Voice

The Price of Peace

How much is a U.N. blue helmet actually worth?

In November of last year, Congolese rebels from the M23 movement advanced on Goma, eastern Congo's largest city. As the rebels took the city, the U.N. peacekeepers deployed there stood by, never firing a shot. That dismal performance revived a longstanding debate about the value of the U.N.'s signature activity. The spectacle of Syrian rebels capturing dozens of peacekeepers in the Golan Heights has reinforced the perception of impotence. But the United Nations -- and a number of outside observers -- contend that, even with their profound limitations, peacekeepers at least mitigate ongoing conflict and help prevent the recurrence of conflict once it has subsided.

The debate over the political and military value of peacekeepers won't be resolved anytime soon. Financially, however, the worth of a peacekeeper is clear: $1,028. That's the monthly sum the United Nations pays to states, per soldier, when they contribute peacekeepers to duly authorized missions. It's a dollar figure that hasn't changed much since the early 1990s, even as U.N. peacekeeping has closed some missions, opened others, and undergone significant reform. The static compensation rate has emerged as a significant point of tension in New York, primarily between the states that contribute most troops to missions and those states that foot the bill for peacekeeping.

While there are exceptions, U.N. peacekeeping is an activity mostly paid for by the rich world and carried out by troops from poorer states. The leading troop contributing states (TCCs) are Bangladesh, Pakistan, India, Ethiopia, Nigeria, and Rwanda. The top funders are the United States, Japan, Britain, Germany, France, and Italy. Combined, these countries cover well over 50 percent of the peacekeeping tab, while offering fewer troops than diminutive Jordan. The United States alone pays 27 percent but provides a grand total of 109 peacekeepers. "With a few exceptions," notes George Washington University scholar Paul Williams, "the West has basically left peacekeeping operations." Turtle Bay blogger Colum Lynch recently described the structure as "the U.N.'s own caste system."

Those states providing the manpower believe they are long overdue for a raise. "If your salary had only gone up a little bit since the mid 1990s would you be happy?" asks Williams. The TCCs point out that their soldiers operate in dangerous environments on behalf of the international community. The deaths of five Indian peacekeepers in south Sudan last month -- killed when the convoy they were escorting was ambushed by rebels -- was just the latest example of the costs. In the last decade, more than 800 peacekeepers have died while on mission.

Peacekeeping has always entailed risks, but the kind of missions the United Nations has launched since 1990 have often been especially risky. Cold War peacekeeping missions were usually interposed between organized national armies, with the consent of all parties. Most post-1990 missions have been sent into complex internal conflicts in which the consent of the parties is less certain. "Increasingly, U.N. peacekeepers operate in high-risk environments, where the quest for peace and stability is elusive," U.N. Undersecretary General for Peacekeeping Herve Ladsous wrote recently.   

For several years, TCCs have insisted during meetings of the U.N.'s budget committee that the organization increase the base compensation rate. Each time, however, the TCCs faced skepticism from the large funding states. The overall cost of U.N. peacekeeping has climbed to more than $7 billion a year, amid a climate of austerity. The European Union has called for "strict budgetary discipline" in peacekeeping. But there's also an element of mistrust.

The United States and other large funding states have insisted that TCCs provide information on the actual costs that they incur when they deploy peacekeepers. In 2009, all contributing states agreed in principle to provide cost metrics, but very few have actually done so. "The actual cost structure for most TCCs in providing their troops is a big, black box," said one diplomat from a leading funder. "With a few exceptions, TCCs have not been responsive to their agreement to provide data."

The usually unspoken concern among leading funders is that U.N. peacekeeping is actually a money-maker for a number of poorer states, even at current compensation levels. Some TCCs pass on to their troops the full U.N. reimbursement amounts. Uruguay, for example, pays its soldiers their normal salary plus the U.N. reimbursement. But other TCCs pay their soldiers only their normal salaries, pocketing the remainder. These states may be able to supplement their defense spending with U.N. funds. Two scholars who examined Bangladesh's role in peacekeeping identified the financial motive as important:

The financial benefits accrued by Bangladeshi peacekeepers thus play an important role in supporting the economy. Official sources indicate that during 2001-10, the government received $1.28 billion from the UN as compensation for troop contributions, contingent-owned equipment, and other forms of compensation. UN peacekeeping helps the Bangladesh Army to purchase and maintain military equipment that it would not be able to obtain under normal circumstances and to reward its personnel.

