It was a dark, February night in the hilly North Kivu province of Eastern Congo. At 2:45 a.m. a small, silent unarmed unmanned aerial vehicle, circled the sky around a village in Masisi territory and sent back live video of a group of armed men who had recently overrun a local military post.
As the UUAV relayed pictures to a control room, military officers prepared to move their soldiers if the civilian populations in the area were directly threatened. The attack never materialized, but if it had, the band of marauders would have received an unpleasant welcome. This scene isn’t from a Hollywood film – it’s happening right now with the U.N. peacekeeping force in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Today, May 29, we mark the International Day of U.N. Peacekeepers and honor the 106 peacekeepers who lost their lives in 2013. Over the last year, U.N. peacekeeping has been asked to adapt to new threats and new challenges, helping more people than ever through some of the world’s most destructive conflicts.
Nearly two months ago, the U.N. Security Council established our newest peacekeeping mission in the Central African Republic, a country that continues to experience widespread violence. Once fully deployed, our 12,000 strong military and police presence will protect the population, Christians and Muslims alike, and assist authorities to re-establish state institutions that ultimately guarantee long-term stability.
Elsewhere, our mission in Mali faces the constant threat of asymmetric attacks as it continues to promote inclusive dialogue and a sustainable settlement. In South Sudan, the world’s youngest country, our mission operates within a political crisis that has seen thousands killed and many millions displaced. With the national army becoming a party to the conflict, the U.N. peacekeeping mission has had to adapt itself overnight to assume the primary role of protecting over 85,000 civilians by opening its gates and allowing them inside.
In the face of these new challenges, U.N.peacekeeping is being asked not only to deliver new solutions but to offer real value for money. Within increasing global financial constraints we are finding opportunities to innovate and modernize and ensure we have a peacekeeping force that is fit for purpose and ready for the future.
Last year, to help meet the challenges of protecting civilians in the vast Democratic Republic of Congo – where there is just one peacekeeper per 117 square kilometers of land – we launched a UUAV program, a technological first for the U.N. Also in the East of the country, where communities are under threat from armed militias, we deployed a specially equipped ‘Force Intervention Brigade’ to support the Congolese Army.
Last November, the brigade successfully supported the military defeat of the Mouvement du 23 Mars (M23), an armed group operating in the North Kivu province, liberating areas under their control and removing the threat posed to civilians.
As the demand for U.N. peacekeeping grows and the organization is expected to deliver in fast-evolving scenarios, the U.N. is creating platforms that help it to adapt quickly and do more with its limited resources. For example, U.N. peacekeeping will launch an Expert Panel on Technological Innovation that will advise on how we can best use new and emerging technologies.
The U.N. has also set up a regional center in Entebbe that allows our missions to share the use of our air assets and has already saved the organization about $100 million between 2011-13. Our Blue Helmets are also getting ‘greener’ through the responsible use and stewardship of limited resources, as we aim to leave our mission areas in better shape than when we arrived.
We are using Geographic Information Systems data to help find water sources for missions so that we do not impact negatively on the local water supply. Wastewater treatment and recycling projects are installed in nine peacekeeping missions, with the goal to eventually implement it in all of our operations.
Member states and the U.N. have a fundamental responsibility to prevent armed conflict and to protect people from atrocities and egregious crimes. Today, protection is at the heart of modern U.N. peacekeeping, with 10 peacekeeping operations, containing 95 percent of all our deployed personnel, having a mandate to protect civilians.
For U.N. peacekeeping to quickly respond to a crisis, such as in South Sudan, or to deal with the complexity of contemporary threats faced in Mali or the Central African Republic, we are also increasingly strengthening our partnerships with member states and regional and sub-regional organizations as well as pursuing cooperation between missions. In Mali and now the Central African Republic we have worked closely with the African Union and with sub-regional groups.
With a track record over 65 years, U.N. peacekeeping continues to do hard jobs in difficult places. It brings a unique, universal legitimacy that is unmatched by any other international peace and security instrument. This with an annual budget that represents less than half of a percent of the total world military expenditure, U.N. peacekeeping is not only indispensable it is, simply put, good value.
Today, as we remember our fallen colleagues, we dedicate ourselves and the Blue Helmets as a force for peace, a force for change, a force for the future.
Hervé Ladsous is Under-Secretary-General for the United Nations Department of Peacekeeping Operations, and Ameerah Haq is Under-Secretary-General for the United Nations Department of Field Support.