- Burkina Faso
- Cape Verde
- Central African Republic
- D.R. Congo
- Equatorial Guinea
- Guinea Bissau
- Ivory Coast
- São Tomé and Príncipe
- Sierra Leone
- South Africa
- South Sudan
Friday, September 18, 2015
In Rwanda in 1994 hundreds of desperate Tutsis sought refuge on the first day of the genocide at a school where 90 UN troops. The UN flag flew over the school. The Belgian peacekeepers were armed with a machine gun, planted at the entrance. The peacekeepers were ordered to abandon the school in order to escort foreigners to the airport and out of Rwanda. As the soldiers left, Tutsis begged to be shot rather than left to the militia’s machetes. Within hours, the 2,000 people at the school were murdered by gun, grenade and blade.
A year later, Dutch peacekeepers failed to stop the massacre of 8,000 Muslim men in Srebrenica, a supposedly UN “safe area”, the most notorious mass killing by the Serbs in Bosnia.
Around the same time-frame, there was the debacle in Somalia where a US-led UN humanitarian operation turned into a bloody conflict against a powerful warlord. Angola was at war after its UN peacekeeping mission collapsed amid accusations it contributed to the breakdown of peace.
Other disasters – the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Sierra Leone –happened even as the UN peacekeeping department’s budget doubled and doubled again with growing numbers of missions. In 2000, British forces landed in Sierra Leone after UN peacekeepers stood aside or fled an advance on the country’s capital, Freetown, by a notoriously brutal rebel group, the Revolutionary United Front (RUF). Several hundred peacekeepers surrendered to the rebels.
Two decades down the line and peacekeeping has ballooned to become by far the most expensive of UN departments (in 2015 it will cost nearly $9bn to keep 120,000 blue helmet soldiers and policemen deployed in 16 countries from Mali to Cyprus and Haiti, compared with just $500m at the end of the cold war). Today, UN troop deployments in the DRC, Sudan and Darfur each cost more than $1bn a year, with Mali and Central African Republic not far behind. The most expensive outside Africa is Haiti, with a budget of $500m.
“We’ve got more troops, we’ve got a bigger budget, we deployed in all sorts of very very difficult places, much more difficult than we’ve ever been, and we’re stretched, we’re really stretched,” explained JackChristofides, who is on leave from the UN as director of peacekeeping operations for central and west Africa “If you think of the old deployments in places like Lebanon and Bosnia, there is a certain infrastructure you could use and work with. The troops coming were generally from countries that had the means to launch expeditions. Today, when you’re talking about northern Mali and central Africa, you have both extremely dangerous conditions and geostrategic locations which are very difficult to get to.”
Most western nations will not put boots on the ground as frontline peacekeepers and so the UN is dependent on the goodwill of those countries prepared to deploy troops such as India, Bangladesh, Rwanda and Nigeria, making it hard to assert its authority. Obama is jointly hosting a summit with Ban in New York later this month to seek commitments to strengthen peacekeeping with better trained troops, equipment and intelligence resources. Moreover, if other countries are sending their forces then the US does not have to risk the lives of American soldiers. Previously, the US mostly regarded peacekeeping in Africa, in particular, as a humanitarian issue. Now, given the nature of the conflicts in Mali, Nigeria and Central African Republic, Washington views it as strategic. But while the US wants more assertive peacekeeping, it does not want to send its soldiers to fight. Obama is pressing more developed countries, in Europe, Asia and Latin America, to make greater commitments. UN officials privately concede there is little chance of the US putting its forces under UN command. Congress would never stand for it. The UK currently has fewer than 300 soldiers deployed on peacekeeping missions, mostly in Cyprus. “We’ve been having goodness knows how many discussions with British officials with a view to getting them more involved,” said Christofides. “We’re still drawing too many troops from a few parts of the world and not enough from other parts of the world. And I don’t just mean Africa versus the west, but other countries in Asia and Latin America that could contribute a bit more.” Another senior UN official put it more bluntly: “Britain has a reputation for lecturing without contributing.” General David Richards, Britain’s chief of the defence staff, wants to see Britain make a greater contribution. “The Ministry of Defence and, I have to say sadly, the armed forces, don’t really see the UN as proper soldiering. This is a cultural ignorance that’s grown up over many years. The Americans share it writ large: UN ops is what second- and third-world nations do but proper armies, we pick and choose,” he said.
India, which has sent more soldiers on UN missions than any other country – 180,000 on 49 missions – is openly challenging the move towards what some see as mostly rich and powerful countries on the security council sending the poor to fight and die. India’s ambassador to the UN, Asoke Kumar Mukerji said “The soldiers in the blue helmets, under the blue flag, are impartial. They are not supposed to be partisan. If somebody wants soldiers to go in and fight they should hire mercenaries, not take UN soldiers.”
In Sierra Leone the Indian UN force commander, Major General Vijay Jetley, interpreted his mandate as that of a neutral intermediary. India said its troops were sent to monitor the peace, not enforce it. The UN mission in Sierra Leone was further complicated by antipathy between some of the national forces, particularly Jetley and his Nigerian deputy, Brigadier General Mohammed Garba. In an internal UN report, Jetley accused Garba and other senior Nigerians of being more interested in smuggling diamonds than keeping the peace. Nigeria’s military responded by accusing the Indian general of “trying to justify his ineptitude, inaction and inefficiency in the leadership of a multinational force”.
