Why Don’t We Just Send Peacekeepers?

by olgasoutstanding

On June 13, seven peacekeepers were killed and 17 were injured in Darfur.  Yesterday (August 27), four more peacekeepers were reported missing while delivering food, swept away in a flood.  So is UNAMID (with about 16,000 peacekeepers in Darfur) just having a run of bad luck?

In the developed world, we put a lot of faith and almost no resources in peacekeeping missions.  We push for peacekeepers because we do not know what else to do in the midst of crises.  It sounds like a good idea to have a wall of armed soldiers between civilians and danger, a purely defensive force dedicated to the protection of lives.  It sounds like police, only nicer and less corrupt.

And sometimes it is.  There is a way to do peacekeeping right.  You need highly trained soldiers, a clear mandate, and a modicum of flexibility for the officers on the ground.  The United Nations can’t bring this level of competence consistently, and it’s not because the U.S. or France or the U.K. or Canada or Belgium lacks good will (though France and Belgium were not blameless in the Rwanda genocide).  The African Union can’t bring it, either, nor can ECOWAS (The Economic Community of West African States).  In fact, the only intergovernmental organization that has been successful in the majority of its interventions is NATO.  Why can’t the UN be more like NATO?

Because it can’t.  NATO is made up of a relatively small number of states.  It is first and foremost a military alliance, so NATO soldiers are trained, have a clear chain of command, and are directed by people who “speak military” because they are military.  The United Nations is focused on international cooperation.  It does not have military resources or structure of its own.  UN peacekeeper mandates have to be agreed to at a bare minimum by the Security Council – and trying to get Russia, the U.S., and China to agree at any given moment is quite a task.  This robs peacekeepers of the agility they need to respond to developing and complex situations.  It makes it difficult to say who is in charge.

Interoperability is another challenge to UN peacekeeping missions.  Different countries have different levels of training, chains of command, and set responses to situations.  When two, three, or four countries’ forces are put together, they often have to take some time to learn to work together.  This slows them down considerably.  The quality of the soldiers is also uneven; some come from more corrupt systems, in which promotions might be based on family relationships, ethnicity, or bribes.  They bring these attitudes with them wherever they go.  UN peacekeepers have themselves been implicated in atrocities from time to time, from Srebrenica to Congo.  ECOMOG, the ECOWAS peacekeeping force, was nicknamed “Every Car or Moving Object Gone” for their kleptocratic approach to their job.  At the same time, peacekeepers are a big target wherever they go.  The UNAMID troops are in a particularly tricky position, with Khartoum periodically throwing all foreign observers out of Darfur and supporting groups that target civilians.

There is an answer to our problems, but “throw peacekeepers at it” isn’t the right one – even appropriately trained peacekeepers can’t solve the problems.  The best peacekeepers are a placeholder, protecting civilians while other means are used to resolve the situation.  Peacekeeping missions need to be pared down, well-trained, and responsive.  It is in the nature of the United Nations, and for that matter any primarily economic or political alliance, that it will never be able to do these things well.  Individual nations and military alliances will always be better at it.

Each situation requires its own mix of solutions.  Peacekeepers need to be part of the mix, not a one-size-fits-all solution.  They need to be used strategically, given specific goals, and empowered to achieve those goals.