COVID-19 Crisis an Opportunity to “Rethink and Develop UN Peacekeeping Further”

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The COVID-19 pandemic has intensified existing conflicts, deepened social inequality, and threatened to set back peace processes, but it has also afforded an opportunity “to rethink and develop United Nations peacekeeping further,” said Pekka Haavisto, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Finland. “The Action for Peacekeeping initiative, which aims to make UN peacekeeping fit for purpose, remains in the midst of pandemic as timely as ever.”

He was speaking at an October 7th ministerial- level virtual meeting on “UN Peacekeeping in the Time of COVID-19: A High-Level Dialogue on Challenges, Responses, and Lessons,” co-sponsored by IPI and the governments of Finland, Indonesia, Uruguay, and Rwanda. The event was the eighth in a series of annual ministerial-level convenings on peace operations, organized on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly debate.

“Peacekeeping has to be an integral part of an inclusive peacebuilding process that creates ground for reconciliation, social cohesion, as well as sustainable peace and development,” the Finnish Foreign Minister said. “This means the peacekeeping political process, development cooperation, and humanitarian aid should be planned and implemented in tandem, requiring close cooperation between the UN peacekeeping operation, the country team, and other partners, civil society and NGOs, and we should not forget the role of the UN policing and other civilian experts.”

He singled out training, capacity building, and increased participation of women peacekeepers for special mention. “Comprehensive peacekeeping demands comprehensive training teams, and, for example, context-specific human rights training can provide the tools for peacekeeping missions to complete their duties in a more sensitive and effective manner.” The number of women peacekeepers must grow, he said, because “it’s clear that more female peacekeepers means more successful operations.”

Febrian A. Ruddyard, Deputy Foreign Minister for Multilateral Cooperation of Indonesia, acknowledged the increased challenges to peacekeeping posed by COVID-19 and outlined three main objectives in response to them:

  • “Our collective commitment to support peacekeeping operations should be strengthened.” He said that there were currently more than 2,800 Indonesian peacekeepers, including 126 women, across eight missions, and those numbers would be maintained despite the pandemic. ”In this time of crisis, peacekeeping missions should continue to carry out their mandates while assisting host countries to mitigate the impacts of the pandemic.”
  • “Improving peacekeeping performance and ensuring the safety and security of peacekeepers must go hand in hand.” He said that Indonesia had been updating its training materials to meet the new demands and practicing “strict observance” of COVID-19 protocols, both pre-deployment and post-deployment.
  • “Our effort to increase participation of women in peacekeeping operations should be redoubled.” He said their stepped- up presence would bring “more impact” to local communities and, in particular, to the protection of women and children.

Nshuti Manasseh, delegated Minister of State in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Rwanda, said that COVID-19 had forced peacekeeping missions to adapt their activity to minimize risk to troops and police, but that troop-contributing countries faced logistic and financial constraints. “By one example, Rwanda has to test five times each individual before, during and after deployment in peacekeeping missions. However, none of these tests are reimbursed by the UN. To an extent, Rwanda is facing logistic challenges related to decontamination of all aircraft during operations as well as deployment of personal protective equipment which was initially provided for medical staff and which are now required for the majority of our peacekeepers.”

In light of this “division” of resources, he said, the international community had to be wary of armed groups exploiting the situation to strengthen their footholds and reestablish their presence. “In this context, resources are being divided to respond to a health crisis, but we must continue to use strategic partnerships and alliances to ensure that UN peacekeeping operations are adequately funded and resourced to overcome global peace and security challenges while contributing to creating an  environment towards delivering the UN Sustainable Development Goals.”

Atul Khare, Under-Secretary-General, UN Department of Operational Support, reported that 11 UN uniformed personnel had died from COVID, and that overall the UN had recorded 1,450 cases of COVID across all its field missions, of which 1,173 had occurred among uniformed personnel, the police and soldiers.

He outlined steps that have been taken to keep the toll low. “When travel restrictions arose, we established virtual walkthroughs in 21 field mission hospitals to ensure that they met the requirements laid out on hospital preparedness to respond to COVID-19.  Comprehensive virtual walkthroughs of contingent level one clinics and camp settings by public health experts were also carried out and were completed in six missions. Their lessons were then shared across all missions, and this model is now being adopted for use in other areas beyond medical inspection, such as pre-deployment visits.”

He said that early on in the outbreak, rotations were paused to protect UN personnel and host countries from the spreading virus. “But as rotations have resumed, we have put in place stringent conditions for safety and security, including pre-deployment training on COVID-19, a 14-day quarantine period in the home country, adherence to the mission’s quarantine regulations upon deployment in theater, physical distancing, and the use of personal protective equipment.” He said the crisis had also spurred the UN to create testing facilities in mission, to increase capacities for electronic communication, and to modernize the UN’s medevac system, which he said had already been called into service in the current crisis 99 times.

Anticipating two upcoming needs connected to COVID-19, Mr. Khare said that the design of UN field encampments had to be adapted and UN peacekeepers had to assured of being among the first in line to receive any vaccine that was developed. “Our camps were designed to enhance, maximize the efficiency of land and building use, but this means that people are close together, and so we have to look at a different camp design altogether.” And on vaccines, he said, “Our peacekeepers are as much frontline workers as humanitarian workers or health workers so they’ll have to be prioritized for vaccines.”

Expanding on that point, Mr. Haavisto, the Finnish Foreign Minister, said he understood the funding pressures the UN was facing in the crisis but implored people to recognize the priority of holistic peace operations. “I think how we combine peacekeeping with all other development efforts, humanitarian efforts and so forth is becoming more and more important. And then maybe to the countries which are contributing the troops the message ought to be very loud and clear from the UN level that this is not the time to give up, this is not the time to reduce your budgeting on these needs. And I know from the domestic debate that when you see money in the budget for some international purposes, it’s easy to try to cut that out first, whether it’s development aid or funding for peacekeeping. But I think it must be made clear that the only way to live in a safe world is to keep on this and continue this very important contribution that we make for peace through the UN.”

Francisco Bustillo, Minister of Foreign Relations of Uruguay, was unable to attend, but Carlos Amorin, Permanent Representative of Uruguay to the UN, made brief remarks in his place.  “Uruguay believes strongly in the power of collective agreements in order to overcome challenges and produce meaningful and profound change and improvement to UN peace operations,” Ambassador Amorin said.

Summarizing the discussion in closing remarks, IPI Senior Director of Programs Jake Sherman said it had highlighted “how the UN and its member states are adapting in order to manage risks and effectively deliver on their mandates, including procedures for training, deployment and troop rotation, patrolling, and community engagement.  It also underscored how COVID-19 has increased the importance of medical and technological capacities, as well as human rights and the participation of women peacekeepers in order to improve access to communities and respond to heightened risks, including gender-based violence. And finally, of a comprehensive approach that includes development and response to humanitarian needs.”

Looking to the future, Mr. Sherman noted that speakers had voiced the need to “strengthen the collective commitment to peacekeeping at a time of increased importance, from political attention and financial support, to capacity building and equipment, and to use the current crisis to better prepare for future ones.”

IPI President Terje Rød-Larsen made opening remarks.

IPI Senior Fellow and Head of Protection of Civilians Namie Di Razza moderated the discussion.