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UN Strengthens Peacekeeping Despite U.S. Scepticism
UN Strengthens Peacekeeping Despite U.S. Scepticism
Toward an End to Ethiopia’s Federal-Tigray Feud
Toward an End to Ethiopia’s Federal-Tigray Feud
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
UN peacekeepers (UNIFIL) patrol the border with Israel near the village of Kfar Kila, Lebanon 04 December 2018. REUTERS/Ali Hashisho
Q&A / Global

UN Strengthens Peacekeeping Despite U.S. Scepticism

This Friday, the UN hosts the 2019 Peacekeeping Ministerial Conference, an opportunity for politicians and diplomats to fill gaps in blue helmet missions. In this Q&A, Crisis Group’s UN Director Richard Gowan previews the agenda.

What is the point of the conference?

This is the latest edition of a series of conferences that former U.S. President Barack Obama kicked off with other leaders at the UN General Assembly in 2015. Vice President Joe Biden had chaired a trial run the previous year. The basic idea is to get senior figures together to pledge military units, or other forms of help like training, to UN Peacekeeping.

This process was the Obama administration’s response to major gaps in the UN’s forces revealed by crises such as the collapse of South Sudan in 2013. The president used his convening power to get other leaders to pledge high-grade units from advanced militaries that the UN was unlikely to attract otherwise.

The initiative, which included defence minister-level talks in the UK and Canada in 2016 and 2017, has worked quite well. The British sent medics to work with the UN in South Sudan, Portuguese special forces have deployed to the Central African Republic (CAR), and a number of NATO and EU members have sent air assets and intelligence specialists to Mali. Well-established UN contributors, such as Rwanda, have also upgraded the range of forces and types of units – like helicopters – that they offer the UN.

We are likely to see some additional steps in that direction this week. This year’s conference is not quite as high-powered as some of the earlier ones. One hundred and twenty countries will participate, but only half are sending ministers. Nonetheless, there are still countries that want to get involved in blue helmet operations. Mexico, for example, will make its first concrete pledge of a fully-fledged peacekeeping unit this week.

What sort of resources do peacekeepers need?

While peacekeepers often get stereotyped as shambolic and ill-disciplined, the overall picture is actually rather better. Only a limited number of troop contributors – mainly under-resourced African militaries – now consistently deploy ill-equipped or untrained contingents.

These ministerial meetings have helped raise the overall standard of forces. More broadly, the UN is able to be somewhat selective about which troops to deploy, as the total number of peacekeepers worldwide has dropped in recent years. When President Obama hosted his peacekeeping summit in 2015, the organisation was responsible for 105,000 soldiers and police officers worldwide, and UN officials had to scramble to find even quite basic infantry battalions to meet this level of demand. That figure has dropped to 88,000 as missions in places where they are no longer needed, like those in Liberia and Haiti, have closed down. This has allowed the UN to reject particularly ill-prepared contingents. The global number of peacekeepers is likely to drop further – the Security Council is slowly winding down its mission in Darfur, which has been a huge drain on the UN and is now well past its prime.

UN officials also want to use this opportunity to push governments to deploy more female troops and police as peacekeepers.

I facilitated a warm-up conference for this week’s meeting focusing on training peacekeepers in Uruguay last December, and it was striking that major UN troop contributors are working hard to standardise and upgrade deployment systems so that their troops will be attractive candidates for UN missions (a useful source of income for some militaries).

Nonetheless, the UN still has difficulties finding enough troops and military equipment for especially risky missions. Mali, where over 120 personnel have been killed in hostile acts by jihadist insurgents, is the most pressing case. UN officials hope that ministers attending this week’s conference will pledge help on problems like countering roadside bombs for the Mali force. They also need helicopters there, but these aircrafts are perennially difficult to find, and governments often place burdensome caveats on how these costly assets can be used.

UN officials also want to use this opportunity to push governments to deploy more female troops and police as peacekeepers. The UN Secretariat would like to double the number of women in its military and police units. The current figure is under 5 per cent. Defence officials – including Western ones – gripe that this request is unreasonable given the overall lack of women in their forces. But militaries including the Ethiopians, Rwandans, Ghanaians and Tanzanians have made good progress against the UN’s target. Angelina Jolie will be at the UN on Friday to encourage the laggards to do better.

