Search form

Last updated: 8 min 49 sec ago

You are here

Don’t shoot the peacekeepers, they’re doing their best

There is not much of a novelty these days in someone bashing one UN institution or another. There is an international consensus that the organization, in its eighth decade, is far from fulfilling its founders’ expectations. Yet the US ambassador Nikki Haley’s criticism of the Irish commander of the UN peacekeeping force (UNIFIL) in Lebanon last week was something of an exception in its accusatory and brash manner. Haley leveled against Maj Gen Michael Beary the charge that he is “blind” to the “massive flow of illegal weapons” to Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, echoing longstanding Israeli sentiment.
Gen Beary’s protestation that his force has no evidence of weapons being illegally transferred and stockpiled in the area under his control did not satisfy the American envoy. Whoever is right, their exchange lends itself to a wider discussion of the role of peacekeeping operations in maintaining peace and stability. 
First, is not the notion of peacekeeping a complete misnomer? There are currently 16 UN peacekeeping operations deployed on four continents, in places such as Darfur, Cyprus, Kosovo, Congo and India–Pakistan. In some of these areas there is actually no peace to keep. Israel and Lebanon are formally in a state of war; not to mention the war of words between Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah and Israeli leaders, which constantly leaves both sides on the verge of fresh hostilities. UNIFIL is often more of a buffer zone between two sides preparing for war rather than heading for peace. UNMOGIP in Kashmir oversees the cease-fire between India and Pakistan, but a peaceful solution is nowhere in sight. In cases such as Cote d’Ivoire or Haiti the objective is one of preventing civil war, protecting civilians and promoting political dialogue, rather than averting a war between countries.
When these operations fail, or at least are not fully successful, it is not necessarily due to military failure. It is mainly the result of a vague and restrictive mandate, or of inadequate resources given to peacekeeping operations. The end of the Cold War brought with it an end to the stalemate between the two superpowers and hence an increased readiness to deploy peacekeeping operations. Tragically, there have also been increasing numbers of civil wars and extreme cases of state violence toward civilians which have triggered international intervention.
Nevertheless, this hasn’t resolved the problem of the interests of individual members of the UN versus those of the international community as a whole. In the aftermath of the Cold War when peacekeeping operations began to mushroom, a US Presidential Policy Directive by Bill Clinton made it clear that his country would participate in UN peace operations only when they served US national interests. This gives some insight to the reason behind the reluctance of the US, among other countries, to respond positively to the pleas by Gen Romeo Dallaire, commander of the UN forces in Rwanda at the time of the genocide, for urgent support, desperately needed to stop the worst atrocities committed since the Second World War.

US ambassador Nikki Haley’s attack on UNIFIL shines a light on the difficulties facing UN forces with vague mandates and inadequate resources, often in places where there is no peace to keep.

Yossi Mekelberg

Since the first UN peacekeeping mission in 1948, more than 70 peacekeeping operations have been deployed, a number of them still in place decades after they were first commissioned. This is unfortunate testimony to the failure to deal with the root causes of these conflicts and build a lasting peace. These missions are aimed and designed as an interim measure in the process of peace making and peacebuilding. In quite a few cases they have become a permanent fixture that at least indirectly contributes to the perpetuation of the conflict. 
One of the inherent difficulties for peacekeeping missions to accomplish their goals is that their mandate and formation are hurriedly decided in response to an urgent crisis. Consequently the commanders on the ground are unclear about what they are expected to accomplish; the size of the force sent doesn’t reflect the magnitude of the challenges; and the soldiers are not necessarily trained or equipped for the mission assigned to them. Those troops are thrown into an unknown and uncertain political, cultural and physical terrain, and as a result are set to fail, spending much of their time shielding themselves from danger rather than fulfilling their task.
Furthermore, there is also a huge discrepancy between those who provide troops for peacekeeping and those who fund it. The three biggest contributors to the UN peacekeeping budget are the US, China and Japan, and together the top 10 countries contribute 80 percent of the budget. However, because the UN pays countries $1,330 a month for each soldier they send, it is mainly attractive for poor nations to send troops. Their armies, however, are not necessarily the best trained to deal with the adverse and complex challenges of peacekeeping, especially when civilian populations are involved.
Nikki Haley took a swipe at UNIFIL, which plays nicely to the way the Trump administration and certain constituencies in the US perceive the UN. However, a more constructive approach would be for a diplomat in her position to ensure that all peacekeeping operations have a clear mandate with full political backing. It is for those at UN headquarters in New York and those who send them to ensure clear command-and-control arrangements, adequate resources and, most importantly, a clear exit strategy. If this were ever to happen, Haley’s criticism of the troops on the ground would gain some credibility.
• Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg