When UN Peacekeeping Goes Horribly Wrong
This article originally appeared in the American Conservative on May 17, 2018.
Whenever the U.S. deploys soldiers to global hotspots such as Iraq and Afghanistan, the circumstances are hardly ideal. Complex counterinsurgency tactics cost substantial blood and treasure, and temporary gains rarely translate to long-term stability. But at least the deployments are public knowledge, and a code of conduct is in place to address civilian safety.
Unfortunately, not all Pentagon (i.e. taxpayer-funded) missions are held to the same standards of warfare. The Department of Defense foots the bill for more than a quarter of the United Nations’ $7 billion annual “peacekeeping” budget. But the UN’s sloppily conceived missions fail to live up to their namesake, exacerbating global issues and resulting in human rights abuses. While U.S. leaders have been moving to curtail these annual contributions, they haven’t moved quickly enough. Taxpayers cannot afford to shovel billions of dollars a year to such an unaccountable organization mired in failure.
If asked to identify the Pentagon’s areas of operation, most Americans would point to countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan (and maybe jihadist hotspots such as Niger and Somalia). But UN “peacekeeping” operations are seldom discussed by Pentagon officials, despite the billion-plus dollars forked over annually to the organization. A quick glance at the UN website reveals 15 active operations led by the Department of Peacekeeping Operations, with the plurality centered in Sub-Saharan Africa.
The idea behind these missions is fairly straightforward: get armed observers from “disinterested” countries with no stake in a conflict to keep warring parties from tearing each other apart. But too often, these boots on the ground focus on protecting those close to the elites, instead of communities on the periphery.
A UN high-level independent panel on Peace Operations concluded in 2015 that the “focus of peace processes and Statebuilding efforts tends to be on the capital and on a small political and civil service elite,” to the detriment of peacekeeping operations. Starting from a capital city and expanding safe and secure areas via a competent armed force could be an effective counterinsurgency strategy, but the UN is incapable of such a grand undertaking.
Former UN undersecretary-general Jean-Marie Guéhenno points out that UN operations don’t have the level of integration or command structure to function as armed forces capable of counterinsurgency operations. Instead, peacekeepers are too often sitting ducks in ferocious, unwinnable civil wars. The organization’s largest peacekeeping operation in the Congo has hardly accomplished anything, as observers regularly unearth mass graves without any real ability to stop the perpetrators. The “tourists on helicopters” have been repeatedly unresponsive to calls for help from distressed villagers, even when peacekeepers were only a few miles away.
And when peacekeepers do interact with vulnerable villagers, the results are often devastating. In the Congo, hundreds of civilians have documented sexual abuse complaints against the UN force entrusted to protect them. Fourteen-year-old girls in UN-guarded camps should not have to fear being violated by “peacekeepers.” And Congo is hardly the only place that’s been victimized by predators in blue helmets: there have been thousands of complaints worldwide over the last decade alone. The UN’s habit of barring host countries from participating in abuse investigations only furthers the perception of a corrupt, unresponsive organization.
That’s not to say, of course, that the UN cannot be an effective peacekeeping force. In war-torn countries such as Sierra Leone, the UN proved capable of keeping warring parties apart and bringing both sides to the table. But the failures drastically outweigh successes, and often increase civilian suffering. With this terrible track record in mind, American policymakers must take further steps to ensure accountability.
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley was correct to insist in March that Washington fund no more than a quarter of peacekeeping operations. But maintaining funding into the billions of dollars still gives a blank check to failed UN operations across the globe, and invites further instability and suffering.
The best response would be to tie future aid to abuse investigations and sensible counterinsurgency strategy. That would allow the U.S to ensure that UN efforts are kept in line with our values and interests.