Even when TCCs pass on U.N. compensation directly to their soldiers, the sums can create a strong incentive from within the ranks to participate. A Pakistani police official wrote that the U.N. postings "represent a once-in-a-career opportunity to generate savings and gain some financial security." Still, most TCCs strongly resist the notion that they or their soldiers participate for financial reasons. Fearful of offending the countries that provide forces. funding states are cautious about making their concern explicit.

Funding states have other concerns that make them wary of an across-the-board increase in compensation. They note that troops from some TCCs often show up with inadequate or inoperative equipment, but still receive reimbursements for the equipment. An expert panel appointed by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon acknowledged the problem:

There are examples from the field of contingents arriving in theatre without proper training and without the promised equipment and support. There have also been instances where troops have been unable to perform competently the tasks assigned to them. Some troop-contributing countries place restrictions on the use of their troops. These restrictions keep them out of action when their contribution is often most needed, putting at risk other contingents and the mission itself.

TCCs have their own complaints, which go well beyond the rate of compensation. They note that the U.N. often pays them late, in large part because funding states are behind on their peacekeeping dues. They complain that leading troop contributors are not well represented in the senior ranks of the U.N. bureaucracy. They argue that the Security Council -- which authorizes and provides overall guidance to peacekeeping forces -- does not consult adequately with the states that are actually putting boots on the ground. (Even more broadly, many TCCs chafe at the continuing failure of Security Council reform, which might give some of the top contributors greater voice in the U.N.'s premier decision-making body.) 

For the moment, at least, the large funders and the large contributors have papered over their differences. Earlier this month, the U.N.'s budget committee approved key elements of the expert panel report. The package reform deal includes a 6.75 percent increase in the compensation rate across the board, longer deployments for peacekeepers (which should reduce transport and training costs), and bonuses for contingents willing to take on especially risky duties. The agreement provides that the U.N. can dock payments to countries whose troops don't have functioning equipment. And the budget committee also endorsed a new method for surveying certain TCCs about their actual costs.

There's still potential for the agreement to slowly come unstuck. States have to actually implement the reforms, which is never a given. Whether the largest contributing states will participate in the new cost survey -- a key demand of funding states -- remains uncertain. "The root problems may not have disappeared," said one TCC diplomat. Meanwhile, the demand for blue helmets shows no signs of abating. A new operation is gearing up in Mali, and a Syria mission remains possible. The organization will only be able to keep up if the truce holds between those who supply the manpower and those who pay for it.

ISSOUF SANOGO/AFP/Getty Images

Argument

The FBI's New Wiretapping Plan Is Great News for Criminals

But bad news for the rest of us.

The FBI wants a new law that will make it easier to wiretap the Internet. Although its claim is that the new law will only maintain the status quo, it's really much worse than that. This law will result in less-secure Internet products and create a foreign industry in more-secure alternatives. It will impose costly burdens on affected companies. It will assist totalitarian governments in spying on their own citizens. And it won't do much to hinder actual criminals and terrorists.

As the FBI sees it, the problem is that people are moving away from traditional communication systems like telephones onto computer systems like Skype. Eavesdropping on telephones used to be easy. The FBI would call the phone company, which would bring agents into a switching room and allow them to literally tap the wires with a pair of alligator clips and a tape recorder. In the 1990s, the government forced phone companies to provide an analogous capability on digital switches; but today, more and more communications happens over the Internet.

What the FBI wants is the ability to eavesdrop on everything. Depending on the system, this ranges from easy to impossible. E-mail systems like Gmail are easy. The mail resides in Google's servers, and the company has an office full of people who respond to requests for lawful access to individual accounts from governments all over the world. Encrypted voice systems like Silent Circle are impossible to eavesdrop on -- the calls are encrypted from one computer to the other, and there's no central node to eavesdrop from. In those cases, the only way to make the system eavesdroppable is to add a backdoor to the user software. This is precisely the FBI's proposal. Companies that refuse to comply would be fined $25,000 a day.

