Droning On: Inviting Straight Talk on Peacekeeping Operations

23 Dec

On the afternoon of December 19, the Permanent Mission of Pakistan and the United Nations Foundation presented an important, far-reaching seminar on United Nations Peacekeeping entitled “Blue Helmets: New Frontiers.”

The seminar featured a wide array of senior officials (including Susana Malcorra representing the Secretary-General), diplomats (including the Ambassadors of France, Guatemala, Croatia and Canada) and experts from academia (such as Richard Gowan of NYU and Jean Marie Guéhenno of Columbia University) tasked with planning and implementing what are increasingly complex peacekeeping operations.  The sobering backdrop for the conversation was fresh violence in South Sudan where three Indian peacekeepers were killed as local youths stormed the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) base in Akobo.

The complexity of peacekeeping operations alluded to over and over by speakers has been fueled in part by the demands of global citizens and governments for the UN to take a more active role in resolving the many conflicts that flare up on our television screens and twitter feeds.  We’ve written previously (and likely will again) about some of the negative impacts of the politics of ‘doing something.’  But as more and more graphic images fill our homes and as people feel themselves further and further removed from any agency regarding responses to those horrors, the pressure on those who have understanding, skills and agency to ‘take care of’  effective responses to violence and the need for civilian protection continues to grow.

So, too, do the controversies.

Some of those controversies are specific to the architecture of robust peacekeeping response (peacekeeping in situations where there is really no ‘peace to keep’), such as the use of drones or the development of allegedly non-precedent-setting capacities such as the Intervention Brigade used in Eastern DRC.  Some governments, notably at this event the French, seem to be strongly convinced that, in the new world of peacekeeping, we must not be skittish about using force when force is called for.   ‘Living in the past’ where peacekeeping is concerned is tantamount to conceding relevance.   Using the technology at hand to increase the effectiveness and safety of operations is, at least for some governments and policymakers, a strategic imperative.

The French have a good point of course.   Changing times call for changing strategies.  Peacekeepers face different threats now as they respond to more complex and coercive mandates.  We all understand our responsibilities to protect civilians differently now. As a system, the UN now lives under the burdens of increasing expectations and (as Gowan noted) deployments that are likely to become more and more dangerous. But as other delegations and observers have noted, changes in how we conduct operations have implications for human lives that must also be taken into account.  The fact that we can ‘do something’ of a more coercive nature doesn’t automatically mean that we should, especially if we have not first considered alternatives that can both competently protect civilians and other stakeholders while bringing violence under effective control.

The issue here is not merely Brigades vs. Binoculars, coercion vs. passive observing.  The issue here, as it is in so many other parts of the UN system, is the degree to which we can both respond rapidly and effectively and at the same time reassure the skeptical – governments of member states, of course, but also persons victimized by a lack of timely and preventive response – that we are all committed to getting our protection strategies in the best possible order. More than the champions of coercive response (and perhaps even more than the champions of coercive restraint) recognize, this is a matter of trust as much as technical competence.

In a highly politicized environment (and more than one speaker noted the ‘political objectives’ attached to all PKOs) trust is an elusive agent.  Getting peacekeeping ‘right’ means applying the right tools to the missions to which we commit, and to apply those tools in the most timely, humane and effective manner, ensuring the safety not only of civilians but of humanitarian workers and peacekeepers themselves. But it also means doing all that is possible to head off threats before assembling the troops. (The best deployments, after all, are the ones that never have to be authorized.)  And it means giving credence to the skeptical, especially skeptical end users, some of whom are desperate for assistance but who also have long and vivid memories of unwelcome intrusions of all kinds in their not so distant past.   Skepticism isn’t always warranted of course.  And it should never become an excuse for inaction.   But ‘action’ comes attached to a long string of options, only some of which require offensively minded, coercive measures.

As Ambassador Rosenthal of Guatemala rightly noted, “just sending in the troops” to calm down any situation is simply not enough.  Indeed, at times it might be too much.    With due regard for the restraints imposed by sovereignty, the lack of definition of preventive capacity, and the absence of reliable, rapid-response deployments, the ‘situations’ alluded to by Ambassador Rosenthal are becoming more complex and more resistant to calm.   We need earlier, more attentive engagements by broader sectors of the UN system, along with more transparent assessments of the many areas where there is more work to be done to address our still evolving challenges.

Dr. Robert Zuber

One Response to “Droning On: Inviting Straight Talk on Peacekeeping Operations”

  1. protectiongateway December 31, 2013 at 12:31 am #

    Reblogged this on .

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