1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Small help for UN

Jennifer Fraczek / ewJune 26, 2014

Although the German army has taken part in numerous UN peacekeeping missions, it has only deployed a very small number of soldiers for the cause. The reasons for this reserved approach are multifaceted.

A helicopter of the German Bundeswehr flies around a UNIFIL naval unit near the coast of Lebanon (Photo: AP Photo/Michael Sohn)
Image: dapd

The Bundeswehr, Germany's armed forces, will remain in Mali for the next 12 months as part of the United Nations' MINUSMA stabilization mission. This decision was made by the German parliament on Wednesday (25.06.2014). The Bundeswehr is permitted to send up to 150 soldiers to the conflict-riddled African country. The mandate for the UNIFIL mission off the coast of Lebanon has also been extended.

Germany is a major financial contributor to UN missions. According to the German foreign ministry, it covers 7.1 percent of the UN's peacekeeping budget. However, it is less generous when it comes to providing manpower. At the moment, it has around 220 soldiers assigned to five UN missions: two with the MINURSO mission in Western Sahara, 12 with the UNMISS mission in South Sudan, 10 with the UNAMID mission in Sudan, 86 with MINUSMA in Mali and 123 with UNIFIL in Lebanon.

Altogether, the MINUSMA and UNIFIL missions consist of 7,300 and 10,000 soldiers respectively. This means that Germany's contribution is equal to around 1 percent. Given the scale of problems in these regions, Germany's role can be described as symbolic. This is a view shared by security expert Christian Mölling from the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. According to Mölling, the German government is actively keeping its missions small in size for fear of a negative reaction to its military activities at home by the German public.

Limited capacity

In light of the ambitious goals ascribed to UN missions such as MINUSMA (stabilization, reestablishment of functional state structures, improvement of the human rights situation), the question arises what a small German contingent can achieve. The Bundeswehr's official tasks in Mali are as follows: air transport to the operational area and within it, supporting the transfer and supply of local government troops as well as advising them, and facilitating the air-to-air refueling of French aircraft.

According to Hellmut Königshaus, German parliamentary commissioner for the armed forces, Germany's role in Mali is an important one. He also pointed out that MINUSMA is not the only mission that Germany is supporting in the country: it is also part of EUTM, a European Union mission focused on training and advising the military of Mali.

German defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen meets Bundeswehr soldiers (Photo: Maurizio Gambarini/dpa)
The German army has shrunk in size over the past yearsImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Königshaus added that the Bundeswehr's capacity is limited. Since the German reunification, the size of the army has dropped from 600,000 to 180,000 soldiers, mostly due to the suspension of compulsory military service in 2011. According to Königshaus, German expertise is particularly in demand in areas such as medical services, air transport and water treatment. "Within its capacity, Germany does a lot," he said.

Preference for NATO

Success and failure are not easy to calculate in this context. To Mölling, a thorough evaluation of past missions is lacking. "This is why it's difficult to say how much the Bundeswehr mission in Mali has achieved," said Mölling, adding that missions are often only successful on paper. He gave the EU missions in Congo and Guinea-Bissau as an example, saying that the latter mission was successfully completed according to official reports but was aborted in reality due the failure to fulfill the main objective: establishing an army.

Like other European countries, Germany prefers taking part in NATO and EU missions over UN-initiated ones. The total number of German soldiers currently involved in military missions abroad stands at 4,450. According to Mölling, there are two main reasons for this trend: European countries do not like giving up control over their armed forces and see greater potential for claiming credit for their achievements in missions with fewer countries involved.

Poorly prepared?

Recent media reports have shed light on another key question on this topic: is the Bundeswehr properly equipped for such missions in the first place? According to them, the UN announced its intention to stop using the Bundeswehr's Transall military transport planes in Mali. A report on German news portal Spiegel Online has mentioned a possible withdrawal of Patriot anti-missile systems from Turkey - a NATO mission that Germany is part of. The cited reason is the "inadequate resilience level" of Dutch and German soldiers, implying that there are too few specialists present.

A Transall plane belonging to the Bundeswehr in Mali (Photo: Daniel C. Braun/dpa)
Germany's military equipment may no longer meet UN requirements for some missionsImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Mölling, however, does not see a problem with the Bundeswehr's mission preparedness. "It's fully equipped for the tasks it's assigned to," he said, adding that German and other European armed forces are currently undergoing modernization.

German politician and retired Bundeswehr Colonel, Roderich Kiesewetter, pointed out in a parliamentary debate on Wednesday that "our armed forces need adequate equipment that can also withstand extreme climate."

He also called on Europe to rethink its security mindset. "We've always said: Germany is surrounded by friends and partners, but our friends and partners are not."