Can He Help the UN Keep the World in One Piece? - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Can He Help the UN Keep the World in One Piece?

Can He Help the UN Keep the World in One Piece?

By Adrian Brune


Because we need the Blue Helmets in the world’s red zones.

By Adrian Brune

In January 2014, Ken Payumo, head of the United Nations Peacekeeping compound in Bor, South Sudan, a city on the frontlines of an emerging civil war, sat in his cramped shipping container office. The previous week, thousands of people had filtered past the UN’s walls seeking safety, as government forces fought to retake the city from rebel militias. The Sudan People’s Liberation Army succeeded, and a key government official approached Payumo about surveying the camp — accompanied by 80 heavily armed soldiers looking to kill rebel sympathizers.

“As they approached, it was clear their intentions were not good,” Payumo recalls. “When I told them to lay down their weapons and their cameras and they tried to make their way past me, saying, ‘This is our country, our government; you can’t tell us where to go,’ I gave the command to close the compound.” He pauses, fidgeting with a blue peacekeeper’s helmet on a desk littered with situation reports and operation manuals from various missions. “The gates slamming shut was probably the loudest sound I’d ever heard … then the soldiers cocked their weapons at me.” Payumo can’t recall if the standoff “lasted hours or minutes,” but as soon as the military left, he called headquarters to request reinforcements at the Bor compound — and was evacuated for his own safety.

As the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) prepares to close its mission in Haiti — the first of three scheduled for 2017 — while facing a new, reformist UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, and questions surrounding the murder in May of two peacekeepers in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the reputation of the Blue Helmets is at stake. Lurid tales of sexual abuse, including a sex ring exploiting Haitian children, have surfaced, along with accusations of peacekeepers causing cholera outbreaks or standing idly by during attacks, according to an internal UN report.

Ken Payumo

Payumo speaks at the United Nations Celebrates World Humanitarian Day on August 19, 2014.

Source Ben Gabbe/Getty

Payumo, 48, chief of the Peacekeeping Operations Support Section, will not only play a hand in drawing down operations in Haiti, Liberia and the Ivory Coast, but he’ll also continue to help oversee the safety of the 86,000 UN peacekeeping troops and 20,000 civilian personnel deployed worldwide. In addition, the former New York police officer and Justice Department attorney will likely be called to assist the United Nations in rethinking its peacekeeping agenda, as Guterres considers an overhaul amid criticism and threatened U.S. funding cuts.


American taxpayers are responsible for about 28 percent of the UN DPKO budget — or $2.2 billion of the $7.87 billion department. The new U.S. Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, wants more than across-the-board prioritizing, however; she has demanded a mission-by-mission review of peacekeeping.

Without us, who tells the world what is going on?

Ken Payumo, UN Peacekeeping Operations Support Section Chief

For Payumo, the cuts will mean doing more with even less. Based in New York, he oversees security assistance, particularly crisis support management, to all UN peacekeeping missions. The UN currently has 16 operations deployed on four continents, which, Payumo estimates, is the highest number of substantial missions in the organization’s history. When any of them encounters trouble, Payumo gets the call, fielding upward of 7,500 emails per day. “[The things] that come into my inbox or [the people who] call at 2 a.m., at times they can be daunting and include major crises involving whole countries, such as South Sudan [or] the hostage-taking of UN personnel,” he says. A career that demands travel to the furthest reaches of the world and a mind capable of imagining every possible emergency scenario would exhaust many, but for Payumo, it’s “addictive.”

The son of an Iranian doctor and a Filipino nurse, Payumo arrived at the UN 17 years ago and was immediately dispatched to East Timor — one of the bloodiest peacekeeping sites at the time — to provide guidance after the colony declared independence from Indonesia. Once on the ground, he helped pick up the pieces after militias had moved village to village, burning houses to the ground, killing more than 20,000 and forcibly displacing hundreds of thousands of East Timorese.

After his stint in East Asia, the UN sent the battle-tested Payumo to South Sudan to become head of office for the oil-rich Unity State before settling Jonglei State, a region hit with some of the heaviest fighting and casualties since South Sudan became a country in 2011. “Bor’s duty station was characterized as a red state — the most hazardous and dangerous condition in peacekeeping,” says Alfred Zulu, a human rights officer stationed in South Sudan. “Yet, at any time, Ken would readily join human rights investigations in the field, something that was highly unusual for someone at his level.”

Recent research supports Payumo’s insistence that the UN DPKO does indeed help and is an important mechanism for maintaining harmony in the countries that request it. According to a study published in Peace Operations Review, the presence of a UN peacekeeping mission can reduce the risk of relapse into conflict by 75 to 85 percent. But the same study found that, despite a number of reforms, the resulting structure is no longer fit to fulfill the functions needed. Instead, the organization has become hobbled by new problems, such as fragmentation that undermines coherent action on peace-building and peacekeeping, competition between the political affairs and peacekeeping departments, and delays in mission startup. 

But Payumo remains steadfast.I can’t picture a world without the UN. All the locations where we work are bad. And without us, who tells the world what is going on?” His commitment is to a UN facing its worst crisis since 1946, with more than 20 million people threatened with starvation due to warfare in Yemen, Somalia, South Sudan and Nigeria, and five million Syrians fleeing their country’s protracted civil war. Payumo, who is married to a fellow UN worker, recently returned from Syria and described the circumstances as “surreal.”

Still, he’s quick to bring up East Timor to illustrate the UN’s capacity to rebuild countries. “We had to pick up the pieces and start a new country literally from ashes,” Payumo says. That was when he decided to remain with the organization. 

Colleagues like Alfred Zulu say Payumo represents the new UN leader — a person with both diplomatic and “field experience” heading to the executive office. For his part, Payumo can’t predict the next 24 hours, let alone the next several years. “I could have never known that when I started in the UN I would go from legal adviser to security coordination for all peacekeeping,” he says.

Nor does he have a crystal ball to foresee what lies ahead: “I can’t say if the world is getting safer, but I can definitely say that the world is more complex in its issues, threats and solutions.”

Sign up for the weekly newsletter!

Related Stories