As peacekeepers sweat and toil and risk their lives in some of the world’s most lethal settings — South Sudan, Mali, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo — it is incumbent on the United Nations and its 193 members to alleviate the suffering and deaths of troops as fatalities keep rising. In 2017, 59 peacekeepers were murdered through malicious acts, a 73 percent increase over 2016.
With peacekeeping reform underway, at least on paper, conditions for those working in the most dangerous operations are finally getting more attention through focused workshops and specific recommendations. As to how improvements will be paid for as the United States strives to cut its financial contribution is unclear.
What is clear is that most of the dead peacekeepers come from developing countries, citizens from the poorest nations in Africa and South Asia, while the rich countries micromanage UN peace operations through their seats on the Security Council, monetary contributions and, to a smaller extent, sophisticated equipment.
The latter donations to UN missions are publicized by countries with much hoopla — the latest being Canada and its pledge of six helicopters to the Mali operation — as if they are doing their equal share on the ground.
The reality is starkly otherwise, with exceptions, such as Sweden’s peacekeeping base in the UN compound in Timbuktu. More often than not, well-off countries refrain from sending too many of their own men and women to such places like the Sahara to work for the UN, where some of the worst threats can be natural: scorpions, malaria-carrying mosquitoes and daily temperatures of 115 degrees Fahrenheit, depending on the season.
The hellish environments are compounded by equally life-threatening dangers posed by bandits, jihadists and national militias. (On April 3, one peacekeeper was killed and 11 wounded, all from Mauritania, in an attack in the Central African Republic; on April 5, two Chadian peacekeepers were killed in Mali, followed on April 6, with a peacekeeper from Niger killed in Mali; on April 10, a Rwandan was killed in the Central African Republic.)
As one South American diplomat said, Why would we want to send our troops to such places?
The latest initiative to professionalize peace operations is called Action for Peacekeeping, which is supposed to muster relevant parties to “support the great enterprise of United Nations peacekeeping,” said António Guterres, the UN secretary-general.
In a brainstorming workshop held in March in Entebbe, Uganda, at a UN training center, experts from UN headquarters in New York joined with authorities from peacekeeping missions to plan on how to “drive concrete changes in the field” in five “highest-risk missions”: in Central African Republic (Minusca); Mali (Minusma); Congo (Monusco), Darfur, Sudan (Unamid); and South Sudan (Unmiss).
These missions are also among the most notorious for reported cases of sexual abuse and exploitation against women and girls as well as men and boys, although the UN does not draw parallels between the danger of a mission and the number of abuse claims. The Entebbe meeting did not present new ideas on solving the problem but stuck to the UN’s script on the topic.
Guterres sent the results of the brainstorming session to UN member nations on March 28; a copy of the document was obtained by PassBlue. Proposals to refine and expand the role of peacekeepers must have the blessing of the General Assembly to happen, and some of the information laid out in the workshop reiterates earlier recommendations.
Despite goals to update peacekeeping, some countries that support reform are motivated more by saving money and feeding political constituents rather than out of a genuine concern for, say, young Chadian men being blasted by IEDs in remote outposts in Mali.
The Trump administration is obsessed with reducing America’s financial contribution to peacekeeping, as it declared — once again, on March 29 — that it refuses to pay more than 25 percent of the UN peacekeeping budget, under a law foisted by Congress on the Clinton administration. The US later signed on to an international agreement passed by the General Assembly to pay 28 percent, but that commitment seems to be meaningless to Nikki Haley, the US envoy to the UN, and to her speechwriters, who have probably never stepped foot in the Sahara. Haley appears ready to breach the agreement by cutting US contributions, violating international law.
One result will be a pileup of arrears that the US will most likely pay eventually, as it did under George W. Bush, when Congress declined to pay its legal share. President Obama finished the process of clearing up arrears during his administration while raising US contributions.
Haley’s quest for cuts could also be viewed as a blind disregard for the safety of human lives in the world’s most horrific conflicts in Africa.
The UN’s latest brainstorming further explained its plans to revamp physical operations, such as safety, security, leadership and performance, as well as to stop sexual abuse and exploitation by peacekeepers and other UN civilians in missions. The summary from Entebbe reiterates the need for better pre-deployment training and vetting of troops and other UN personnel to missions and creating evaluations and data-based analysis on the “performance” of peacekeepers.
However, investigations and, where appropriate, punishment of peacekeepers in uniform remains the prerogative and duty of troop-contributing nations and is not the purview of the UN.
Enhancing command and control — a basic imperative in any troop deployment — is recommended as is “boosting leadership in field missions” with the coordination of all UN hierarchy, from special envoys to police commissioners, to conduct more field visits, especially to risky outposts.
Equipment shortfalls — another nagging gap in UN missions — was addressed through a new reimbursement approach that encourages rich countries, like Canada, to lend expensive equipment like helicopters for a year or two. Better approaches to “new threat environments” in deployments include assessing the availability of medical services and closing or consolidating bases.
In the Congo mission, for example, an assessment was carried out in February, involving such steps as enhancing communications and road upgrades at certain bases, including Semuliki. That site was attacked by armed militias in December 2017, leaving 14 African peacekeepers dead and 53 wounded, shocking the UN into a more determined mode to protect its peacekeepers.
The goal is to provide “advanced life support” to people in the field within one hour of injury and “life-saving surgical care” within two hours. No mention is made as to how much emergency medical service will cost or who will pay it.
As for the peacekeeping department’s enduring problem of sexual abuse of civilians and other human-rights violations, the Guterres summary recommends that more member states should sign up to the UN’s voluntary compact to pledge and prevent such crimes. The compact, introduced in August 2017, has 90 signatories, or 67 percent of the total number of countries participating in peace missions, it said. As to whether the compact has made a difference is left unspoken.
The summary also notes the appointment of the UN’s first victims’ rights advocate, Jane Connors, but it doesn’t say that her travel budget is limited and that she must do her own fund-raising to keep her office running. (She was not included in the Entebbe meeting.) A trust fund for victims totals a pitiful $2.1 million from 19 countries for helping victims with “specialized services and support.”
A calendar of mission reviews is listed in the summary, including ones that are done and ones still scheduled. Ellen Loj, a former UN envoy to the South Sudan mission, is heading the review of the Mali mission, the deadliest peace operation in the UN portfolio, to be finished by the end of April for its renewal deadline of June 30. In a form of censorship, Guterres said the reviews were “internal” documents of the Secretariat but that he would make “relevant” information available to the Security Council for each mission’s mandate renewal.
The Security Council, Guterres reminded the body, bears responsibility for making peacekeeping more exacting and useful.
“First, I urge Security Council members to sharpen and streamline mandates,” Guterres said in late March to the Council. “Please put an end to mandates that look like Christmas trees. Christmas is over, and the United Nations Mission in South Sudan cannot possibly implement 209 mandated tasks.”
[The article was updated to include recent attacks on peacekeepers in the Central African Republic and in Mali.]
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Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, she has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.
Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and near Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working in New York at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.