To commemorate International Day of U.N. Peacekeepers last Friday, the United Nations Association of the USA brought a diverse group of experts together to discuss the current state of U.N. peacekeeping. The forum highlighted the difficulties inherent in transnational nature of peacekeeping forces, which can become confused and ineffective due to language and training gaps as well as how peacekeeping will change now that a new administration is in office. While the speakers expressed optimism at the promises made by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice to make peacekeeping more central to U.S. foreign policy in coming years, they also acknowledged that other international and domestic issues may hamper those promises.
After failures in places like Somalia and Rwanda, U.N. peacekeeping has gotten the reputation of being ineffective and, in some cases, partly responsible for tragedies perpetrated on its watch. Ron Capps of Refugees International attributed some of the negative opinion to a misunderstanding peacekeepers’ mandate in many previous conflicts, which typically asked troops to maintain ceasefires, not to address the underlying causes of conflict. Cox added that missions are often hindered by the crippling costs inherent in shipping supplies to remote areas that have little infrastructure.
Participants countered critics and offered their personal stories of peacekeeping successes. Retired U.S. army officer Wayne Long spoke of peacekeepers “adopting” neighborhoods in Somalia and setting up literacy programs and basic health care services. Coulter Tillet of AECOM described his experience in Mogadishu, where peacekeepers ambushed by rebels worked together to make sure everyone got out of the situation alive, even when that meant returning to the danger zone to find their colleagues. Capps spoke of the lengths one peacekeeper went to in order to ensure the safe evacuation of a dangerous and under-supplied refugee camp in the jungles of Congo. These stories highlighted the fact that the value of peacekeeping comes not just from the work that missions do to protect against rebel incursions and secure borders; personal relationships forged among peacekeepers and with the people they are commissioned to protect help missions succeed, build a positive image of the United Nations among local populations, and keep peacekeepers returning to the trenches conflict after conflict.
Stories of bravery are often overlooked in the midst of dire humanitarian catastrophes. In both Congo and Darfur today, U.N. peacekeeping missions operate under Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter, which gives them the authority to use force to protect civilians. But even with this full authority, peacekeeping missions must have substantive backing from leading U.N. member states to have any hope of success. As civilians continue to die under the watch of the world’s largest peacekeeping missions in Darfur and Congo, successes like those profiled at the conference on Friday are, sadly, only a small consolation.
Rebecca Brocato and Laura Heaton contributed to this post.