The Problem with Peacekeeping
The Problem with Peacekeeping
New U.S. Envoy on Ending Sudan’s War
New U.S. Envoy on Ending Sudan’s War
Op-Ed / Africa 5 minutes

The Problem with Peacekeeping

After a decade of dramatic failures in the 1990s—in Somalia, Rwanda, and Sierra Leone—peacekeeping operations are coming back into fashion as a primary international tool for protecting civilians in Africa. The United Nations and the African Union (AU), sometimes supported by the European Union, are increasing the number of peacekeepers on the continent this year, with new missions in, among other places, Sudan’s Darfur region, Chad, the Central African Republic, and Somalia. Four other peacekeeping missions were already in place before this latest surge of operations—in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Liberia, Ivory Coast, and Sudan. This expanded activity is a direct result of the UN Security Council’s finally accepting the need to challenge state authority and explicitly mandate peacekeeping missions to protect civilians under imminent threat. This should be good news, right?

Recent peacekeeping operations have indeed achieved notable successes in Africa. Yet, paradoxically, their success has not been in the area of civilian protection. The UN mission in Congo (Monuc) efficiently supported the peace process in the DRC and deserves considerable credit for the successful organization of Congo’s 2005 constitutional referendum and 2006 general elections. Yet in its efforts over the past five years to save lives in eastern Congo, it has performed abysmally.

Likewise, Unamid (the UN–AU mission in Darfur) is unlikely to provide much relief to Darfurian civilians under attack from the janjaweed militia, Khartoum’s bombardments, or rebels. And the current pressure on the UN to take over Amisom (the AU mission in Somalia) and deploy a peacekeeping operation in that country—in the absence of a viable peace process—is completely ill-conceived.

Conflicts such as those in Sudan, Somalia, Chad, and the DRC are mostly extreme manifestations of power struggles over resources, land, and political representation, combined with problems of ethnic marginalization and state collapse. Their resolution or settlement can only be found in negotiated political agreements that tackle the roots of the conflicts. The protection of civilians must be part of a political strategy that reduces short- and longterm risks for the population while addressing the need for immediate life-saving actions. Yet, tragically, peacekeeping missions dispatched to “protect civilians” have in the past lacked, and still today lack, the support, courage, and/or means to address the political rationales behind the violence.

The military component of a peacekeeping mission is only as effective as the mission’s political masters make it. When asked last year if the 26,000-person force approved for Unamid by the UN Security Council were sufficient, Salim Ahmed Salim, the AU’s Special Envoy for Darfur, rightly responded that what matters is “not how large a force it is but what they have come to defend,” since “without an agreement on peace, even a force of 50,000 can’t change the situation here radically.” A UN Security Council peacekeeping mandate with civilian protection provisions can only be implemented in the context of a political agreement. And the implementation of a mandate depends on the will to interpret it politically and to enforce it with the means provided.

This might seem obvious. Yet the international community is still advancing humanitarian and military efforts as quick-fix solutions to combat abuses against civilian populations in the absence of a proper political framework. Currently neither Chad nor Somalia nor Sudan’s Darfur region have viable peace agreements to implement. And when such an agreement has been established, a peacekeeping operation still cannot fulfill its responsibilities unless political pressure and engagement are sustained.

The Congo Confrontation

The August 2006 military confrontation in Kinshasa, Congo’s capital, is a good example of what happens when the international community aban- dons the implementation of a peace process in favour of bilateral interests and at the expense of civilian protection. Following the announcement of election results that showed President Joseph Kabila ahead in the first round of voting, his presidential guard clashed in the capital over several days with forces loyal to his principal opponent, Vice President Jean-Pierre Bemba. It was well known in the diplomatic community that the presidential guard was an oversized praetorian force involved in human rights violations wherever it was stationed. Yet Kabila adamantly refused to discuss reining in these forces, and international political actors either ignored the problem or dismissed it. The presence of Bemba’s troops was also ignored during the transition to elections, even though they too were a potential threat to civilians in the capital.

The failure to demobilize these troops or to integrate them into the army as part of the political transition permitted the confrontation that caused hundreds of civilian deaths. For months the international community treated the faceoff between the military forces as a technical problem of army integration and disarmament. Neither Monuc nor the diplomatic corps managed to engage the conflicting parties in political discussions to resolve the issue. Partly as a result, another military clash occurred in March 2007, killing hundreds more people, mostly civilians.

Meanwhile, the problem posed by renegade General Laurent Nkunda in eastern Congo is partly the result of five years of failed peacekeeping in that region. This situation, too, could and should have been tackled politically during the transition. Several plans to address the problem comprehensively have been suggested to Monuc and the transitional Congolese government. Instead, the crisis in the province of North Kivu intensified in 2007 because the government, Monuc, and international donors were not interested in dealing with—or refused outright to deal with—the issue politically. They put all their hopes for resolution in the electoral process and in Kabila’s victory, and addressed the Nkunda insurgency with a military containment strategy.

The reason for giving priority to military engagement in the name of—but, in fact, at the expense of—civilian protection was simple: The UN mission, the EU, and all major embassies were unwilling to decisively pressure the Congolese actors, Kabila in particular, to structure and sustain a reliable and successful political negotiation process, which ultimately is the only way to end such deadly insurgencies. The same mistakes are being repeated in other African theaters of intervention.

The Darfur Dilemma

In Darfur in particular, public pressure has drawn attention to the international community’s inability to protect civilians. The consolidation of initiatives under the AU–UN banner will only bear fruit over time if negotiations go beyond the superficial sticking points—such as compensation for crimes committed, and janjaweed disarmament— and deal with the root causes of the conflict. That means establishing greater and more equal representation of Darfurians at local and national levels, and greater sharing of wealth. Despite the humanitarian effort on the ground, civilians in Darfur continue to suffer because the international community has put insufficient political pressure on Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir to ensure that the government adheres to its past commitments. Addressing the root causes of the problem, and providing international support, will also be crucial if Unamid is to make a difference on the ground and avoid becoming a new scapegoat, blamed for its impotence in the effective protection of Darfurian civilians.

Finally, military operations usually create a void that needs to be filled by reformed government structures. Any peacekeeping force engaged in forceful disarmament of militias and area domination can only carry out these activities for a few days. Once a vacuum is created, it has to be filled by agreed state structures. If not, the same or other armed groups will quickly regain or expand their territorial control. The protection of civilians can only be successful operationally in partnership with the state. There is no way around that.

Sadly, in Darfur and beyond, the world seems more willing to contribute money to humanitarian efforts than to tackle the causes of conflicts. Peacekeeping missions are often used as a Band-Aid for complex conflicts, and are rarely equipped to do the political work that is vital to addressing the causes. In complex emergencies such as those facing the DRC, Sudan, and Somalia, the hostage population can only be sustainably protected if an effective political strategy accompanies the deployment of peacekeeping operations.


Former Program Director, Africa
Former Deputy Director, Africa Program

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