to be delivered in a coherent way. However, there is little evidence that this is yet the case and this is one area where the Integrated Review could focus to improve the UK’s efforts and hence its national security.
One of the most high profile activities for the UN is peacekeeping. This is due to the commitment of resources by both the organisation and its member states, but also due to the ongoing controversy about the efficacy of such peacekeeping operations, and the conduct of some peacekeepers.
The UK government has established a Joint Peacekeeping Unit, within the FCO but including representation from other departments, including the Ministry of Defence and the Department for International Development, which seeks to bring more coherence to the UK effort. At least initially, this appears to have been a success, with a doubling of the numbers of UK troops deployed on UN missions, most notably in Somalia and in South Sudan on Operation Trenton.
In Operation Trenton, the UK delivered a field hospital and a contingent of engineers into a particularly inhospitable environment and built hospitals and upgraded other local infrastructure. The UK mission also supported local groups in activities designed to prevent sexual violence. This was a clear example of how the deployment of a small number of capable specialist troops can be a genuine force-multiplier in UN peacekeeping. The UK also contributed to building capacity in other UN member states as part of this commitment by helping Vietnam prepare for its first major deployment, where it replaced the UK’s field hospital in South Sudan.
While Operation Trenton has been considered a success by all parties, it was wound down at the beginning of 2020. In its place, the UK is to contribute to the UN mission in Mali (MINUSMA) with a reconnaissance force of some 250 troops. For the UN, MINUSMA has been controversial, as there are some who argue that fighting an Islamist insurgency alongside the government is not peacekeeping. And some critics in the UK have also questioned whether this specific commitment is really to UN peacekeeping or more to support the French counterterrorism effort in the region, Operation Barkhane.
However, the UK’s contribution comes in the shape of a specialist role for which British forces are well-suited, having deployed similar capabilities in Afghanistan. The UK’s involvement also demonstrates an ongoing commitment to the UN and also further support for French efforts to control the insurgency in the Sahel. The latter aspect is significant in the context of post-Brexit UK foreign policy.
These recent commitments not only offer valuable support to the UN; they also provide excellent opportunities to develop and enhance operational skills for British troops and build capacity in other contributing militaries.
A Renewed UK Commitment
While the UK has always been a substantial financial contributor to peacekeeping, it has in the past appeared reluctant to commit more than a minimum number of troops, particularly after the perceived failings of the UN Protection Force in Bosnia. Committing troops, particularly those with specialist capabilities, can make a substantial difference to the operational performance of a mission. It also enhances credibility within the UN bureaucracy when it comes to the UK endeavouring to influence the construct of those missions in New York.
So, at the very least, the Integrated Review should refresh the current level of commitment and might also consider whether there are opportunities to do more. The provision of helicopter support to Operation Barkhane has been critical to the success of that mission. Further commitments that enhance mobility, life support and surveillance capabilities such as riverine units and UAVs would have substantial impacts on the performance of UN peacekeeping missions.
With regards to the UK’s broader relationship with the UN, the 2015 NSS laid out some clear areas for government policy, some of which have been effectively delivered. However, there remain areas where more could and should be done including reform and development of the UN as an organisation but also in areas of global security concern such as health and cyber risks.
Still, investment in these areas should not be at the expense of continued support to peacekeeping conceptually, financially and with manpower. For it is this commitment which gives the UK its essential and enduring credibility as a P5 Security Council member.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
BANNER IMAGE: Courtesy of The White House/Wikimedia Commons