Blessed are the Peacekeepers?

In a recent speech, US Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power described the vital interest and critical role the United States has in peacekeeping. Power described how intrastate conflicts can displace vulnerable populations, spill across borders, destabilize neighboring countries, undermine economic progress, reverse democratization and disrupt civil society, allow criminals and repressive regimes to thrive, and open up vacuums that are filled by extremists, including interstate terrorists.

But peacekeeping is not just about American or international security, but our values. Given American power and influence, there is a responsibility to do what we can to protect some of the most vulnerable people on the planet and build a more peaceful world. Power explained:

“We do not want to live in a world where more than 9000 kids are recruited in less than a year to become child soldiers, as has happened recently in South Sudan. We don’t want to live in a world where ethnic or religious communities who lived together for decades in harmony, such as the Muslims and Christians in the Central African Republic, learn to hate and fear and demonize one another.”

Of course, the risks and burdens associated with peacekeeping should be shared by the international community, as Power explained. And those who wish to foment conflict have trouble spreading accusations of imperialist designs when peacekeeping operations include representatives of many nations, including those from the global South. The need to revitalize peacekeeping and ensure that it meets the challenges of contemporary conflict is urgent and the shared responsibility of the international community.

Power explained some of the serious challenges that must be addressed: slow troop deployment, limited mobility, keeping units fed and hydrated in remote areas, and failure to confront aggressors and protect civilians. Two-thirds of UN peacekeepers are working in active conflict areas, the highest percentage ever. They are being asked to do more than they ever have been before in a world with suicide bombers and IEDs. And too often they are under-resourced.

Peacekeeping missions are often funded by developed countries, but the troops are typically from developing countries. Power called this unsustainable and unfair. The UN and US are asking Latin American, European, and East Asian countries to contribute more troops in response to this.

Power highlighted the successes and failures of various missions. In Democratic Republic of the Congo there has been some progress, but she noted that there is still a failure to protect local people from atrocities. In hundreds of attacks, peacekeepers almost never used force to protect civilians. Peacekeeping missions must embrace the responsibility to protect these vulnerable populations.

For more than 20 years peacekeeping has been evolving, and the realities of modern conflict support that evolution. As Power explained, consent and impartiality make sense when dealing with legitimate governments and even rebel groups, but less so with extremists and brutal organizations that perpetrate crimes against humanity. Restricting peacekeepers’ use of force to pure self-defense is something that cannot be justified when genocide or other mass atrocities are occurring. As Power stated, the gap between the mandates peacekeepers are given and their ability to carry these out must be closed.

Finally, past scandals involving peacekeepers, including sexual abuse and violence, highlight the importance of enforcing the UN’s zero tolerance policy on these crimes. A strict enforcement will deny peacekeepers any sense of impunity and show vulnerable populations that peacekeepers are working for their best interests. Such a policy, combined with the reforms outlined by Samantha Power, can strengthen the ability of peacekeeping missions to protect the vulnerable and serve the common good.