It may seem that major current triumphs are hard to find when it comes to the work of United Nations Peacekeeping Department and its blue-helmeted military, police and civilian units, which have hit a record high number of 130,000 personnel worldwide.
Led by Hervé Ladsous, a Frenchman, the department faces daunting challenges as it aims to modernize — working, for example, to keep its own forces secure amid terrorism attacks in Mali and protecting people in South Sudan during intense violence between the country’s two warring powers.
During the recent opening week of the annual UN General Assembly, the United States led a peacekeeping summit on Sept. 26 at which 30 countries spoke and pledges — like a telethon — were made to support the UN peacekeeping agency further, from offers of contributing more troops (Mexico will for the first time in decades provide troops) to enabling surveillance assistance (Sweden and Netherlands in Mali). Vice President Joe Biden ran the meeting, as the US holds the rotating presidency of the UN Security Council in September.
At the forefront of the peacekeeping department’s highly demanding roles are the growing number of missions, primarily in Africa; use of unmanned drone technology; enlistment of combat troops for the first time from China; and setting up rapid deployment forces with regional players.
The department is also struggling with being less “gender blind” in its corps, given the disproportionately high number of male troop contingents. This goal is all the more important since peacekeeping missions often operate in countries where gender inequality is rampant and where participation of women in government and other settings is low.
Indeed, as senior members of the peacekeeping agency emphasize that the UN must remain focused on improving gender parity, efforts are underway to recruit more women into the ranks of the “blue helmets” and to increase the number of gender advisers in commanders’ offices. This involves encouraging troop-contributing countries to recruit more women for their own security services so that they, in turn, can offer additional women to UN peacekeeping.
Of the 30 countries that spoke at the peacekeeping summit in September, only about a third mentioned the importance of increasing women in all levels of peacekeeping missions, with Croatia, Finland, Indonesia, Mongolia and Netherlands among the loudest proponents. The US, by far the biggest monetary donor to peacekeeping operations, missed the opportunity to make such a statement, even though it led the meeting.
But beyond these broad strokes, the UN agency is continually taking steps to improve itself and its missions, which now number 16. Even in the absence of any major current headlines, little-known operational and technical triumphs continue to underpin the agency as a force for good.
Here are but a few of those achievements, initiated by the Department of Peacekeeping Operations and the UN’s Department of Field Support, which is currently led by Ameerah Haq of Bangladesh, and provides peacekeeping and political missions with logistical and other assistance.
Collection Protection: Peacekeepers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the UN’s largest mission, rescheduled their patrols to coincide with the daily wood-gathering sorties of women villagers. This program reduced the risk of sexual attacks and other violence on the women by local and regional militias. The women have been at their most vulnerable over the long course of the civil wars in the eastern region, when they left their villages to collect fuel for the evening cooking. In another gesture, the Peacekeeping Department distributed high-efficiency wood-burning stoves that reduced the amount of time the women had to spend collecting fuel in the forests nearby. In the Darfur region of Sudan, peacekeepers also include wells, firewood collection points, marketplaces and farms in their patrols. But quantifying whether these patrols have reduced the occurrences of sexual violence is hard to measure, said Natalie Ben Zakour Man, a sexual violence expert for the peacekeeping department in New York. She noted, however, that more women now visit the marketplaces and more girls go to school — attesting to the patrols, she added, as a deterrent effect.
Idle Vice: Staff members who drive UN vehicles in Timor-Leste, in Asia, were understandably beating the country’s heat by leaving motors running to operate the air-conditioning system. But the mission’s Environment Committee felt the drivers could cut down on the habit if they worked indoors instead of cooling off as they worked in idling autos. The committee got the mission to put meters in the vehicles to check on the idling times and introduced a penalty system that kicked in if a driver was considered to be cooling down a vehicle unnecessarily. The measure led to a 15 percent cut in fuel use, translating into a $360,000 annual saving in such costs for the mission.
Women Power: The UN’s bid to deploy more women police officers throughout its peacekeeping missions is paying unexpected dividends. Female crime victims are more likely to talk to female officers than male ones — especially in traditional societies. So that was one reason the UN aimed to make its peacekeeping policing arm, UN Police, 20 percent female by the end of 2014, but it is behind schedule. Nevertheless, to achieve the 20 percent mark, the UN began encouraging countries to increase the number of women in their own national police forces so that they could help UN Police reach its goal. By September 2014, a little more than 10 percent of UN Police was female, but many countries have begun to realize the benefits of putting more women in the military. Liberia said it would mirror the UN’s 20 percent goal for its national service, and Rwanda enshrined a 30 percent target in its constitution. After India deployed the first all-female police unit to the UN in 2009 (to Liberia), Bangladesh moved in the same direction, deploying three. Among other countries, Ghana and Sierra Leone have more than 15 percent of women in their national services, and Nigeria has more than 12 percent. Indonesia responded by training 50 women police officers for deployment by the UN.
Plane Sense: Some have unofficially called it Africa’s second airline (after EgyptAir), but the planes of the UN’s fixed-wing fleet coordinated through Entebbe, Uganda, move much more than passengers. They’re an organized hodgepodge of military- and civilian-contracted aircraft that serve multiple UN peacekeeping missions in Central and East Africa. Each mission once had its own fixed-wing planes, but not all were being used at any given time. Consolidating most fleet coordination in Entebbe has enabled deployment on an as-needed basis and led to savings from 2010 to 2013 of $95 million. The Entebbe-coordinated fleet falls under the umbrella of the UN’s first Regional Service Center, overseen by the Department of Field Support. The center joins the Global Service Center — comprising the UN logistics base in Brindisi, Italy, and UN support base in Valencia, Spain — in offering administrative and other services to eliminate mission-to-mission duplication. Savings have been in the hundreds of millions, while deployment times have dropped.
