They are charged with protecting vulnerable civilians. Instead, United Nations peacekeepers stood by as government forces raped scores of women and girls outside their compound, and ignored calls for help as soldiers raped and assaulted foreign aid workers and murdered a local journalist. These terrible failures took place in South Sudan as it faced a return to civil war with violent clashes between President Salva Kiir’s forces and those of former vice-president and opposition leader Riek Machar, who has now fled the country. But they point to broader concerns about the blue helmets, which ministers from around the world will discuss in London next month.
The horrors of Rwanda and Srebrenica in the 1990s, when UN troops stood by in the face of genocide, destroyed confidence in the system and prompted a fundamental overhaul. Protecting civilians is now a priority, using force where necessary.
Deployments such as Sierra Leone were largely successful and helped to restore the reputation of peacekeepers. Their numbers are much greater now; China, in particular, has expanded the volume and scope of its contribution. The list of failures in South Sudan alone is disturbing; at least 30 died in an attack on a protection of civilians site earlier this year. But around 150,000 are still sheltering in such areas for fear of what would happen to them without the UN’s shield, however flawed it may be.
The development of peacekeeping operations has brought concerns of its own. There is anxiety that forces are stretched too thin, with 100,000 soldiers and police stationed in 16 countries, and disagreements about the remit of missions. The bulk of troops come from developing countries and often lack the experience and training for difficult assignments. At critical points, peacekeeping forces have chosen to take orders from their home governments rather than UN officials. When problems occur it is harder to remove unsuitable personnel if there is a shortage of people to replace them, especially when their governments threaten to pull others back too. South Sudan highlights the conundrum peacekeepers face when their job is to protect civilians from the forces of the government hosting them. No one wants to abandon civilians when political avenues have failed. Yet there is a danger that deploying peacekeepers can come to be seen as an easy fix, reducing the pressure to find real and lasting solutions.
Some of the problems with the system are those built into the UN itself. It is a vast, unwieldy bureaucracy which was structured 70 years ago, has grown ever since, and must constantly navigate its members’ politics. Security council status trumps logic.
The organisation’s response to its mistakes can be as damaging as the errors. News of the attacks in South Sudan coincided with the UN’s admission – after six years of external and, increasingly, internal pressure – that its peacekeepers caused a devastating cholera outbreak in Haiti in 2010. It flew in troops from an area where the disease was widespread, did not bother screening them, and failed to put in adequate toilet arrangements, so that faeces were dumped into water widely used for drinking and bathing. When inhabitants warned that an outbreak had resulted, the UN denied it for years. It has refused to pay any compensation. Ten thousand died, on a very conservative estimate, and cholera is now endemic. Experts want an apology, financial payments to victims and families and proper backing for the well designed but desperately underfunded plan to eliminate cholera in the country.
The mishandling of the case echoes the organisation’s initial response to allegations of sexual abuse and exploitation by peacekeepers in the Central African Republic – suspending the whistleblower and failing to support child victims – though it is now investigating. In both cases, a culture of denial undermined faith in an institution that is badly needed.
The choice of a new secretary-general this year is an opportunity to push for change; many complain that peacekeeping has slipped down the agenda on Ban Ki-moon’s watch. The London conference also offers the chance to make progress on practical measures such as better training and planning. The world needs blue helmets for some of its toughest tasks. It is only fair to them and those they protect to ensure they are ready to meet the challenges, and to respond quickly, effectively and transparently when they do not.
News Source TheGuardianNews