Is the U.S. still a fan of the process?

The Trump administration’s attitude to this Obama legacy initiative is ambiguous. The U.S. is still one of the formal co-conveners of the process. Deputy Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan represented Washington at the last meeting in the series in Canada (and his boss, then-Secretary James Mattis, only declined to attend that summit for scheduling reasons). This Friday, the senior American representative will be the Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, David Hale. He is a highly experienced diplomat, but it is clear that the U.S. interest in the process is down.

That fits with the administration’s broader and growing scepticism toward UN peace operations. The U.S. has been pushing hard for budget cuts to blue helmet missions since President Trump took office. Washington is now reportedly preparing to call for some hefty reductions to the size and budget of the UN mission in Mali, despite its struggle for security.

It is not clear whether Washington’s dislike for peacekeeping is motivated by budgetary concerns, principled aversion for multilateralism or practical doubts about what the UN can achieve – or all three at once. It is fair to point out that, while the Obama initiative may have motivated NATO members to send high-grade units to Mali and South Sudan, neither is close to stable. National Security Advisor John Bolton gave a harsh speech criticising “unproductive” and open-ended UN missions in Africa in December.

If the U.S. is retreating from this process, will other powers replace it?

European countries, which have a direct security interest in the UN managing threats in places like Mali and Lebanon, are taking this conference reasonably seriously. France has pressed its European allies to send personnel to Mali, and French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and his German counterpart Heiko Maas will be in New York. The UK is sending a comparatively junior minister, but London is a little busy with other political concerns right now. British officials thought that their recent deployment in South Sudan was good operational experience, and would like to make another significant contribution to the UN fairly soon.

If Washington’s mounting scepticism toward UN peace operations creates a vacuum, it should not be surprised to see others start to fill it.

But as so often happens when the U.S. steps back from multilateral institutions, eyes will turn to China this week. There are currently 2,500 peacekeepers from the People’s Liberation Army on UN missions, which is 1,000 more than deployments by all the other permanent Security Council members combined. Beijing is not sending a top political figure to this week’s meeting, and may not make any big new pledges. But back in 2015, President Xi Jinping promised to deploy up to 8,000 new troops on UN missions. Chinese and UN officials have taken some time to identify and assess suitable additional units, but this technical process is now largely complete. There is a good chance that the number of Chinese peacekeepers will expand quite considerably in the coming years, and Beijing has signaled that it wants senior UN posts and envoy-ships in recognition of this investment.

That could make the current U.S. administration, which has repeatedly raised concerns about China’s rising influence in international institutions in recent months, uncomfortable.

But if Washington’s mounting scepticism toward UN peace operations creates a vacuum, it should not be surprised to see others start to fill it.

Members of a Taliban delegation, led by chief negotiator Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar (C, front), walk before a meeting with Afghan senior politicians in Moscow, on 30 May 2019. REUTERS/Evgenia Novozhenina
Briefing 160 / Africa

Toward an End to Ethiopia’s Federal-Tigray Feud

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government and his rivals in Tigray are on a collision course over the latter’s plan to hold regional elections in defiance of federal authority. If Tigray proceeds, Abiy’s government is ready to consider any new regional administration illegitimate.

What’s new? Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government and his rivals in Tigray are on a collision course over the latter’s plan to hold regional elections in defiance of federal authority. If Tigray proceeds, Abiy’s government is ready to consider any new regional administration illegitimate.

Why does it matter? Although Abiy has ruled out military intervention, federal officials threaten other punitive measures that could lead the parties to blows. Ongoing tensions also could push Tigray to trigger constitutional secession procedures, further raising the stakes and intensifying conflict risks with Addis Ababa and Amhara region.

What should be done? To defuse the situation, Tigray should pause its election plans and Addis Ababa should embrace talks over potential compromises. Given the acrimony, mediation by continental heavyweights may be needed. Abiy should also consider backing a national dialogue to reset Ethiopia’s vexed transition.

