The United Nations needs to “change the way we are doing business” when it comes to peacekeeping operations, because the high-risk environments encountered in today’s conflict zones – especially on the African continent – come with new and greater threats to the traditional mission.
That’s the conclusion of a newly released report on blue-helmet missions whose review team visited UN peacekeeping operations in Central African Republic (CAR), Democratic Republic of the Congo (DR Congo), Mali and South Sudan to gather data and interview some 160 people in order to complete the work.
“Unfortunately, hostile forces do not understand a language other than force,” warns the report. It’s written by Carlos Alberto dos Santos Cruz of Brazil and William Phillips of the United States – career military professionals with prior leadership of the MONUSCO mission in the DR Congo and MINUSMA in Mali, respectively – and Salvator Cusimano. Cusimano serves as a special assistant to the operations director of the Africa II Division for UN Peacekeeping.
The “Improving Security of United Nations Peacekeepers” report explores the sharp rise in attacks on UN mission personnel in the last few years. “Today, two-thirds of all United Nations peacekeepers are deployed in environments of ongoing conflict and operate in increasingly complex, high-risk environments,” the report says. “Over the past three years, hostile acts against peacekeepers have doubled each year.”
That includes 195 deaths in violent attacks since 2013, more than any other 5-year period since the UN peacekeeping missions began in 1948. A global increase in armed groups, extremists, organized crime, and other criminal elements and threats has changed the reality for peacekeeping units that can no longer trust their role will be understood and respected, a conclusion not without its controversies.
‘Weakness kills our people’
What’s troubling about the data is the steady rise in fatalities tied to conflict-related violence since 2011. While there were two distinct spikes in UN peacekeeping deaths in the past – in the early 1960s and again in the early- to mid-1990s – neither reflected an upward trend. They were tied to specific crises, in Rwanda for example, and then returned to lower baseline levels. That’s not so in recent years.
This increase became critical in 2013 and extended into 2017, the authors said, and it reflects a continuing plateau that now has accounted for more than 20 percent of all fatalities in the history of UN peacekeeping missions. In 2017, the single deadliest year since 1994, there were 56 deaths recorded.
These fatalities have occurred during the UNAMID mission in Darfur, the UNMISS mission in South Sudan, MINUSMA in Mali and, in the CAR, a MINUSCA mission that saw an alarming trend in losses last year. Last week, MINUSCA again warned armed groups to pull back from civilian communities as it planned to establish a perimeter around Paoua, where some 60,000 displaced people are receiving aid.
African peacekeeping troops suffer the overwhelming number of losses, primarily from small arms fire attacks on camps or troop movements – except in Mali, where there is greater exposure to IEDs and related attacks. Along with Mali, the CAR and DR Congo are the deadliest conflict zones for operations.
Among the causes is the perception that peacekeepers are not targets, and the traditional view of missions fails to be proactive and leaves personnel unprepared for today’s evolving threats. The report authors mince no words on their recommendations about training – which needs to be adapted for the jungles of DR Congo or the weapons threats in Mali – as well as medical access, technology, and the perpetuation of a risk-averse and defensive posture for UN peacekeeping units.
“If the United Nations and Troop/Police Contributing Countries do not immediately take responsibility for reversing this trend,” the report authors warn, “they will be consciously placing personnel in harm’s way and compromising the mandates of peacekeeping operations.” Weakness kills our people, the report authors conclude.
New peacekeeping, new risks
The recommendations make clear that they’re not discussing mandates, as determined by the UN Security Council. Yet they do amplify previous warnings about the future of the peacekeeping mission, and they come at a time the UN took a USD$600 million annual peacekeeping budget cut including a 7.5 percent reduction in United States support for the overall USD$7.3 billion approved in June 2017.
They also come at a time when the behavior of UN peacekeepers has come under increasing scrutiny over allegations of rape and abuse common in the countries discussed, as well as cases leading to civilian deaths like that of Juba, South Sudan, in July 2016. Additionally, humanitarian aid organizations, particularly on the African continent, have questioned their level of protection but also how a shift to a more proactive peacekeeping role – as suggested in the new report – puts their own identity and mission at risk.
That was the argument made by Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) in a 2017 case study on Mali, following the 2016 Security Council authorization for a more robust MINUSMA role – one that indirectly tied aid workers, they said, to a mission viewed as political.
“Populations in general and armed opposition groups in particular may reject both the assistance and the humanitarian actors if they perceive aid as an integral component of the political agenda they oppose,” the MSF Mali case study warned. “The third risk is a consequence of the previous two: humanitarians may be attacked if they are identified as part of the enemy to fight.”
Yet it’s clear the UN peacekeeping operations have changed, and those threats and challenges aren’t going away. The new report urging improved security, with observations and recommendations in some 18 areas, may prove useful in reducing troop fatalities in Africa while establishing leadership structures that address related concerns as well.
The “Improving Security of United Nations Peacekeepers” report is available here.