Containment Policy: To speed up deployment times, shipping containers that are used to transport equipment to missions are fitted to double as ready-to-use camps, complete with office space and accommodations. This modularization of mission start-ups and surges is part of the UN’s Global Field Support Strategy, whereby disparate missions can see their needs and equipment recycled for better efficiency. In one example, the UN Department of Field Support had one 1,000-person and two 850-person modularized camps dispatched to Somalia in 2012 for the African Union’s peacekeeping mission there. By dispatching transformable shipping containers to a country on behalf of the peacekeepers, deployment times can be cut from months to weeks. Elsewhere, support teams liquidated UN-owned equipment in missions in Chad and Sudan when they were shut down. They transferred the materials to build start-up missions in South Sudan and the disputed Abyei region in Sudan, bordering South Sudan.
Rotary Rotation: It’s important to allocate enough helicopters to a mission to cover a worst-case scenario. But this effort invariably leads to idle time for these expensive machines when things are quiet. Starting in Africa, the UN began sharing helicopters among adjacent missions. UN-tagged helicopters based in Liberia flew into neighboring Ivory Coast during the political unrest in that country in 2010. Similar “intermission cooperation” has taken place between UN peacekeeping operations in Congo and South Sudan. Resource pooling is not new, but it has gained more appeal and is now viewed as an important tool to fill critical gaps in personnel or equipment. This is especially true in surge periods provoked by elections, natural disasters or security crises. When the earthquake struck Haiti in 2010, for instance, Africa-based UN missions provided medical and engineering teams, among other transferable assets.
Free Phones: Deployed to a country the size of Western Europe, the 22,000 UN peacekeepers in Congo face an uphill battle to be at the right place at the right time to protect civilians from marauding rebel fighters and brigands. As in any developed country, the eyes and the ears of civilians can help. But unlike in the developed world, few people in the eastern forests of Congo can afford a mobile phone. So the UN began giving mobile phones to villagers who have authority, such as local chiefs. They were told they could use them to make free calls to the nearest mission base when help was needed. Communities and churches in areas that are beyond cellphone coverage were given traditional high-frequency radio equipment to make the emergency call. For those who owned phones, the UN established a hot line for callers to alert peacekeepers to an imminent threat of violence or an attack underway.
Power Extension: Expectations of the UN can be limitless, becoming more so as crises unfold daily around the world. Increasingly, the UN is called upon to do more with less. One answer in peacekeeping was to support regional organizations willing to deploy to the front lines. This paid off in Somalia, where the UN’s political support of the African Union mission helped those soldiers as well as Somali and Kenyan military liberate large swaths of the country from the Al Shabab extremists. The UN is also deepening its partnerships with such organizations as NATO and the European Union. Indeed, the new UN peacekeeping force established for the Central African Republic in September 2014 is taking over the reins from the African Union, European troops and French military based there in the last year or so. Many NATO countries that deployed in Afghanistan will have spare capacity as their drawdown targets are met. From 2014 onward, these countries would ostensibly extend the UN’s peacekeeping reach by deploying such assets as drones and other surveillance equipment for reducing violence and identifying need. The partnership with the European Union, meanwhile, makes it far easier for the UN to rapidly reach out to Europe’s 28 member states. There is also an evolving alignment of the two entities’ strategic peacekeeping goals, as operations in Libya showed when Western powers, authorized by a UN Security Council resolution, bombed the country to protect civilians from threats by Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi.
Gangbusters: When UN peacekeepers confronted the widespread gang threat in Haiti a few years ago, media headlines focused on the strong-arm operations that sprang up after the declaration by Haiti’s president at the time, René Préval, that the gangs must “surrender or die.” But a parallel program saw UN civilian officials persuade untold hundreds of gang members to redirect their lives by taking advantage of “social and economic reintegration packages.” The packages were not a “one-size-fits-all” remedy but rather specific services directed at gang members who were not facing arrest warrants, as well as at their families. Some needed psychological help, others had legal problems, and just about all faced economic challenges. Under the program, thousands of youth considered to be at risk of joining gangs were given high-intensity community work that included building dry walls for soil conservation in exposed ravines and rehabilitating drainage canals in the capital, Port-au-Prince.
Deminers as Curators: Clearing an area of land mines calls for a light touch, to say the least. That sensitivity came in extra handy when deminers of the UN Mine Action Service tackled land mines buried in Afghanistan’s Bamiyan region, a Unesco World Heritage Site on the ancient Silk Road linking China, the Middle East and Europe. While clearing almost half a million square miles of explosives from 2008 onwards, the deminers uncovered a wide array of historical artifacts, including ancient coins, pottery and bracelets. They were aided by Unesco archaeologists, one of whom marveled at the deminers’ skill in handling the artifacts, and surmised that it must be because they were used to handling fragile items. In fact, the deminers and the archaeologists had received cross-training in each other’s trades. Some deminers said they felt like goldsmiths because of the value of the artifacts they were digging up. For some, enabling the land to yield these treasures was all the more satisfying because Bamiyan was where the former Buddha statues were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001.
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Steven Edwards is a freelance writer who formerly covered the United Nations for 13 years as New York bureau chief of Canada’s National Post and Postmedia Inc. newspapers. He received award nominations for his reporting on the Haiti earthquake, the presidential assassination that incited the Rwanda genocide and the prosecution of a Canadian “child soldier” at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. He detailed his breaking of the Gennifer Flowers “scandal” in a cover story in Canada’s Saturday Night. Born in Britain, where he grew up in Birmingham, he graduated with a B.A. degree from Laval University in Quebec. He speaks English, French and Spanish.