The Politics of ‘Doing Something’

26 Aug

On Wednesday, August 21, a special briefing on peacekeeping was offered for diplomats and NGOs entitled: “Humanitarian law, peacekeeping/intervention forces and troop-contributing countries: Issues and challenges.” The briefing was organized by the Asian-African Legal Consultative Organization and featured presentations from UN Legal Affairs, the ICRC and Dr. Scott Sheeran from the University of Essex.

The briefing had two objectives:   to explore International Humanitarian Law (IHL) implications for UN peacekeeping forces involved in coercive actions to prevent violence against civilians; and to examine from the UN’s perspective the value of the recently deployed Intervention Brigade in the DRC.

The IHL objective yielded some important insights. For instance, the panelists reminded participants that UN peacekeepers are ‘protected forces’ which underscores the issue of whether ‘protective’ status applies to peacekeepers engaging in aggressive actions, even if those actions are in accordance with a Security Council (SC) mandate (specifically the ‘do whatever is necessary’ mandate).  They also raised the issue regarding the applicability of IHL to peacekeepers who are, technically speaking, not parties to the conflict taking place in their zone of operations.   While Status of Forces agreements generally reference IHL responsibilities, most Troop Contributing Countries (TCCs) appear to reject the notion that IHL applies to them in the application of their Security Council mandated tasks.  Thankfully, the UN explicitly affirms its responsibility to abide by IHL in all its operations, including ensuring that any applications of force by Peacekeeping Operations (PKOs) are proportionate and carefully targeted.

There were of course many more ‘challenges’ on the table than ‘resolutions’ to challenges, and this was especially evident when it came to the discussion about the Brigades, a deployment about which the panelists seemed more enthusiastic than was the larger audience. The stated objective of the Brigade is ‘to “neutralize and disarm” the notorious 23 March Movement (M23), as well as other Congolese rebels and foreign armed groups in strife-riven eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.’  Of prime importance, to be sure.

As some readers of this blog know, we facilitate work on a proposal for a UN Emergency Peace Service (UNEPS), a standing, complementary, gender and service integrated capacity that we feel has great promise but that has had limited traction to date within the UN system.  The community surrounding UNEPS (see for example www.globalactionpw.org/?page_id=102) continues to wrestle with a series of questions that are germane to the Brigades as well.   Such questions include the following:

Are there sufficient resources to honor this coercive mandate and the expectations that this deployment is creating?  The Brigade consists of 3000 personnel supplemented by other force arrangements, including drones.  Can such a force save at least some lives in an environment as unforgiving as the Eastern DRC? Clearly there is reason to believe that it can.  But should this be equated with a sufficiently strategic and robust response to years of violence perpetrated by a range of state and non-state actors?  The jury on this is still out.  I used to work as a chaplain in an urban hospital in a tough neighborhood.  If 40 patients are being rushed into an Emergency Room and I send an orderly, a shift nurse and a resident doctor to meet them, this is indeed ‘better than nothing,’ (a phrase that at least one panelist used while responding to concerns about the Brigade), but does it constitute a ‘good faith’ response?  Moreover, an overwhelmed capacity is one that is more likely to make mistakes – sometimes grievous ones.  Despite the best, most disciplined efforts of Brigade troops, mistakes that result in body bags of troops themselves or civilians caught in the cross fire will quickly dissipate expectations and even endanger other stakeholders.

How does this deployment affect options for an eventual political agreement?  There was some sensible discussion back and forth as to whether the deployment of the Brigade would make a political settlement more or less likely.  In the context of discussions about development of UNEPS, we have spent much time thinking through the contexts and implications of deployment. How does importing a coercive military presence into a region that has been coping with violence for many years affect the political and social dynamics of those communities, including their ability to participate in a negotiated settlement?  Our general (not universal) assessment is that such coercion is best applied at the earliest possible stages, before attitudes harden and violent recrimination becomes habitual.   The longer the fire is allowed to burn, the more problematic the efforts of the eventual ‘fire responders.’

Does this deployment increase the vulnerabilities of existing peacekeeping operations or other UN field activities that are NOT involved directly in forward projections of power?  From my years working in a crack neighborhood, I know that when police abuse or overstretch their mandates, it is not just the abusers who are placed at risk.  All police and other service providers within and beyond the security sector are at risk.   The Brigades may benefit from some institutional distance from the rest of MONUSCO (as well as from other UN activities on the ground), but M23 rebels are not likely to sort through the protocols to ensure that they only take out their hostilities on Brigade forces.   They see a UN helmet or convoy, they fire a shot.

Does the deployment represent a genuine, due-diligence response to violence or is it more about just ‘doing something’ after a period of insufficient engagement?  In the case of the Brigades, critics can point to a lack of capacity, a conflict that has been raging for years, a massively sized conflict zone, an expanded coercive mandate institutionally tied to less coercive operations, etc.   If this is in any way a token gesture of response or even a proving ground for a more coercive PKO that could set a precedent for future engagements, is this the right time or place for that?  Is this the population on which such an ‘experiment’ should be conducted?   This issue has come up often in the context of our own UNEPS proposal — assuming that it is eventually fully developed and authorized, where and when should it be best be used? And how should it be used to ensure positive security outcomes rather than mostly symbolic responses?

We were grateful for the efforts that went into this briefing, but we were a bit dismayed that none of the panelists seemed sufficiently sensitive to the direction of the questions being posed from the floor.   For instance, I assume that all of them have had experiences of being overwhelmed by external challenges in their personal and professional lives and making unfortunate mistakes as a result.  Thinking through the implications of capacity-related mistakes in a theater like the DRC is not a particularly high bar. Moreover, most responses during briefings like this tend to accentuate the political more than the normative, as in “everything here at the UN is political.”  Politics granted, though, it is not unreasonable to wonder at what point the weight of risks and challenges outweighs the need to simply ‘do something?’  Indeed, if this Brigade has some politicized elements of a half-hearted or even ‘experimental’ response with implications for future deployments, it is even more important that mission assessments are robust and free as possible from politicized dynamics.   As horrible as the violence in the DRC has been we need to take particular care to avoid ‘practicing’ coercive engagements on human lives, especially lives that have already gone through so much during these long years of conflict-related abuse.

Dr. Robert Zuber

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