UNITED NATIONS – The Nobel Peace Prize winner who will lead the first major review of United Nations peacekeeping operations in 15 years said Thursday his panel likely will do its work from afar.
In a closed-door meeting of the Security Council, apparently inadvertently broadcast on the U.N.'s internal television system, Jose Ramos-Horta said members of his independent panel have been in the field before and don't need to go. He said he would be reluctant to impose on busy field commanders and would opt to speak via videoconference instead.
"It's not like an eye-opener for anyone to go to the field," Ramos-Horta said. About half of the panel's members have served with peacekeeping missions in the past.
In an email to The Associated Press later Thursday, he said his panel "certainly" would visit peacekeeping operations but only if invited by field commanders.
The sweeping U.N. review comes as the world body faces its most challenging climate ever for peacekeeping, with a record 130,000 people deployed around the world. The threat of terrorist violence is increasing, and 113 peacekeepers have died from attacks or other causes this year through the end of October. At the same time, resources for the 16 missions are overstretched, and it can take months to send peacekeepers to respond to deadly crises.
Even the Security Council has no clear view of peacekeeping operations. "It's very hard to know what's actually going on within the missions," U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power said at the meeting.
The meeting offered a rare view of a less scripted Security Council.
"Given the tight deadline to carry out its review, traveling to all field operations will not be possible," a spokeswoman for U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Eri Kaneko, said late Thursday. "The Panel will schedule a few targeted visits and will maximize other means of gathering the necessary inputs from the field, including videoconferencing with heads of Missions. "
A rift among council members was clear over the protection of civilians, which has become a widespread mandate but also a peacekeeping challenge.
In May, the U.N.'s internal watchdog said peacekeeping forces responded immediately to only a minority of attacks on civilians between 2010 and 2013 and almost never used force to protect them when they did respond. It studied eight missions whose mandate included that responsibility.
Russia's deputy ambassador, Petr Iliichev, described protecting civilians as a "more glamorous" role for peacekeepers and said the review should focus on more traditional goals like separating warring parties.
Argentina, which currently has 840 troops on U.N peacekeeping missions, said countries who don't contribute troops — usually more developed countries — have the least concern about putting peacekeepers in danger by sending them out to protect civilians. The U.N. doesn't have a standing army and relies on contributions from its 193 member states.
But France and other countries, at times invoking the lessons of the genocide in Rwanda two decades ago, made it clear that protecting civilians is crucial. "It's no longer acceptable for populations to just be massacred," French Ambassador Francois Delattre said.
By now, 98 percent of U.N. peacekeeping troops are in missions with mandates to protect civilians, Power said, adding that there are "a lot of inflated expectations."
The review panel has less than a year to make its recommendations for an overhaul. "Either the international community is willing to pay" to improve the system, Ramos-Horta told council members, "or our study will be an academic study, useless."
Ramos-Horta, a former East Timor independence leader, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1996.