UN forces toughen up

"Neutrality" and "impartiality" are principles that have undergirded the United Nations since its inception 60 years ago.

But a fundamental shift is under way within UN peacekeeping: the blue helmets are getting a stronger mandate, pushing the boundaries of impartiality in an effort to restore lost credibility.

After a string of failures in the 1990s in Rwanda, Bosnia, and Somalia, the UN is beginning to employ more "robust peacekeeping" to protect civilians and go after so-called spoilers of peace agreements. The result is more UN troops on the ground than ever before. And a new report, funded by Congress and to be released Wednesday, calls for the creation of a rapid-reaction UN force.

The UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) currently has 17 missions around the world, including five launched over the past 22 months:

Liberia (September 2003), Ivory Coast (April 2004), Haiti (June 2004), Burundi (June 2004), and Sudan (March 2005). Some 67,000 troops are currently on duty, up 48 percent from a year ago.

And pressure is building to strengthen peacekeeping even further. While Wednesday's report, produced by the United States Institute for Peace, a Washington think tank funded by Congress, stops short of recommending a standing UN army, it says member states should be more willing to commit money and troops to UN missions.

"Member states must substantially increase the availability of capable, designated forces, properly trained and equipped, for rapid deployment to peace operations on a voluntary basis," the report says.

This shift comes after decades of a hands-off approach. From the creation of the UN in 1945, peacekeepers were mostly "observers" - unarmed, only sent with the consent of combatants, to stand between parties that had already agreed to a cease-fire. UN peacekeepers played important roles in the Suez Canal crisis (1957), the Belgian Congo (1960-64), and in Cyprus, where they were first deployed in 1964 and still patrol the divided island today.

Then came the 1990s. In Somalia (1993), Rwanda (1994), and Bosnia (1992-95), UN peacekeepers were called in to monitor agreements. And in each case, when deals were breached, the UN and its leading member-states opted for more diplomacy rather than military action to halt the killing.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, then the UN peacekeeping chief, later ordered internal inquiries that chastised UN "impartiality even when confronted with attempted genocide." Mr. Annan commissioned the first overall assessment of UN peacekeeping, released in 2000. Known as the Brahimi Report, it lamented the need to continually cajole member-states for more troops and cash to equip missions. Currently, the US funds 27 percent of all peacekeeping missions. Brahimi urged the world body to be more realistic about the likelihood of success and to match a tough mandate and resources to the reality on the ground.

Some of those resources are already in place. Thanks to the Brahimi report, the UN logistics base in Brindisi, in southern Italy, has been stocked with a "strategic equipment reserve," with enough weaponry and equipment to deploy within 30 days for smaller missions, 90 days for larger. In the past, missions required at least six months to roar into action. This change derived from analysis that even a robust international force of 500 to 1,000 well-trained, well-equipped troops would have been enough to deter the Rwandan Hutus and prevent the 1994 genocide of Tutsis.

The DPKO seems to be responding. After rebels in Sierra Leone killed several UN peacekeepers in 2000 and took hundreds hostage, the UN endorsed a contingent of British special forces to free the hostages.

In eastern Congo, the UN had long been criticized for failing to curb Lendu attacks on Hema civilians. So when nine Bangladeshi peacekeepers were ambushed and killed three months ago, the UN responded ferociously. Peacekeepers in armored personnel carriers and attack helicopters pounded a Lendu camp, reportedly killing 60.

"We've learned you have to have robust capacity and cannot allow bad things to take place in front of you without doing something about it," says retired US Gen. William Nash, who led US forces into Bosnia, then the UN mission in Kosovo. "None of this is about perfection. There's no peacekeeping operation that isn't messy and difficult. But it's a quest to uphold the highest standards of the international community."

Today, peacekeepers in Congo conduct "cordon and search" operations in remote villages, sweeping for weapons. They've reportedly persuaded most of the roughly 15,000 militiamen to disarm. But the last holdouts appear to be fierce: Another Bangladeshi peacekeeper was killed May 12, a Nepalese peacekeeper was killed June 2 when a UN plane he was protecting came under fire during takeoff, and an Indian soldier was killed Tuesday in a firefight with rebels in eastern Congo.

This new robust model may bring repercussions, including the prospect of open battles with armed groups, greater threat to nonmilitary UN personnel, and the possibility of reprisals against the very civilians peacekeepers aim to protect.

"It requires a willingness to put peacekeepers' lives on the line," says Victoria Holt, codirector of the Henry L. Stimson Center's Future of Peace Operations project, a think tank in Washington. "And to risk backlash that the UN may be identified with one side or another, even if the UN itself has tried to remain impartial but is taking a side to uphold a peace agreement."

The UN maintains its impartiality toward signatories of peace agreements, says UN Undersecretary-General for Peacekeeping Jean-Marie Guehenno, "but we are definitely partial toward implementation of that agreement. We're not neutral when the agreement is under attack." Mr. Guehenno says he understands the concerns that the perception that peacekeepers are taking sides could lead to the targeting of other UN personnel, including aid workers, "But there is a certain balance that can be established."

Wednesday's report will be presented to the House Appropriations Committee next week.

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