The prime minister has pledged up to 370 British personnel to United Nations operations. Does this herald a return of the UK to peacekeeping?
Prime Minister David Cameron today announced what could amount to a doubling of the UK’s personnel commitment to UN peacekeeping operations. The pledge was made as a US-led peacekeeping event at the UN General Assembly caps a major American push for better resources and more effective peacekeeping operations; in particular, for more infantry, engineers, medics, aviation and police.
While the specific contingents and capabilities to be deployed are not yet known, Mr Cameron provided a strong indication of the type of units that would be provided.
The UK will pledge up to seventy troops for “medical, logistical and engineering support” to the UN Support Office for AMISOM (a UN field-support mission for the African Union force in Somalia).
For the troubled UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), the UK will pledge between 250 and 300 troops for “specific tasks ... such as providing vital engineering work to strengthen infrastructure and combat training and advisory support”. UNMISS has struggled with the South Sudanese civil war and its impact since its outbreak in December 2013; and, along with the US and Norway, the UK is one of the three international guarantors of the young state.
Mr Cameron was not clear on whether the UK had consulted the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) before these pledges, but he did indicate that the precise details would, now, be worked out with the UN.
While much remains to be decided – and the relative significance of the UK’s announcement will also depend on what other states pledge at the summit and then actually deliver – a number of interesting observations can be made at this stage.
First, even though the UK has pledged non-combat forces, it may now have ‘skin in the game’ in South Sudan. As a member of the Troika with the US and Norway, the UK already has a political and reputational stake in the success of South Sudan. But should troops be deployed on the ground, it will now have more of a stake in the success and conduct of UNMISS itself – a mission with an extremely challenging protection-of-civilians mandate to fulfil amidst a simmering conflict marked by substantial human-rights abuses.
Even though the UK is providing non-combat forces, they could still be combat-capable, and there is a risk that with South Sudan’s unstable politics, they could be forced to choose how to respond to a sudden deterioration in the security situation. The rules of engagement set for the British contingent commander will influence how proactive they can be. Regardless, there would be political and reputational costs for the UK if its troops were seen not to respond to atrocities or military threats – something for which other contingents in South Sudan have been heavily criticised.
The situation with the Somali deployment may be different. It is smaller – fewer than a hundred troops – and given that the UN Support Office is based in Nairobi, with logistical operations in Mombasa and Entebbe as well, it is unclear how many British troops will be deployed to Somalia itself or spend substantial time there.
Second, these deployments may start to reacclimatise the UK – and the army in particular – to UN peacekeeping. British peacekeeping commitments since 1995 have primarily been to the relatively placid UN mission in Cyprus. But if the UK provides a formed contingent, such as an engineering company, to UNMISS, it would give the military experience of operating under UN command in the far more challenging context of what is essentially an ongoing conflict.
Third, it is notable that Mr Cameron’s statement gave an explicit national-security rationale for the deployments: migration and terrorism. He noted that the UK’s contribution would “support efforts by the United Nations and African Union to end some of the world’s most destabilising conflicts” that are fostering “mass migration” from South Sudan and “facilitating the rise of terrorist groups in Somalia”. Though he did note a humanitarian aspect, the thrust of the announcement was very much in terms of a direct security benefit to the UK and allies. There was no explicit indication of any deeper desire to re-engage with UN peacekeeping for the sake of a commitment to peacekeeping or internationalism per se.
Fourth, it is worth considering what influence this announcement might afford the UK politically within the UN. The Secretary-General’s recent review on peace operations in part attempted to heal the perceived rupture between traditional troop contributors from the global South who have relatively little say over peacekeeping mandates and richer states that do, but contribute few troops. Many argue that the money the UK spends funding peacekeeping operations and training other peacekeepers is not enough, and within the British government and military the relative benefits between facilitation of and active participation in peacekeeping will continue to be debated. But while the UK will continue to push for more effective missions and reform of the institutional architecture, whether this deployment buys more political capital with the traditional, major troop contributors on issues of peacekeeping reform is open to question.
These pledged deployments – assuming they add to, rather than replace the UK’s contribution to the Cyprus mission – would take the Britain to 37th in ranking of troop contributors, up from 51st, but still below France and China in terms of other P5 members. This however does not include what pledges other states make at today’s meeting.
Finally, it is too soon to tell whether this is a temporary blip in British contributions to the UN, a new normal, or presages a further increase in British blue helmets. These commitments are, at least in part, the result of US pressure on Western states to do more on peacekeeping. Whether they herald a new era of UK participation in UN missions will depend on whether these deployments are renewed; how much emphasis the coming SDSR places on peacekeeping; and what other demands for UK military deployments emerge.
Director of Publications and Research Fellow, RUSI