There is a troubling sense of deja vu in the horrible tragedy befalling the U.N. Peacekeeping effort in Sierra Leone. In fact, it is really peace enforcement, a euphemism for getting sucked into someone else’s war. And more than just putting at risk future U.N. operations, it poses vexing questions about how to manage chaos on the periphery of the globalized world system.
Once again, noble intentions have gone awry. Rebels have taken 500 mostly African peacekeepers hostage, stolen their weapons and killed others as a peace accord broke down. In Bosnia they were chained to fences. Then there was Somalia. We won’t even bring up Rwanda.
One may charitably say the U.N. is a slow learner. Indeed, it brings to mind Karl Marx’s adage: History repeats itself; the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. By the fifth or sixth time, it should be obvious the U.N. has a bit of a credibility problem. What if it sent peacekeepers but the peace didn’t show up?
This most recent in a growing list of embarrassing debacles should spark real soul-searching about questions of “humanitarian intervention,” and perhaps even the larger philosophy behind assertive peacekeeping: “collective security,” the original goal of the U.N. It is not just a question of the utility or irrelevance of the U.N. part of the problem is that member states tend to dump “too hard” problems on the U.N. Security Council to get them off their own plates.
The larger question is whether that phantom, the “international community” really exists. Or, dare I say it, whether the idea of collective security “a threat to anyone is a threat to everyone” can work in a world of nation-states.
The case of Sierra Leone is a classic example of what the U.N. must either avoid or acquire new capabilities to address lest the March of Folly continue. When the government of Ahmed Kabbah signed a peace accord signed last July with rebels led by the thuggish Foday Sankoh few were convinced that a particularly savage civil war was over. The U.N. mission was to monitor the implementation of the peace accord, protect civilians against the threat of violence, and safeguard government offices and oversee disarmament.
The war has effectively terrorized and maimed millions of civilians, destroyed the country as a society and nation-state. The government controls little outside the capital of Freetown. The rebel Revolutionary United are (RUF) routinely mutilates children and destroyed anything identified with the state government buildings, schools, clinics, etc. Even a power-sharing arrangement including four ministries, immunity from likely war crimes tribunals, and management of resources did not get more than a fraction of the RUF troops to turn in their weapons.
The rebels continued to terrorize civilians, act as warlords controlling diamond mines and harass U.N. peacekeepers, even before escalating to the most recent outrage. This should have been a red flag for the U.N. to either pull out or strengthen its forces substantially when it had the chance. But with its credibility and the fate of some 8,700 troops (most from Nigeria and Kenya) on the line, the U.N. is considering beefing up its forces, with U.S. support, to impose order. This smacks of too little, too late.
Time out. This flies in the face of the U.N. peacekeeping experience. Briefly, the United Nations has tended to succeed when it limits itself to traditional peacekeeping, separating parties who have mutually consented to its role and to implement agreements in a neutral fashion. Examples of this role are in the Sinai and Cyprus, for which the U.N. won the Nobel Peace prize in 1988.
But with the unleashing of pent up local and ethnic hostilities at the end of the Cold War, there was an explosion of U.N. peacekeeping 37 of 50 U.N. peacekeeping operations since 1948 occurred after 1988. (Currently there are 15 peacekeeping operations with a $2 billion budget and 27,000 military and civilian personnel.) Some of these missions grew more complex, changing from peacekeeping to enforcement, with the U.N. then trying to impose peace among warring parties, invariably benefiting one side or the other. Such missions Somalia, Bosnia, Rwanda and now Sierra Leone have tended to be disasters.
This is where the collective security problem comes in. Kofi Annan says the purpose of the U.N is “to prevent conflict where we can, to put as top to it when it has broken out, or when neither of those things is possible at least to contain it.” Strike three and you’re out.
The problem is all nations do not view their security as equally threatened, and thus are unwilling to act. Here the morality gets more complex. What American parent is willing to have his or her son or daughter put at the risk of life to stop African thugs from killing each other when there is no vital U.S. interest? Even Bill Clinton has learned he cannot feel that much pain. Despite Al Gore’s “new security agenda,” we don’t hear calls for sending U.S. ground forces to clean up this mess.
It becomes still more complex when failing states such as Sierra Leone or Somalia are involved, because no amount of peacekeeping can get to the source of the problem. Moreover, the U.N. does not now have the military capability to effectively take on the rebels.
This should caution against the latest U.S.-led U.N. adventure: the idea of sending a few thousand peacekeepers into the Congo, a vast area two-thirds the size of the United States and engulfed in a regionwide war. This is a good moment for lesson learning. First, unless a capable modern military force, with ample intelligence, logistics, command and control, air support and firepower can be assembled, enforcement is likely to fail. Peace enforcement has succeeded militarily in the Balkans because U.S./NATO forces were involved.
Training and equipping regional crisis-response peacekeeping forces is a good idea. An African brigade built around key nations like Nigeria and South Africa and capable of wielding overwhelming force (with U.S. logistical and intelligence support) should be possible, and is a smart investment for the major Western powers: regional powers have a larger stake in the outcome, thus collective security has more of a chance.
How to deal with failing states poses a still larger problem. Messy and imperfect as they are, in the cases of Cambodia, Kosovo and East Timor, there was no pretense of sovereignty: they were administered as wards of the U.N. until ready for self-governance. Unless such drastic steps are taken, it is difficult to see how to justify halfhearted interventions in which the saviour risks becoming the victim.
Africans have a point in arguing that the West only applies its idealism to white people. They are justified in blaming colonialism for some of their difficulties. But Africa’s problems are in large part of their own making If Africans want international help in ending the near incessant violence they are inflicting on each other, they may have to accept a kind of neo-colonialism, becoming temporary protectorates of the U.N. (albeit with efforts led by Africans) if they really want the world community to solve it. In the end, U.N. idealism notwithstanding, life is unfair and not all problems have solutions even if the horrors are on CNN.
Robert A. Manning, a former State Department policy adviser, is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.