United Nations peacekeeping needs new kinds of tools and troops to counter the demands posed by forces waging catastrophic wars beyond the control of governments and without even a semblance of adherence to the most rudimentary ethical rules of combat or international war crimes laws.
The urgent need to rethink and retool peacekeeping, already a daily preoccupation of the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations, is the subject of a months-long review by an expert panel appointed by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, which is due to report soon.
To add to the debate about peacekeeping’s future from an American angle, the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York has published a study by Paul D. Williams of the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University. The new publication, “Enhancing US Support for Peace Operations in Africa,” is focused on that continent, where the vast majority of UN peacekeepers are deployed — more than 110,000 troops and police — but it opens the discussion to broader considerations of the potential for a more significant role for the US in peacekeeping everywhere.
The study also reflects the erosion of a decades-old tradition that no permanent member of the Security Council — Britain, China, France, Russia and the US — should take an active military role in peacekeeping operations. Working with the UN, France has sent troops to missions in Africa in the last few years. China recently sent its first contingent of infantry to Mali. The US has deployed few uniformed men and women to field operations, most recently in Liberia and in Central Africa, in the latter case to join the search for leaders of the Lord’s Resistance Army, crazed guerrillas who led unspeakably brutal raids in the Gulu region of Uganda. The US military also offers support to the UN in transporting peacekeepers and equipment and helping to construct facilities, and the American government finances many activities in Africa outside UN peacekeeping.
“Yet the status quo is untenable,” Williams wrote. “The current international division of labor is controversial and unsustainable. Countries that mandate United Nations missions are often different from those that provide the uniformed personnel and contribute major funding.”
The major powers, along with some European nations and Brazil in Latin America, have well-trained, disciplined troops and police officers as well as high-tech equipment and intelligence-gathering skills to offer the UN. In an interview with PassBlue in November 2014, Hervé Ladsous, the UN under secretary-general who heads the peacekeeping department, said that the days of believing that “by your sheer presence you deter attacks” are over. Peacekeepers need to be proactive, he said, using mobile communication more effectively and electronic surveillance to track leaders of rebel forces who are constantly on the move or in secret locations.
Ladsous has begun to deploy drones and attack helicopters, which the Dutch have led in supplying along with patrols on the ground. What the UN calls “fusion cells” are being created to collect and analyze intelligence from many sources. Ladsous said that when he took over as peacekeeping chief in 2011, “intelligence was a dirty word.” A big problem has been persuading local people and regional leaders to contribute more intelligence, but his requests are often met with noncooperation, he said.
With his focus on contemporary Africa, Williams, who has taught at universities in Australia, Britain and the US, as well as the Institute for Peace and Security Studies at Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia, recommends that for a start Washington should enlarge its presence at the headquarters of the African Union in Addis Ababa, since that regional organization has become a major partner of the UN and troop-contributing countries.
Very important in his view is the need for the US to upgrade its peacekeeping strategy. “The last US strategy dedicated to peacekeeping was Presidential Decision Directive 25 (PDD-25), written in 1994 to facilitate the US retreat from UN missions after the debacle in Mogadishu in October 1993,” he said. “PDD-25 set out restrictive criteria for subsequent U.S. involvement in multilateral peace operations. Since then, references to peacekeeping in relevant US strategic guidance have been infrequent, superficial, and often out of touch with current peacekeeping realities in Africa and elsewhere. This has left the Department of Defense, in particular, with a lack of clarity about the priority that should be accorded to supporting peace operations, especially when specific crises break.”
Williams does not question American interest in supporting UN peacekeeping. “Successive U.S. administrations have concluded that such operations serve American interests and national security, are cost-effective, and generate greater legitimacy than U.S. missions carried out alone. In Africa specifically, peace operations promote two of Washington’s principal objectives: advancing peace and security and strengthening democratic institutions.”
Washington has not been inactive. “Over the last year, Washington has provided novel support services for both UN and African [Union] missions and has unveiled new initiatives — notably the White House’s African Peacekeeping Rapid Response Partnership proposal — and encouraged other countries to boost their troop contributions to UN peacekeeping.” The nations the US has chosen for the rapid response program are Senegal, Ghana, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda, whose militaries will be assisted in maintaining deployment-ready units for emerging crises. Too often, it takes months to respond to outbreaks of violence.
In a detailed account of the financial responsibilities, Williams includes, among other data, what Washington pays, or owes, to the UN peacekeeping budget and the levels of military aid the US has provided bilaterally or otherwise directly to Africa. At the UN, the US is officially billed for 28.4 percent of the organization’s peacekeeping budget. It is an international treaty obligation, but in 1994 the US Congress unilaterally limited US payments to 25 percent. “Since then,” Williams wrote, “each administration needs to acquire an annual waiver to pay its obligations at the assessed rate above the 25 percent cap, which Congress has refused for the last two years.”
The backlog of arrears should be cleared as part of an enhanced participation in UN missions, the author added.
The US should also decide which roles it could best play in peacekeeping missions. “Although official support for deploying U.S. infantry battalions in UN operations is minimal, discussions are under way about what roles specialist U.S. military contingents might play in combat service or support roles,” Williams wrote. “These would include predominantly inside-the-wire activities related to medical, engineering, aviation, logistics, as well as intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities, which are often in short supply.”
Washington should be looking for opportunities to put peacekeepers’ blue helmets on such specialists noted above so that US troops could have greater influence in the field, while exposing Americans to experiences that would prepare them for these roles globally, as well as instill more knowledge and understanding of Africa in the US military, Williams recommended.
“Leading by example would likely produce better results than asking other states to do something the United States does not do itself,” he wrote.
Both critics and supporters of a bigger US presence in UN peacekeeping agree that there are some significant human factors to consider. After the burgeoning of US military campaigns in the Middle East and Afghanistan, there are many governments and militaries wary of the motives of the US and its powerful armed services. On the ground, some commanders of troop contingents are already concerned that peacekeeping is in danger of becoming more like war.
Introducing high-technology warfare adds to this fear. Moreover, there is pushback from governments that see the traditional operating commitment neutrality and impartiality threatened and national sovereignty compromised if armed peacekeepers begin barging around across borders.
“That’s fine,” Ladsous said in 2014, “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 . . . been responsible for huge numbers of displaced and refugees? It’s not a reality anymore, so we have to try and address that.” The more professional and technologically equipped the troops the UN can count on, the better.
Williams concurs in his analysis of current peacekeeping challenges.
“Most peacekeepers in Africa work in active war zones where there is no peace to keep — a trend reflected in the now-regular deployment of special forces in several theaters, notably Mali, the DRC [Democratic Republic of the Congo] and Somalia,” he wrote. “Unsurprisingly, more peacekeepers are dying as a result. . . . Numerous contemporary ‘peacekeeping’ operations in Africa have involved war fighting, stabilization, counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, atrocity prevention, state-building, and regime-consolidation tasks. . . . Consequently, the need to clarify the limits of peace operations and distinguish them from war fighting, counterterrorism, or counterinsurgency is urgent.”
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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.