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Lt General Satish Nambiar | 18 AUGUST, 2015

70 Years: Is There a Future for UN Peace Operations Given the Hypocrisy of the International System?

Women soldiers in UN peace keeping


During much of the seventy year history of the United Nations as an organisation, of all its activities, peacekeeping operations have attracted maximum attention. Primarily because conflicts make dramatic news and the deployment of an international military force by the Security Council to preserve a fragile peace, makes a good story that captures public interest in this electronic age.

As it evolved over the years, peacekeeping became an extraordinary art that called for the use of the military personnel not to wage war but to prevent fighting between belligerents; to ensure the maintenance of cease-fires, and to provide a measure of stability in an area of conflict while negotiations were conducted. Of course, the publicity generated by its peacekeeping activities in the past had for the most part, been beneficial; especially in times when the Organisation did not otherwise enjoy public confidence or credibility. Since the 1990s however, with the deployment of United Nations forces in intra-state conflicts and civil war situations where there were perceived inadequacies, even peacekeeping operations have drawn adverse comment.

There can be little doubt that UN peace operations are at a cross-roads. The last twenty five years have severely tested the concept, philosophy and manner of conduct of these operations.

The Horta Panel report that has just been put out in the public domain, makes an effort to address some of the issues. It however goes beyond UN peacekeeping to the wider spectrum of “Peace Operations”, of which peacekeeping is only a part. Even so, the recommendations mostly reiterate the points made in Boutros Boutros Ghali’s 1992 Agenda for Peace document, and the Brahimi Panel Report of 2000.

In any discussion on the subject, it is important to distinguish between the concept of “collective security” and “peacekeeping” in the international environment. Whereas “collective security” is a punitive process designed to be carried out with some degree of discrimination, but not necessarily impartially, “peacekeeping” is intended to be politically impartial and essentially non-coercive. Hence peacekeeping was, and has always been, based on a triad of principles that give it legitimacy, as well as credibility; namely, consent of the parties to the conflict, impartiality of the peacekeepers, and the use of force by lightly armed peacekeepers only in self-defence. All three principles have been under severe strain in the last few years.

The premise on which UN peacekeeping was based is that violence in inter-state and intra-state conflict can be controlled without resort to the use of force or enforcement measures. No doubt, some theorists and one may dare say quite a few practitioners, are of the view that force needs to be met with force. An objective analysis of the history of conflicts probably reveals that the use of force and enforcement measures, particularly in internal conflicts, tend to prolong the conflict rather than resolve it speedily. This is not however, to suggest that the use of force be discounted altogether. In certain circumstances, use of force may well be called for as a catalyst for peaceful resolution. A quote attributed to Al Capone, a notorious Chicago gangster of the early 20th Century is probably appropriate in this context- “You can get a lot more done with a kind word when you have a gun in your hand, than with a kind word alone”.

In any case, use of force in UN peacekeeping is not a new phenomenon. The UN force in the Congo in the early 1960s was mandated to use force to deal with Katangese secessionists led by Moise Tshombe. An Indian brigade-sized contingent undertook combat operations to stabilise the situation. But at great cost - 36 dead and 124 wounded; a heavy price to pay for a UN peacekeeping operation. Similar operations were undertaken, again by the Indian contingent in Sierra Leone, to rescue hostages taken by rebel forces in 1999.

Hence the ‘use of force’ for the protection of civilians is not an issue that merits debate or discussion; it is a task that UN peacekeepers should be prepared to undertake. The dilemmas however that arise in the process must be recognised and addressed.

One, the UN Security Council must mandate the use of force; no doubt easily done, particularly because those who mandate do not provide the ‘boots’ on the ground as it were.

Two, adequate resources must be provided for effective implementation of the mandate, as also political back-up support; on both counts, the situation at the ground level is most disappointing, as reiterated by the Horta panel.

Three, we must accept the fact that in the combat operations that are undertaken, there will be casualties; to UN personnel taking part, personnel from the opposing rebel forces, and possibly some collateral impact on innocent civilians caught up in the fighting).

Four, having taken sides in the local conflict, the ‘blue helmets’ become party to the conflict and are hence perceived as legitimate targets later.

And five, UN mediators and negotiators could lose their legitimacy and credibility with those against whom the operations are undertaken.

To that extent, I find references in the Horta panel report to “a designated enemy”, “pre-emptive use of force”, etc, somewhat disturbing. Equally, bringing “Responsibility to Protect” (RtoP) interventions into the debate on UN peace operations is not only misplaced, in my view, but positively dangerous. Where the “bad guy” has been identified and needs to be dealt with, the option for the international community is not a UN peace operation, but Chapter VII combat operations undertaken by multi-national forces under an agreed lead nation or organisation. Recent examples are: Operation Desert Storm (against Saddam Husain in 1991); and in Afghanistan (against the Al Qaeda led by Osama Bin Laden) in October 2001, following the terrorist attacks in New York in September 2001.

