The horrific attack on United Nations peacekeepers from Tanzania in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in early December and the ensuing hours-long battle was a severe blow to one of the UN’s more prized forces, leaving 15 soldiers dead.
But the UN was already so concerned with a rise in peacekeeper fatalities — almost all in Africa — that the assault made recent efforts to find ways to improve security even more urgent.
The Tanzanians in eastern Congo’s Kivu region had been the subject of successive attacks by armed groups over the previous two months. But they had also been an active force, disrupting the suspected perpetrators — the Allied Democratic Coalition –from their commerce in minerals and persecution of civilians.
Official UN statements of outrage followed with a grim familiarity after the Dec. 7 offensive.
“These deliberate attacks against UN peacekeepers are unacceptable and constitute a war crime,” said UN Secretary-General António Guterres on Dec. 8, urging Congolese authorities to quickly bring the perpetrators to justice (see UN video below). “There must be no impunity for such aggression, here or anywhere else.”
Let us unpack Guterres’s statement, various iterations of which are uttered by senior UN officials whenever peacekeepers are attacked — injured or killed — in recent years, starting with the word “unacceptable.”
Attacks on peacekeepers rose to a new plateau beginning in 2010. From an average of 14 fatalities from violence a year, the rate has now grown to about 35, spiking in 2017 with 60 troops killed. Most of the victims are African soldiers with some South Asians as well.
Fatal attacks occur most often in Mali, Congo, Central African Republic, Darfur (Sudan) and South Sudan, all missions with Chapter VII mandates under the UN Charter, which authorize peacekeepers to use “all available means” to protect civilians and shore up civilian authorities.
Most attacks happen during patrols or movements; fewer, on static positions. Murder by criminals and eight by fellow peacekeepers are also included in the tallies.
Such losses were indeed unacceptable to the UN and troop-contributing countries in the past and led to the withdrawal of UN peacekeeping missions in Somalia and Rwanda in the 1990s and Congo in the 1960s.
Yet a new level of acceptability of casualties seems almost built into today’s missions, which are not talking about pulling out –at least not because of risks. And while the UN has a hard time finding troops for its “robust” missions — Canada just called off plans to send 600 soldiers to Mali — the countries that are affected are not leaving either. (Some 90,000 uniformed personnel are currently deployed in 15 peace operations.)
“It’s a tragedy, but this is a struggle for all Africa and it [UN peacekeeping service] is a priority of our foreign policy,” said Songelael Shilla, the minister plenipotentiary of the Tanzanian mission to the UN. “We’ll still be there.”
President Idriss Déby of Chad did not cite the 57 Chadian soldiers killed in UN peace operations — 47 of them in Mali — when he threatened to pull troops from African missions in June. What he said instead was that he wanted more financial support.
Money is an issue: increased risk may have been a factor when the UN increased its payment to troop-contributing countries from about $1,200 per soldier each month to $1,400. The compensation to families of killed soldiers also rose from $50,000 to $70,000 in 2010. That is about $4 million for Chad’s losses, a sizeable amount for a cash-strapped country.
But at UN headquarters in New York, the new plateau of casualties may no longer be so acceptable. When Guterres established a “high level review of peacekeeping fatalities and injuries due to violent acts” in November, it surprised the ad hoc office within the Department of Peacekeeping Operations. The office is led by a peacekeeping and security veteran, William Phillips, who had been studying how to improve security for peacekeepers.
The now-merged efforts by Guterres indicated that the Secretariat may have reached a tipping point in losses, 90 percent of whom were troops and most of which, according to a senior official, “were avoidable.”
The Improving Peacekeeping Security project is being financed by China, which last year pledged $1 billion to the UN’s Peace and Security Development Fund and promised some 8,000 standby troops in 2015, which have not materialized. The murders of three Chinese peacekeepers in the South Sudan mission last year stunned the Chinese public, according to media reports.
It has become de rigueur for senior UN officials to thunder “war crime” after attacks on peacekeepers. The 1998 statute establishing the International Criminal Court describes a war crime to include “intentionally directing attacks against personnel, installations, material, units or vehicles involved in a humanitarian assistance or peacekeeping mission in accordance with the Charter of the UN, as long as they are entitled to the protection given to civilians or civilian objects under the international law of armed conflict; . . . ”
Yet since the court was established, no one has been fully prosecuted by it for attacking peacekeepers, although the current prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, said she was looking into investigations of crimes against peacekeepers in Chad and the Central African Republic. Numerous attempts by this reporter to get a response from the court’s press office went unanswered.
The court, which has been investigating crimes in Darfur since 2005, attempted to prosecute three members of Sudan’s Justice and Equality Movement for their roles in killing 10 African Union peacekeepers at their base in South Darfur in 2007. But the case never went to trial. Charges against one suspect were dropped for lack of evidence; a second died; and the third, Abdallah Banda, refused to appear for trial, which was scheduled for 2014.
“Regrettably all the suspects in the Darfur situation remain at large,” the court wrote in its most recent report to the UN Security Council on the matter. (That includes, of course, Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir, who is wanted for war crimes.)
The Special Court for Sierra Leone — which operated from 2002-2013 — prosecuted three Revolutionary United Front members for “serious violations of international humanitarian law” after they attacked peacekeepers during the country’s civil war.
And in 2007, a Belgian court tried a former army major from Rwanda for his role in killing nine Belgian peacekeepers in 1994 on the eve of the Rwanda genocide. But since Bernard Ntuyahaga, the major, had merely transported the peacekeepers to their killers, he was found guilty only of manslaughter — albeit with a hefty 20-year prison sentence.
With most of the ad hoc tribunals prosecuting war crimes — the Sierra Leone court, the International Criminal Court for the former Yugoslavia and the International Criminal Court for Rwanda — wrapped up, the pursuit of war criminals seems to have flagged, even as war crimes against civilians multiply in Yemen and Syria. Peacekeepers may not be high on what remains of an agenda that has seen little momentum overall.
Moreover, it is not clear that the attack on the Tanzanians in Congo would even qualify as a war crime. The Tanzanian battalion is part of a Force Intervention Brigade tasked to “neutralize and disarm” groups considered a threat to state authority and civilian security in Congo.
The unit conducts “targeted offensive operations” jointly with the Congolese army, a cooperation that cost the peacekeeping mission its impartiality, according to Scott Sheeran and Stephanie Case in a 2014 publication they wrote for the International Peace Institute, a think tank in New York.
“As the UN is now a party, all military members of MONUSCO will have lost the protection accorded them under international law. . . . They no longer enjoy legal protection from attacks.” (Monusco is the abbreviated name of the peacekeeping mission in Congo.)
The Department of Peacekeeping Operations disagrees with this interpretation, although it is shared by the UN’s legal adviser. Given the track record on prosecutions for war crimes against peacekeepers, however, the disagreement may be moot.
Although the new UN review on improving peacekeeping security will stress that “impunity spurs further acts of violence,” the record for pursuing such crimes is negligible.
Security for UN peacekeepers and property is the responsibility of the host country and so is justice. In practice, the UN provides its own security but has no means or mandate to administer justice.
“Addressing impunity is almost mission impossible in these places,” said Arthur Boutellis, who served with several peacekeeping operations and is a senior adviser to the International Peace Institute.
In places like eastern Congo or northern Mali, the governments have little to no control — although Mali’s counterterrorism force arrested some suspected perpetrators of attacks on peacekeepers earlier this year. In Darfur, the government of al-Bashir — himself an indicted war criminal — functions but has long wanted to see UN peacekeepers gone, so it rarely cooperates in such matters.
Sporadic notations appear in periodic reports by the UN secretary-general to the Security Council of domestic apprehensions and trials of attackers related to peacekeepers’ deaths, but there is little evidence of follow-through. The peacekeeping department does not even have a dedicated program for tracking the resolution of cases.
Few of today’s troop-contributing countries have the resources to pursue the death of a peacekeeper in a remote land for years on end, as Belgium did with the Rwandan army major. Tanzania will await confirmation of the identity of the attackers to determine how it might pursue justice for its soldiers, Shilla of the Tanzanian mission to the UN said. (The UN has blamed the Allied Democratic Forces, and recently, Uganda reportedly attacked the rebels inside Congo.)
The killers of peacekeepers do not need to lie low: in a telling anecdote from the Central African Republic, suspected perpetrators who hacked to death three Cambodian peacekeepers were later seen openly walking around, wearing the Cambodians’ uniforms.
The process of handling attacks on peacekeepers is rudimentary: after an incident, the UN mission aims to protect evidence and determine what happened. In a major attack, such as the recent one against the Tanzanians, the UN headquarters’ office sends investigators.
Up to a year later, the UN convenes a board of inquiry of staff members to analyze the incident, largely for administrative purposes, such as to finalize compensation to the troop-contributing country. The UN cannot, however, ensure that the $70,000 benefit for a killed peacekeeper gets to the dead person’s family.
Guterres’s peacekeeping fatalities review may recommend a stand-by investigation team to be quickly deployable to the scene of an attack, according to a UN peacekeeping department spokesman. But the team would have to include the country where the attack occurred. The “host countries,” as they are called, have been sometimes reluctant to participate.
The peacekeeping security project may also recommend that missions apprehend suspected assailants on the spot and send them to a place where they can be prosecuted.
That Guterres may be seeking stronger ways to protect peacekeepers is implied in his choice to lead his high-level review — a retired lieutenant general, Carlos Alberto dos Santos Cruz. With 40 years of service in senior military positions in Brazil and the UN, his legacy includes leading a peacekeepers’ rout of gangs from the Port-au-Prince neighborhood of Cité Soleil when he was force commander of the UN mission in Haiti, from 2004 to 2007. (Repeated requests for comment from dos Santos Cruz, who is now Brazil’s public security secretary, went unanswered.)
In 2013, as force commander for the Congo mission, he decimated the notorious rebel movement M23, using heavy artillery and leaving it a “near-negligible entity,” according to a UN press release.
Within the peacekeeping department, which is undergoing a major reform and partial merging with the Department of Political Affairs, concerns are percolationg about proposals that missions take on more militaristic measures for their own protection — as reportedly recommended by the new office to improve security. This is, after all, peacekeeping, whose original practitioners carried no weapons at all.
But with security for the so-called blue helmets deteriorating in 2017 in Mali, Central African Republic and Congo, the peaceful pursuit of justice for those who have been murdered remains more remote.
“Many nonstate armed groups rarely fear national or international justice,” Boutellis of the International Peace Institute said. “What they fear most is probably retaliation.”
In Mali, he noted, UN messaging is rapidly changing: after an attack on peacekeepers in Kidal in December, the head of the peacekeeping mission, Mahamat Annadif, issued a warning: From now on, he said in French, when hit, the mission will hit back, “coup pour coup.”