World body owes troop-contributors nearly a billion dollars
by KEVIN KNODELL
The United Nations owes countries that send troops to serve under its baby-blue banner a huge debt — a literal one.
As of March 31, 2016, the world body owed troop-contributing countries a total of $827 million in back-compensation, Under-Secretary-General for Management Yukio Takasu told Indian reporters on May 4.
The way the U.N. peacekeeping systems works is this — member states donate funds to the United Nations and the world body then passes a portion of that money onward to countries that offer up their troops to peace missions.
The current, nearly billion-dollar debt includes $261 million in troop costs and $480 million in equipment costs for current peacekeeping missions. The United Nations owes India the most — $62 million. Bangladesh is the second biggest creditor at $59 million. Pakistan is due $49 million, and Ethiopia $47 million.
“[Delays are] always a source of concern because it is very unfair for them that they provide all the valuable troops, personnel and equipment and [contributing nations] are not reimbursed timely because of financial problems,” Takasu told India Times.
The United Nations spends around $8 billion a year. The world body has no taxation powers, so member states — there are 192 of them — chip in. The United States alone pays for more than a quarter of the U.N. budget.
But donors are often late in their payments. In 2014, the United Nations complained that member states were tardy on payments totaling $3.5 billion, resulting in a $1.2-billion shortfall in compensation to troop-contributors. As of late 2015, the United States was late on U.N. bills amounting to a whopping $2 billion.
The red ink is a big deal for the troops on the ground. Lately the work of peacekeeping has increasingly fallen to armies from developing countries — and not for no reason. Poorer countries view U.N. missions as a way of paying for soldiers without having to draw funds from their normal military budgets.
But these countries work hard for the extra money. Peacekeepers patrol some of the world’s worst war zones. And coming from cash-strapped countries, they often do so with little logistical support, shoddy equipment, poor intelligence and inadequate firepower.
Early U.N. missions usually involved peacekeepers in their distinctive blue helmets monitoring defined borders that separated uniformed combatants, ensuring neither side violated ceasefires or peace agreements.
But during the 1990s, the peacekeeping mission changed — drastically. More and more, the United Nations sent blue helmets to protect civilians caught in civil conflicts.
The peacekeepers’ mandates often imposed strict rules of engagement that barred them from intervening in the fighting. And even when the rules allowed them to fight, they often lacked the firepower to actually win.
The massacre in Srebrenica, Bosnia in July 1995 dramatically illustrated the dilemma. Outgunned Dutch peacekeepers turned over civilians under their protection to Serbian troops. The Serbs then killed 8,000 of the civilians.
The missions also proved dangerous for peacekeepers. Ten Belgian peacekeepers died trying to protect civilians during the Rwanda genocide in 1994, prompting Brussels to withdraw its support for the U.N. mission.
Since then, Western countries have been hesitant to commit troops to peace missions. Western staff officers, specialists and advisers are still regular sights on U.N. missions. But increasingly, African and Asian troops do the hard daily work of patrolling the world’s worst war zones.
Besides hankering for a little U.N. money, some countries view peace missions as an opportunity to establish themselves as global players. India and China both contribute thousands of peacekeepers to missions around the world. Brazilian generals have led U.N. operations in Haiti and Congo.
Ethiopia — the home of the African Union — is the second biggest peacekeeping contributor, currently providing 8,296 blue helmets.
But peacekeeping is hard. Blue helmets must contend with complex conflicts often involving multiple factions. Sometimes they even face attacks by local government forces.
Perhaps the most vexing current mission is the one in South Sudan, where since 2013 peacekeepers have maintained “protection of civilians” sites. Thousands of displaced people live in these camps.
The February 2016 massacre of residents in the Malakal camp — allegedly by members of the South Sudanese military — led to criticism of the blue helmets’ performance. But the camp attack was a nightmare scenario that could have proved a challenge for even the best-prepared troops.
Peacekeepers have faced increased scrutiny in recent years for sexual abuses. It’s a cruel irony that many the troops whom refugees and civilians depend on for protection can themselves be a threat to vulnerable people.
Some commentators have opined that the United Nations’ increasing reliance on impoverished African and Asian troops is to blame for this trend. To be sure, many of the troop-contributing nations’ militaries have shoddy human-rights records and well-known disciplinary problems.
However, recent allegations against peacekeepers in the Central African Republic also implicated white French troops.
The problem isn’t necessarily that African and Asian troops lack courage, competence or scruples. For instance, Ghanaian blue helmets received praise for standing their ground during the Rwanda genocide. Ghanaian troops have since earned a reputation for professionalism in peacekeeping operations around the world.
But peace missions often fail because the peacekeepers lack vital equipment, intelligence and firepower. Those things cost money. And the billion or so dollars that the United Nations owes the peacekeepers — because the world body’s own financial donors themselves are late paying up — could go a long way toward alleviating the shortfalls.
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