Towards Sustainable Peace: An Interview with Lieutenant Colonel Mathias Voss - Foundation Office New York
UN Agora Blog
Peacekeeping remains one of the United Nations’ (UN) most vital instruments for effecting lasting peace and security in the world’s most conflict-torn countries. Creating conditions for sustainable peace requires a multidimensional approach, and to that end, peacekeepers play a critical role in facilitating political solutions to supporting democratic processes, protecting civilians to restoring rule of law. They also serve in extremely dangerous and difficult environments, facing unprecedented threats and risking their lives in pursuit of peace.
On the occasion of the 75th anniversary of UN peacekeeping and the International Day of UN Peacekeepers on May 29, the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung (KAS) interviewed Lieutenant Colonel (Lt. Col.) Mathias Voss, Deputy Military Advisor at the Permanent Mission of the Federal Republic of Germany to the United Nations, to discuss the changing nature of peacekeeping operations in the 21st century, examine how the UN and Germany are addressing new operational challenges and preparing personnel for peacekeeping missions abroad, and highlight Germany’s engagement in UN peacekeeping as a troop and budget contributor.
Today, peacekeeping operations are taking place in an increasingly complex security environment, exacerbated by the rise of non-state actors, new and emerging technologies, and other threats. What are some of these new challenges that peacekeepers face in this modern and high-risk operational environment?
Lt. Col. Voss: The whole character of conflict has changed. It’s not the traditional two-party conflict with the peacekeeper in between anymore. It’s gotten more complex in all dimensions. There are more actors involved that might not abide by the laws of armed conflict or even follow one common leadership. Other dimensions like cyber, technology, and innovation are being heavily exploited by malicious actors. Generally, the world has gotten more complex, and this is unfortunately also reflected in peacekeeping operations. I think it’s very demanding for each individual peacekeeper to deal with all of that.
The general characteristic [of peacekeeping] has also changed in that the light blue color is not a sufficient protection anymore. It used to be enough just to drive a white vehicle and have a blue helmet or beret on, and then you could feel fairly safe. But unfortunately, that’s not the case anymore. There has been a fundamental change in how peacekeepers have to act in this environment, because now the environment is quite hostile to them. It’s not just parties who are hostile to each other and where the peacekeeper was accepted as a neutral, additional actor. Now peacekeepers have become a target. That obviously changes the whole way you have to act.
What is the United Nations doing to address these new challenges in peacekeeping?
Lt. Col. Voss: There’s not one remedy that you can buy or implement; you can’t just write a new doctrine to fix things. I think the major challenge is that there’s not just one thing you have to deal with. It’s more complex. Everything affects everything. If you increase the level of armor on your vehicles, you will have less interaction with the population, and thus, you might lose ground in the information realm because you’re further apart from the population. But maybe that’s necessary because the IEDs [improvised explosive devices] that peacekeepers are attacked with have improved, or maybe the peacekeepers are shot at frequently and so they have to protect themselves.
It’s about finding that middle ground between all these challenges, where to find the best possible way to navigate all that and still work towards the mandate, which peacekeepers have to fulfill. There’s a narrow path between a priority on self-protection on one side and actually delivering towards protection of civilians, towards whatever the specific mandate in the mission is. This complexity is really difficult to navigate, and that makes it so hard to react to it. Naturally, there’s room for improvement in the missions in many areas; that can be training, that can be equipment, that can be conduct of operations, that can be safety and security of peacekeepers in terms of evacuation, etc. It’s always possible to become better and be faster or more reliable.
We have the A4P [Action for Peace] program and the A4P+ program. New technologies are really embraced, for example, the use of UAS [unmanned aerial systems]. The UN is open to innovations, but it needs time to implement them and it can be costly. The general peacekeeping and mission budgets are sufficient to run the missions, but when things change and you want to implement new things, for example, if you want to start a new program, there’s always additional funding needed.
