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Remarks at the United Nations Leaders' Summit on Peacekeeping in New York City

September 28, 2015

Good afternoon. Mr. Secretary-General, heads of state and government, distinguished representatives: The word "peacekeeping" does not appear in the Charter of the United Nations. But for the past seven decades, our collective ability to "maintain international peace and security" has often depended on the willingness of courageous U.N. peacekeepers to put their lives on the line in war-torn corners of the world.

Over the years—from El Salvador to Namibia, from Liberia to Timor-Leste—more than 1 million men and women in blue helmets have prevented violence and preserved peace. They have saved lives. They've given societies a chance to rebuild. Through bitter experience, in places like Bosnia and Rwanda, we've learned painful lessons, and we've worked to do better. Right now, as we speak, more than 100,000 troops and police are deployed around the world: training police in Haiti, promoting stability in Lebanon, protecting civilians in South Sudan. And down the decades, more than 3,300 peacekeepers, as well as many police and civilian staff, have made the ultimate sacrifice. The United Nations and the United States salutes them all.

We know that peace operations are not the solution to every problem, but they do remain one of the world's most important tools to address armed conflict. And I called for this summit because U.N. peacekeeping operations are experiencing unprecedented strains. Old challenges persist: Too few nations bear a disproportionate burden of providing troops, which is unsustainable. Atop this, we've seen new challenges: more armed conflicts, more instability driven by terrorism and violent extremism, and more refugees.

As a consequence, peacekeepers head into more difficult and deadlier conflicts. They're given ambitious mandates and charged with increasingly dangerous and complex missions. Just yesterday, a U.N. peacekeeper was killed in Darfur, and we've seen reports today of a tragic incident in the Central African Republic. Put simply, the supply of well-trained, well-equipped peacekeepers can't keep up with the growing demand.

So we are here today, together, to strengthen and reform U.N. peacekeeping because our common security demands it. This is not something that we do for others, this is something that we do collectively because our collective security depends on it.

As the largest financial contributor to the U.N. peacekeeping operations, the United States intends to continue to do its part. And today I'm issuing new Presidential guidance—the first in more than 20 years—to expand our support for U.N. peace operations. Like the nations participating today, we'll pledge additional resources. We'll work to double the number of U.S. military officers serving in peacekeeping operations. We will offer logistical support, including our unrivaled network of air- and sealift. When there's an urgent need and we're uniquely positioned to help, we'll undertake engineering projects like building airfields and base camps for new missions. And we'll step up our efforts to help build the U.N.'s capacity, from identifying state-of-the-art technology to offering training to protection against IEDs.

And together, there's much more we need to do together. So let me briefly suggest several key areas where we can focus. First, more nations need to contribute more forces. We are joined today by countries from every region of the world. And I want to thank those who already do so much, and commend those who have come here prepared to do more. At this summit, more than 50 countries—from Bangladesh to Colombia, from Finland to China—are making commitments totaling more than 30,000 new troops and police. And they're stepping up with critical contributions like medical units, helicopters, and capabilities to counter IEDs, which will help peacekeepers be able to stay safe and succeed in their missions. This all represents significant progress, and over the coming years, I believe more nations can make even more contributions.

Second, we need to improve the protection of civilians. Unlike 20 years ago, today's U.N. peacekeepers have the clear authority to safeguard the innocent, but it is still applied unevenly. That's why the principles and best practices for civilian protection laid out in Kigali are so important. Because for innocent people caught in the crossfire in places like South Sudan, the actions of U.N. peacekeepers can mean the difference between life and death.

At the same time, we have to candidly acknowledge that abuse by peacekeepers has to end. I want to be very clear: The overwhelming number of peacekeepers serve with honor and decency in extraordinarily difficult situations. But we have seen some appalling cases of peacekeepers abusing civilians—including rape and sexual assault—and that is totally unacceptable. It's an affront to human decency. It undermines the core mission because it erodes trust with communities. It has a corrosive effect on global confidence in peacekeeping itself.

So, Mr. Secretary-General, we commend you for leading on this issue and insisting on accountability, and we know you cannot solve this problem alone. As leaders and as an international community, we have to insist on zero tolerance for abuse—zero.

Third, we need to reform and modernize peace operations because today's complex conflicts demand it. And that means putting in place the highest caliber, merit-based leadership teams for every single mission. It means making sure we get more women leaders into critical roles. It means planning the rules for operations in the field and not in conference rooms.

Our goal should be to make every new peace operation more efficient and more effective than the last. Beyond strengthening U.N. peacekeeping, the United States also supports developing new and deeper partnerships between the U.N. and the African Union to provide reliable support for AU peace operations. And we look forward to hearing concrete proposals from our African partners to advance this work.

Finally, we need to increase our support of the full range of U.N. diplomatic tools—including mediation, Envoys, and special political missions—which help us to prevent conflicts in the first place. We cannot expect peacekeeping operations to succeed unless the parties involved are willing and committed to making peace.

Now, if we do all these things, if we provide the support and embrace the reforms that I've described today, I believe we can strengthen peace operations for decades to come. Because we know—we can be certain—that in the years ahead, as conflicts arise, the call will go out to those men and women in blue helmets to restore calm and to keep the peace and to save lives. And when they go, their success and their lives will depend on whether they have the training and the forces and the capabilities and the global support they need to succeed in their mission. The decisions and the commitments we make today can help ensure that they do. I want to thank all of you for your partnership and the commitments that your nations are making here. We will hear some extraordinary commitments from a number of nations. And we are very proud that the international community has responded to this call in such a significant way. Rest assured that, in this critical work, the United States will be a strong partner to all of you.

Thank you very much.

NOTE: The President spoke at 3:09 p.m. in the Trusteeship Council Chamber at United Nations Headquarters. In his remarks, he referred to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon of the United Nations.

Barack Obama, Remarks at the United Nations Leaders' Summit on Peacekeeping in New York City Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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