The FBI believes it can have it both ways: that it can open systems to its eavesdropping, but keep them secure from anyone else's eavesdropping. That's just not possible. It's impossible to build a communications system that allows the FBI surreptitious access but doesn't allow similar access by others. When it comes to security, we have two options: We can build our systems to be as secure as possible from eavesdropping, or we can deliberately weaken their security. We have to choose one or the other.

This is an old debate, and one we've been through many times. The NSA even has a name for it: the equities issue. In the 1980s, the equities debate was about export control of cryptography. The government deliberately weakened U.S. cryptography products because it didn't want foreign groups to have access to secure systems. Two things resulted: fewer Internet products with cryptography, to the insecurity of everybody, and a vibrant foreign security industry based on the unofficial slogan "Don't buy the U.S. stuff -- it's lousy."

In 1993, the debate was about the Clipper Chip. This was another deliberately weakened security product, an encrypted telephone. The FBI convinced AT&T to add a backdoor that allowed for surreptitious wiretapping. The product was a complete failure. Again, why would anyone buy a deliberately weakened security system?

In 1994, the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act mandated that U.S. companies build eavesdropping capabilities into phone switches. These were sold internationally; some countries liked having the ability to spy on their citizens. Of course, so did criminals, and there were public scandals in Greece (2005) and Italy (2006) as a result.

In 2012, we learned that every phone switch sold to the Department of Defense had security vulnerabilities in its surveillance system. And just this May, we learned that Chinese hackers breached Google's system for providing surveillance data for the FBI.

The new FBI proposal will fail in all these ways and more. The bad guys will be able to get around the eavesdropping capability, either by building their own security systems -- not very difficult -- or buying the more-secure foreign products that will inevitably be made available. Most of the good guys, who don't understand the risks or the technology, will not know enough to bother and will be less secure. The eavesdropping functions will 1) result in more obscure -- and less secure -- product designs, and 2) be vulnerable to exploitation by criminals, spies, and everyone else. U.S. companies will be forced to compete as a disadvantage; smart customers won't buy the substandard stuff when there are more-secure foreign alternatives. Even worse, there are lots of foreign governments who want to use these sorts of systems to spy on their own citizens. Do we really want to be exporting surveillance technology to the likes of China, Syria, and Saudi Arabia?

The FBI's short-sighted agenda also works against the parts of the government that are still working to secure the Internet for everyone. Initiatives within the NSA, the DOD, and DHS to do everything from securing computer operating systems to enabling anonymous web browsing will all be harmed by this.

What to do, then? The FBI claims that the Internet is "going dark," and that it's simply trying to maintain the status quo of being able to eavesdrop. This characterization is disingenuous at best. We are entering a golden age of surveillance; there's more electronic communications available for eavesdropping than ever before, including whole new classes of information: location tracking, financial tracking, and vast databases of historical communications such as e-mails and text messages. The FBI's surveillance department has it better than ever. With regard to voice communications, yes, software phone calls will be harder to eavesdrop upon. (Although there are questions about Skype's security.) That's just part of the evolution of technology, and one that on balance is a positive thing.

Think of it this way: We don't hand the government copies of our house keys and safe combinations. If agents want access, they get a warrant and then pick the locks or bust open the doors, just as a criminal would do. A similar system would work on computers. The FBI, with its increasingly non-transparent procedures and systems, has failed to make the case that this isn't good enough.

Finally there's a general principle at work that's worth explicitly stating. All tools can be used by the good guys and the bad guys. Cars have enormous societal value, even though bank robbers can use them as getaway cars. Cash is no different. Both good guys and bad guys send e-mails, use Skype, and eat at all-night restaurants. But because society consists overwhelmingly of good guys, the good uses of these dual-use technologies greatly outweigh the bad uses. Strong Internet security makes us all safer, even though it helps the bad guys as well. And it makes no sense to harm all of us in an attempt to harm a small subset of us.

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