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U.N. Not at Peace With Its 'Blue Helmets'

U.N. peacekeeping (search) is anything but peaceful these days — a rape and abuse scandal hangs over peacekeepers in the Congo, a new mission will soon begin in the civil war-torn Sudan and U.N. officials unveiled a reform plan Thursday on how to make sure those on the ground behave.

Yet despite these challenges, requests for help from U.N. "blue helmets" continue to rise. And the United Nations (search) says its assets are being stretched too thin.

"The renewed confidence of member states in United Nations peacekeeping has led to a surge in demand, with the result that the United Nations now has more missions on the ground than ever before," U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan (search) said Monday as he discussed a sweeping plan to reform the world body.

"The majority of these are in Africa, where — I regret to say — developed countries are increasingly reluctant to contribute troops. As a result, our capacity is overstretched."

Prince Zeid al Hussein (search), Jordan's U.N. ambassador who was tapped by Annan to study how to prevent abuses like those that have allegedly occurred in the Congo last fall, release his report on Thursday. Describing a peacekeeping system that's become fundamentally flawed, he noted that missions comprise both soldiers and civilians who are held to different standards of conduct and sometimes troops and civilians fail to understand the complexities of the countries where they are deployed.

"You cannot understate the value of peacekeeping and what it can bring to a society, so for that reason I think we must restore it" Zeid told The Associated Press. "My feeling is that most of the principal troop contributing countries will agree to this formula."

When the Security Council approves a request for help, the United Nations pays member states for troops supplied for the missions. It's often the less-developed states that jump at the chance to earn cash.

Many agree that it's because of this vetting process and a patchwork training system that leads to some lesser-qualified troops being sent to keep the peace.

"There's an economic incentive and I don't fault that," said Rep. Chris Smith (search), R-N.J., who chairs the House International Relations Subcommittee on Africa, Global Human Rights and International Relations. Smith’s panel has held hearings on how to prevent the sexual abuse of women and children that U.N. investigators and others say is occurring at peacekeeping missions in the Democratic Republic of Congo and elsewhere.

"I'm glad developing countries that deploy are able to get well paid for it but it puts the onus on the U.N. itself to make sure those troops … are the very best that we can send there because [if not], it not only leads to more exploitation of women and children of the most heinous kind, but it also compromises the mission itself as we've seen in the Congo," Smith told FOXNews.com.

Robert McClure, a former U.S. Army officer who commanded an engineer battalion in Haiti to support a U.N. contingent, said he stands by peacekeepers he's served with overseas. He stressed, however, that not all international peacekeepers are trained according to the Geneva Conventions (search) in the way those from countries such as the United States are. He also said that doesn't mean they can't do the job and do it well.

"In the dirty, dusty places in the world where the great powers don't want to go, there's always going to be a need for the United Nations and the type of soldier they're going to be getting isn't going to be a first-world soldier," said McClure, who also spent two years on the U.N. peacekeeping staff keeping watch over missions in Sierra Leone and the Republic of Congo.

The Geneva Conventions, which about 190 countries are party to, are a set of treaties that set humanitarian standards for prisoners of war, battlefield casualties, civilians and others.

Mark Malloch Brown (search), Annan’s chief of staff, said that the "very under-funded peacekeeping missions" have "soldiers stitched together from Bangladesh, Jordan, many other different countries, all under their own different commands and without the resources to give them the other recreational options. ...

"The standards of behavior have not been modernized in the same way that has happened with the American or the British military, and we've now got to tackle that," Brown recently told FOX News.

Although the United Nations hands out international peacekeeping training standards, it's up to the nations that provide peacekeepers how much they use it. What's left in question is just how much time nations spend on specific issues like sexual exploitation. The United Nations is working with its member states to figure out what kind of further training may be needed.

Keeping Up With Demand

The annual U.N. peacekeeping (search) budget is currently $4 billion to cover 17 global missions. While there are about 75,000 U.N. personnel in the field now, that number will grow to about 90,000 by mid-2005 because of Sudan.

The Sudan mission, which U.N. officials say represents a massive surge in peacekeeping operations, calls for about 10,130 personnel — including 5,070 troops, 755 civilian police officers, 1,018 international staff, 2,263 Sudanese staff and 214 U.N. volunteers. About $1 billion will be needed the first year. The problem is, aside from the Congo, U.N. peacekeepers have been deployed on four large, multifaceted missions in Haiti, Burundi, Liberia and Cote d'Ivoire in rapid succession in recent years.

