Protect the Future of Peacekeeping

On a Friday in early October -- amid a flood of news on ISIL and an escalating Ebola crisis -- it might have been easy to miss this headline: Nine United Nations Peacekeepers were ambushed and killed by gunmen in Mali. Less than a week later, another Peacekeeper in Mali was killed in a rocket attack. However, much as these tragedies may seem part of peacekeeping's inherent risks, they were more than just a couple stories amid a mass of troubling news.

The ambush, the deadliest single attack on the force in its year and a half on the ground, represents the next chapter in a troubling trend. Thirty-one peacekeepers have been killed in Mali since the operation first deployed in July 2013, and ninety more have been wounded -- making it the deadliest place in the world for UN Peacekeepers. Attacks have come in the forms of improvised explosive devices, landmines, suicide attacks, and as was most recently the case, ambushes by gunmen.

In the past several years, especially as threats from global terrorists have risen in places like Mali and the Central African Republic, UN Peacekeeping has been sent to tackle some of the most dangerous missions in its nearly 70-year history. Perhaps it is unsurprising, then, that just in the past five years, violent attacks against UN personnel have increased by nearly 20 percent.

The landscape of Peacekeeping is clearly changing. Blue helmets are not regarded with the same political neutrality they once were. Peacekeeping is more dangerous than ever for roughly 120,000 men and women serving in 16 missions around the world, and we must take measures to protect them.

Presently, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is initiating a Strategic Review of Peacekeeping, a process which all member states -- most especially the U.S. -- should embrace and utilize as an opportunity to close dangerous gaps in security. The review is slated to address six critical needs that would define UN peacekeeping, all of which would contribute to improved safety, either directly or indirectly. They include: improving rapid deployment; creating greater mobility; strengthening medical support; enhancing information and analysis; augmenting expertise on organized crime; partnering with regional organizations; and notably, specifically improving protection for peacekeepers.

These goals should be a rallying cry for member states to prioritize the safety of the UN's men and women putting boots on the ground, and it is heartening that the Administration, through Vice President Biden, has signed on as an early backer. During September's UN General Assembly meeting, the Vice President convened a gathering of 30 UN member states to secure new commitments of funding and troops to support the Secretary-General's Strategic Review.

As Biden said then, "When we ask them to do more than ever, that is the Peacekeepers, in even more difficult and more dangerous environments, we owe them more. The result is that peacekeeping is under greater strain than it ever has been... We are already making contributions, all of us. But we can and should do more together, and we can do it, in our view, more effectively. That's why the United States, Mr. Secretary-General, welcomes the comprehensive review of peacekeeping operations that you have put forward."

This conversation must continue with concrete benchmarks for the Reform's progress, or the consequences will be severe. Additionally, troop and funding commitments must be paired with the right tools, including: information analysis from the ground on threat assessments; proven technologies that enable 24-hour surveillance, such as Unarmed Unmanned Arial Vehicles and night vision to monitor insurgents when they are most likely to move; armored vehicles; counter-narcotics and organized crime units to prevent the financing of terrorist organizations; and helicopters that can move forces, food, and aid to the populations who desperately need them.

With all that of course comes a necessary training component, as well as requisite levels of funding. As it stands now, the U.S. is in danger of not paying its full share of peacekeeping dues unless Congress acts to address the current law on peacekeeping assessment rates. As the American public has made clear for years, fully honoring our peacekeeping dues needs to be a priority for Congress and the Administration.

Simply put, UN member states, must create an environment in which Peacekeepers have the tools and resources to best protect themselves. If we cannot make peacekeeping safer, then we cannot ensure that top troop-contributing countries will see fit to provide the human capital fundamental to protecting civilians who are in desperate need of peacekeepers.

There was once a time when the blue helmet carried with it a globally unique sense of neutrality and authority that was both literally and figuratively enough protection to carry out a mandate. Those days are clearly coming to a close, and the UN and its members -- U.S. included -- need to prepare.