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Clearing the Bad Rap: In Defense of UN Peacekeeping Operations

By Dewaine Farria

MOGADISHU—The African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) got off to a rocky start. The fledgling AU Peace Operation has been in existence since January 2007. Still, as late as last year, al-Shaabab (Somalia’s al-Qaida linked militants) held much of the capital Mogadishu, the port city of Kismayo (the militants’ lifeline), and large swaths of the southern and central portions of the country. Finally, it now seems that AMISOM is turning the tide. AMISOM troops have held Mogadishu relatively firmly since last fall and are wresting Shaabab’s south-central strongholds from its grasp, most recently even shaking the militants’ grip on Kismayo. In the process, the AU’s Burundian, Ugandan, Djiboutian and Kenyan troops have learned a lesson the UN already knew: Multi-national Peace Operations are difficult. Few would disagree with this statement, but hardly anyone appreciates just how well UN does it.

UN Peace Operations get an especially bad rap in the United States. In the U.S., a person’s view of the UN is a kind of political litmus test: Positive means you’re liberal, negative means conservative. This is ironic because political expediency often prompts American politicians on both the left and right to be intentionally dishonest about the organization's scope of responsibilities. After the “Black Hawk Down” debacle in Mogadishu, Bill Clinton, knowing full well that the UN doesn’t come up with its own mandates, but rather enforces those handed down by the Security Council, commented that, “the UN has to learn to say no.” While this wasn't as blatant as President George W. Bush’s ambassador to the UN, John Bolton, saying one could “lop off the top 10 floors of the UN and nobody would notice,”  it demonstrates the same lack of understanding of the UN that allows American politicians to get away with such specious statements. If more Americans were better informed about these Peace Operations, they would see that they are plainly (and bi-partisanly) in our country’s interest and that the UN does them well.              

In the summer of 1956, Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal—prompting a crisis that tore at the fabric of the transatlantic Cold War alliance.  American attempts at preventive diplomacy were unsuccessful and on October 29, the British, French, and Israeli military intervened in Egypt. The UN was instrumental in securing an armistice to the conflict. On October 31, the Security Council called for an emergency special session of the General Assembly, which adopted a series of enabling resolutions to effect a ceasefire. Lester Pearson, the Canadian Secretary of External Affairs (and later Prime Minister), proposed the creation of a “truly international peace and police force …  large enough to keep these borders at peace while a political settlement is being worked out.” A few days later, Britain and France announced they would cease their military operations if Egypt and Israel would accept a UN force to keep the peace.

The formation of the UN Emergency Force (UNEF) was a major development in international relations. For the first time, the UN utilized armed troops instead of individual unarmed observers. It is important to note that neither the words “Peacekeeping” nor “Peace Operation” appear in the UN charter. And while it is Lester Pearson who is known as the father of the modern concept of Peacekeeping, it was Ralph Bunche, the Under-Secretary General for “Special Political Affairs,” who tackled the practical hurdles in establishing UNEF. Bunche, who had set up and directed the pioneering truce-observation operation in the Middle East in 1948, was the obvious choice to supervise this new type of military venture. A black American and the first Under-Secretary General of what are now the UN Departments of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) and Field Support (DFS), he pioneered the nitty-gritty of fielding an international army. From the onset, Bunche knew that he was working from scratch—  UNEF was unprecedented on the world stage. He also knew that the institution he was building would be the model for the future.

He and his team faced substantial hurdles including everything from logistics (the UN had no Department of Field Support at the time), to the status of forces agreement (could UNEF soldiers be tried in Egyptian courts?), to uniforms (many of the troop contributing nations used British style uniforms and, as Bunche put it, “they lack some popularity in that particular area”).  He and his team dealt with these problems remarkably quickly.  On November 4, 1956, the General Assembly formally requested that UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold explore the idea of establishing a peacekeeping force.  On November 15, the first UN troops arrived in Egypt.

Ralph Bunche understood the relevance of clearly defined and limited goals for the force very well: “The real importance of UNEF is that it buys valuable time. It is not in itself a political instrument, but it does purchase time in which political developments can take place and progress on fundamental issues can be made.”  This is what many fail to understand: a UN Peace Operation supports a peace process; it is not a substitute for one. UNEF was an amazing practical success. Hostilities were frozen and the Suez Canal was fully reopened to international shipping by April 1957.     

Despite the UN’s defects (and, like any big bureaucracy, it has many), the U.S. is dependent on the organization for cost effective Peace Operations. Just last year, UN Peacekeepers in the Ivory Coast helped prevent that nation’s post electoral crisis from escalating into a full-blown civil war. Ignoring for a moment the loss of human life, which can’t be quantified, how much would a protracted civil war in the Ivory Coast have cost the international community? The most often cited example of financial implications of this kind is the Rwandan genocide in 1994. Conservative estimates conclude that a six-month rapid deployment of UN peacekeepers to Rwanda (with robust and clear rules of engagement) would have cost 17 times less than the some $2 billion in humanitarian aid the country absorbed after the genocide. And this, of course, says nothing of the 800,000 human lives that might have been saved. As UN Ambassador Susan Rice put it, “If the U.S. was to act unilaterally and deploy its own forces in many of these countries; for every dollar that the U.S. would spend the UN can accomplish the mission for 12 cents.”

It’s easy to point at the cholera outbreak in Haiti or accusations of sexual exploitation and abuse and conclude that UN led Peace Operations are inept. They aren’t. They are difficult. As with any difficult military endeavor, things go wrong. But regardless, Peace Operations are sometimes necessary. Ambassador Rice says, “The other alternative to the UN is that we do nothing and that these conflicts fester, spill over, and create an environment where criminals can operate and where terrorists can find a safe haven.”   

The U.S. benefits immeasurably from the UN undertaking Peace Operations. The sooner American policy makers recognize this and start cooperating  with the organization in a way that enables it to live up to its obligations, the better.

*****

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Dewaine Farria is a Field Security Coordination Officer in the UN’s Department of Safety and Security.  He blogs at: http://fsconotebook.blogspot.com/

[Photo courtesy of United Nations Photo]

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