Fears are growing that the UN will be forced to drastically cut peacekeeping missions at President Donald Trump’s behest. Fortunately, it's a lot more complicated than that. First, Trump has to get his proposed budget through the US Congress and then, even if he does, where and when to cut the presence of blue helmets around the globe relies on tricky diplomatic manoeuvring and careful navigation of the UN's bureaucratic roadblocks.
The current UN peacekeeping budget, for the year ending 30 June, 2017, is $7.78 billion. The US provides 28.57 percent of this budget, followed by China and Japan at around 10 percent, then Germany, France, and the UK.
The budget officially proposed by the Trump administration would significantly reduce financing to the State Department, international aid, and the financing of international organisations, including the UN. The so-called “skinny” budget contains only a few lines that directly reference peacekeeping. Namely, the US “would not contribute more than 25 percent for UN peacekeeping costs”.
However, the US Congress already caps American’s peacekeeping assessment level at 25 percent. To meet its marginally higher existing obligations, that cap must be waived every year. “Trump is not creating this – it exists already,” pointed out Paul D. Williams, associate professor of international affairs at George Washington University.
Recent reports suggest that the Trump administration wants to cut far deeper than the 25 percent ceiling, ripping as much as 40 percent from the $2.2 billion annual US contribution. A decrease from 28.57 percent to under 25 percent amounts to around $280 million. Incidentally, this is almost precisely the figure a 2014/15 UN Board of Auditors’ report identified as the total amount funded but not being spent by missions. A 40 percent cut would take roughly $1 billion from the UN's peacekeeping budget and reduce the US share, at existing levels, to more like 17-18 percent.
The UN has often faced threats from American politicians, but this time the White House has telegraphed a clear intent to follow through on its promises: “We’re absolutely reducing funding to the UN and to various foreign aid programmes,” said Mick Mulvaney, the White House budget director.
“We should look at all 16 of them,” US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley said at her confirmation hearing, referring to the number of blue-helmet missions around the world (14 are funded through the assessed peacekeeping budget). Haley will chair a 6 April meeting at the UN Security Council about the future of those peacekeeping missions. A letter she sent to Council members asks: "are current missions still 'fit for purpose?'"
"Council members are encouraged to review missions and identify areas where mandates no longer match political realities and propose alternatives or paths towards restructuring to bring missions more in line with achievable outcomes," wrote the US mission. The letter, obtained by IRIN, asks many of the same questions already being posed by Council members – what to do "where there is no political process to support"; how to guard against mission creep; or whether it is "advisable, or even possible, to operate a mision without the strategic consent of the host government".
Even if a far larger proposed cut does emerge when Trump’s more detailed budget is released in May, the reality is that it is Congress that ultimately decides the budget, not the White House. Many Republicans already balked at the proposed cuts, especially at the State Department, and the president is already locked in a major congressional battle over healthcare reform.
"I do not anticipate that Congress will approve the UN-related provisions in the president’s budget without major revisions,” Peter Yeo of the UN Foundation told IRIN. "There are many congressional champions who appreciate peacekeeping, and want to ensure full-funding."
Experts reserve their deepest concern for reductions in US financing to other UN programming, including UNICEF. “I think the proposed cuts to the UN’s humanitarian, climate and human rights work will have a far more negative impact,” said Cedric de Coning, senior research fellow at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs.
No one knows exactly how things will play out at this stage. For one, the White House has yet to even brief Congress on its budget proposals for the State Department.
“Depending on how all this shakes out, the cuts could end up being quite enormous across the various agencies and the UN itself,” Bathsheba Crocker, assistant secretary of international organisation affairs at the State Department during President Barack Obama’s administration, told IRIN. “I think we all need to be girding ourselves for that possibility.”
But when it comes to peacekeeping, the US cannot pick and choose which missions it wants to fund.
What each member state owes as a portion of the peacekeeping budget is determined every three years. The US share, like that of other countries, won’t be renegotiated until late 2018. That means that if the US cuts funding to 25 percent of the peacekeeping budget – regardless of what the total budget is – it will be in arrears for the first time in nearly a decade, according to the UN Foundation.
America’s own federal budget won’t be passed for nearly a year. The UN’s peacekeeping budget, meanwhile, will be renewed at the beginning of July. “This cycle is rarely aligned with the Security Council mandate” of each peacekeeping mission, the UN’s website notes.
