The UN and Humanity’s Hope — Peacekeeping

February 11, 2009

[First published March 7, 2005] I have posted blogs on the UN and human rights , and now want to say a few words about UN peacekeeping. I am sure that for most us who were optimistic about the UN, we especially thought it would help resolve international disputes and prevent or end war. This did not happen in its first decades, which many then assumed was due to the Cold War. When this ended, we thought that UN peacekeeping now would take center stage. It did not.

Some facts:

  • The UN is without a standing army and relies on volunteer troop contributions for its peacekeeping missions.
  • Since 1946, the UN has undertaken 60 peacekeeping missions, or about 19 percent of the 311 arms conflicts of all forms 1946-2004. Even in this small number of carefully selected missions, they have largely failed.
  • Over 1,580 UN peacekeepers have died during these missions.
  • The peacekeeping budget for 2004-2005 is $2.8 billion (26 percent paid by the U.S.).
  • The UN has underway 16 peacekeeping missions (in Cyprus, Georgia, East Timor, between India and Pakistan in Kashmir, between Ethiopia and Eritrea, among others), with a big one in southern Sudan upcoming. It will involve 10,000 soldiers and 700 police officers in a huge country as big as Western Europe (but will not involve the deadly conflict in Darfur). This will bring the peacekeeping deployment to about 85,700 personnel.
  • Peacekeepers come from 103 nations, of which Pakistan, Bangladesh, India, Nepal, and Ethiopia are the top providers, together totaling over 28,000 personnel. China contributes over 1,000 peacekeepers, while for the U.S. it is 428.
  • Most peacekeepers lack experience, training, equipment, and good officers.
  • Some of the failed operations have been in the Ivory Coast, Rwanda, Bosnia, Somalia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The Congo mission began in 1999 to stop a war involving six nations, and now involves about 17,000 peacekeepers. So far, they have been unable to stop the killing or democide, which in the last 3 or 4 years had amounted to about 3 million dead.
  • Some of the more successful operations have been in Cyprus, El Salvador, Liberia, and East Timor
  • Peacekeepers have sexual exploited and raped children and adults in their missions to the Ivory Coast, Haiti, and Burundi, and investigators expect to find more cases in other missions.
  • Although not strictly peacekeeping, the 1996-2003 UN oil-for-food program in Iraq during which thug Saddam Hussein paid bribes and kickbacks has cast a cloud over all the UN’s political activities.

In spite of a few successes in relatively small peacekeeping operation, overall the UN’s peacekeeping has failed. This was the conclusion of the important UN Brahimi Report, linked below, and is now increasingly the subject of serious study and commentary. See for example, the book Deliver Us From Evil: Peacekeepers, Warlords, and a World of Endless Conflict by William Shawcross.

The problem is with the fifteen member Security Council. The UN Charter explicitly empowers it to “determine the existence of any threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression” and “make recommendations, or decide what measures shall be taken . . . to maintain or restore international peace and security.” Each of the five permanent members of the Council, the U.S., France, United Kingdom, Russia, and China can veto any proposed action of the Council. China is still a communist dictatorship, and Freedom House now rates Russia as unfree. Either one of these countries by itself can scuttle any UN attempt to keep the peace and prevent or deal with aggression, terrorism, or democide.

Then there is France, of whom one can expect that it would veto any involvement by the U.S. that would heighten its prestige or international role.

The General Assembly elects for two-year terms ten members of the Security Council. Each has one vote, and nine votes, absent a veto by a permanent member, are required to pass a substantive resolution. The importance of this cannot be overstated. For 2005, the Security Council’s elected members were (with freedom ranking on civil and political rights by Freedom House in parentheses, where F = free, PF = partly free, and NF = not free) Algeria (NF), Argentina (F), Benin (F), Brazil (F), Denmark (F), Greece (F), Japan (F), Philippines (F), Romania (F), and Tanzania (PF). Of these, then, there is an 8 to 2 split in favor of the free democracies, the best prodemocratic ratio I’ve seen in the Council. Adding the US, United Kingdom, and France, the three permanent members rated free, to carry a resolution these 11 democratic members must first persuade China and Russia to at least abstain rather than exercise their veto (given France goes along or abstains).

However, most often in the past, even when China and Russia abstain or agree, one or more thug dicators on the Council had to be persuaded to go along. This was a frustrating diplomatic effort (perhaps entailing bribery — grants, economic aid that can be skimmed, favorable trade deals, silence on his crimes, and so on). The achievement of nine votes becomes even more difficult if any democracies abstain. Thus, Saddam Hussein, the bloody dictator of Iraq, could defy Security Council resolutions and kick out UN weapons inspectors at no cost. Finally, with Resolution 1441, the fourteenth resolution of the Security Council against Iraq, Hussein defiance posed too great a perceived danger to wait any longer and the United States led a successful military coalition against him.

On human rights, on stopping democide, especially that called genocide, and as we have seen, on peacekeeping — the peacekeeping that was the post-World War II hope of humanity — has failed. But, some would say, the UN has many functions, and surely some of its other agencies, like UNICEF and WHO provide nations with important aid and services, advancing the cause of welfare, health, development, and so forth. I will deal with this in another blog.

Link of Note

Report of the panel on UNITED NATIONS Peace Operations (August 2000)

This is the so-called Brahimi Report (named after the Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi who chaired the panel) on UN peace operations.

The United Nations was founded, in the words of its Charter, in order “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.” Meeting this challenge is the most important function of the Organization, and, to a very significant degree, the yardstick by which it is judged by the peoples it exists to serve. Over the last decade, the United Nations has repeatedly failed to meet the challenge; and it can do no better today. Without significant institutional change, increased financial support, and renewed commitment on the part of Member States, the United Nations will not be capable of executing the critical peacekeeping and peace-building tasks that the Member States assign it in coming months and years.