By the time United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon named a panel in October to review peacekeeping comprehensively for the first time in more than 14 years, innovations in technology and intelligence-gathering to make UN missions more effective had already been introduced by the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations. The strategic and tactical changes, some still in experimental stages, are significantly changing how missions work — or will work — in the field.
Hervé Ladsous, who as a UN under secretary-general took over the peacekeeping department in October 2011, has made overdue updates in peacekeeping doctrine and methods his goal, he said in an interview in his office at UN headquarters in November.
“Peacekeeping, the protection of civilians — initially you thought, O.K., by your sheer presence you deter attacks, but that is not the expectation anymore,” he said. There is a need now for proactive protection, he added — more patrolling off bases and the use of armed intervention brigades, the first of which is operating in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, charged with pursuing and engaging rebel armies.
Ladsous has begun to deploy drones (unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs) and is pressing regional nations to gather human intelligence better and more consistently. He seeks to expand signal intelligence, using high-tech surveillance of communications such as telephone eavesdropping, and greater dispersal of simple cellphones to connect vulnerable people to UN forces on the ground in time of danger. (An early experiment with this technique went notoriously wrong when one group of UN peacekeepers in Congo ignored calls for help from villagers.)
Ladsous said that when he took over as peacekeeping chief, “intelligence was still a very dirty word” around the UN. It has now become central to the creation of “fusion cells,” designed to collect as much information from as many sources as possible to devise effective, realistic strategies tailored to a mission. The first unit is being set up in Mali, where vicious ambushes by Islamists have cost the lives of 32 peacekeepers since the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (Minusma) was established in July 2013.
Fusion cells are a concept “still very much in the making,” Ladsous said. “We are experimenting. We have created that one in Mali; we have yet to optimize it. It’s not fully operational to the degree I would like. But certainly we have contributions. The Dutch, in particular, have already some technical drones, surveillance drones. They have the helicopters, attack helicopters. They have patrols on the ground, so that’s one source.”
The French military, through Operation Barkhane and before that Serval, have provided assistance. Ladsous said that he was hoping to acquire more drones, which many countries have, and expand their use to Congo and the Central African Republic.
Still a work in progress, however, is improving the crucial role of human intelligence-gathering among local populations. “We are asking the Malians themselves, because they know quite a few things but they’re not effective about it,” Ladsous said. “So it’s a matter of tweaking the system till it really provides the right information to the right people at the right time.”
In Mali, among the unresolved questions, he said, is how “to get information about what is going to happen in terms of an asymmetric attack.” His requests are often met with noncooperation. “I warned the armed group representatives around Algiers a couple of weeks ago. I said, You claim that you control this part or that part of north Mali; you’re bound to know something, so otherwise why are you present at these talks? I said, I expect much more cooperation from you.”
A panel of technology experts, separate from the new high-level group named by the secretary-general, was set up to advise the department and is due to report back to Ladsous by the end of this year. In February, a conference of army chiefs of staff from around the world will meet at the UN, following an initiative proposed by United States Vice President Joseph Biden, who chaired a summit on peacekeeping at the UN in September. The idea is to draw on their regional perspectives and ideas.
Not all troop-contributing countries — or UN members — are enthusiastic about the rapid changes being made by Ladsous, an experienced French diplomat born in 1950 who has served as ambassador to China and Indonesia and deputy chief of the French mission at the UN, among numerous other posts. He was most recently chief of staff of the French Minister of European and Foreign Affairs.
There were objections to the introduction of the armed intervention brigade in Congo, which has pursued some of the most disruptive armed militias and gangs in the eastern part of the country with some success, particularly against the Congolese rebel group known as M23. The formation of a battle-ready brigade “has raised some new issues, of course,” he said. “For instance, the old-time contingents, some of them are not terribly comfortable with that, so we have to explain, discuss, convince. But the results are there. Certainly the brigade has proved to be a very useful tool.”
More fundamentally, some troop-contributing countries and their battalion commanders on the ground are loathe to stray from traditional concepts of peacekeeping, he said.
“The three rules: consent of the host state, neutrality and impartiality. That’s fine, but what do you do when the main actors are nonstate actors? What do you do when these people are behaving atrociously? Can you be neutral, impartial, vis-à-vis people who have killed, raped, enrolled children, been responsible for huge numbers of displaced and refugees? It’s not a reality anymore, so we have to try and address that.”
Instilling a sense of responsibility among peacekeepers to the UN and to the people of countries where they serve has long been a problem mostly because national contingents report back directly to their countries, not to the peacekeeping department, and countries have a mixed record at best in dealing with dereliction of duty, serious misbehavior generally and sexual violence, in particular. And then there was the case of the Nepali contingent that apparently brought cholera to Haiti, adding an unexpected deathly blow to an earthquake battered country.
“This has to be worked on, continuously,” Ladsous said of building greater responsibility. “That raises the issue of training, which is the responsibility of the troop-contributing country before they deploy. But sometimes it turns out that they are neither sufficiently trained nor — and that is even more complicated — well equipped. We have established our standards, and more often than not many of them are not in compliance. I’m thinking particularly of the African troops we took over from the AU [African Union] in Mali last year and Central Africa this year, and so we asked them to address that issue.”
An innovation recently introduced at headquarters deals with what Ladsous calls “quality control” in operations. “I succeeded in getting what I still call the inspector general — although we are speaking UN-ese, so now it’s the director of strategic partnerships — but that’s what it is basically. They’ve been in function for effectively six months and they are doing very useful work.”
Looking at individual missions in the field, with a total of about 130,000 peacekeepers globally, Ladsous takes the nontraditional view that when force commanders are not meeting the requirements of their assignments, they can be removed at any time. “There has been the necessity in some cases to change the force commander,” he said, adding that he would continue to exercise that right.
Other reforms will be pursued, some of them away from battlefields, Ladsous noted. “We also need to be more environment-friendly — reduce the footprint. I keep making the point, what’s the use of having those big four-by-fours, which are expensive and consume a lot of gasoline, in a city like Abidjan. A normal size sedan would do the job. We’re trying to go to solar energy when we can. Unifil in Lebanon is producing almost 15 percent of its [own] electricity.”
UN police work is critical in restoring order and introducing some normality to societies ripped apart by conflict, Ladsous said. “Sometimes it’s even the heart of the matter.” In the Central African Republic, two opposing ad hoc militias, the anti-balaka and the Seleka, linked respectively to mostly warring Christian and Muslim communities, have created havoc and large numbers of casualties among civilians.
“They are not military units, or even paramilitary,” he said. “They are basically gangs of criminals. And that makes the challenge one for law and order, which is why we are experimenting with a new formula there, where in the capital, in Bangui, the person responsible for security is actually the UN police commissioner. There is, of course, strong backing from a couple of infantry battalions, but it is the police component that is front line.”
“What is important is never to forget that a peacekeeping operation is really a political tool,” Ladsous said. “It’s not about the military per se. It’s a tool to achieve some political goals, with a strategy, with all the add-ons that become necessary because of the nature of mandates: protecting civilians, building or rebuilding a state which has collapsed or partially collapsed — or maybe never existed.”
Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.