"This is an attack on an institution based on prejudice and ignorance."
All of these built in lags – at times criticised as roadblocks to simplifying UN bureaucracy – could now serve as buffers. New UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has already committed himself to deep reforms and will look to carefully decide how and where best to trim.
Some Security Council diplomats say there is room to make missions work better, and that could mean some cuts in funding – though such efforts may now be associated with the White House, where top officials have shown contempt for the UN as an institution. "There is an opportunity to have a tougher approach with the UN on where they spend their money, using money as an incentive for reform,” insisted one non-American Security Council diplomat. If the US approves deep funding cuts without a parallel re-assessment at the UN, diplomats may be less sympathetic.
US reviews of peacekeeping missions, noted de Coning, “will probably prompt the UN Secretariat to also do its own internal reviews, and other member states, especially those in the Security Council, will also need to form their own opinions, and have a basis for doing so.”
“This is not necessarily a bad thing. It is always good to be under pressure to review your goals, objectives, effectiveness, and efficiencies,” he added. “The proposed cut to 25 percent will be politically symbolically important for the US, but the real reduction in costs would come from pressure to bring down the overall $8 billion budget.”
Others point to the fact that peacekeeping is hugely cost effective for countries like the US. As one recent analysis points out, the US pays $2.1 million every year for each servicemember deployed in a war zone; the equivalent figure for a deployed UN peacekeeper is $24,500.
“I think this budget proposal reveals this administration’s slash-and-burn approach to the UN is ideological,” said Williams. “It is not the product of a thoughtful review process carried out and then implemented to find sensible reforms. This is an attack on an institution based on prejudice and ignorance.”
“Such cuts would mean the UN Security Council would not be able to achieve a range of objectives it authorised in the name of maintaining international peace and security,” he added.
But several missions were already in the process of shutting down or transitioning to a smaller footprint, so efficiencies can also be made, even if they don’t make the kind of dent in spending that the White House appears intent on achieving.
“There are actually quite a lot of straightforward ways to shrink the peacekeeping budget by reasonably high amounts in the next several years,” said Richard Gowan, an associate fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations who focuses on the UN.
IRIN took a look at the options, mission by mission:
Cutting and shrinking
MINUSTAH – Haiti
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has recommended that the mission in Haiti be drawn down and replaced with a smaller UN presence by October of this year. That move is complicated both by disagreements over what the new presence would entail – or if there should be one at all – and the UN’s ongoing response to a cholera epidemic that its own peacekeepers introduced in 2011. A trust fund set up to finance the UN’s $400 million cholera response strategy currently contains just $2 million. MINUSTAH’s current mandate will expire in less than one month – on 15 April.
Currently, there are nearly 5,000 uniformed personnel deployed, including 2,370 military and 2,601 police. An additional 1,245 civilian personnel are in the country, according to the Department of Peacekeeping. The mission’s budget is currently $345.9 million.
UNOCI – Cote D’Ivoire
In April 2016, the UN Security Council voted to close down UNOCI by June of this year, and lifted an arms embargo on the country, and travel bans. By 30 April, all uniformed and civilian personnel are to leave the country. The mission’s budget for the fiscal year ending June 2017 is $153 million.
UNMIL – Liberia
After more than 13 years, the UN’s mission in Liberia will close at the end of March. Its approved budget through this year was $187 million.
Maximum overall savings: $685.9 million
The Big Missions
The UN’s five most expensive missions are MONUSCO, deployed in the Democratic Republic of the Congo; UNMISS, deployed in South Sudan; UNAMID, deployed in Darfur, Sudan; MINUSMA, deployed in Mali; and MINUSCA, deployed in the Central African Republic. Together, the five missions soak up more than $5.2 billion, or two-thirds of the entire peacekeeping budget.
In order for significant cuts to be made, “you have to see some major changes to existing missions like CAR or Mali or DR Congo,” said Peter Yeo of the UN Foundation. “If you want to get serious numbers,” said Crocker, “it’s very hard to do without these big missions taking some hits.”
