Facing a changing and challenging environment for the United Nations' 100,000 peacekeepers, 145 nations endorsed an action plan Tuesday to make these operations stronger and more adaptable.
"Blue helmets have to face increasingly complex conflicts, with multiple adversities, with deadlocked political processes, terrorism and transnational organized crime," U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres told a high-level meeting on peacekeeping on the sidelines of the General Assembly. "However, I understood that they are also facing a more fundamental challenge — namely, the gulf between aspirations and reality."
Peacekeepers are known as "blue helmets" for the color of their headgear.
Since the U.N.'s first peacekeepers were sent to the Middle East in 1948 to monitor a truce between Israel and its Arab neighbors, more than 70 missions have deployed around the globe.
But conflicts have changed over time, and peacekeeping operations are working to meet those challenges, cut their high casualty rates and improve performance.
"They are improving security and command structure. Accountability has been stepped up, and performance failures are being addressed," Guterres said.
"Peacekeeping remains a critical tool, an indispensable tool, for our collective security," said French President Emmanuel Macron. "Peacekeeping, as we designed it, as we practiced and upheld it, today has come to the end of a cycle."
Macron said it is now time to reinvent the model, being realistic about what it can and cannot achieve.
The world is seeing more conflicts that run for years and are difficult to resolve. Missions often deploy to countries where there are weak political agreements, complicating peacekeepers' jobs and prolonging the need for their presence. Added to that, peacekeepers have themselves become targets in conflict, with 64 killed already this year.
South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo are two instances where the U.N. has deployed tens of thousands of troops for protracted periods in difficult environments. Success has been spotty, and each mission has an annual budget of over $1 billion.
"In an ideal world, we shouldn't need peacekeepers," said Rwandan President Paul Kagame, whose country is a major troop and police contributor. "But so long as we do, let's make sure they are deployed in support of a clear political process. This means having the right mandates without detrimental caveats, as well as the resources and equipment needed to get the job done."
The U.N. operates 14 missions on four continents with an annual budget of nearly $7 billion. But its missions perpetually have a deficit of critical equipment such as helicopters, and troops are of uneven ability and training.
Half of the missions are on the African continent, and there has been increased cooperation between the U.N. and the African Union. Part of that includes a move toward having the AU significantly contribute to funding missions on the continent.
"The AU proposes that the U.N. should take on most of the cost of operations which it conducts with the consent of the Security Council, and Africa should finance the other 25 percent," said Moussa Faki Mahamat, chairperson of the African Union Commission. "This will mean a new step forward in our collective engagement to the maintenance of peace."
If the action plan's goals are met, the U.N. hopes it can have more success stories like that of its mission in Liberia, known as UNMIL, which closed down on March 30 after a nearly 15-year presence in the country following its four-year civil war.
"Over the period, UNMIL deployed over 180,000 peacekeepers; disarmed roughly more than 100,000 ex-combatants; facilitated the return of 26,523 refugees; and assisted in three democratic presidential and legislative elections," Liberia's Foreign Minister Gbehzohngar Milton Findley told the meeting.
Some $7.5 billion was spent, and more than 200 peacekeepers died in the line of duty. But today, Liberia has achieved stability and is moving forward.
"Peacekeeping is best if it is not an unending loop," Findley said.