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What Prevents UN Blue Helmets From Ensuring Peace in Africa & Beyond?

© AFP 2023 / Giuseppe CacaceA soldier of the United Nations (UN) stands guard next to girls and women at the Bangui Mosque, Central African Republic, on November 30, 2015.
A soldier of the United Nations (UN) stands guard next to girls and women at the Bangui Mosque, Central African Republic, on November 30, 2015. - Sputnik International, 1920, 04.11.2022
UN peacekeeping missions in Africa have repeatedly come under criticism for failing to curtail and end conflicts in the continent's hot spots. It appears that the peacekeeping agenda does not always correlate with the specifics and needs of the continent’s powers.
"There are structural challenges inherent to UN Peace mission operations. The UN works always or in many contexts where those who hold power are not necessarily (…) integrating UN principles in their reconstruction processes," said Dr. Eric Ndushabandi, a lecturer of political science at the University of Rwanda and director of the Kigali-based Institute of Research and Dialogue for Peace.
"Generally, the state’s authority is lacking, and power is distributed between different lobbies, in political, economic settings with different interests. It is difficult to reconcile and protect 'civilians' when opponents are not always in military uniforms. Rules of engagement and principles are conceived in a context of rational actors, motivated by stability, peace and development, which is not the case [in the region]," Ndushabandi explained.

Genesis of UN Peacekeeping Missions

All in all, over one million military and civilian personnel from various countries have participated in 70 UN missions across the world over the past 70 years. Most operations have been in the Middle East and Africa. Currently, a 100,000-strong contingent of UN peacekeepers from 125 countries is taking part in 14 peacekeeping operations.
The first UN peacekeeping mission was launched in May 1948, when the UN Security Council authorized the deployment of a limited contingent of UN military observers to the Middle East. Earlier, in November 1947, the UN General Assembly approved a plan for the partition of Palestine, which was not accepted by the Palestinians and Arab states. The subsequent Arab-Israeli War was mediated with the participation of the UN Security Council, which appointed a mediator, to be assisted by military observers. As a result, the United Nations Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO) was formed to monitor the Armistice Agreement between Israel and its Arab neighbors.
UN soldiers on camel-back in Eritrea during the 2000-2008 peacekeeping mission monitoring the border between Eritrea and Ethiopia. - Sputnik International, 1920, 18.10.2022
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In the 1950s, the UNEF I, the first armed UN peacekeeping force, helped curtail the Suez Crisis of 1956, while the Lebanon political crisis of 1958 was mediated with the aid of the United Nations Observation Group in Lebanon (UNOGIL). In the subsequent decade, the geography of UN peacekeeping missions expanded dramatically, with the Blue Helmets being employed to monitor and observe peace processes in Congo (1960-64); West New Guinea (1962-63); Yemen (1963-64); Cyprus (1964-present); Dominican Republic (1965-66); India and Pakistan (1965-66).

"Since 1948, the UN has helped to end some conflicts, and at the same time has tried to make some kind of reconciliation between different countries," said Dr. Ismael Buchanan, senior lecturer at the Department of Political Science and International Relations, School of Governance, University of Rwanda. "Take the example of Guatemala. Take the example of Namibia, Cambodia, Liberia, and Ivory Coast. But of course, we cannot say that it has 100% success, but at least it has provided what we can call basic security guarantees in response to a crisis by, of course, trying to support a political transition in some countries."

Still, almost three decades later, violent clashes and massacres in the Balkans and Rwanda, which the international community failed to prevent, became a wakeup call for the UN.
In September 1999, then-UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan posed the question as to how the international community should respond to gross and systematic violations of human rights, "if humanitarian intervention is, indeed, an unacceptable assault on sovereignty." In 2001, the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) formulated a concept called the "Responsibility to Protect" (R2P). The concept, which was adopted by the international body in 2005, stated that the primary responsibility for the protection of its people rested first and foremost with the state itself, while a "residual responsibility" lied with the broader community of states and would come into force "when a particular state is clearly either unwilling or unable to fulfill its responsibility to protect or is itself the actual perpetrator of crimes or atrocities."
In this photo taken Wednesday, Dec. 18, 2013 and released by the U.S. Air Force, soldiers of the East Africa Response Force (EARF), a Djibouti-based joint team assigned to Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa, depart from a U.S. Air Force C-130 Hercules in Juba, South Sudan to support with an ordered departure of personnel from the city - Sputnik International, 1920, 21.10.2022
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What's Behind UN's Failures?

Still, despite the shift of the paradigm, the problems pertaining to UN peacekeeping missions' inability to solve regional crises once and for all has persisted.

