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Peacekeeping under Trump could be difficult with less resources

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On Monday, President Trump will chair a high-level panel on United Nations reform, kicking off the annual United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) meeting. Peacekeeping reform is badly needed and should be part of that discussion. Smart cuts to the U.N.’s budget could spur needed changes, but so far, the Trump administration’s focus has been primarily about reducing costs at any cost — a move that threatens to leave peacekeeping missions in countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) unable to respond to increasingly dire crises.

In Pinga, a remote town in eastern DRC’s North Kivu province that has been plagued by armed group violence for over two decades, civilians and local leaders feel abandoned by their government and by the United Nations. In April 2017, the U.N. Peacekeeping Mission in the DRC, known by its French acronym, MONUSCO (Mission de l’Organisation des Nations unies pour la stabilisation en République démocratique du Congo) closed its base in Pinga.

“They told us that they came to give us peace,” one resident complained to us in July. “They even called themselves peacekeepers. But they decided to leave without warning us, even though peace was not there.”

Less than 24 hours after the base closed, rebel groups attacked a Congolese army base four kilometers from the town, raising civilian fears that the town would soon fall under rebel control. “The situation has become very worrying, we are losing hope,” said one young Congolese woman in Pinga. “The armed groups are coming closer to us.”

MONUSCO’s plans to reform itself as a mobile force more responsive to evolving threats was behind the base closure, not budget cuts in Washington. But under pressure from the Trump administration, in March this year, when MONUSCO’s mandate was renewed, the number of peacekeeping troops authorized on the ground in DRC was reduced from 19,815 to 16,215. Then, in June, MONUSCO’s 2017/2018 budget was cut by $92 million—an 8 percent cut from the previous year.

Troop reductions have prompted the rushed closure of five additional bases since peacekeepers left Pinga. MONUSCO plans to continue monitoring and visiting the areas where bases have been closed, but the budget cuts could make this more difficult. Travel funds for staff have been slashed, and there will likely also be a reduction in air assets to move peacekeepers around the country, which is the size of Western Europe. Moreover, these troop and budget cuts come as political tensions and violence against civilians across the DRC are on the rise and MONUSCO is being asked to operate across larger areas of the country with ever fewer resources to do so.

United States Ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley, celebrated these cuts, saying “Just five months into our time here, we’ve already been able to cut over half a billion dollars from the UN peacekeeping budget, and we’re only getting started.” On the ground, MONUSCO personnel reacted differently, questioning whether they still have the resources to do what is expected of them. “It is do less with less, no longer do more with less” said one MONUSCO official.

Trump’s speech during the UNGA week is designed to signal that the US is interested in reform as well as cost savings. But, the Trump administration’s push for cuts without proper review or time for reform has made it more difficult for MONUSCO to implement the reform initiatives already designed by MONUSCO and endangered civilians. For example, pressure to reduce budgets quickly meant that the strategic review of the Mission’s operations — designed to evaluate the operating environment, resources, and posture of the mission and make recommendations — came after both troop reductions and funding cuts were already decided.

“We are doing it all in reverse,” said one high-ranking MONUSCO military official. “First reducing the Force, then assessing the budget, then reviewing the security situation. The sequencing is all wrong and you can’t get any strategic effects out of it like this.”

While many UN officials will admit that there is room for reducing inefficiencies in peacekeeping missions, budget cuts that come too quickly and fail to take into account changing conflict dynamics will result in peacekeeping missions that struggle to fulfill their mandates and protect civilians.

Many civilians living in Pinga — like civilians all over DRC — fled to the town because of the relative safety that MONUSCO’s presence provided. They fled abuses, illegal taxation by armed groups, attempts to forcibly recruit their children, and sexual violence.

The U.S. should acknowledge that the reality Congolese and other civilians face should be the factor driving budget decisions — not political or ideological agendas. MONUSCO and other peacekeeping missions should be adequately resourced and equipped to respond to threats against civilians.

“Inevitably when fires start, MONUSCO will be asked to put them out,” a MONUSCO civilian staff member said. “And if we are spread thinly, we won’t be able to put them out. What will the consequences be?”

Lauren Spink is a peacekeeping adviser at the Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC).

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