For the past five decades, the United Nations has been responding to certain international conflicts by sending peacekeepers to help diffuse the situation. Many times those peacekeepers serve as simple observers to the crisis, reporting back to diplomats in New York what they see happening on the ground. Other times, UN peacekeepers work to separate warring factions and keep sides far apart and calm. The peacekeeping operations launched by the UN are always expensive and, therefore, should be prioritized. While there are a plethora of conflicts around the world, there are limited funds. It is imperative that UN diplomats and permanent members of the Security Council understand there needs to be a peace to keep or a political will to support before launching a new operation. And before renewing an existing peacekeeping mandate, there must be progress made.
Currently, there are 15 peacekeeping operations ranging from small-scale operations in the Middle East to large-scale conflict resolution efforts in Africa. Some of these operations, such as the mission monitoring tensions between India and Pakistan, are decades old. Others, such as the ongoing monitoring mission in Syria, began as recently as 2012. In total, the UN spent more than $7 billion last year alone on peacekeeping operations, including more than $1.3 billion in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, alone.
The operations, which in the case of Cyprus has lasted more than 40 years, have cost the international community billions of dollars annually with few tangible results. Yet diplomats in New York, including U.S. officials, automatically renew the peacekeepers' mandate. Creating a culture of dependency and paternalism, UN peacekeeping operations have routinely caused recipient countries to fall into vicious cycles of dysfunction.
Contributing to the rising monetary costs of peacekeeping operations are their general ineffectiveness in ending conflicts. According to a 2000 report from a UN panel on the effectiveness of UN peacekeeping operations chaired by Lakhdar Brahimi, one of the biggest problems was that the operations "treat the symptoms rather than sources of the conflicts."
The Cyprus operation has been home to a permanent UN peacekeeping force since 1964, with little progress in the conflict between Greek and Turkish Cypriots. Rather than address their problems head on, the two sides have now relied on the UN's presence in the "buffer zone" for more than 40 years, preventing any resolution and/or formation of an all-encompassing independent Cyprus.
Some countries, however, have chosen to break themselves away from the cycle of international reliance. No country is a better example of a nation taking its fate into its own hands than the small nation of Timor-Leste. On September 27, 2002, after years of brutal and bloody struggle for independence, Timor-Leste became the 191st member of the United Nations. Unlike other recently admitted nations, however, Timor has made every concerted effort to wean itself from the dependency of the international community and establish a transparent, stable, and functional government.
The Timorese have managed to turn their tiny country into a hub for international business development with low corporate and income tax rates. Timor surprised the world when it requested the end of its UN peacekeeping operation. Diplomats were stunned and were not very supportive at first. After roughly 10 years of UN stewardship, Timor-Leste, nevertheless, took full control of its own future in January of 2013, a move that has resulted in zero escalation of violence.
Even more impressive than its progress in establishing a democracy, however, has been its willingness to stand up for its sovereign rights. Over the past several years, Timor has stood up to energy giant ConocoPhillips demanding that the Houston-based oil giant pay back years of taxes. ConocoPhillips has reportedly taken every effort to circumvent the developing nation when harvesting oil and natural gas from the Timor Sea. As start-up nations like Timor-Leste develop, the last thing they need is the malevolence of giant, international corporations like ConocoPhillips trying to undermine their progress.
Quite fitting, it was not the people of Timor that cut the sweet deals that allowed oil companies to get off for years paying far below their share, but instead the UN, who simply handed the start-up nation a treaty without a choice.
While Timor owes much of its success both to its status as an oil-rich nation and the plethora of early international investors, it serves as an example of the success that can come when a country is made responsible for its own destiny. As Timor has shown the UN, peacekeeping operations should be strong, but temporary. A stabilizing force in the face of conflict can be a critical resource for countries seeking to progress beyond war. At a certain point, however, absent indigenous efforts to reform, these operations lose all chance at success and instead perpetuate failure. No amount of money or resources will create the political and moral will countries need to solve their own problems; only the countries themselves can control their own destiny.