Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Rocky Road for UN Peacekeeping

It's the best of times and the worst of times for United Nations peacekeeping. With 20 missions and nearly 130,000 authorized military, police and civilian personnel, it is obvious that the UN's "blue helmets" are much in demand; but strangely, there seems to be waning support for peacekeeping in important ways. There seems to be growing reluctance among key States to support operations seen as too politically unsavory or dangerous; and some of the supposed beneficiaries of peacekeeping seem to be not grateful at all.

Jean-Marie Guéhenno, Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations, warned the General Assembly's Special Committee on Peacekeeping Operations yesterday that the faltering support could mean big trouble for UN authorized operations in the Sudan, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Afghanistan and Eritrea.

Even as he spoke, some 700 UN troops from Eritrea were headed home to Jordan and India. Frustrated by the Eritrean government's blockage of fuel and food supplies to UN peacekeepers, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had tried to temporarily relocate them to the Ethiopian side of the disputed border, but finding that effort blocked too, resorted to a complete pull-out. He said in a report to the toothless Security Council that the Eritrean government's obstructions had put peacekeepers in an "untenable position."

Guéhenno, who is reported to be leaving his post because Ban, under pressure from Washington, "reformed" his department by taking away its logistics capabilities and putting it under a new Under-Secretary, warned that a "serious failure in one of our missions would be enough to put at risk the credibility of the whole of peacekeeping, which we have worked so hard to restore over the past few years."

What he meant by "credibility" is a mystery, for UN peacekeeping has a record of grand failures that includes Palestine (where the first UN mission was mandated in 1948), Rwanda (where a force was pulled out even as the 1994 genocide was in progress), and Bosnia (where peacekeepers stood by as the "safe area" the Security Council had declared in Srebrenica was overrun and subjected to mass murder and rape).

In the Sudan, where the savageries of Darfur were not even acknowledged by the Security Council till a solitary UN official quit his job to publicize the Organization's embarrassing inaction, the Kharatoum regime has stalled deployment of a 26,000 UN-African Union force. At present, the Darfur force consists of little more than the 9,000 or so African Union troops who have been there ineffectually for over a year.

In other crisis spots UN peacekeepers have gone into the field never to return: they have been stuck in Cyprus and the India-Pakistan border for decades. Where they have succeeded -- including Liberia. Sierra Leone, Côte d’Ivoire and Timor-Leste, all in the last decade -- it is because the outside Powers which sustained conflict (and that includes not just States but mining companies), achieved their ends or decided to call it quits.

In Afghanistan, where the murky geopolitics of resource-rich Central Asia collide with the trade in heroin and "extremist Islam" (represented by the Taliban and rogue elements of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence), "peacekeeping" is hardly the word for what is going on. The UN has subcontracted its pacific role to NATO, which has tried in recent months to overshadow the Karzai government on the grounds that it is politically incompetent and logistically inefficient. The high point of that effort was the unsuccessful effort to place a British spy turned politician
in combined charge of the UN, NATO and EU operations in Afghanistan (see February 10 post "Why Karzai Nixed Paddy Ashdown").

The net result of all this is that the moral authority of the United Nations (which it retains mainly by default, there being no other institution to represent the universal hope for peace), is being undermined. That would be undesirable at the best of times; when the world is entering a period of major instability caused by a tectonic shift of economic and political power to asia, it could be disastrous.

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