It’s a bloody new world out there
by PETER DÖRRIE
Everybody should be familiar with pictures of United Nations peacekeepers dressed in blue and riding in white vehicles. The symbolism represents, well, peace.
But critics have said these peacekeepers are ineffective and aloof, little more than armed observers who could not — or would not — prevent some of the worst atrocities of the last decades, despite death and destruction unfolding before their eyes.
In recent years, peacekeepers have grown teeth. That’s particularly the case in Africa where a new and more combative model of peacekeeping has taken root. Today, peacekeepers are more heavily armed and more willing to use their weapons.
Traditionally, the U.N. conducted peacekeeping after warring parties had established or enforced a ceasefire — such as during the Kosovo war.
Peacekeepers would come in to monitor and guard the ceasefire, always trying to adhere to the U.N.’s three principles of peacekeeping based on consent, impartiality and “non-use of force except in self-defense and defense of the mandate.”
This approach favored the political over the military part of the mission.
The U.N. would usually draw troops from countries beyond the region to guarantee their impartiality. But this severely limited the usefulness of peacekeepers in certain situations, such as during the 1994 Rwandan Genocide, when up to one million civilians died despite an active U.N. peacekeeping mission deployed in the country.
This didn’t seem to matter, though, because the demand for peacekeepers seemed to plummet towards the end of the last century. In January 1998, the U.N. had only 13,329 soldiers and police officers deployed around the globe in 15 missions.
But during the turn of the century, the demand for peacekeepers surged.
While the number of missions has not increased by much — today, the U.N. has 16 active missions — the changing nature of the missions required more and more personnel. Troop deployments increased by an order of magnitude and have reached 104,668 as of February 2015.
With the exception of Haiti, all of the larger active U.N. peacekeeping missions are in African countries. The largest non-U.N. peacekeeping mission — and the largest peacekeeping mission in the world — is also in Africa, the African Union Mission to Somalia with 20,000 soldiers currently deployed.
This focus on Africa has contributed heavily to the change to more-heavily armed peacekeeping.
For a variety of reasons, all three of the U.N.’s “peacekeeping principles” are not practical here.
Because most conflicts in Africa are civil wars and include insurgencies which may splinter and fragment at any time, it’s impractical to wait for the consent of all parties before deploying peacekeepers.
For the same reason, peacekeepers can rarely be completely impartial. After all, one of the conflict parties is usually an internationally recognized government with a seat and voice at the U.N., while the other is not.
But the biggest problem is the use of force. African states don’t have — neither individually nor collectively — the political will or military capacity to force warring sides to the negotiating table.
Two prominent examples from recent years are the U.N. interventions in Mali and the Central African Republic. In both cases, the African Union had to call in the U.N. after regional interventions proved to be unsustainable and long before the conflicts were even remotely under control.
The result is that peacekeepers go on missions without any peace for them to keep. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the U.N. is in a similar situation, as is the A.U. mission in Somalia and the regional coalition that is battling Boko Haram in Nigeria.
It was the A.U. that reacted early and decisively to this challenge. The A.U. force in Somalia has a mandate that doesn’t even pretend to adhere to the U.N.’s three principles.
Instead, it defines the force as the tip of the spear in the fight against Al Shabab, an Islamist militia that once controlled much of the country. To be sure, the A.U. has pushed the terror group with repeated military offensives. Chad, Niger and Cameroon have followed this blueprint in their intervention against Boko Haram.
For the U.N., the first step was the establishment of the Force Intervention Brigade of the peacekeeping mission in the DR Congo.
The FIB, staffed exclusively with African soldiers, aggressively engaged rebel groups in cooperation with the Congolese army — something that would have been unthinkable for the “blue helmets” only 10 years ago.
U.N. missions in Mali and the Central African Republic, which took over from earlier African missions, are more robust. Mandates now either explicitly encompass the use of offensive force against potential spoilers of peace processes, or the U.N. loosely interprets provisions to protect civilians.
In many ways this is a positive development. Less passive and more engaged peace operations can better protect civilian lives.
But they make missions inherently more dangerous. Rebel groups can perceive U.N. and A.U. troops as legitimate targets — and attack or kidnap humanitarian aid workers associated with the peacekeepers.
Higher casualties among troops also means that only countries with a vital interest in the outcome of the conflict are willing to contribute forces to peace operations. These countries usually come from the neighborhood and might have their own agendas … that may or may not align with a rapid resolution of the conflict.
In Somalia, this tension is evident in Kenyan and Ethiopian involvement with the A.U. force, which has bred resentment among many Somalis.
Neither the U.N. nor the A.U. have so far developed a working doctrine for these types of operations. They largely improvise and experiment — and missions routinely leave charted territory. In the DRC, the U.N. has more or less withdrawn from the political process to concentrate on military matters.
In October 2014, the U.N. installed a high-level panel to discuss the future of peacekeeping, but the group has still to produce concrete results.
“The biggest issue for them is the use of force and how much force U.N. peace operations can and should use in their work,” Cedric de Coning, a South African researcher who advises the U.N. and A.U. on peacekeeping matters, told War is Boring.
In short, the U.N. needs a new military doctrine, de Coning argues. Instead of the familiar “blue helmets” going out on offensive military missions, the U.N. should create a different kind of intervention force.
The peacekeepers will still be available. But the new force could have a different identity and doctrine built around the use of force … all to reflect the brave new world the U.N. is fighting to get under control.