UN Member States are now on their fifth week of the yearly UN peacekeeping budget negotiations.  The budget negotiations at the UN General Assembly’s Fifth Committee (administrative and budgetary) are never easy, but this year negotiations are fraught with additional challenges caused by COVID-19. In this current environment riddled with uncertainty, Member States should demonstrate flexibility and strive to match the mandates of peacekeeping missions with resources by first approving and then funding responsible peacekeeping budgets.

What’s at stake?

UN Member States have to negotiate and approve a proposed peacekeeping budget of $6.655 billion. The budget proposals were developed before the global spread of COVID-19. The virus is now making inroads in countries with peacekeeping operations, such as Mali, South Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, as the negotiations unfold. Peacekeeping missions have been impacted in different ways by the virus: some activities and movements have been curtailed, while the missions have also adapted to respond to emerging needs, and predicting all of the budgetary implications may be difficult.

However, the protection needs of civilians caught in conflict situations are likely to increase and become more complicated by the ongoing pandemic. In his recent report on protection of civilians in armed conflict, the UN Secretary-General calls the pandemic “the greatest test the world has faced since the establishment of the United Nations”, including by exacerbating existing vulnerabilities, threatening refugees and displaced persons cramped in camps and settlements, and impacting access to essential services. The need for peacekeeping operations in this environment will not decrease.

What are the challenges?

Peacekeeping budget negotiations are arduous under normal circumstances. The negotiations often risk being reduced into a zero-sum game between negotiating blocs, which threatens to overwhelm any semblance of a strategic discussion over the requirements of peacekeeping missions to implement their mandates. This year, Member State negotiators will have to overcome additional political and technical challenges and to navigate around the known and unknown impacts of COVID-19, which include but are not limited to the following:

First, the pandemic has wrought havoc on the global economy, which may exacerbate existing pressures to downsize and defund UN peacekeeping. This could lead to an unmitigated disaster.

Second, the pandemic has changed how diplomacy is conducted in and around UN Headquarters. The first resumed session of the Fifth Committee moved into a remote format on March 12th, halfway through the negotiations. The committee managed to conclude negotiations on three items, but deliberations on other agenda items had to be postponed (see this program of work and these statements for more on the first resumed session).

This second resumed session during which peacekeeping budgets and other agenda items are negotiated promises to be more difficult than the first: budgets for eleven peacekeeping missions, UN Secretariat resources that support peacekeeping, and the UN Support Office in Somalia have to be approved by the Fifth Committee by the end of June, the end of the fiscal year. The Fifth Committee has not been able to approve peacekeeping budgets by the June 30 deadline for the past two years, when the Member State diplomats were negotiating under normal circumstances. This year the Fifth Committee delegates have to navigate around delays caused by the virtual format in addition to struggling with the dysfunction that has led to exceeding deadlines in the past.

What to do?

Member States should not allow the peacekeeping budget negotiations to be reduced to a numbers game, but ground them in analysis of conflict scenarios and peacekeeping operation requirements in each country. Moreover, given peacekeeping missions operate in highly dynamic contexts and the fact that budgets are approved on an annual basis and not aligned with the timeline of the Security Council’s authorization of mission mandates, budgets need to allow for flexibility. This is truer now amidst the pandemic.

First, Member States should expect that the current budgets and the budgets that are now being negotiated may need to be implemented with more flexibility than usual, given the budgets were developed pre-COVID-19. Missions may have to redirect funds or request additional resources to respond to emerging needs, and determining all of these needs while the negotiations are ongoing may not be possible. This may require Member States, the Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions (ACABQ), and auditors to (1) allow missions more freedom in how they implement their budgets and (2) refrain from using mission underspends and/or the re-deployment of funds related to COVID-19 as a pretext for future budget cuts.

Second, the negotiations should be informed by analysis of requirements on the ground and the impacts of budget cuts to the ability of missions to implement their mandates, especially on protection of civilians.  As CIVIC’s colleagues at the International Peace Institute have discussed, last year the Secretariat provided the Fifth Committee an analysis on potential impacts of proposed budget reductions on each mission. Member States should request this kind of analysis again.

Moving forward, Member States should provide political and financial support to efforts to improve the analysis and planning capacities of peacekeeping missions that allow them to better direct resources where impact can be achieved, such as strategic planning units, regional joint mission analysis centers and joint operation centers, and the Comprehensive Performance Assessment System (CPAS). As CIVIC discussed last year, tools like CPAS can support better decision-making and enable a more strategic dialogue between the Secretariat, peacekeeping missions, and Member States. There is increasing support for CPAS. The Special Committee on Peacekeeping Operations (C34) called on the Secretariat and mission leadership to continue the roll-out and refinement of CPAS in this year’s report.[1]

Despite the political support for CPAS and improved planning and analysis in peacekeeping missions more generally, resources required to implement these reforms continue to be targeted for cuts during the budgeting process. For example, this year ACABQ has recommended against the establishment of strategic planners and other experts working to support the implementation of CPAS that were requested MINUSMA, MINUSCA, and UNMISS. Member States should support the establishment of these and other positions that aim to strengthen under-resourced but essential and mandated functions in missions.

The pandemic brings uncertainty and unprecedented challenges to diplomats negotiating in New York City, and to the peacekeeping missions in conflict zones from Central African Republic to South Sudan.  Member States should respond to these uncertainties by providing political and financial support to missions to operate and implement their mandates to protect civilians.

[1] See paragraph 90 in A/74/19.

Image courtesy of MONUSCO / Michael Ali