The United Nations Department of Peacekeeping Operations tried to maintain calm in many regions in 2013, but none more so than in Africa. In December alone, it lost numerous peacekeepers in three missions on the continent.
By year’s end, the department lost 102 peacekeepers, including those who died from accidents and illnesses, and 36 people from direct attacks. Most of the peacekeepers killed in 2013 were military personnel, and 44 peacekeepers died in the Darfur mission. Some soldiers were also kidnapped briefly in the Golan Heights. In 2012, the department lost 112 personnel.
Two of the highest fatalities by country in 2013 were Tanzania, 10, and Senegal, 8.
December was a busy month for preventing bloodshed in Africa. Fighting sprang up in Central African Republic and in South Sudan, while flare-ups continued in northern Mali and in Darfur, Sudan, as the UN scrambled to control fatal tensions. The deeply volatile nature of certain parts of Africa reveals the world body’s limited ability to instill peace, despite increases in peacekeepers deployed, peace pacts signed and regional cooperation provided.
As Hervé Ladsous, the UN peacekeeping chief, who is French, said in a recently produced video, “Sometimes unexpected things happen and we have, of course, as always, to be nimble and to adjust to new realities.”
If there is one success the UN likes to point to right now, it is the end in violence it helped to foster in the eastern half of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, with the Congolese army. Monusco, which is the French acronym for the UN Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, rendered one notorious militia, the M23, inert by the fall, taking an unusually aggressive stance against the rebels. Monusco is the first UN entity to use surveillance drones, and it plans to raise that number to five in 2014.
Since mid-December, fighting in South Sudan between political and ethnic factions has forced up to 75,000 people to take refuge among the UN’s bases there, propelling the total amount of homeless people in the country, which is only two years old, to 180,000. The eruption, which the UN says has left at least 1,000 dead, was not foreseen by the UN’s special envoy, Hilde Johnson, she told the press on Dec. 26. Johnson, a Norwegian, is based in the capital, Juba.
On Christmas Eve, the Security Council authorized almost doubling the peacekeeping force, by 5,500 troops, in South Sudan, although how fast they will arrive is unknown. Ladsous suggested that “downsizing” peacekeeping units in Haiti, Ivory Coast, Liberia and even Darfur could make transference of troops to South Sudan more tenable. Members of Monusco have already arrived, but helicopters are desperately needed.
Tensions in South Sudan have been roiling ever since the country became independent from Sudan in 2011. In April, UN peacekeepers were ambushed while escorting a civilian convoy in Jonglei, a much-contested state, leaving 12 dead: five Indian peacekeepers, two national staff members and five civilian contractors, all working for the mission (called Unmiss, for UN Mission in the Republic of South Sudan).
Richard Gowan, a UN expert, wrote in the World Politics Review on Dec. 30 that Unmiss faces three possibilities: “fragile success, prolonged agony and decisive failure.” Yet he said that the mission, hobbled with insufficient resources and a contentious relationship with South Sudan’s president, Salva Kiir, “has actually proved surprisingly resilient under extreme pressure.”
In the first days of the crisis, Gowan noted, armed youths forced their way into a UN compound and killed two UN peacekeepers and at least 20 civilians, as it sheltered tens of thousands of people at the same time.
Darfur, a region still shedding its genocide status from 2003, is monitored by a UN-African Union mission of about 19,000 personnel called Unamid. Two peacekeepers, a Senegalese and a Jordanian, were killed on Dec. 29 in South Darfur as part of a convoy.
In July, more peacekeepers were ambushed in Darfur, leaving seven killed and 17 wounded, including two women advisers. The UN said it was one of the most severe attacks on the mission since its deployment in 2007, and the chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Court said that the killings could constitute war crimes, but no indictments have been handed down.
Mali has been another source of deadly fire for peacekeepers. In April, the UN approved a peacekeeping mission there, the first time a mission would encounter Islamic extremists as part of their work, as jihadists threaten cities in the north — Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal. The new mission is also meant to help the government restore democracy after a chaotic year and a half involving a coup, extremists’ attacks and a military offensive by the French.
UN peacekeepers began operating in July under the name of Minusma (UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali), with about 6,000 troops, mostly West Africans, and the potential to reach 12,600. Some Chinese officers tasked with logistics recently arrived in Gao, which is the main hub in the north for the Mali Army, the French military and Minusma.
In mid-December, two Senegalese peacekeepers were killed and several others from Minusma and the Mali Army were wounded from an explosion in Kidal, a northern desert outpost of 6,000 people not far from the Algerian border and where rebels regularly clash with the Malian military.
The UN approved an African Union-led peacekeeping force of about 4,000 for the Central African Republic in December, enhanced by 1,600 French troops, to subdue retaliatory clashes between the Seleka, who are mostly Muslim, and the antibalaka, who are dominated by Christians. An attack that occurred early in the month in the streets of the capital, Bangui, leaving hundreds dead, not only stunned officials inside the country but also at UN headquarters and in France.
Weeks later in Bangui, six Chadian and two Congolese peacekeepers were killed, and two French soldiers were shot dead near the airport. A UN-led peacekeeping force may be readied in a few months to be sent to the country, but finances for such a mission are not easily available.
A mission in the Golan Heights has been in place since a 1974 cease-fire between Syria and Israel, monitored by Undof (UN Disengagement Observer Force). It has been subjected to spillover effects from the civil war in Syria. Two peacekeepers were injured during fighting in the area in 2013, and peacekeepers were captured twice and held for brief periods by armed groups. Each incident ended with the peacekeepers released unhurt.
Since the first UN peacekeeping mission was established in 1948, more than 3,100 military, police and civilian personnel have died in their work from violence, accidents and disease. The department has ballooned over the decades, and now functions with a budget of about $7.5 billion, which pays for 98,270 military experts, police and troops from 120 countries as of November 2013. (The UN has 193 member nations.)
The United States is by far the largest donor monetarily, providing 28 percent of the budget, followed by Japan at nearly 11 percent; then France, Germany, Britain and China, ranging from 6 to 7 percent each.
Bangladesh contributed the most police as of November 2013; Ethiopia provided 99 “military experts,” topping the list; and 7, 592 troops came from Pakistan, which leads in overall contributions of personnel. Several countries donated only one peacekeeping personnel each: Armenia, Macedonia, Mozambique and Portugal. The US contributed up to 104.
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Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder, with Barbara Crossette, of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, Leimbach has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.
Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.