In the early morning of Tuesday, April 3, 2018, a temporary United Nations peacekeeping base in the village of Tagbara, in the Central African Republic, was attacked by rebel militia groups. One peacekeeper was killed and 11 others were injured in the fighting. Soon after, the UN also discovered the bodies of 21 civilians, including four women and four children, near a church in the village.
A spokesman for the UN secretary-general, Stéphane Dujarric, who regularly remarks on casualties of peacekeepers, said at the time of the incident: “The Secretary-General extends his condolences to the family of the fallen peacekeeper and wishes a speedy recovery to those injured.” In keeping with other UN statements of dead or injured peacekeepers, the soldier was not named. His nationality was given: Mauritanian.
Only a week later, on April 10, another UN peacekeeper was killed and eight more injured in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic. A similar statement was issued by the UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, with more force: “The Secretary-General recalls that attacks against United Nations peacekeepers may constitute a war crime and calls on the Central African Republic authorities to investigate them and swiftly bring those responsible to justice.”
The Security Council also generally releases a stock statement, expressing its “deepest condolences and sympathy to the families of the victims” and referring to possible war crimes, but no moments of silence are observed in the chamber, where business goes on as usual. The International Criminal Court, which prosecutes war crimes, has yet to do so in attacks against peacekeepers.
The situation degenerated further in the Central African Republic with protesters placing the bodies of those who were killed, including the peacekeepers, outside the headquarters of the UN mission, Minusca, in Bangui.
Then on May 8, another deadly attack occurred in the country, near the village of Yogofongo, in which five UN peacekeepers were murdered. This incident resulted in a visit from Jean-Pierre Lacroix, the UN under secretary-general for peacekeeping operations, to the country to commemorate the fallen soldiers.
All the attacks stemmed from the protracted conflict between two rebel forces in the Central African Republic (the predominantly Muslim Séléka coalition against the mainly Christian anti-Balaka militia) that has been continuing in some form or another since 2012.
The peacekeeping mission was established in the Central African Republic in April 2014. It has 14,613 personnel, with the largest troop contingents from Rwanda, Pakistan, Egypt and Bangladesh. Since the mission’s inception, 75 peacekeepers have died. By comparison, the mission in Mali, established in April 2013, has suffered 175 fatalities. Its troops consist of 15,476 personnel.
(On Oct. 27, an attack against a UN base in Mali left two peacekeepers, from Burkina Faso, dead and 11 injured; another attack the same day left four peacekeepers from Togo injured. No names were released.)
Since 2013, there have been 195 fatalities overall in peacekeeping missions, with “at least” 71 deaths in 2017, the highest number ever recorded by the United Nations Staff Union. Of the 71 deaths, 53 peacekeepers and 18 civilians died, including two police personnel and 15 contractors, all through malicious acts.
Lacroix recently told the UN Security Council that from Jan. 1 to Aug. 31 this year, 17 peacekeepers have died from violent acts. The number over the same period for 2017, he said, was 26.
“This represents a significant decrease,” Lacroix said. “In mentioning these figures, I want to remain cautious and modest because threats against our peacekeepers remain very, very high.”
The UN envoy to the Central African Republic, Parfait Onanga-Anyanga, condemned the situation in the country after the May 2018 attack, saying: “Such blind violence is unacceptable. Why attack peacekeepers whose only reason for being on Central African soil is to help the country to escape the spiral of violence and help it return to lasting peace and security?”
Despite these strong reactions from the UN headquarters, little information was provided by the peacekeeping department regarding the individual troops who were killed. Only the nationalities of the dead were referenced in any public statements on the incidents.
Minusca said in response to a request from PassBlue for more information about the dead peacekeepers: “At the beginning of April a Mauritanian was killed in Tagbara, not far from Bambari. The second peacekeeper — a Rwandan — was killed in Bangui when armed elements from PK-5 were trying to move from their neighbourhood to other areas in Bangui and attack.”
When pressed for more information, such as names or ages of the peacekeepers, Vladimir Monteiro, a spokesperson for Minusca, said in an email, “The Mission doesn’t provide such details.” The mission, however, appears to hold memorial services for dead peacekeepers, as evidenced by the photos it posts.
PassBlue asked the UN Department for Peacekeeping Operations, or DPKO, whether its policy was not to reveal details of peacekeepers who have been killed. After repeated requests for a response, a spokesperson, Héctor Calderón, said: “UN Peacekeeping provides as detailed information as possible on fatalities of our peacekeepers. Every month, we update our data on fatalities, which is broken down by year, mission, nationality and incident type. For administrative, record-keeping and internal purposes, DPKO keeps a record, including name, of personnel deployed.”
He continued: “When peacekeepers are killed in hostile acts, statements issued by the Secretary-General provide details, including on the incident. Missions also typically issue more detailed communications and names may also be released. After the next of kin has been informed, the government of the Member State may choose to communicate. If journalists want more details on the individual, we encourage them to contact the Permanent Mission of their country.”
When asked to provide examples of when UN missions have released identifying details of dead peacekeepers, the peacekeeping department provided links to the official Facebook pages of the missions. The sites publicized certain articles about the peacekeepers that were originally published on the pages of individual UN missions. Comprehensive information was lacking, leaving some dead peacekeepers’ identities anonymous.
James Cunliffe, an independent defense and security consultant who is currently working as a senior adviser in security-sector reform in Baghdad, said that the peacekeeping department announces fatalities when they occur in missions and that the national capital of the relevant contingent decides whether to inform the international and local media as to the name and circumstances of the deceased. He offered an explanation, saying that the UN Department of Field Support deals with the repatriation of bodies and that the overriding issue is to ensure that next of kin is informed.
“This is CRITICAL,” he wrote in an email. “And may explain why DPKO is unwilling to release the names of fatalities — as, I know from experience, that releasing names before families have been informed is both irresponsible and very hurtful.”
The UN commemorates all peacekeepers who have died in action annually on Peacekeepers Day, May 29. Calderón of UN peacekeeping pointed out that on that day, “The names are provided at the Dag Hammarskjöld Medal Ceremony, where we honour our men and women for their service and sacrifices in the name of peace.” The ceremony takes place at UN headquarters in New York, while similar ceremonies for the day are usually held at individual peacekeeping missions.
Cunliffe suggested that the names of dead peacekeepers should, in time, “be registered in a way that gives public recognition of their sacrifice. I suggested a memorial wall in the gardens of UNHQ, with the names engraved. For visitors and families to see. I think that there are about 3000 names going back to the 1960s.”
A wall of remembrance, he added, “may be seen as too ‘western.’ A book of remembrance in the main entrance [of the UN] could a cheaper and simpler option — not my favoured option. New names added, say, after each PK Day. It would need a bit of debate. Killed in action? Died in accidents? Died of natural causes in a mission (or whilst at home on leave?). What about staff in agencies, funds and programmes in the same Missions? Should their names be added if they are killed or died? You will understand the policy challenges.”
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Rhona Scullion is a Scottish writer and reporter who works as a prison law advocate in Nottingham, England. She writes on a variety of human rights and British political topics, often on women’s issues. Having previously worked in Hong Kong and Peru, she has written for the Women News Network and UNA-UK, among others. Scullion has a joint honors bachelor’s degree in English literature and modern history from the University of St. Andrews and a postgraduate law degree from Nottingham Law School. She passed the English bar exam in 2017.