NEW YORK — When the head of U.N. peacekeeping addressed a General Assembly body last month, he delivered an unusual message: Instead of pleading for money or troops, he requested time.
With 16 peacekeeping missions operating across the globe — and a big mission in Sudan on the horizon — the department is spread too thin, said Undersecretary-General Jean-Marie Guehenno.
“It is difficult to run and tie your shoelaces properly,” he said.
“I sincerely hope that the organization will not be required to deploy any new complex peacekeeping operations in 2005, beyond what is already on our plate or in the pipeline.”
In the past year alone, the United Nations has undertaken three difficult assignments — in Ivory Coast, Haiti and Burundi.
Charges of sexual exploitation by peacekeepers have emerged in all three missions as the U.N. peacekeeping department scrambles to craft and impose strict nonfraternization rules.
Concerns over widespread sexual abuse in U.N. peacekeeping operations erupted late last year with reports that peacekeepers in Congo were raping children and trading a few eggs or biscuits for sex.
The scandal prompted Mr. Guehenno to undertake an investigation of 15 other peacekeeping operations and to warn that more charges of sexual abuse were likely to emerge as a result.
The push for transparency in peacekeeping operations comes amid broader efforts by the world body to respond to an embarrassing scandal over bribes and kickbacks paid to dictator Saddam Hussein during the 1996-2003 U.N.-run oil-for-food program in Iraq.
Apart from efforts to police itself, the U.N. peacekeeping department faces many challenges.
The mission in Congo has proven to be one of the most dangerous in U.N. history, with 45 fatalities in four years.
Last week, U.N. peacekeepers killed 60 Congolese guerrillas in a firefight that began with an ambush that a few days earlier killed nine Bangladeshi peacekeepers.
The Congo mission, with nearly 17,000 peacekeepers, began in 1999 in an attempt to stop a war involving six nations, in which an estimated 2 million people have died.
U.N. officials are acutely aware of the perils of peacekeeping as they plan a new mission to enforce a peace agreement in southern Sudan, which is expected to be nearly as big as the one in Congo and just as dangerous.
A separate conflict in the Darfur region of western Sudan is to be handled by an African-led force separate from U.N. peacekeeping.
When approved later this month by the U.N. Security Council, it will bring to 17 the number of peacekeeping missions, and swell the global deployment to some 85,700 uniformed soldiers and police.
The Sudan mission will require 10,000 soldiers and 700 police officers in a broken and virtually roadless country the size of Western Europe.
Total peacekeeping costs — 26 percent paid by the United States — are expected to total $4.3 billion this year when the Sudan mission is approved.
This is as large and expensive as U.N. peacekeeping has ever been, more than the 1994-95 period, when the department, then headed by now Secretary-General Kofi Annan, was unable to prevent genocide in Rwanda and a massacre in the Bosnian town of Srebrenica, in which together hundreds of thousands of civilians were slaughtered by rival ethnic groups.
The idea of using soldiers as peacekeepers, rather than combatants, began with the creation of the state of Israel in 1948.
In an effort to calm Arab hostilities, the United Nations initiated a “truce supervision” effort that still has peacekeepers in Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.
Since then, the U.N. Department of Peacekeeping Operations, known for the baby-blue headgear worn by soldiers and police, has undertaken 59 missions around the world.
U.N. “blue helmets” are now monitoring cease-fires in Cyprus and Georgia, providing security while East Timor transitions to independence and patrolling disputed boundaries between India and Pakistan in Kashmir and between Ethiopia and Eritrea.
It is an increasingly perilous job. Thirteen peacekeepers have died while trying to develop law enforcement and provide security in East Timor since 2002.
Another 250 personnel have died in southern Lebanon since 1978, caught in the crossfire of Israeli troops and Arab militias.
Thirty troops have been killed in Liberia since the U.N. deployment in 2003 to disarm and demobilize militias and rebuild a shattered nation.
In Congo, Liberia, Haiti and Sudan, the challenge is to protect a fragile peace agreement under constant duress by militias, resentful political parties and uprooted civilians.
