Friday, August 6, 2010

Questioning Peacekeeping

Interesting piece from Foreign Policy’s website about Nigeria, Somalia and peacekeeping; on the surface the story is about the international community’s efforts to enlist Nigeria in peacekeeping efforts in Somalia. As Africa’s most-populous country and one of the continent’s economic powerhouses, it’s believed that Nigeria’s involvement in peacekeeping efforts would be a huge boost to a mission that is at best under-resourced and at worst in danger of outright failure. But Nigeria has so far refused, and for a very valid reason – they say that it’s foolish to send “peacekeepers” to a place where peace does not exist in the first place.

It’s hard to argue the Nigerians point. Peacekeeping missions, particularly UN-led peacekeeping missions, have gotten a pretty bad rap in the past twenty or so years (basically the post-Cold War period), marked by some tragic failures: Rwanda in 1994, Bosnia in 1995 and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which continues to this day. In Rwanda and Bosnia in particular, it’s widely acknowledged that UN peacekeeping troops stood by while mass slaughters of civilians took place basically under their noses. The UN argument is that the peacekeepers – essentially policemen in fancy uniforms – weren’t equipped to engage in combat with armed militias. Of course there is a good counter-argument to make that irregular militias are brutal when it comes to slaughtering women and children, but pretty quickly lose their nerve when someone actually starts shooting back at them, and that even a small number of lightly armed troops could have made a critical difference, though the UN will dispute this and will say they can’t put their peacekeepers into harm’s way.

But again, that’s exactly the Nigerians point – how can you keep a peace that doesn’t exist? Sending UN blue helmets (UN peacekeepers wear blue helmets to designate them as a UN-mandated force, hence the nickname) into a situation where armed militias are known to be operating and where civilians are at-risk, without the means to adequately defend the civilians or themselves makes them worse than useless; it not only leaves the civilians at the mercy of armed thugs, it undermines the legitimacy of the UN as an organization. Frankly, what’s needed in a situation like Bosnia, Rwanda the DRC or Somalia are not peacekeepers, but peacemakers – troops with enough firepower, and the mandate to use it, to restore some sense of order to a lawless place and to take civilian lives out of immediate danger (important to note here that the current Somali peacekeeping mission is under the authority of the African Union, not the UN, but the scenario is the same). But putting your nation’s young men and women at risk of dying for a notion as esoteric as saving the lives of some people halfway around the world is a tough sell in most places, which, as the Nigerians point out, has lead to the spate of under-resourced and ultimately ineffective peacekeeping missions we’ve seen in recent years.

For their part, the Nigerians are saying count them out, for now. They don’t intend to put their troops on the line until the international community gets a whole lot more serious about dedicating the time, troops and resources necessary to bring about a lasting solution to Somalia’s two-decades of strife. Hopefully it is a position that will spark a meaningful debate on the role of peacekeepers and peacekeeping missions around the world.
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