MONUSCO – The Democratic Republic of Congo
The UN’s mission in the DRC is its most expensive peacekeeping operation, with an approved budget of $1.23 billion. Nearly 19,000 peacekeepers are deployed in the country, and Guterres recently requested that the Security Council send 320 additional police to handle election-related unrest. The Council meets in March to consider mandate renewal. It could be a first sign of how Haley’s US mission plans to throw its weight around. But it may also be too soon to gauge, with the ink on the White House budget barely dry, and little sense of how Congress will proceed. Recent violence and the disappearance of two UN experts and their teams have ratcheted concerns.
At the Security Council, France has circulated a draft resolution to renew the mandate. Last week, France’s UN ambassador Francoise Delattre said he was open to “negotiations aimed at reforming MONUSCO,” as long as they remained focused on protection of civilians and preparing for elections. “We should not be playing with fire when it comes to such high stakes,” he added.
"What commitments should the Council expect of countries hosting UN peace operations where the UN is helping the government to establish its authority throughout its territory," asked the US note, specifically referring to MONUSCO, as well as missions in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Central African Republic and Somalia.
“Negotiations around MONUSCO are going to be the first evidence of how these battles play out,” said Akshaya Kumar, deputy UN director at Human Rights Watch. “In many ways you need MONUSCO to do more, not less, in the coming year. Slimming down the mission at the same time as the country is gearing up for elections could be really problematic.”
“My guess is that the DRC mission will stay in some capacity, although the government pretty much wants it to leave,” assessed David Curran, a peacekeeping research fellow at Coventry University.
UNMISS – South Sudan
Authorised on 8 July, 2011 – one day before South Sudan became independent – the mission’s task changed drastically following the outbreak of civil war in December 2013. Today, the mission protects a quarter of a million displaced South Sudanese civilians at its bases, including more than 120,000 just in Bentiu, the capital of Unity State. The mission has been censured for previous failures to intervene in violence against civilians and aid workers.
It would be hard to rationalise shutting down a mission in a country where UN officials have repeatedly highlighted the threat of genocide, and where famine has been declared in some areas. But UNMISS may find its funding at risk simply because of the need to find ways of overall tightening.
With an approved budget of $1.08 billion, UNMISS is the second most expensive UN mission. According to State Department figures, the US financed the mission in 2016 to the tune of $315.47 million. The UN’s Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) reports that 12,923 uniformed personnel are currently deployed, along with 1,973 civilians. In December 2016, the mission’s mandate was renewed and the Security Council reaffirmed the authorisation of a 4,000-member “Regional Protection Force”. That force has yet to be allowed into the country, underscoring the impasse.
UNAMID – Darfur, Sudan
UNAMID is the UN’s *third costliest mission, and its first hybrid deployment. 2017 marks the 10-year anniversary of the joint UN-African Union enterprise, and at an annual price tag of $1.03 billion, it has been one of the “most expensive endeavours ever conducted” by the organisation. Beset by scandals and an inability – some say unwillingness – to operate freely, the mission has long been under pressure. UN officials say it is not always easy to quantify the return on investment for UNAMID – a metric the US now appears bent on amplifying. In a region historically vulnerable to genocide, it acts as a deterrent (a weak one, critics say) and provides leverage against the government in Khartoum. Several Security Council diplomats told IRIN that UNAMID needs at the very least to be reformed.
The 16,000-strong mission is currently mandated through June 2017. “It may be the case that the calls for UNAMID to leave are more open now than ever before,” said David Curran, a peacekeeping research fellow at Coventry University.
“It is a very troubled mission for sure; it is also a very troubled part of the world,” offered Crocker. The Security Council, she said, “should make sure that any decisions that are made about downsizing the mission are made on a realistic strategic assessment of the needs on the ground.”
Several diplomats suggested that the US may negotiate hard on UNAMID, potentially raising the threat – perhaps feigned – of vetoing its renewal.
“I would imagine Darfur (UNAMID) may receive the most attention as the protection situation there is perhaps less acute than in DRC and South Sudan,” said de Coning.
MINUSMA – Mali
The UN’s peacekeeping mission in Mali is one of its most expensive – and also one of the deadliest. More than 70 peacekeepers have been killed since MINUSMA’s deployment in July 2013, following French intervention against extremists and rebel groups. Blue helmets are targeted by and involved in fights with regional al-Qaeda affiliates and other extremists. Currently, more than 13,000 peacekeepers are deployed.