Each mission is unique, say officials, but lessons learned in Kosovo about procurement and hiring, or in Liberia about deploying civilian police units, could work in other missions as well.
“We need 12 months to really get systematic” on issues ranging from overall philosophy to standard operating procedures in the field, said Mr. Guehenno, 59, a French national who has served as the undersecretary-general for peacekeeping since 2000.
One priority is the creation of a “strategic reserve” of civilian police, military battalions and support staff prepared to deploy immediately and lay the groundwork for a full U.N. force, he said in a recent interview.
Peacekeeping officials would like to see a small core of nations commit at least 1,000 soldiers each.
The idea has been around for years, but has generally foundered over lack of support from member states or a misunderstanding of what a rapid-deployment unit would do.
Fears of a “U.N. standing army” and always-present budget pressures have compromised enthusiasm for the effort, particularly among well-equipped U.S. and European forces.
As envisioned, the strategic reserve soldiers would remain in their own countries, and the United Nations would pay a monthly retainer.
The units would be deployed as soon as the Security Council approves a mission and hold the ground until the full contingent shows up.
Diplomats say it’s far too soon to know which nations could contribute the 3,000 to 6,000 troops necessary for a credible reserve.
Some bedrock contributors of money, forces or both say that the proposal would require too large a commitment of ready troops and support units, such as medical, logistical and communications experts that are often in short supply.
Others say they would be happy to participate, especially if the monthly retainer is high enough.
An expensive proposal
The United States, which will pay more than $1.2 billion toward peacekeeping this year, says there is a need for a rapid-reaction force, but questions whether it can be economically created on a large-enough scale.
“That high level of readiness is costly to maintain,” said one U.S. State Department official, who also noted the difficulty in flying a thousand or more soldiers, their gear and supplies into a conflict zone.
And that, Mr. Guehenno said, is one of his department’s problems in maintaining and taking on new missions — finding the specialized and best equipped soldiers, along with lift capacity, to be “force multipliers” for the troops that are available.
One problem is that the most advanced nations are taking a smaller manpower role in U.N. missions, leaving the heavy patrolling and peace-enforcement to soldiers from developing nations.
Together, the top five troop- and police-contributing nations — Pakistan, Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Ethiopia — provide more than 28,000 peacekeeping personnel to the 16 existing missions.
China, a newcomer to peacekeeping, has more than 1,000 blue helmets in uniform.
By contrast, the United States comes in No. 28 with a deployment of 428 persons.
The United Nations has plenty of infantry at its disposal, but needs the specialized support units that give a modern army its edge: intelligence, communications, logistics, and cohesive units of civilian police capable of defusing tension before it erupts.
Of the top force contributors, India is one of the few nations able to supply both manpower and lift capacity to move troops to troubled spots.
But training is just as pressing a question, especially with younger soldiers from poorer nations who do not have years of experience.
“They’re getting enough troops, but a lot of them are pretty low-quality,” one diplomat said, noting that troops from many of the 103 contributing nations lack experience, training and even proper uniforms and weapons.
Contributions range from a handful of individual infantrymen from Zimbabwe to fully formed Pakistani companies with their own communications, medical and logistical support units.
Because the United Nations pays a flat rate of $1,028 per person per month, there is a built-in disincentive for the better trained and equipped nations to contribute people.
Every American, European, Australian and Canadian peacekeeper is subsidized by their respective governments, while lesser-paid African and South Asian soldiers actually generate income for their nations.
For some of the poorer nations — Senegal, Niger and Ghana, for example — sending soldiers on a U.N. mission is a win-win situation, a way to keep peacetime troops combat-ready while providing hard currency.
Bangladesh, for one, nets about $150 million a year from its peacekeeping participation.
“To some, our involvement in other countries may be controversial,” Bangladesh’s U.N. ambassador, Iftekher Chowdhury, said recently.
But Dhaka long ago figured out that it’s possible to do well by doing good. A sustained commitment to peacekeeping has allowed the government to forge strong ties with far more powerful nations, establish future trade relationships in Africa and leverage its international involvement into global prestige, he said.