"The challenges that peacekeepers face have evolved from relatively straightforward missions, especially, to different assignments that [have been] highly complex and sometimes impossible to accomplish," said Buchanan. "That is something I can say, that the missions are somehow highly risky and sometimes impossible to accomplish."

"Most of the time, they work under a bureaucratic system," he continued. "That also can be one of the reasons behind its failure, because you cannot wait until a resolution is made, or you cannot wait until a decision comes from the UN headquarters, especially when you have a conflict like in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The decision will come late and the decision could be made while people are dying, while peacekeepers are being killed."
At the same time, each peacekeeping mission has its regional peculiarities, with some of them having no end in sight, as Dennis Coleman Jett, an American diplomat who served as the United States ambassador to Mozambique, argued in his op-ed in May 2019. The diplomat noted that six of the 14 current peacekeeping operations have already lasted for decades while having zero prospect of successful conclusion.
The presence of peacekeepers in regions engulfed by violent extremism – most notably in sub-Saharan Africa – is even more problematic, as it requires both protection and stabilization. These missions are considered the most dangerous and difficult ones that peacekeepers have had to deal with. First, the Blue Helmets are not warfighters; second, terrorists are often indistinguishable from noncombatants.
"Sometimes they go to an area, a conflict zone, to look for peace. But they have these difficulties of non-intervention, because they are not warfighters, but peacekeepers," Buchanan stressed.
Furthermore, peacekeepers have neither the resources nor the experience to fight local terrorist entities, some of which are affiliated with international terrorist groups like al-Qaeda* and Daesh*. In some cases – for instance in Somalia – local authorities are incapable of maintaining control over the territory of a war-torn state, creating further obstacles in the way of peacekeeping initiatives.
© AP Photo / Farah Abdi WarsamehFILE---In this file photo of Thursday, Feb.17, 2011, Hundreds of newly trained Shabaab fighters perform military exercises in the Lafofe area some 18 km south of Mogadishu, Somalia
FILE---In this file photo of  Thursday, Feb.17, 2011, Hundreds of newly trained Shabaab fighters perform military exercises in the Lafofe area some 18 km south of Mogadishu, Somalia - Sputnik International, 1920, 04.11.2022
FILE---In this file photo of Thursday, Feb.17, 2011, Hundreds of newly trained Shabaab fighters perform military exercises in the Lafofe area some 18 km south of Mogadishu, Somalia
"UN missions are deployed in the context of 'failed states,' where leadership is lacking [even] minimum legitimacy, unclear or absence of a well-defined foreign policy and rules of engagement with stakeholders and partners, uncoordinated measures of peace-building initiatives, absence of the state’s power at the grassroots where UN missions are supposed to be established. It is a context of the state's authority vacuum," noted Ndushabandi.
In some instances, UN peacekeepers themselves do not adhere to the body's principle, which shatters trust in their missions' cause among local populations. Sometimes, they violate the body's neutrality concept, running the risk of intensifying regional strife. For instance, in his op-ed, Ambassador Jett cited at least two instances when the Blue Helmets "took sides": in the Congo in 1960 and Somalia in the early 1990s. As a result, UN personnel were drawn into the fighting, with hundreds of them killed.

"Protecting civilians means to support the state's efforts in bilateral agreements and rules of engagement in each state," argued Ndushabandi. "The UN will always be accused by one and another of being partial. In the case of multilateralism, the UN peace mission is still facing unstable regional organizations, unprepared regional bodies to engage with UN missions, and unarticulated conflicts of interests of member states and contributors."

A separate troublesome issue is sexual abuse accusations leveled against some Blue Helmet operatives. Thus, for example, in the spring of 2014, allegations were raised that UN peacekeepers had sexually abused a number of young children in a central African country in exchange for food or money. In 2020, a UN report on special measures for protection from sexual abuse revealed that the total number of complaints of sexual exploitation allegedly involving peacekeepers amounted to 387 in just one year.
In this Feb. 12 2016 file photo, UN forces from Rwanda patrol the streets of Bangui, Central African Republic.  - Sputnik International, 1920, 02.11.2022
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Why UN's Action for Peacekeeping Appears Flawed

