May 24, 2005

Robust U.N. Peacekeeping?

When most of hear the phrase "U.N. peacekeeping" we think of fiascos such as Rwanda or Bosnia, or even tales of sexual exploitation of vulnerable women and children. But could progress be in the air in the Congo of all places? Details here:

The United Nations, burdened by its inability to stave off the mass killings in Rwanda in 1994 and by failed missions in Bosnia and Somalia, is allowing its peacekeepers to mount some of the most aggressive operations in its history. The change has been evolving over the last decade, as the Security Council has adopted the notion of "robust peacekeeping" and rejected the idea that the mere presence of blue-helmeted soldiers on the ground helps quell combat.

It is most obvious in Congo, which commands by far the largest deployment of United Nations troops in the world. Peacekeepers in armored personnel carriers, facing enemy sniper attacks as they lumber through rugged dirt paths in the eastern Ituri region, are returning fire. Attack helicopters swoop down over the trees in search of tribal fighters. And peacekeepers are surrounding villages in militia strongholds and searching hut by hut for guns.

"The ghost of Rwanda lies very heavily over how the U.N. and the Security Council have chosen to deal with Ituri," said David Harland, a top official at the United Nations Department of Peacekeeping Operations in New York.

A turning point came in 2000 after rebels in Sierra Leone killed some peacekeepers and took hundreds more hostage. The United Nations commissioned a review, headed by Lakhdar Brahimi, a former foreign minister of Algeria, which called for troops to be deployed more rapidly in peace enforcement operations. "No amount of good intentions can substitute for the fundamental ability to project credible force," the so-called Brahimi Report said.

Recently a commander in eastern Congo, a Bangladeshi colonel named Hussain Mahmud Choudhury, pointed at a huge map in his office in Bunia, the regional capital, to show a reporter where his troops had been chasing the militias. "Here, here, here," he said, banging on the map.

"If we hear they are somewhere, we move in," he said. "We don't get them all the time, but they have to run. Their morale is shattered, and from a military point of view, that is everything."

The prospect of more robust U.N. peacekeepers (peacemakers, we might call them), willing to invoke Chapter VII of the Charter (rather than hide under the fig-leaf of "neutrality"), would be a welcome development indeed. Still, color me skeptical for now. And, truth be told, the fact that Western countries make up increasingly little of the troop contributions worries me some on a going forward basis.

The operation in Congo began as a modest observer mission in 1999. It has mushroomed, now commanding 16,500 soldiers - but is still regarded as understaffed by United Nations officials in New York.

After the failed missions of the 1990's, Western countries began contributing significantly fewer troops overseas. In 1998, about 45 percent of peacekeepers came from Western armies. The figure is now less than 10 percent; most now come from the developing world.

In Congo, most of the peacekeepers are Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and Nepalese.

As they root out the insurgents who prey on Ituri's population, United Nations soldiers in the east have at their disposal tanks, armored personnel carriers, Mi-25 attack helicopters, mortars and rocket-propelled grenade launchers - all of which are getting heavy use. [emphasis added]

Perhaps U.N. gurus like Suzanne Nossel have additional thoughts on this. I know Suzanne and B.D. would both welcome additional international fora/actors truly able to engage in effective multilateralism. But would we really, for example, be willing to entrust missions of utmost import to our national security (Iraq, Afghanistan) to U.N. peacekeeping forces as they are currently configured? I am quite dubious that assorted Bangledeshi battalions, say, would inspire tremendous confidence when it came to areas of truly critical national security import (even during the post-conflict stage). Others have spoken of having a permanent corps of several brigades/batallions of U.N. peacekeepers, with donor nations including the likes of the U.S., U.K., Japan, France, Germany, Russia and China. It seems to be an idea that, while kicked around a lot, never seems to get any real legs. All this said, it is likely a good thing that U.N. peacekeeping missions are starting to treat their mandates with more resolve and seriousness. But they are not substitutes for determined nation-states busily pursuing their national interests--not by a long shot just yet; and perhaps not ever.

UPDATE: Blogger Daniel Starr has related thoughts; in more optimistic vein perhaps.