“You know, we have never lost an election” in the United Nations, Mr. Chowdhury said, ticking off a list of U.N. bodies and subsidiaries where Bangladesh has a seat.
“Of course, we’ll see what happens in two years,” a reference to the looming race to succeed Kofi Annan as secretary-general.
Participation in peacekeeping missions is an honor in many countries.
India an anchor
India takes its peacekeeping so seriously that it has created a training center for officers, and recommends that other contributing nations follow its example of keeping its peacekeepers busy with noncombat tasks, such as running clinics and digging wells for local people.
Indian troops have not been accused of wrongdoing in recent years, a fact that Indian Ambassador Nirupam Sen and U.N. officials quickly volunteer.
“We are the backbone of the [upcoming] Sudan mission,” Mr. Sen said.
But for every India, there are countries that send soldiers that are untrained, underequipped and unprepared for a peacekeeping mission.
These are the troops that U.N. officials worry about. Zambian troops taken hostage in Sierra Leone in 2000 needed to be rescued.
Nepalese and Moroccan troops were among those charged with rape in Congo, although a French civilian also faces charges.
“You’ve got a lot of heavily armed men, bored, outside their own country,” said Simon Chesterman, director of New York University’s Institute for International Law and Justice, who has written extensively about peacekeeping.
“They’re trained to be these macho fighting machines, but then told not to shoot anyone. That is why they rape or find other ways to let out the frustration.”
Mr. Guehenno said his department is scrambling to impose minimum standards on troop-contributing nations, write rules that outlaw sexual contact with minors and locals and bolster contingents of military police responsible for enforcing codes of conduct.
He said that commanders must learn that they are directly responsible for the conduct of their troops.
One reason the organization must stress prevention is that there is little it can do to punish wrongdoers.
Bad blue helmets are sent home, to face whatever disciplinary action their own government chooses to impose.
No one keeps statistics on prosecution or punishment.
One circulating proposal recommends that the organization try to court-martial errant peacekeepers while they’re still in-country, a measure that some troop-contributing nations might not welcome.
As Mr. Guehenno explains, the department must continue to work with nations and must take care not to embarrass or anger them, for fear they will reduce their participation.
The United States is pressing for the creation of a Personal Conduct Unit in each peacekeeping mission, and has called on all troop contributors to investigate and punish abusers.
This could be important if Congress acts on pending legislation to withhold peacekeeping contributions to missions not certified as free of sexual exploitation.
“The U.N. needs to understand that if they’re going to ask countries to pay the bills, they need to meet standards,” a State Department official said.
“By definition they’re going to places where the local inhabitants are desperately poor, and the temptation will be there for peacekeepers to take advantage of them.”
With the peacekeeping budget soaring to keep pace with the scale of its missions, the disparity between troop “contributors” and financial “donors” becomes even more pronounced.
In short, the richer states tend to pay their assessments, but leave the soldiering for the poorer nations.
The United States, for one, has scarcely enough U.S. troops to cover its commitments in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere.
The United Nations is forging closer relations with regional forces, such as a group of West African nations led by Nigeria and referred to as Ecomog, and with NATO in Afghanistan and the Balkans.
“It’s great that there are coalitions of the willing,” Mr. Guehenno said during a recent visit to The Washington Times.
“The problem is not a lack of challenges, but too many.”
He warned against a “two-tier system” in which NATO handles the more strategic conflicts and “the U.N. would have to deal with Africa, where there is less interest by the rest of the world.”
Peacekeeping missions, he said, are a blend of the military, the political and the possible.
When the need for U.N. peacekeepers arises, the Security Council drafts a mandate that spells out the size, responsibilities and budget of a mission.
The peacekeeping department plans and administers the effort. It is up to the member states to staff, equip and pay for it.
“If those three pillars see things eye-to-eye, then we are in good shape,” said Mr. Guehenno, pointing to East Timor and, after a couple of false starts, Sierra Leone.
Both missions are to be phased out this year.