In a bid to bolster the body's efficiency and renew its "political commitment," Secretary-General António Guterres came up with the Action for Peacekeeping (A4P) initiative in 2018. Calling the Blue Helmets one of the "most effective tools available to the United Nations in the promotion and maintenance of international peace and security," the UN leadership admitted that "peacekeeping faces several challenges that undermine its ability to deliver on its mandates." It particularly referred to the absence of "political solutions," lack of focus and clear priorities; lack of personnel and equipment to tackle complex threats; and "challenges in delivering on protection mandates and in contributing to long-term, sustainable peace."
While the new A4P initiative was aimed at closing the gap, Russia drew attention to obvious controversies in the blueprint. In particular, Moscow's criticism of the body's Declaration of Shared Commitments was related to those provisions according to which there is a link between human rights efforts and the protection of civilians, and it was assumed that all necessary means for the protection of civilians would be used.
© AP Photo / Sophie GarciaTwo soldiers enter the Catholic church at the 10th RCAS army barracks in Kaya, Burkina Faso, Saturday, April 10, 2021
Two soldiers enter the Catholic church at the 10th RCAS army barracks in Kaya, Burkina Faso, Saturday, April 10, 2021 - Sputnik International, 1920, 04.11.2022
Two soldiers enter the Catholic church at the 10th RCAS army barracks in Kaya, Burkina Faso, Saturday, April 10, 2021
Vassily Nebenzia, Russia's permanent representative to the UN, noted that within the framework of any peacekeeping mission, priority should be given to cooperation between the mission and the government of the host country, rather than between the mission and the local population and civil society organizations in a peacekeeping mandate's implementation.
Observers believe that the aforementioned provisions could potentially open the door to the violation of peacekeepers' principles of neutrality, use of force in self-defense only, and set the stage for potential regime changes, which have become nothing short of a curse, when it comes to the Sahel and West Africa.

"The implementation of the A4P becomes problematic especially in terms of responding to the real needs of the practical part of the peacekeeping process," said Ndushabandi. "To be realistic means to respond to the expectations of citizens for survival (…) [The Blue Helmets] can’t be seen as 'great supporters' if the institutions and citizens to be supported are not yet coordinated under the same state’s institutions with political will to overcome the situation the UN came to change. The state which receives the UN mission needs to be strongly supported to re-establish the minimum legitimacy with [at least] minimum adherence of all citizens to the vision to be implemented. A nation-building process which supposes making peace with the great number of people involved instead of a peace accord between elites."

According to the scholar, the UN mission should support governments in the first place and help the authorities "produce their own political solutions to problems," while aiding in forming "well-structured, well-equipped, well-trained" local forces. If the UN wants to provide equal support to both the nation's government and local institutions, it should ensure that civil society does not pursue any violent agenda, he noted.
"Otherwise, the UN troops can’t be safe and secure, they will be seen as complacent actors, this is the situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)," Ndushabandi remarked. "These [UN] troops are not yet well-prepared, they are loyal to their own safety as individuals, comforts, and interests. They are loyal to their governments with divergent interests. What is lacking is loyalty to UN values, principles of responsibility to protect, which includes sacrifice."
Somali government forces run to the front line in Mogadishu (File) - Sputnik International, 1920, 26.08.2022
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How Effective is the Blue Helmets' Mission in Africa?

The UN mission in Africa has prompted a lot of controversy. In some cases, local governments have grown disenchanted with the Blue Helmets and invited military instructors from other countries. The Central African Republic (CAR) subjected the UN peacekeeping mission to criticism for failing to curb hostilities in the state and turned to Russia in 2017.
In 2020, the Russian Foreign Ministry announced that an additional 300 military instructors had been dispatched to train CAR national army servicemen in response to a request from the country's authorities for aid in repelling illegal militants. In April 2022, CAR Ambassador to Russia Leon Dodonou-Pounagaza said that the nation is interested in stepping up the number of Russian military trainers in the region.
"[UN peacekeeping] has real difficulties and challenges to some complex missions," Buchanan said. "Look at, for example, Mali, DRC, CAR – they are still maintaining those areas. Look at what is going on in the DRC today in different areas. At the same time, most of the challenges they are facing, if you look at illicit networking, if you look at terrorism, if you look at the political transition situation in different African countries, UN peacekeeping missions are still saving lives and preventing the spread of violence. So, whatever little we can call it, whatever little action they are doing, at least they are still preventing, and some of them are losing their lives just to protect other African people. Therefore, we cannot say that UN peacekeeping doesn't have an effect or that it is irrelevant."
At the same time, the UN should work in concert with the African Union and other regional blocs, Buchanan noted. Only joint cooperation of regional and international players can help address a whole set of burning issues haunting Africa, the scholar insisted.

"We used to have the UN and United Nations–African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID), including the African Union mission, with troops from Chad, from all parts of Africa," Buchanan said. "So that kind of thing could solve some problems if they are partners in terms of dealing with the issues, but working as a standalone with peacekeeping with a UN mandate, with the African Union [having] its own mandate, without this kind of correlation and working together, I think they are not going to solve the problem of Africans. So that kind of partnership should be relevant and kind of make sense in dealing with peace and security in Africa and other parts of the world."

*Terrorist organizations banned in Russia and many other states
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