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The pendulum swings back
12 June 2014

After the Rwandan genocide, the United Nations was berated for not doing enough to protect civilians. Now some nations are criticising it for doing too much. But do they have ulterior motives?

Since the Rwandan genocide, in particular, when UN peacekeeping failed the Rwandan people so badly, the UN has steadily bolstered its peacekeepers’ ability to protect civilians, including by giving them more robust mandates. The most important example of the new breed of UN peacekeeping operations has been the Force Intervention Brigade (FIB), structured as part of MONUSCO, the UN peacekeeping mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

Staffed by South African, Tanzanian and Malawian troops, the brigade was given a robust mandate – under UN Security Council Resolution 2098 – to conduct offensive operations to neutralise all of the many ‘negative forces’ or ‘non-state actors’ (i.e. armed rebels) threatening state authority and civilian security in the eastern DRC.

Last year, it successfully achieved its first big objective of defeating the Rwandan-backed M23 rebels, which had been fighting the DRC army. Since then it has been fighting lesser and more dispersed militias such as the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), established by Rwandan Hutus who had helped perpetrate the genocide – and so its achievements have been harder to assess.

Concerns have been simmering about the UN’s more aggressive posture

That it is still fighting, though, became apparent when the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) reported a few weeks ago that three of its soldiers in the FIB had been wounded in battle. Almost immediately after the UN Security Council mandated the FIB last year, it also adopted Resolution 2100, establishing the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission in Mali (MINUSMA). The mission was mandated – alongside the French force already in Mali – to use all necessary measures to stabilise the turbulent north especially, including preventing the return of the jihadist and separatist militias whom the French had driven out.

But now these two operations, in particular, have brought to a head a set of concerns – opposite to those that prevailed after the genocide – that have been simmering among some member states about the UN’s more aggressive posture.

On Wednesday this week, the Security Council held an open debate on peacekeeping in which these concerns and others were aired. Russia, one of the five permanent members of the Security Council, called for the debate and articulated these concerns in a letter circulated to the Secretary-General, saying that the increasing deployment of UN peacekeeping missions in intrastate conflicts, where there is little or no peace to keep, is placing peacekeepers in ever-growing danger.

India, one of the countries that historically contributed a large number of troops to these peacekeeping missions, strongly supported Russia’s concerns. ‘By mandating UN peacekeeping operations to deal with such internal conflicts, the Council is effectively compromising the principles of the UN Charter, on which the principles of UN peacekeeping operations are firmly rooted,’ India’s UN ambassador, Asoke Kumar Mukerji, said in the debate. ‘These principles are the consent of the parties to the operations, impartiality, and non-use of force, except in self-defence.’

These concerns don’t address the complex reality of peacekeepers on the ground

He also complained about ‘the emerging proclivity’ of the Security Council to mix traditional UN peacekeeping mandates with new interventionist mandates for a small portion of the troops in the same operation – citing the example of the FIB and MONUSCO, in which India has more than 4 000 troops. This mixing of mandates was ‘exposing traditional peacekeepers to unnecessary threats from armed internal conflicts which the UN has not itself instigated.

He added: ‘Further, by being asked to be party to the internal armed conflict, all UN peacekeepers, and not only the interventionist "peace enforcers," become liable to be treated as "enemy combatants" under international law, and thus effectively forgo both their impartiality and their immunity from prosecution.’

Rather paradoxically, the Security Council also debated a report by the UN’s Office of Internal Oversight Services, that there has been a persistent pattern of UN peacekeepers not intervening with force to protect civilians under attack, even when they have strong mandates to do so. The Council also discussed the concerns of some members – again, Russia seemed to be at the fore – about the use of unarmed, unmanned aerial vehicles (UUAVs, or drones) in peacekeeping missions.

They were first deployed in the eastern DRC in December last year to monitor the movements of armed groups, and have proved to be a partially successful tool for gathering intelligence economically over large areas. But Russia is concerned about the possible unintended misuse of the intelligence gathered by the UUAVs and possible violations of national sovereignty when they fly over border areas.

Gustavo de Carvalho, a senior researcher in the Conflict Management and Peacebuilding Division at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), says that the concerns articulated by Russia and other countries about the dangers of giving UN peacekeepers more robust mandates are not invalid. ‘But the trouble is these concerns don’t address the complex reality of peacekeepers on the ground and how they should respond to that reality.’

He also believes that how UN peacekeepers deal with threats often has more to do with the rules of engagement or the ethos of particular national contingents, than with the overall mission mandate. He cites the Chadians in MINUSMA, who have a reputation of readiness to fight – unlike some other national contingents that are prone to ‘hide in their barracks’ when trouble looms.

The lay person might suppose that the African Union (AU) could obviate some of these mandate ambiguities by getting its proposed interim rapid response force – the African Capacity for Immediate Response to Crises – up and running. Those rapid response forces would be formed by coalitions of willing AU member states and so would not have to agonise over ambiguous UN mandates.

De Carvalho disagrees, saying that UN peacekeeping missions and African rapid response forces are intended to operate in different environments, where the AU force is intended to fill the vacuum in a conflict zone until there has been an agreement. Nonetheless, he acknowledges that it is becoming increasingly difficult to draw such a neat distinction as conflicts, especially in Africa, grow ever more complicated.

To Annette Leijenaar, Head of the Conflict Management and Peacebuilding Division at the ISS, these problems essentially stem from the fact that the UN Charter is outdated and needs to be addressed to deal with current realities.

More cynically, some also question the motives of those countries that criticise the increasingly robust mandates of UN peacekeeping missions. Are they really concerned that the missions could be jeopardised? Or are they much more worried that a precedent is being set that may one day come back to bite them?

Some of the regular troop-contributing countries use UN peacekeeping missions as a handy way to pay some of their troops and keep them out of mischief at home, while giving them strict national mandates to stay out of harm’s way. Are they perhaps more concerned than anything else about losing these sinecures?

Peter Fabricius, Foreign Editor, Independent Newspapers, South Africa

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