In UN peacekeeping, a muddling of the mission
UNITED NATIONS: More than a decade after United Nations peacekeepers failed to prevent massacres in Rwanda and Srebrenica, Bosnia, what many consider the organization's flagship mission appears to be slouching toward crisis once again, diplomats and other experts say.
The most immediate cause, they say, is a sharp rise in the number of peacekeeping commitments worldwide and a type of "mission creep" that has added myriad nation-building duties to the traditional task of trying to keep enemies apart. The new demands come at a time when member states with advanced armies in particular have become more resistant to committing additional troops or even necessary equipment like helicopters.
Those challenges have only added to a deeper and longstanding problem: the continued lack of clarity about how the United Nations should intervene when its members lack either the military force or the political will ? or both ? to halt carnage.
"Peacekeeping has been pushed to the wall," said Bruce Jones, the director of the Center on International Cooperation at New York University, which is working with the United Nations on reform efforts. "There is a sense across the system that this is a mess ? overburdened, underfunded, overstretched."
Among the most noticeable failures in recent months: the inability of troops in Congo and the Darfur region of Sudan to stop the violence that is killing civilians, the difficulty in finding enough troops for either of those missions, and the unwillingness of any nation to lead a possible mission in Somalia.
In Congo in December, a contingent of 100 peacekeepers that was less than a mile away did not intervene in a rebel massacre that human rights investigators said killed 150 people; the peacekeepers reported that they were short of equipment and manpower and lacked the intelligence capacity to figure out what was happening in the nearby town.
In some conflict zones, peacekeepers do not have the technology to fulfill even one of their most basic tasks: tracking the movements of the armed groups they are trying to keep separate.
The problems prompted several leaders of the United Nations' peacekeeping efforts to embark on a new round of studies about how to ensure peacekeepers can fulfill their missions, the efforts being extended over several months to try to avoid suggestions for quick fixes that get shelved.
But some experts say the most important fix is perhaps the hardest. The Security Council, they say, needs to avoid sending missions to countries where there is not yet a real peace to keep.
The difference between peacekeeping mandates, one written in 1974 and the other taking effect less than 14 months ago, goes a long way toward explaining the difficulties United Nations troops now face.
The mandate that established the United Nations force on the Syria-Israel border nearly 35 years ago is just a few sentences long ? basically directing the troops to monitor the cease-fire. Ever since, the bloodiest scenes witnessed by the blue-helmeted soldiers deployed with little more than binoculars have mostly been of stray cows blown up by land mines.
The 2007 mandate establishing the United Nations peacekeeping force for Darfur covers more than two pages and details a battery of tasks, which include protecting civilians, guiding an inclusive political process, promoting economic development and human rights, and monitoring the border with neighboring states.
"Previously, you were there as an important symbol rather than as an active force," said Nicholas Haysom, the United Nations director for political, peacekeeping and humanitarian affairs.
The scope and number of missions expanded, in good part, to try to address past failures.
After sending five successive missions to Haiti, where the violence erupted again after they left, for example, the United Nations decided that peacekeepers should do more to ensure that countries were economically stable when they departed.
And after the massacres in Rwanda and Bosnia, the United Nations added the protection of civilians as a priority for each mission.
But many feel that peacekeeping has become a panacea, with the deployment of United Nations forces considered proof that the Security Council is paying attention to a crisis, whether the troops are effective or not. The Council has a tendency to just keep extending missions once approved.
As a result, the number of personnel on peacekeeping missions has grown to 113,000 soldiers, police officers and civilians assigned to 18 missions, from 40,000 in 2000.
In the past few months alone, the Security Council has voted to take over a European mission deployed in Chad, to beef up the force in eastern Congo and to contemplate deploying a new force in Somalia.
The peacekeeping budget has ballooned to $8 billion.
The United States pays about 27 percent of that budget, and Ambassador Susan Rice has suggested that the Obama administration will seek changes in peacekeeping missions, but she has yet to define them.
At least three different efforts have started recently within the United Nations system to find ways to streamline and improve peacekeeping, including one by the Council itself.
Experts inside and outside the United Nations say two changes are essential.
The forces need to train specifically for every aspect of their expanded mandates ? how to intervene to stop a rape epidemic in the Congo, for example.
But the most critical change, the experts say, would be for the United Nations to resist sending forces into active battle zones, including those where they could find themselves pitted against a national government.
"They can't start a war against a host government like a well-organized Sudanese campaign," said Major General Patrick Cammaert, a Dutch marine with long experience in United Nations peacekeeping operations. "That goes beyond protecting civilians; it is on a magnitude that a UN mission cannot deal with. It is a political issue that the Security Council has to decide before issuing the mandate."
And Major General B. T. Obasa, the military attaché at the United Nations Mission of Nigeria, which deploys some 4,000 soldiers in Darfur, expressed frustration that the countries contributing troops are not consulted more.
"We were supposed to go to Sudan to keep the peace, not for peace enforcement, which we find ourselves doing now," he said. "If the UN goes into any country, they should know and be certain what we are going to do there, what the requirements are and how long we will stay."