I. Overview

    Delaying polls due to the pandemic was arguably a necessary step, but deadly unrest in Oromia in early July demonstrates the potential dangers in Abiy’s doing so without consulting his rivals. The violence was triggered by the murder of Hachalu Hundessa, a popular Oromo musician.[fn]See Crisis Group Statement, “Defusing Ethiopia’s Latest Perilous Crisis”, 3 July 2020.Hide Footnote But even before his killing, two main Oromo opposition parties had warned that the situation in the region was combustible, largely as a result of the Abiy government’s unilateral decision to extend its term.[fn]Ibid. A top ruling-party official told Crisis Group in a July telephone interview that an “axis of evil” comprising the TPLF, Oromo nationalist rebels and Egypt was behind the destabilisation. “Shimilis Abdisa: TPLF and OLA Shane behind assassination of Hachalu Hundessa”, Halgan Media, 2 July 2020. Hide Footnote Despite the TPLF and other opponents urging the federal government to adopt a more inclusive approach in managing the election delay, the administration moved against opponents in response to the July turbulence, arresting 7,000 people, including much of the Oromo nationalist opposition leadership.[fn]
footnote testHide Footnote

Addis Ababa’s rhetoric has at times been belligerent. Federal officials in June claimed that the government would stop the vote and would consider any newly elected Tigray government illegitimate.[1] Some officials asserted that they would reassess financial grants to Tigray, which amount to half the region’s budget, if it were to go ahead with its election.[2] In late 2019, a federal official told Crisis Group that the government had a case then for interrupting transfers to Tigray because the region was allegedly using the money to fund a regional security apparatus hostile to federal rule.[3] Other officials went so far as to hint at military action. According to one interviewed in July: "If they [the TPLF] continue to undermine the existing constitution and government structure, then we will do whatever it takes to stop them doing that. The federal government will take all necessary measures”.[4] In May, Abiy himself said:

Unconstitutional attempts to undertake illegal elections will result in harm to the country and the people. Therefore, the government will be forced to take any measures to assure the safety of the people and the country.[5]

In late July, the prime minister issued a helpful and forceful clarification, characterising the idea of military action against the region as “insane talk” and stressing that he would not punish Tigray with budget cuts.[6] This clarification has not assuaged the concerns of Tigrayan leaders, however.


[1] On 13 June, the prime minister’s spokesman Nigusu Tilahun said the federal government would enforce its election postponement decision, implying action to prevent Tigray’s poll. "Since the decision of the Tigray Regional Council to hold elections is unconstitutional, the government will respect the decision of the Electoral Board”, Fana Broadcasting Corporation, 13 June 2020. 

[2] Crisis Group interviews, senior Tigray officials, July 2020. Tigray received 50 per cent of its budget from the federal government in the fiscal year ending 7 July 2020. “Analysis of the 2019/20 Federal Budget Proclamation”, UNICEF, November 2019; “Tigray regional state approves annual budget of 16.7 billion birr”, Zehabesha, 7 July 2019.

[3] Crisis Group interview, federal official, Addis Ababa, December 2019.

[4] Crisis Group telephone interview, federal official, July 2020. In response to a question about whether “all necessary measures” could lead to civil war, the official said: “Could be civil war. Premature to give it a name. Maybe internal resistance will surface in TPLF”.

[5] “Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed: ‘We are building a constitutional democracy’”, Ethiopia Insight, 14 May 2020.

[6] Abiy said, “What could possibly make the federal government wage war on Tigray region? This is insane talk”. Regarding the Tigray budget cut issue, he added, “We've never done that, nor will we ever do that”. “Interview with PM Dr Abiy Ahmed conducted in Tigrigna language”, Fana Broadcasting Corporation, 27 July 2020. Tigrigna is an alternate spelling of Tigrinya, the name of the Tigray language.

The most vociferous objections to the House of Federation’s vote delay came from the Tigray People’s Liberation Front.


Senior Consulting Analyst, Sahel