Posted by Gregory at May 24, 2005 01:29 AM | TrackBack (66)

"But would we really, for example, be willing to entrust missions of utmost import to our national security (Iraq, Afghanistan) to U.N. peacekeeping forces as they are currently configured? I am quite dubious that assorted Bangledeshi battalions, say, would inspire tremendous confidence when it came to areas of truly critical national security import (even during the post-conflict stage)"

I would say not. But the Indians and Pakistanis are actually pretty solid.

Posted by: praktike at May 24, 2005 02:55 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Reading that NYT piece, I had the feeling that the optimistic view is the one that has more effective UN peacekeeping being a useful weapon to wield against chronic African instability south of the Sahara, particularly in Congo.

No great power really has an interest in chronic instability there, so provided UN armed forces are not overly expensive and do not subject the Europeans, Chinese and Americans to direct, prolonged involvement with tribal African politics no one has a great interest in preventing their use. There are not many other parts of the world about which this can be said, and as to trusting UN forces for missions important to American security, well, no. But if Congo could be dragged out of chaos it would be quite an achievement.

Posted by: JEB at May 24, 2005 04:32 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

The article is a joke and more NYT spin for the UN, which is about as worthwhile as a cup of warm spit (to quote John Nance Garner). A few efforts for the press have been made to chase around a few tribal militias. Big deal. NONE of the serious players in the West Africa Resource Wars have been dealt with. Not Taylor, not the folks in Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast, Togo, Benin, etc. Nothing serious would be done in Congo either.

Do you really think Kofi Annan has changed from 1994 when he ordered Daillaire to "preseve the neutrality of the UN?" Of course not. Besides there is money to be made hence the resource wars in the first place. Guaranteed to insure UN inaction.

Posted by: Jim Rockford at May 24, 2005 10:54 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

We can talk about these kinds of subjects until we are blue in the face, but until the US commits itself to true multilateralism in the decision-making process, nothing will come of it.

Posted by: p.lukasiak at May 24, 2005 11:48 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink


When the US voices concerns, the multilateral Europeans frequently turn quite unilateralist. See, for example, the negotiations on Kyoto.

There needs to be progress on the other side, too.

Posted by: Appalled Moderate at May 24, 2005 01:41 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

We wouldn't trust any truly important mission to UN peacekeeping forces as I believe most nations use UN peacekeeping missions as profit centers. They are sending in barely-trained, minimally equipped forces in exchange for reimbursement from the international community.

Posted by: The Indigent Blogger at May 24, 2005 03:21 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Most of the accounts of Rwanda I have read – and an actual interview I had the privilege of conducting with General Dallaire – indicate that most underdeveloped or non-Western countries tend to put forth pathetically unskilled soldiers in the field. An excellent example would be Dallaire’s scathing critique of the value of Bangladeshi soldiers during the prelude to the Rwandan genocide. His account is especially horrifying because they couldn’t even conduct an effective training exercise, to say nothing of their field performance. Moreover, peacekeepers have to exercise a much more sophisticated level of field performance that includes cultural sensitivity and an understanding of the fact that military objectives and peacekeeping goals often require very different tactics, especially when human rights are a top priority.

The Indigent Blogger brings up an interesting point, although I think it reflects a need for the U.N. to really establish its own monetary base before it can become a truly effective multilateral body. Most biographers of the World Bank (like Sebastian Mallaby) attribute its success and its ability to act somewhat outside the demands of its political constituents (relative to the U.N. anyway) to the fact that it gains income from the market-oriented loans it gives middle-income countries like Brazil. I wonder if any equivalent revenue generating model can be applied to the United Nations? Wishful thinking I suppose.

Posted by: Scott Nowers at May 26, 2005 04:35 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

If you are a first world nation, do you ever really want "another" military power?

Posted by: james at May 26, 2005 06:40 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

My biggest concern with this "hope" is the fact that the Pakistani forces will eventually be transferred out at some point. They cannot stay there forever or even for an extended length of time (say 2-3 years), which is likely the shortest possible term that is required to bring these militias to heel. Then they'll be replaced by a contingent from another nation that is not nearly as trained or skilled as the Pakistanis.

Posted by: Eddie Beaver at May 28, 2005 02:16 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink
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