How do you prepare peacekeeping troops for deployment?
Lt. Col. Voss: Germany has a two-step preparation system. We have a general military preparation that prepares soldiers selected for deployment abroad and equips them with military skills. The training is different for a peacekeeping context compared to a traditional war scenario, but conducting patrols or dealing with an IED threat, or interacting with local populations—that’s the same for all missions.
In the second step, for the unit or person identified for deployment in a specific mission area, we have additional training that’s tailored to that mission. That would include history, learning cultural specifics of a region and host nation.
To what extent does the expertise and experience of Germany, as a troop-contributing country, inform the planning or renewal of peacekeeping mandates?
Lt. Col. Voss: Germany is not a permanent member of the Security Council, so over large stretches of time we cannot influence UNSC decision-taking directly. Formally, there is a TCC/PCC [troop-contributing country/police-contributing country] meeting before a mandate renewal, where the TCCs and PCCs are heard by the Security Council, and we can officially voice our opinions on how things should be done or share our experiences. But obviously, that’s a very formal procedure. Most of the actual work is done between those meetings. That’s what we and the other Permanent Missions here in New York do through our relationship with other actors, both in the Secretariat and also international partners. We give feedback to the Secretariat when it comes to force generation, what is feasible for us, what is difficult for us. It’s this day-to-day relationship where we feed our ideas and thoughts to those that are either deciding on the mandate or preparing the mandate or writing the reports. We also try to facilitate discussion by organizing or hosting events, not with a view to the German opinion of how the mandate should be, but to provide a forum for discussion and make the best possible mandate achievable.
Does Germany have a say in terms of where its peacekeepers are deployed?
Lt. Col. Voss: We support multilateralism and want the UN to function well, so we try to support it wherever possible. But for Germany there’s always a regional aspect that we consider when it comes to the deployment of troops. For example, German support for the [United Nations Interim Force in] Lebanon [UNIFIL] has been strong over many years; we have been requested by both Lebanon and Israel to be part of it, and we have a long-standing engagement there. In the Sahel region we have also taken a very deliberate decision to support MINUSMA for the past ten years.
One of the most concerning trends in recent years has been the hostility of—and even attacks by—local communities towards UN peacekeepers. What is being done to educate local communities on the purpose of peacekeeping missions and help manage expectations? Or put differently, what is being done to win the hearts and minds of local communities?
Lt. Col. Voss: The UN still has the best message [of international peace] out there. It’s a question of how to transport the message. We’ve seen many efforts, for example, as in the dos Santos Cruz report on MONUSCO from a couple years back which suggested to improve strategic communications, to better communicate with the population. We increase female participation in peacekeeping missions to better engage with the population; we have the female engagement platoons, for example. There’s a pretty good awareness, and there are many ways identified where we can improve.
Unfortunately we see a lot of misinformation and disinformation going on, working with emotions and simplifications. This can sometimes be easier to transmit than the complexities of reality. It’s easier to blame someone than to explain why it’s difficult to achieve progress. In many cases, the UN is having an uphill struggle in terms of communication, as it is easier for other actors to reach a population that is closer to them. They might speak the local language or be part of a local tribe; they are familiar with the cultural environment.
Has there been any pushback from the German population back home regarding the deployment of German troops to dangerous UN peacekeeping missions?
Lt. Col. Voss: I don’t see that. There can be political scrutiny, not least by the political opposition which is a normal situation in democracy, but I don’t have the feeling that there’s huge pushback from the general public or media. There’s more a feeling of sympathy and amenity towards the military in the field than a reflex to pull out immediately.
About the Interviewee
Lieutenant Colonel Voss is the Deputy Military Advisor for the Permanent Mission of Germany to the UN in New York. He has served in multiple national and international staff positions and has gained operational experience in NATO and UN missions. He is also the author of “Defence in a changing world – How defensive should (NATO) defence be?”, an analysis for the German Institute for Defence and Strategic Studies.