The 15 deaths and 43 injuries to United Nations troop personnel in the North Kivu Province of the Democratic Republic of the Congo in December would not, sadly, have surprised those of us who have served in peace enforcement missions with the UN. These are difficult and dangerous places, where rebels have many advantages of a guerrilla force over a foreign, multinational force: the ability to surprise, local support, fanaticism and financing from crime and exploitation.
As a former British Army colonel, having recently been seconded to UN missions in Afghanistan and Congo as well as three years at UN headquarters in New York, my heart sinks when I read about such fatal attacks.
The reasons for the high level of fatalities and injuries likely came from a combination of institutional complacency, with the Department of Peacekeeping Operations and the Department of Field Support not being strategically organized to direct and manage such high-risk security environments; and, sad to say, the national contingent not being trained or equipped to deal with the tactical dangers they faced.
While we all welcome the new review into fatalities and injuries being headed by William Phillips, a long-time expert in the Department of Peacekeeping Operations, it cannot succeed without first addressing many of the wider organizational flaws and weaknesses in the peacekeeping and field support departments and the poor levels of training and operational awareness among the troop-contributing countries.
It is also noteworthy that the UN has assigned a UN peacekeeping veteran, Dmitry Titov, to investigate the attack on the Congo base.
Peacekeeping missions authorized under Chapter VII of the UN Charter are, by their nature, more demanding in terms of mandate and expectation than the traditional Chapter VI monitoring missions. Chapter VII missions are not configured to observe a well-established ceasefire — as in Cyprus — or to keep two warring parties apart. These missions are set up to enforce a peace and to take all possible steps to fulfill a UN Security Council mandate. Over the years, there has been progress in strengthening these missions — with robust rules of engagement as well as the introduction of attack helicopters, armored infantry vehicles and indirect fire assets as key battle-winning equipment made available in places like Congo, South Sudan and Mali.
My observation about these developments, however, is that they have neither been properly utilized nor put at the disposal of field headquarters and commanders who are willing to or experienced enough to plan and execute operations. Poor coordination, a muddle of different national contingents and a lack of operational expertise all combine to prevent their effective use of these capabilities at crucial moments.
As for mandates, the Security Council tends to be in too much of a hurry to pile up a list of tasks onto a new mission or one that is struggling. While activities such as election monitoring, civil affairs, human rights and gender advocacy are not unimportant, my experience suggests that in the early stages of a new mission and in countries where the level of violence is still high, a UN mission can be distracted and resources rationed at the expense of the uncomplaining but vulnerable military contingents who are sent into the most violent and isolated areas.
I recall how the UN deployed troops into the farthest corners of Mali in 2012, facing a very serious terrorist threat but ill equipped in bases with next-to-no physical protection, hard cover, reserve positions or escape routes. Yet in the capital, Bamako, the new mission spent huge sums in setting up an air-conditioned, compartmentalized headquarters in a former high-rise hotel with all the various specialized sections, whose staff would have been better arriving in later months as the security situation in the north improved and as the new mission consolidated its posture and ability to defend itself in the high-risk areas.
Which brings me to the national contingents that make up the UN military and police forces. It would be invidious of me to criticize individual countries with whom I have served. Nevertheless, it cannot be ignored that time and again, the contingents were not sufficiently trained, prepared or configured to deal with the gravest threats and in the most hostile environments. Seeing infantry company bases built within flimsy perimeters, with a token roll of barbed wire and troops living in large, unprotected marquee tents, would fill me with dread and despair, and I would speak up against these situations.
Tactics and procedures were also rudimentary; no rehearsals for attacks were made, no weapons ever test-fired, no trenches dug, no attempt to build stronger physical barriers made. And the Department of Field Service was never in a hurry to help with, or pay for, essential defense stores and field engineering. This laxity reflected badly on a national contingent’s tactical awareness and the effectiveness of the mission leadership, who should have always insisted on stronger defensive postures from contingents in the higher-risk areas and deployed the right UN resources to best use.
Indeed, there is a certain built-in sense of impotence by the peacekeeping department over the individual nations who contribute troops — a diplomatic nicety that has no place on a battlefield.
So what measures can be taken to reduce the risk to UN peacekeepers? In this short piece, I cannot be exhaustive, but there are a few headlines. First, the Security Council should resist from setting too ambitious objectives in the early stages of a new peace enforcement mission or an existing mission under stress. The priority must be on establishing secure bases for all its early-entry personnel or those in high-risk settings, focusing on political engagement and military capability first.
Department of Field Support resources must be committed to the most vulnerable areas first, with international, emergency contractor support provided if local providers are not suitable or available. A senior, independent military officer must be assigned to the field support department permanently to ensure that troops are never deployed without the necessary physical infrastructure to protect them. The quality control of national contingents and military commanders and their staff members at headquarters who are preparing for deployments must improve, so too must the Department of Field Support’s infrastructure provision.
Moreover, external validation — non-UN military professionals — should be a pre-requisite for clearances to deploying troops and for national contingents to be reimbursed for their commitment. In-theatre inspections by an independent body should be compulsory as well.
Only by adopting these measures and improving the tactical awareness of the personnel in the field can UN peacekeeping operations hope to provide the duty of care for its personnel that is incumbent on this high-profile international organization to prevent further unnecessary loss of life.