Open Debate via VTC on Improving the Safety and Security of Peacekeepers*
On Monday (24 May), Security Council members will hold an open videoconference (VTC) debate on “United Nations peacekeeping operations: Improving safety and security of peacekeepers”. The meeting, which is one of China’s signature events during its May presidency, will be chaired by Ambassador Zhang Jun (China), Under-Secretary-General for Peace Operations Jean-Pierre Lacroix, Under-Secretary-General for Operational Support Atul Khare and Under-Secretary-General for Safety and Security Gilles Michaud are the expected briefers.
A presidential statement is expected to be adopted at the meeting.
Monday’s Open Debate
According to the concept note prepared by China for tomorrow’s open debate, the meeting can provide a platform for dialogue on the safety and security of peacekeepers and serve as an opportunity to mobilise efforts to address the security risks and challenges they face. In addition to determining ways to better implement resolution 2518 of 30 March 2020, which addresses capacity-building and safety and security of peacekeepers, the meeting will also focus on steps that can be taken to improve areas such as training, equipment quality, medical care, and the use of new technologies in peace operations.
The concept note states that peacekeeping operations have faced new challenges as conflict has evolved over the past years; since 2013, more than 260 peacekeepers have died as a result of attacks, while a large number of peacekeeper casualties has been attributed to illness and traffic accidents. Moreover, the concept note highlights that the COVID-19 pandemic has “not only affected the implementation of peacekeeping mandates, but also posed serious challenges to the safety and security of peacekeepers”.
In expressing the view that peacekeepers’ safety and security is “a shared responsibility of the international community”, the concept note outlines the various roles that the Security Council, the Secretariat, troop- and police-contributing countries (TCCs and PCCs), finance-contributing countries and host countries need to undertake to fulfil this responsibility. The Council should establish “clear and feasible” mandates and the Secretariat should address such issues as enhancing UN missions’ early warning and emergency response capabilities. TCCs and PCCs need to provide well-trained personnel, and finance-contributing countries should provide adequate resources to allow peacekeeping missions to perform their tasks. The concept note further suggests that host countries need to enhance the wider public’s understanding of the UN peace mission’s work and role and facilitate accountability for attacks on peacekeepers.
China had previously sought to convene an open debate addressing the safety and security of peacekeepers during its March 2020 presidency, but the meeting was cancelled because of measures put in place to address the COVID-19 pandemic. Resolution 2518—which was originally envisioned as the outcome of the cancelled open debate—was adopted later that month. It requested, among other things, that host states facilitate access and freedom of movement for UN peacekeepers and their equipment, including for casualty and medical evacuation. The resolution also referenced the need to augment operational health support and requested the Secretariat to instruct all peacekeeping missions to systematically document violations of status of forces agreements.
The issue of peacekeepers’ safety and security has gained further attention and momentum in the past several months: on 26 March, Kenya and 12 other Council members (including China) co-hosted an Arria-formula meeting on “Protecting the Peacekeeper: Suppressing the Deployment of Improvised Explosive Devices against Peace Operations”, which focused on the threat posed by improvised explosive devices (IEDs) to civilians, humanitarian workers and peacekeepers. On 8 April, China announced that it has established a “Group of Friends on the Safety and Security of Peacekeepers” together with key TCCs Brazil, India and Rwanda. It is possible that a representative of the newly established group of friends will deliver an intervention on behalf of the group at Monday’s meeting.
The Presidential Statement
The expected outcome of Monday’s debate is a presidential statement proposed by China. An initial draft of the presidential statement was circulated several weeks ago, and Council members held two rounds of negotiations on the proposed text. The draft text passed silence today (21 May), after having been placed under silence procedure on Thursday (20 May). The negotiations on the draft presidential statement appear to have been smooth, as the text reiterates key points raised in resolution 2518 and only minor differences seem to have emerged between Council members. The draft text builds significantly on resolution 2518 in respect of IEDs and adds references to the ongoing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on peacekeeping operations and the vaccination rollout to peacekeepers.
On the threat of IEDs, resolution 2518 requested the Secretary-General to “review and ensure uniformity of UN standards on training and performance…including but not limited to countering improvised explosive devices, mitigating threats from improvised explosive devices, health, and basic first aid”, a point which the draft presidential statement reiterates. The draft text additionally requests the Secretary-General to provide the Security Council with an independent strategic review of “UN peacekeeping operations’ responses to improvised explosive devices, assessing capabilities and measures necessary to better mitigate this threat” by 15 December. While the draft presidential statement does not specify the focus of the strategic review, it may, apparently, address such issues as the possible use of new technologies to mitigate the threat of IEDs and ways to assist UN personnel harmed by IEDs by providing medical facilities, capabilities and qualified personnel which will enhance mission medical capacities. The 26 March Arria-formula meeting appears to have played a key role in further informing Council members of the threat of IEDs and helped pave the way for the inclusion of this request.
On COVID-19, the draft presidential statement stresses the importance of peacekeepers’ health and well-being and “encourages the vaccination of UN peacekeepers in-theatre and prior to deployment with safe and effective vaccines, in line with UN guidelines and best practices, based on the principle of informed consent”.
Resolution 2518 was adopted only weeks into the pandemic and does not refer to the COVID-19 virus. During the negotiations in March 2020, while some Council members argued for the inclusion of COVID-19-related language, others disagreed, pointing out that other threats, such as Ebola, have also had an impact on peacekeepers’ health. Ultimately, a more general reference to “infectious diseases” was included in resolution 2518. Subsequently, the Council adopted resolution 2532 of 1 July 2020, which, among other things, requested the Secretary-General and member states to take steps towards the “provision of training for peacekeeping personnel on issues related to preventing the spread of COVID-19”. It also adopted resolution 2565 on 26 February 2021, which focussed on the delivery of the COVID-19 vaccine and highlighted the work of the “Group of Friends on COVID-19 vaccines for UN uniformed personnel”, whose work includes “develop[ing] policy recommendations for the vaccination of uniformed peacekeepers to ensure the urgent vaccination of peacekeeping contingents and to improve safety of peacekeepers”.
*Post-script: On 24 May, the Council adopted a presidential statement, which addressed the threat posed by improvised explosive devices (IEDs) to peacekeepers, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on peacekeeping operations and the vaccination rollout to peacekeepers.