Because of the mission’s counter-terrorism role, some diplomats consider it better safeguarded from cuts than other deployments. It is also relatively new by UN standards. In February, Canada reportedly delayed deployment of its peacekeepers to the country because it was wary of US plans across all missions. “The overall security situation remains worrying,” UN peacekeeping chief Hervé Ladsous said last week during a visit.
MINUSMA will cost $933 million in the fiscal year ending June 2017.
MINUSCA – Central African Republic
A mission notorious for rampant sexual abuse among its peacekeepers, some diplomats consider MINUSCA too recently created for large scale retrenchment. Deployed in April 2014, there are currently more than 12,000 peacekeepers in the country. MINUSCA will cost roughly $920 million this year.
On 16 March, Haley met with Faustin-Archange Touadéra, president of the Central African Republic. According to a readout, she expressed America’s “commitment” to both MINUSCA and “how to make it as efficient and effective as possible.” In a speech before the Security Council on the same day, deputy US representative Michele Sison also largely endorsed the mission; repeating that America wanted to make “MINUSCA an even more efficient and more effective peacekeeping mission”. She did note the sexual exploitation and abuse tied to the mission, but did not criticise its staffing.
The current mandate expires in November 2017.
UNIFIL – Lebanon
The United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) has been deployed in the country since 1978. Its mandate has changed several times, most recently after the 2006 Lebanon War involving Israel. UNIFIL was subsequently expanded by the Security Council. Rarely mentioned in the press, its presence and price tag are not small: 11,425 UN personnel, including 10,577 troops, are currently deployed. The mission currently has an approved budget of $488 million.
When UNIFIL’s mandate was last renewed, in June 2016, the Security Council requested that the secretary-general conduct a strategic review. Delivered on 9 March, it recommended reductions in the number of maritime crew personnel deployed by the mission, from 1,200 to 900, and that helicopters be flown less. Larger cuts were not outlined, although the review reiterated that “UNIFIL should continue to optimise its staffing complement and resources to support the effective and cost-efficient implementation of its mandate.”
UNISFA – Abyei
The United Nations Interim Security Force for Abyei was deployed in June 2011. Set up as an interim force, the current mission costs a sizeable $268.5 million. More than 5,300 military personnel are deployed. The current mandate runs through May of 2017. Much of the Security Council’s attention has been drawn to the other more expensive missions in the Sudans – UNAMID and UNMISS.
UNMIK – Kosovo
The UN’s mission in Kosovo, deployed since 1999, costs $36 million per year. In a February report, Guterres supported the continued resourcing of the mission, which he said “in it’s current configuration, is well suited to respond to challenges on the ground.” But the US representative told the Security Council in February: “we believe UNMIK is over-resourced and overstaffed in comparison with its limited responsibilities.”
UNFICYP – Cyprus
Amid negotiations between Turkish and Greek Cypriot representatives, the UN in January approved a six-month extension of the mission there. One of the UN’s oldest missions, UNFICYP costs a modest $55 million per year.
UNMOGIP - India/Pakistan
The United Nations Military Observer Group in India and Pakistan is one of the smallest peacekeeping operations. Only 111 total personnel are deployed; the budget through 2017 is $21 million.
UNTSO – Middle East
The United Nations Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO) is the UN’s oldest current peacekeeping mission. Founded in 1948, today it assists other deployments in the region. Its budget for the fiscal year ending in 2017 is $68 million.
MINURSO – Western Sahara
The UN’s mission in Western Sahara was created in 1991. Last year, it was the center of controversy when then secretary-general Ban Ki-moon referred to the Moroccan “occupation” of the territory. Today, the mission is involved in ceasefire monitoring and supporting local families. Current strength is around 480 personnel, including 241 peacekeepers. Its budget through mid-2017 is $56 million.
UNDOF - Golan Heights
UNDOF was mandated in 1974 to supervise disengagement between Syria and Israel in the Golan Heights. Since 2013, fighting inside Syria has forced most of its peacekeepers into Israeli-controlled territory. The mission currently deploys around 830 peacekeepers, at a cost of $47 million per year. Its mandate was renewed in December until 30 June, 2017.
(*An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that UNAMID was the second most expensive UN peacekeeping mission)