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Monday, 6 January 2014

United Nations peacekeepers fail to stop African wars

NAIROBI: The United Nations has dispatched a record number of peacekeepers in Africa in recent years, deploying soldiers to trouble spots such as the Central African Republic and South Sudan. Yet the “blue helmets” and thousands of other soldiers sent by African regional groups have failed to prevent fresh spasms of violence.

The peacekeeping forces have cost billions of dollars, largely paid by the US and European nations. But they have been hobbled by weak mandates and a shortage of manpower and equipment. Some critics also say Washington, its allies and UN officials are at fault in the peacekeeping failures, for not following through with enough political pressure to prevent crises.

”The political and diplomatic elements of the international response to most Africa conflicts have been slow and ineffective,” said John Prendergast, a long-time Sudan and South Sudan activist. That, he said, “has put more pressure on peacekeeping missions to fulfil objectives for which they are totally unprepared.”

In South Sudan, a power struggle that US and UN officials were aware of for more than a year has now sparked an ethnic and political conflict that has killed hundreds, raising fears of a potential civil war.

On Friday, the warring sides held their first round of peace talks in neighbouring Ethiopia, but the conflict showed no signs of abating. Already, nearly 200,000 people have been displaced by the fighting.

Frustration with the peacekeepers is rife. Ibrahim Muhammed, 30, fled the volatile Sudanese region of Darfur a year ago and arrived in South Sudan searching for a better future. Today, he languishes inside a UN peacekeeping base in the war-ravaged South Sudanese town of Malakal, living in a tent made of blankets.

”The UN peacekeepers have not been able to stop the violence in Darfur, and so I came here,” said Muhammed, a shopkeeper. “But in South Sudan now, the situation is similar to Darfur. The peacekeepers won’t be able to stop the attacks.”

Toby Lanzer, a senior UN official in South Sudan, conceded there are limitations to what peacekeeping forces can accomplish in trouble spots. In many situations, including South Sudan and the Central African Republic (CAR), UN and African forces lack resources and a sufficient number of soldiers, he added.

There are now more UN peacekeepers in Africa than at any time in history — roughly twice as many as in the early 1990s. As of the end of November, more than 70 per cent of the 98,267 UN peacekeepers deployed globally were in sub-Saharan Africa, according to Peter Pham, executive director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Centre.

UN forces have often been limited by mandates that only allow them to fight in self-defence. Shortly before genocidal attacks erupted in Rwanda in 1994, for example, UN peacekeepers learned that arms were being imported illegally by an ethnic Hutu militia.

But senior UN officials ordered the peacekeepers not to seize the weapons because it was outside the scope of their mandate, their commander, Brig. Romeo Dallaire, later recounted in a book.

More than two years ago, the UN mission in South Sudan was authorised to have up to 7,500 military personnel and police. But it was unable to stop the ethnic and political blood-letting that had been occurring since the country won independence from Sudan in 2011.

In Jan 2012, the UN mission was heavily criticised by victims and community leaders for doing little to stop a wave of tribal killings in Jonglei State, the same region that is now a battle zone.

African peacekeeping troops not under the UN banner often have even less equipment, training and resources. Yet, they are increasingly being called upon to help contain crises around the continent.

In CAR, African Union peacekeepers have been unable to stop the brutalities committed by Muslim Seleka rebels and Christian militias in the sectarian conflict. Soldiers from Chad, a Muslim nation that is part of the peacekeeping force, have been accused of supporting the Muslim rebels.

”Even with increased engagement in peace operations, questions remain about the quality and capability of African troops,” Comfort Ero, the Africa director for the International Crisis Group, wrote in a blog on the group’s website last month.

In CAR, hundreds of soldiers from France, the former colonial power, were sent to defuse the crisis after African peacekeeping forces failed to do so.

Still, when resources, training and a strong mandate are provided to African peacekeepers, there have been some successes.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, where the UN mission has been widely criticised as unable to protect civilians, the recent deployment of a rapid reaction UN combat brigade with a strong mandate helped defeat the M23 rebels.—
(By arrangement with the Washington Post)


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