In a shift with the potential to have lasting ramifications, the newly released budget from the Obama administration calls for using funding normally allotted for fighting wars to provide emergency support for United Nations and other peacekeeping missions.
For the past decade, the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) budget has been synonymous with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, providing the funding needed to carry out two very large-scale conflicts outside of the normal Pentagon budget. The same trick has been used to help shore up State Department funding in recent years, as deep budget cuts have slashed spending at Foggy Bottom. Now, with the Iraq War ended and American combat troops scheduled to be out of Afghanistan at the end of this year, the Obama administration is looking to put the OCO budget to use in deploying peacekeepers to crises that tend to spring up without a regard for the budget season.
Within the “Department of State and Other International Programs” section of the budget request, the White House has included a proposal for appropriating $150 million towards a new “Peacekeeping Response Mechanism” within OCO’s spending. “This appropriation provides funds for the United States to support unforeseen requirements of peacekeeping operations and activities, including peace enforcement missions undertaken directly by the United Nations, or by regional coalition forces,” the explanation of the request reads. That funding would be in addition to the $2.5 billion that makes up the U.S.’s commitment to paying for U.N. peacekeeping missions, including the past due bills that were racked up in FY 2013 and 2014, and $235 million to help other regional bodies — like the African Union — provide security.
“The purpose of this appropriation is to ensure that the United States can respond quickly to emergent needs of such operations and activities that serve U.S. interests in promoting international peace and security, stability, and rule of law,” the request continues. The U.S. has seen several of the instances emerge within the last year, including a newly deployed U.N. mission in Mali and providing support for an African Union force attempting to provide stability in the Central African Republic (CAR).
In both cases, the matter of funding has hampered the success of the missions. Mali’s mission was approved just weeks after Obama submit his FY14 budget request, resulting in Congress not including it in the final compromise deal. And in the case of the CAR, transforming the A.U. mission into a U.N. mission has been met with concerns about matching the mission’s mandate to the funding available.
The White House has learned from the funding catastrophe in Mali with this request, Peter Yeo, Vice President for Public Policy at the United Nations Foundation, told ThinkProgress. “In the old days, if there’s was a peacekeeping mission that came online midway through the fiscal year, that’s what supplemental appropriations were for,” Yeo said in a phone interview. “But nobody does supplemental funding bills anymore. This is a recognition that there are no longer supplementals but the executive branch needs flexibility to pay for missions that come online mid-year.”
So far humanitarian groups like the U.N. Foundation seem cautiously optimistic about the potential of this funding mechanism to provide a new way for the U.S. to respond to crises that might otherwise go underfunded. “It’s an unusual request, but a smart request,” Yeo said, noting that he’d never seen anything like it before.
“Seems like a good new tool to address unexpected protection and insecurity challenges, as long as it can be transferred to the [Contributions to International Peacekeeping (CIPA)] account to support U.N. PKO needs and doesn’t end up going to support militaries who are themselves undisciplined or committing nasty abuses,” Sarah Margon, acting director of Human Rights Watch’s DC office, told ThinkProgress in an email.
The question of just what a blue helmeted mission to CAR will look like will likely come to a head in the coming weeks. On Monday, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon submitted to the Security Council his suggestions for the framework of a peacekeeping mission: 10,000 soldiers, along with another 1,820 police officers to protect civilians from armed militias. Currently, the African Union and France have approximately 7,500 troops deployed to tamp down the ongoing violence, with the European Union pledging another 1,000 to serve as a stopgap until the U.N. mission is approved.
The international forces currently on the ground have so far proved inadequate in halting the cycle of violence that has pitted mostly Muslim former rebels against Christian militias in a series of lynchings and reprisals that has killed thousands since the crisis first exploded in December. “Violence in the capital reached gruesome levels of cruelty, including public mutilation of corpses, dismemberment and beheading with total impunity,” Ban’s report to the Security Council reads. “It is clear that we, as the international community, have not yet done enough to help the people of the Central African Republic confront this crisis,” Ban laments. A vote on the Secretary-General’s proposals will likely come in late March or early April, months before the Congress will have had an opportunity to put the administration’s new funding mechanism into place.
OCO funding was made available to the Peacekeeping Account designated for regional bodies in the final compromise bill that funded the U.S. government in FY 2014. The current request comes much earlier in the process and remains the first time that such a request has been made available for U.N. peacekeeping missions.