Taps for UN Peacekeeping?

The Security Council members, led by the British, French and Americans, have stretched the meaning of peacekeeping to the point that the concept today is unrecognizable and increasingly unrealistic. In the late forties and fifties the idea was to station military officers to observe the actions of waring parties to make certain that they stuck to the agreements that they had negotiated. Peacekeepers were not supposed to come into harms way because their presence was at the request of the conflicting parties and they were seen as neutral observers.  A blue helmet bought the wearer immunity.  Thus, it was a cheap way to keep everyone honest and to assure each side in a dispute that the other was not taking advantage of a ceasefire to improve its military position for another round of fighting.  It made sense and it worked.

Peacekeepers who were interposed between two disputants, with the disputants full agreement, gave each side an excuse for not breaking the truce or ceasefire.  It was only when Nassar demanded the withdrawal of UNEF I, for example, that the '67 war between Israel and Egypt became inevitable. Up to that point Nassar had been able to tell the Arab and non-aligned world that he could not break through the UN positions by force in order to go to war against Israel.  Once the international force was gone, Nassar had no choice if he wanted to retain his credentials as the leader of the Arab and non-aligned worlds.  

A similar consideration has led up to now to stabilization of the post 1967 lines between Syria and Israel. It was not convenient for either side to upend a UN arrangement that was seen as keeping the parties from war and gave each the cover for not escalating occasional flareups.  These were all cases where stable countries were involved, staring at each other across an abyss, but commanding disciplined forces and speaking with one voice. 

Increasingly, those conditions do not exist in peacekeeping operations today.  When peacekeeping is proposed, the clarity of two contending parties has often been absent. Sides are fragmented into factions with different agendas and forming at best a loose confederation subject to breakup at any moment.  Countries are divided along historic fault lines such that there is no reliable central authority. Differences are deeply engrained in race, sect, tribe, religion and history.  Alliances are formed and reformed and your friend today may be your enemy tomorrow.  Under these circumstances it is virtually impossible to stay neutral or at least to be seen by all contesting parties as neutral.  Blue helmets are not nearly as imposing as guns if the guns are seen to be supporting the enemy. 

For many years the UN was immunized from being embroiled in messy conflicts by virtue of the US - Soviet confrontation and consequent inability of the Security Council to act except in rare circumstances. The Security Council was saved by its own immobility and thus was only called on for clear and agreed tasks. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union there has been no natural set of brakes, no excuse for the Security Council not to act when hostilities erupt.  

So peacekeeping has had to evolve along with the nature and complexity of the conflicts involved. It is no longer enough to put a thin blue line between combatants.  Now there have to be lawyers, accountants, economists, police, and politicians to put Humpty Dumpty back together again.  And the question has come to be whether or not all the king's horses and all the king's men can put Humpty Dumpty together again.   We have moved from peacekeeping to social engineering and nation building and it is not at all clear that the UN is the right vehicle to undertake these roles and, if it is, whether it is organized and financed to do the job.  

The price tag for missions has skyrocketed.  The original mission in the Middle East of an observer force, UNTSO, is still operational and costs $70 million a year.  The Observers along the India-Pakistan border only cost $21 million.  But new missions, the so called "robust" missions like the hybrid Darfur mission has a price tag of $1.7 billion a year, the Congo is $1.5 billion and in Sudan with two missions the UN is spending a billion dollars a year.  And those prices only cover the peacekeepers, not the associated costs of security, aid, consultants and in-country support costs. 

In 1990 there were less than 14,000 uniformed peacekeepers, today there are 98,639 from 114 countries.  How long will governments agree to provide soldiers and how long will parliaments agree to pay for them as budgets are tightened around the world?

Peacekeeping has been a valuable tool for diplomacy, but if Rwanda, Somalia, Darfur, and Bosnia are any indication the tool has lost its edge and now risks undercutting other critical UN operations as belt tightening takes its toll across the UN board.  It is time to reduce the UN profile in peacekeeping and to turn to ad hoc groups of countries to police their own problems.  It is time to rely on regional organizations or combinations thereof to do the heavy lifting. And if agreement and cost sharing cannot be reached on a regional or ad hoc basis, so be it.  If Rwanda did not stimulate the African Union to act to avoid genocide, then the blood is on their hands.  If the OAS cannot police Haiti then why should the UN be asked to do so? Countries will not take on the responsibility for these problems so long as someone else is there to pick up the heavy burden. Have we fallen into the trap of the international community being the first responder when it should be the last resort?    

Amb. Walker