- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 9, 2004

To many Americans, international peacekeeping operations can be distilled in a single moment: the bodies of U.S. soldiers being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu, Somalia. The U.N. peacekeeping mission in Somalia, which was reinforced by U.S. troops, represents how poor planning can lead to disastrous results. There have also been some notable successes in U.N. peacekeeping. As the performance over the last half-century of the United Nations comes into sharper focus due to the problems with the Iraq oil-for-food-program, this page will have a close look at the role of the institution’s different functions. This editorial takes the reader through a guided historical tour of the ups and downs of U.N. peacekeeping.

U.N. officials have been slow to learn some important lessons from peacekeeping missions gone awry and have yet to learn others, apparently. The United Nations should keep some basic lessons in mind: When possible, keep former colonizers out of the whole business and involve countries that have a geopolitical interest in seeing peace prevail. The old adages are also true. The U.N. mission can only be as good as the political will of the U.N. Security Council and member countries, and peacekeeping is appropriate only when there’s a peace to keep. Also, only forces that represent a credible deterrent to violence in terms of size and firepower have a decent chance of keeping the peace. In some cases, the United Nations as an institution should be held accountable for failing to expend moral authority at critical moments and appropriately defining missions.

First, some facts. The United Nations has no standing army and depends on the voluntary troop contributions of member nations to carry out peacekeeping missions. U.N. peacekeepers remain under the command authority of their sovereign governments and the United Nations itself cannot punish abusive peacekeepers, but a member nation’s government can. The top 10 contributors to the missions are developing countries. The proposed budget for 2004-05 is $2.65 billion. A U.N. force can work side-by-side with regional forces, such as NATO and West Africa’s military force, known as ECOWAS, and the Security Council can authorize the missions of those regional organizations. More than 1,580 U.N. military and civilian peacekeepers have died in the performance of their duties since 1948.

France’s involvement in Ivory Coast represents one of the many examples of peacekeeping debacles. The French force is independent, but in theory complimentary to that of U.N. peacekeepers in the country. Given France’s past as colonizer, its actions were likely to cause tensions — and they have. After nine French peacekeeping troops were killed in a government airstrike, French forces on Nov. 6 annihilated the country’s small airforce. French forces handled anti-French rioters by firing into crowds, killing at least 20 people.

In contrast, missions in Liberia and East Timor, which involved the countries’ neighbors, have been much more successful. In October 2003, in Liberia and more recently in Ivory Coast, ECOWAS forces eased the deployment of U.N. troops. About 15,000 U.N. peacekeepers paved the way for the provision of humanitarian assistance and demobilization, disarmament and reintegration of ex-combatants in Liberia, but the relative stability remains tenuous.

In East Timor, today called Timor-Leste, an Australian-led U.N. peacekeeping force deployed in 1999 successfully oversaw the withdrawal of Indonesian troops, after pro-Jakarta militias had already managed to wreak close to total destruction of the country’s infrastructure. The force had a strong mandate from the Security Council to use “all necessary means” to carry out its mission.

Then there are cases where peacekeepers were deployed in so small a number that they were powerless in averting either troop casualties or the slaughter of civilians. Much of the blame for those disasters lies with the Security Council, which failed to authorize more robust forces, but the U.N. secretary-general can be faulted for failing to leverage moral authority.

There was a small U.N. peacekeeping force in Rwanda when the Hutu militants’ genocide against Tutsis began in 1994. Most countries then immediately withdrew their contingents. The Security Council then approved a force of 5,500, but the troops were not forthcoming. In the 100 days beginning April 6, 1994, Hutu gangs, aided by the Hutu army, killed almost 1 million Tutsis and Hutus — the fastest genocide in human history. The U.N. has admitted it failed to prevent genocide.

Bosnia first asked for U.N. monitors on its borders with Serbia in 1992. No monitors were provided, though. Serbian troops later crossed the border, shelling civilians and besieging towns like Sarajevo. U.N. troops were deployed after the International Court of Justice ruled that genocide was taking place. Still, the Security Council gave the peacekeepers limited firepower and a weak mandate. In the summer of 1995, lightly armed peacekeepers stood by powerless as thousands of men in Srebrenica were murdered in what they had been told was a “safe haven.”

In Somalia, U.N. peacekeepers arrived in 1992 before all parties had signed onto a cease fire or consented to the U.N. force. U.N. and U.S. forces were too small and weak to deal with the Somali resistance. U.S. and U.N. troops were killed, and the horrific images of the disaster soured appetites for peacekeeping. In 1995, the United Nations withdrew its own troops and acknowledged failure.

There have been other success stories, such as in Cyprus and El Salvador, and debacles, such as the abuses in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which are still under investigation. It is surprising all the same that the failures in Bosnia and Rwanda occurred after the Somalia disaster. While the United Nations has assimilated some lessons over time, the process is still surprisingly incomplete. Preferred doctrines and steady leadership in U.N. peacekeeping, even after half a century, are in need of substantial improvement.

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