The UK and UN Peace Operations: A Case for Greater Engagement
David Curran and Paul D. Williams
26 May 2016
In mid-1995, Britain provided over 10,000 United Nations (UN) peacekeepers, more than any other country in the world. By 1996 this number had plummeted to a few hundred and has been consistently below 400 since 2005. In September 2015 Prime Minister David Cameron announced that the UK would deploy up to 370 British troops to UN-mandated peace operations in Somalia and South Sudan, more than doubling the UK’s personnel commitment to UN-mandated operations. Combined with the withdrawal of UK forces from Afghanistan, the release of the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR), and the UK’s hosting of the next Leaders’ Summit on Peacekeeping in September 2016, this decision has intensified debates about whether and how the UK should increase its participation in UN peace operations. This report reflects on how UN peace operations could be integrated into UK foreign policy and makes a case for why Britain should enhance its participation in UN peace operations.
Currently, the UK contributes to UN peace operations in four main ways:
It influences the strategic direction of operations through its permanent membership of the UN Security Council;
It is one of the largest financial contributors to the UN peacekeeping budget;
It helps build the capacity of other troop- and police-contributing countries; and
It deploys a small number of its own uniformed personnel to UN missions.
The UK could also provide more peacekeepers and thereby help to fill some key capability gaps facing UN missions, perhaps most notably in the areas of rapid deployment, mission start-up, and specialist capabilities such as engineering and medical units.
By helping to fill these gaps and increase the UN’s capacity to keep the peace and protect lives, the UK itself could also derive, political, security, and institutional benefits:
Politically, greater participation in UN missions could bolster important bilateral relations, enhance UK leadership in the UN Security Council, and promote a fairer international division of labour for peace operations, thereby strengthening this important mechanism of international conflict management.
In turn, this would help implement the 2015 SDSR vision of a ‘secure and prosperous United Kingdom, with global reach and influence’. There is also a distinct possibility that a new generation of UN operations will deploy in and around Europe and the Mediterranean, potentially increasing Britain’s direct security interests in such operations.
Institutionally, participating in UN peace operations that involve ‘stabilisation’ tasks will provide new operational experiences for the British military in diverse, civilian-led missions designed to deliver political effects.
Enhanced UK participation in UN missions could, in part, be determined by the structure and niche capabilities of existing forces, and would have important implications for their training and doctrine. The British Armed Forces have the potential to deploy larger high-readiness capacities in early-entry or stabilisation roles as well as specialist capabilities, such as aviation assets, military intelligence/surveillance, engineering, logistics support, and medical units. However, enhanced engagement is likely to require reforms to the government’s institutional structures for decision-making, mission support, and oversight. Deployments into peace operations will also require UK personnel to undergo requisite training and acquire relevant capabilities and a sophisticated understanding of contemporary peace operations.
At a strategic level, the UK Government should seek to develop greater expertise in peace operations and develop more effective institutional mechanisms for participating in UN operations. Specifically, it should:
build on the commitments given in the 2015 SDSR, by outlining a coherent strategic UK government approach to UN peace operations over the next parliament.
regularly conduct assessments of where and when it might deploy uniformed personnel in UN peace operations.
ensure that funding mechanisms for practical contributions to UN peace operations have the necessary flexibility and sustainability to facilitate greater UK participation.
facilitate greater participation of British personnel in UN operations by establishing frameworks to ensure UN service is a desirable career-enhancing activity.
At an operational level, the Ministry of Defence (MOD) and Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) in particular should develop coherent departmental strategies to normalise and encourage greater participation in UN peace operations. Specifically, these departments should:
assess the feasibility of deploying specialist military capabilities to ongoing UN missions and of the UK becoming a ‘Technology-Contributing Country’ (TechCC) in the peacekeeping field.
evaluate models of co-deployment and/or operational partnerships with European partners for deploying into UN peace operations.
reward military and diplomatic personnel who serve in the UN peace operations system and encourage greater institutional knowledge of UN peace operations among government and military officials.
undertake regular, comprehensive lessons learned studies of the new UK deployments in Somalia and South Sudan.
At the oversight level, Parliament should play a more active role in scrutinising UK commitments to UN peace operations, especially through the work of the Commons Defence and Foreign Affairs select committees and the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy. These committees should:
investigate the roles that UN peace operations can play in achieving the UK’s wider defence and foreign policy objectives. Inquiries should outline current departmental approaches to the UN, how the UK parliament oversees military commitments to UN operations, and the sustainability of UK military contributions to the UN.