"The problem is, you have a very rising demand for peacekeepers, many of them coming from developing countries," said Princeton Lyman, director of Africa policy studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He noted that soldiers from places like Bangladesh, India, Jordan, Ghana and Botswana are among the best for peacekeeping missions. "These all have very good reputations in peacekeeping but as the demand goes up — and it has been going up — the quality gets stretched in some cases."

Jean-Marie Guehenno, U.N. undersecretary-general for peacekeeping operations, recently said that the first challenge the peacekeeping efforts face is "over-stretch."

"The U.N. peacekeeping system is simply overloaded by the current surge of mission activity, and unless we raise our game, the possibility of a major breakdown is there," Guehenno said during a London address earlier this month.

Guehenno also said the allegations of abuse in the Congo are perhaps "symptomatic of a wider weakness of doctrine, training, discipline, command and control."

"Across the board, doctrine — or guidance, as I prefer to call it — training and leadership need to be strengthened, or we will simply be unable to cope with the weight of responsibility with which we are now charged, on four continents," he added, saying that the U.N. should have a basic framework of policies and guidelines on this issue in place by the end of 2005.

Guehenno recently said he doesn't want to deploy any more missions this year, aside from the Sudan operation.

"We've never heard that from the U.N. so I think what the U.N. is saying is, 'we have to hold off for awhile and improve what we've got before we take on much more,'" Lyman said.

Johanna Mendelson Forman, the senior program officer for peace, security and human rights at the United Nations Foundation who has been on peacekeeping operations in places such as Haiti, Guatemala, Iraq and Tajikistan, said there is a broader issue of general behavior in conflict zones that has to be addressed not only by the United Nations but also by American troops, NATO, and other forces.

"The challenge for the U.N. will be to get commitment from the member states to do training within their own armed forces … to be able to train troops as part of their basic training going in as to what the consequences should be for acts of this kind of nature," Forman said.

Forman also said the United Nations should work with various non-governmental organizations and its own High Commissioner for Refugees to further train native populations so it's easier for victims to come forward in instances of alleged rape or assault. In some societies, honor killings and similar acts still take place against women who are raped or who have sex with someone other than their husband. It's also common in some societies to believe a woman's honor is lost if she has lost her virginity, even if it's caused by a rape.

Cops on Reserve

On the supply issue, the U.N. Security Council (search) has been asked to approve a "strategic reserve" of military forces that members would have on hand, ready and willing to rapidly deploy in a time of crisis. The council has also been asked to approve the expansion of a standing civilian police force.

Right now, the civilian police division runs the policing components of peacekeeping missions, such as training and mentoring in-country police officers and dealing with everyday law issues.

The United Nations wants to be able to deploy police itself instead of relying on getting the permission from member states. Officials say this would allow the world body to have a small force of five-to-ten people on the ground quickly to get missions up and running while waiting for the rest of the troops to be sent in.

U.N. officials stress, however, that this isn't some sort of internal U.N. military force.

"That's not an idea that member states would ever agree to. What we are trying to do is build our standing capabilities in what goes into making a peacekeeping operation so we can deploy more efficiently and robustly," a U.N. official in New York told FOXNews.com.

But in the meantime, many say more needs to be done to make sure the police and troops being sent on missions don't have a history of sexual abuse or any other type of shady past.

Annan reminded nations that it's their responsibility and obligation to prosecute their troops who commit crimes in countries in which they're deployed. This week, he reiterated a "zero tolerance" policy on sexual offenses.

"I strongly encourage member states to do the same with respect to their national contingents," the secretary-general said.

But Smith said: "The biggest problem we've had in this is zero accountability … 'zero tolerance' has equaled 'zero compliance' and that has got to end."

The congressman has sponsored a bill that requires the State Department to make sure the United Nations has taken measures to prevent any of its staff from committing sexual exploitation or human trafficking before any U.S. peacekeepers are sent on missions. The bill could be voted on by the full committee in two to three weeks, Smith said.

His bill would also establish an anti-trafficking director in the defense secretary's office and would require keeping close tabs on steps the U.N., NATO and other international organizations are doing to prevent illegal activities. It also calls for a sex offender-type databank of those guilty of human trafficking or illegal sexual activities.

"I'm hopeful — it's too soon to be confident — I'm hopeful that we can end this terrible blemish on U.N. peacekeeping and above all, the consequences it has on innocent people," he said. "To see a blue helmet should bring optimism to beleaguered people, not fright."