Preventive action must be the focus of the UN as always, if the Organisation has to regain its considerably eroded credibility and legitimacy. In that context, the first pillar in the Brahimi Panel’s definition of “peace operations”, namely “peacemaking” (diplomatic engagement, mediation, negotiation, etc) assumes significance; the other two pillars being “peacekeeping” (deployment of military and police to provide stability in a mission area) and “peace-building”. It would appear that a vital element of prevention, namely preventive deployment, has not received much attention; the Horta panel also does not seem to have addressed this aspect with any seriousness.

My personal experience of such deployment in December 1992 on a request made by then President Gligorov (of Macedonia) to Cyrus Vance, the UN SG’s Special Envoy at the European Conference on the former Yugoslavia, and implemented by UNPROFOR of which I was then the Head of Mission and the Force Commander, leads me to believe that this tool needs to be better exploited.

I have long been an advocate of the imperative need to set up a “Standing UN Rapid Deployment Force”, if the Organisation is to have the capacity to deploy quickly into a mission area following agreement between local belligerents, and a decision taken by the UN Security Council to deploy a peacekeeping force. I made an effort to have a recommendation to this effect included when I was a member of Kofi Annan’s High level Panel on “Threats, Challenges and Change”, but without success. I notice the Horta panel has made a ‘timid’ effort in this regard. The fact of the matter is that today, it takes anything from two to three months for deployment to be effected after a Security Council resolution is passed. The situation on the ground does not remain static in the meanwhile; it invariably worsens, to the detriment of the objective of the UN mission.

Another vital issue I have been raising at every conceivable forum over the last couple of decades merits mention. Namely, that the developed world must get back to UN peacekeeping if such operations are to be effective, and the Organisation is to retain any credibility. (Legitimacy is another matter altogether, given the current lack of representation from Africa and South America in the permanent membership category in the Security Council). Because, it is the countries of the developed world that have the equipment resources and trained manpower so desperately required to make UN peacekeeping effective.

To suggest that the countries of the Western world prefer to operate under the auspices of NATO because of the “inefficiency” or “incompetence” of the UN system is, in my view, hypocrisy of the highest order. I have not noticed any such reluctance by countries of the Western world in garnering senior command positions in the UN missions that are deployed, or in securing senior military and police staff positions at the headquarters of the missions now deployed.

A point often made in justification of this arrangement, is that the countries of the Western world are the ones that make significant financial contributions to the UN, and hence they are entitled to such positions in UN HQ and mission areas. This is a myth that I address from personal experience. Besides being the Force Commander of UNPROFOR, I was also the Head of Mission, in which capacity, the Civil Affairs Department, the Civil Police, as also the Administration were under my oversight. I therefore know for a fact that, at that time (1992/93), every single contract, whether it was for provision of aircraft, helicopters, vehicles, provisions, bottled water, maintenance of equipment, communication equipment, or whatever, was in the hands of the countries of the developed world. Who therefore got back from the UN system as much if not more, than the contributions their governments ostensibly made as financial contributions to the Organisation.

And finally, about Europe’s experience in the Balkans often being quoted as the reason for reluctance to be part of UN peacekeeping operations today. That is another myth. Whether the disintegration of what was Yugoslavia was deliberately engineered or otherwise, is a matter for separate analysis. But there is little doubt that the developing situation in 1991 was poorly handled by the European Economic Community (EEC), as it then was. And having messed things up, the EEC ‘dumped’ the problem on the UN.

The further irony is that having pushed the UN into deploying a peacekeeping force, instead of giving it the political backing and support that was required, European countries, and in due course the US, pursued an agenda that often compromised the efforts of the UN mission.

It is nobody’s case that the UN structures are as effective as those of national governments or organisations like the NATO, in providing strategic direction to the conduct of operations. The UN is just not geared for that. But the countries of the Western world are part of the Organisation, and in fact, more often than not, have a major role in the decision making apparatus in New York. As such, it is morally wrong and politically hypocritical to decline to participate in UN missions because of the infirmities of the UN system.

The abiding truth of the Yugoslav situation is that the sequence of intervention was all wrong. The EEC and the USA should have threatened the use, or actually used NATO forces, to bring the political leadership of the warring parties to the negotiating table as they finally did at Dayton; and then deployed a UN mission to oversee the implementation of agreements; or done it under EEC auspices.

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