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UN Peacekeeping stretched to its limits

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The year ahead is sure to be full of tough decisions for United Nations (UN) peacekeeping operations. According to the annual peace operations review by the New York-based Center on International Cooperation (CIC), peacekeeping has become the “victim of its own success”, overstretched in terms of troop levels, costs, and the inability to manage especially dangerous missions. Combined with the uncertainty of the financial system and money-conscious donors, peacekeeping operations face either cutbacks or serious reassessment of strategies, including mandates, deployment and renewal of forces. The UN is well aware of the dangers of this strain and intends to come up with useful solutions by summer 2009, taking into account the relevant voices in this matter, including the Security Council, the UN Peacekeeping Department, heads of missions, troop-contributing countries and regional bodies.

Peacekeeping seems to be trapped in missions that have become, to a certain extent, a replacement for an effective political process. In 2008, as political situations mainly worsened in countries such as Central African Republic, Sudan, Chad, and Haiti, and severe violence broke out in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the demands placed on the troops have gone beyond their capacities. Undermanned, ill-equipped, poorly funded and inadequately planned are just a few of the characteristics that describe current peace missions. On top of that, UN peacekeeping operations are spread too thinly in order to be effective, which poses a threat both to the security of the populations the missions are meant to protect and to the troops themselves.

Currently, the UN is responsible for 18 peacekeeping operations on five different continents, manned by about 112,000 uniformed personnel. The number of peacekeepers has been rising steadily over the past decade and this is the highest figure yet in the 60 years of peacekeeping operations. In terms of expenses, costs reached approximately $8 billion in 2008, and were typically covered by rich, developed countries while the missions were carried out mainly by troops from developing nations. This is nothing new as the tendency over the years has been for developed nations to supply the funding, as long as developing states would be willing to commit their soldiers to the operations. Of the top ten troop contributors, Pakistan, Bangladesh and India have supplied the highest number of soldiers.

Many of the current missions are taking place under complex political, economic and social circumstances, often far from anything resembling a peaceful transition to peace. Their mandates are expected to function among deeply divided people and in places where violence is prevalent; as a result, the mandates clearly fail to be very effective. Additionally, the inadequate number of troops designated to vast countries such as the DRC or Sudan (where Darfur alone is the size of France) renders the missions dangerous at best and counterproductive at worst.

The most telling example of the strain on troops and inadequate preparation was witnessed in the DRC last October when a UN compound was stoned by protesters who blamed the peacekeeping troops for failing to stop the rebel advance, led by Laurent Nkunda. The fact that the UN mission (MONUC), active in the nation of 66 million since 1999, found itself in this precarious situation demonstrates that although it is the largest of all UN missions – with approximately 20,000 troops – it is clearly not big nor resilient enough to deter the outbreak of violence. It fails to protect civilians and the mission’s own interests. Moreover, the incident illustrated a clear lack of capabilities and proper strategies necessary for handling a crisis when one arises. The head of the mission, Lieutenant-General Vicente Díaz de Villegas, quit just 3 weeks after taking command of the force, apparently due to the absence of information about the risks that awaited the troops, lack of intelligence gathering and no reserves to count on. This poor grounding made the lieutenant-general unwilling to lead his troops into the unknown.

Faced with similar dilemmas is the hybrid UN-African Union (AU) mission (UNAMID) in Darfur, active since 2007. There are currently 15,000 troops involved in the operation but the number is expected to increase, bringing the total to 26,000, thus making it the largest of all UN-led missions. However, the troops regularly find themselves in harm’s way given the lack of proper resources, mainly due to underfunding. The recent indictment of President Omar Al-Bashir by the International Criminal Court is likely to trigger more violence against the troops. Since March 4th there have already been two seemingly deliberate attacks on UN-AU troops in the region.

Having said that, it seems rather obvious that sending peacekeepers to areas where there is clearly no peace to keep simply incites more hostility. If a mission is deployed where violence is rampant and no peace agreement in sight, peacekeeping starts to resemble war-fighting. As CIC’s report points out, the use of force is considered part of most peace operations in order to protect civilians or in defence of a mandate; however, it cannot be a “baseline stance”. When force becomes the norm, a mission is no longer a peace operation. This brings into question plans for the proposed deployment of a UN mission in Somalia, following the Security Council’s adoption of Resolution 1863, which would replace the current African Union force in the war-torn state. AU Peacekeepers in Somalia have fallen victim to continuous attacks by insurgents and calls for further violence against the troops have often been reiterated. Therefore, bringing in new peacekeepers will just provide further targets and, before any more troops are committed to that region, serious analysis of the strategy and the conflict itself needs to be worked out in order to truly make a difference.

Major troop-contributing countries have called for more inclusion in decisions over the devising of deployment plans and in determining and reviewing of mandates. Nigeria – the fourth largest provider of troops – has criticized the current state of operations by claiming that the welfare of peacekeepers has been pushed to the sidelines by those who provide material and logistical support, the same actors who have managed to gain a certain monopoly over the peacekeeping process. The safety of peacekeepers, complimented by adequate resources and well thought-out and flexible strategies, must become the priority in current and future missions; otherwise, troop-contributors are likely not to meet the rising levels of demand. Since demand is increasing but supplies are limited and funding might feel the pinch of the economic crisis, the year ahead will need plenty of creative new ideas to make sure peacekeeping remains a positive force in conflict management.

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