12 years later in the Democratic Republic of the Congo as rebels advanced on the eastern town of Goma. The Indian commander of part of the largest peacekeeping force in the world ignored orders from UN officials to defend the town and called the Indian defence ministry in New Delhi to ask what he should do. He was told not to resist. The rebels seized Goma to the anger of Ban Ki-Moon, who regarded it as a “personal humiliation”, according to a senior UN official. The wider UN mission in the DRC had come to look like bystanders to mass killing, rape and terror. Richard Gowan, until recently research director at the Centre on International Cooperation, a thinktank in New York that works closely with the UN on peacekeeping, said Indian forces in Sierra Leone and the DRC were taking orders from the defence ministry in New Delhi, not the UN commanders on the ground. The UN lost confidence in Jetley in Sierra Leone but when the then secretary general, Kofi Annan, tried to remove him, the Indian government threatened to pull out all of its forces. Annan’s successor, Ban, ran into the same threats from New Delhi when he tried to remove the Indian UN commander after the Goma debacle.
The debacle in Goma prompted the UN to put together a fighting force of soldiers prepared to go into combat. South Africa, Tanzania and Malawi volunteered to send troops to join the Force Intervention Brigade in part because they were weary of the persistent instability in the region. Christofides doubts that the force intervention brigade provides a model for other peacekeeping missions. Senior UN officials, some of whom were strongly opposed to the creation of the brigade but now judge it a success, are deeply wary of the UN taking on a similar role in other conflicts. The DRC, they say, was a unique situation.
“We were all embarrassed, humiliated at the end of 2012 when Goma fell,” said Christofides, who oversaw UN peacekeeping operations in the DRC from 2011 until earlier this year and was an architect of the intervention brigade. “Everybody has that image of peacekeepers sitting on top of an APC [armoured personnel carrier] and this group of ruffians walking into Goma. That was a low moment for everybody.”
Early successes in Cambodia, Namibia, Mozambique and El Salvador generated an overconfidence in the ability of UN soldiers to keep the peace. Each of those countries had an accord that former warring parties wanted to maintain. The UN learned the hard way in Angola, Rwanda and Bosnia that where the UN wants peace more than those in conflict, then the illusion of peacekeeping can perpetuate instability and cost lives.
The UN intervention in Darfur was a politically panicked response to public pressure over the mass killings by the government-allied Janjaweed militia. “For political reasons the US and the UK insisted on having the mission. I’ve spoken to UK officials since who’ve said: ‘We had no real idea what this mission was meant to do. We were just under such public pressure to come up with an answer and the answer was peacekeeping.’ That was definitely true for the Bush administration as well,” Gowan explained. “Darfur has been a quagmire from the beginning. The frank reality is no one believes that the mission is working but no one dares pull it out because they fear the moment it goes there will be an even greater spike in violence and the security council will be held responsible. It’s become a slow burning disaster.”
Philippe Bolopion , the UN director at Human Rights Watch, said the principal reason for the failure of the Darfur mission, a hybrid operation with African Union forces, was deadlock on the security council. “When permanent members of the Security Council can’t agree to stand up to an abusive government such as Sudan’s, and you have weak peacekeeping troops on the ground, it’s almost a perfect storm where peacekeepers are not going to protect civilians properly,” he said. “Permanent members of the security council routinely prioritise their national interest over the needs of the UN peacekeeping missions they have mandated, as a result often undermining them. Russia and China have done this by opposing more sanctions against the Sudanese government even when it pushes peacekeepers around in Darfur.”
The responsibility to protect has had a more positive impact elsewhere. Peacekeepers in South Sudan turned their bases into de facto refugee camps protecting tens of thousands of people. That would have been unlikely 20 years ago. But the ethos has been severely challenged by the fallout from the Security Council mandate for military intervention in the 2011 Libyan revolution to protect civilians in Benghazi. NATO was accused of abusing it to support the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi. That complicated any potential UN action on Syria.
India strongly opposes a move towards more forceful peacekeeping. “When it has been used as a tool to ensure that a peace agreement is observed so that peace building can take place, or as a tool to facilitate a political resolution, it works,” said Mukerji, the Indian ambassador to the UN. “But if peacekeeping is to be seen as peace enforcement, then unfortunately we can’t see the UN charter allowing such a radical departure of the use of peacekeeping. Peacekeeping is not an end in itself. The end is political stability and peacekeeping is just a tool to bring about political stability. What’s happening now is the cart is being put before the horse. I think that’s a very unfortunate development.”
Gowan is sceptical for different reasons. “I think that we may be stumbling into an enormous strategic trap because if we have learned over the last decade that very highly capable Nato forces, US forces, actually can’t suppress Islamic extremist groups, why on earth do we think slightly strengthening UN missions is going to give us a tool that allows us to fight terrorists?” he said.