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UN Peacekeepers - 2004-03-17


In March, a 16 person U.N. team landed in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, to prepare for a long-term, nation building mission. Once American and French troops have restored order, they will be replaced by blue-helmeted U.N. peacekeepers. The mission in Haiti will bring the total number of U.N. peacekeeping operations to fourteen. In this report, VOA’s Serena Parker examines the successes and failures in U.N. peacekeeping operations.

More than 45,000 troops from 94 countries currently serve as United Nations peacekeepers, whose missions range in size and scope. According to James Carafano, senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based research organization, some U.N. peacekeeping missions have been more effective than others.

“The U.N. peacekeeping missions can mean lots of different things,” he says. “They are done under different mandates in different parts of the world in different situations, different conditions, and the results and the success vary greatly depending on lots of different factors. The occupation of East Timor, for example, I thought was extremely well executed. It was run by the Australians. They had a lot of experience in this. They had a good clear mandate and it went very effectively.”

In 1999 East Timor, a former Portuguese colony that Indonesia invaded in 1975 and claimed for its own, overwhelmingly voted in support of a referendum on independence. Before withdrawing from the territory, pro-Indonesian militias embarked on a violent killing spree that cost hundreds of lives and destroyed much of the infrastructure. Afterwards, the United Nations set up a transitional authority. Currently, some 3,000 U.N. peacekeepers remain in East Timor.

James Carafano notes that a limited number of blue-helmeted peacekeepers can be crucial to rebuilding trust and restoring confidence between parties. However, he says, the United Nations shouldn’t send in peacekeepers to countries where combat operations are ongoing.

“Look at the multinational force in the Sinai, for example, which has been between Israel and Egypt for decades,” Mr. Carafano says. “That’s just a handful of troops. And it’s really only symbolic. But that’s the important thing – you can’t put a symbolic number of troops in harm’s way if it’s truly dangerous. For example, there were calls to put a handful of U.S. troops in Rwanda where there was a great genocide several years ago. And the notion was if we had just put a handful of troops in there, everybody would have stopped fighting because they would have recognized that the international community was paying attention. Well, that may have happened, but that handful of troops also may have gotten slaughtered.”

In fact, 10 Belgian peacekeepers who were on the ground in Rwanda were tortured and executed during the bloody rampage, when extremists from the ethnic Hutu majority killed 800,000 minority Tutsis and moderate Hutus in a hundred days.

The United Nations also failed to act to stem the ethnic violence that devastated the Balkans in the early 1990’s. Instead, the United States worked with NATO allies to come up with a peace plan. Retired U.S. Army General William Nash, currently a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, served as a military commander in Bosnia. He says the NATO-led peacekeeping operation in Bosnia succeeded because it was a mission with a clear mandate.

“Our mission was to enforce the terms of the Dayton Peace Accord,” he says. “So it was a straightforward mission based on an international agreement that the parties to the war or their specific representatives had agreed to. So it was difficult, but at least we had a good idea of what was expected of us, which is a crucial ingredient of any peacekeeping operation.”

When ethnic Albanians in the Serbian province of Kosovo were under siege in 1998, the United Nations did take action. General William Nash served as a regional U.N. civilian administrator for Kosovo. This undertaking was more complex than the NATO mission in Bosnia, he says, in part because the civilian role in a peacekeeping mission involves building the political, economic and social fabrics of a country.

For the past eight years, Linda Polman a Dutch journalist based in Freetown, Sierra Leone, has followed the U.N. blue helmets, as they are known, around the world. One fact she finds striking is the lack of U.N. peacekeepers from Western countries: “The top five contributors of troops to the U.N. missions are Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Nigeria and Ghana, and those countries rate among the poorest member states of the United Nations. And I’ve found that less and less Western countries are willing to send in troops to the United Nations missions.”

According to Linda Polman, Western countries appear to be following the lead of the United States, which has been wary of committing peacekeepers since a mission in Somalia turned deadly. On October 3, 1993 two U.S. Black Hawk helicopters were shot down in Mogadishu, Somalia, leading to the bloodiest U.S. infantry battle since the Vietnam War. Nineteen U.S. soldiers were killed and 84 wounded. They were there as part of a U.N. mission to restore law and order and provide humanitarian assistance. Despite that tragic loss, Linda Polman argues that the countries that authorize peacekeeping missions should also be held responsible for conducting them.

“It is the five permanent members of the Security Council that tell the U.N. soldiers where to go and when to go,” Ms. Polman says. “And when you see that the five permanent member countries of the Security Council contribute altogether fewer troops than each of the top contributors individually contribute, then you get a very sad picture.”

One of the reasons soldiers from poorer countries serve as peacekeepers is that U.N. peacekeepers are relatively well paid by comparison with salaries in less developed countries. According to Linda Polman, poor countries see peacekeeping as a lucrative business. “If they send soldiers to serve in United Nations missions, these poor countries make what is for them a lot of money,” she says. “They cash $1,100 per soldier per month from the United Nations. Now for me, as a Dutch person, or for Americans, this is peanuts (nothing). But for poor countries it’s an interesting amount of money. So for poor countries sending soldiers to the United Nations missions is a very interesting extra source of income. U.N. soldiers have become an export product for poor countries.”

U.N. peacekeepers are supposed to arrive for duty fully armed and prepared, but some soldiers don’t even bring boots when they show up for a mission. There was a case of a group of Bangladeshi peacekeepers who arrived in the northern Balkans completely unprepared for the brutal winter weather. But according to General William Nash, the scope of a U.N. peacekeeping mission is more important to its success or failure than the home country of its troops.

“I would say that when there is a clear mandate and a reasonably sized force, then nationality and the like don’t make as much of a difference,” General Nash says. “It’s the political agreement or the political decision making that brings about the operation that’s the most important factor in its success or failure as opposed to whether the peacekeepers were from any particular country.”

As the United Nations prepares for a second mission in Haiti, observers say that unless there is the political will and financial resources to rebuild the country’s scarred political system and economy, the nationality of the peacekeepers is irrelevant.

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