Home The Washington Diplomat October 2009 Undermanned and Overstretched,U.N. Struggles to Keep the Peace

Undermanned and Overstretched,U.N. Struggles to Keep the Peace


As the United Nations enters its seventh decade of peacekeeping operations, calls for the world body to do more about the globe’s most troublesome hotspots such as Darfur and Congo are growing ever louder.

Yet the more than 113,000 troops, police and civilian staff deployed by U.N. member states are already stretched thin over 18 peacekeeping missions around the world, despite an eight-fold increase in peacekeepers since 1999. Many of these so-called “blue helmets” are so poorly resourced that they are struggling to achieve any tangible results in environments where there is often no peace to keep.

In the Sudanese region of Darfur alone, violent attacks on humanitarian aid workers doubled in 2008, with 47 casualties, including 11 deaths. Although a general decrease in fighting has been reported recently, the U.N. mission in Darfur is still at roughly 70 percent of its authorized strength — a maximum total of 19,550 troops dealing with an estimated 2.7 million people displaced by a war that the United Nations estimates has claimed approximately 300,000 lives.

Money is also a major challenge. The most recently approved annual budget for U.N. peacekeeping is .2 billion, or less than half of 1 percent of worldwide annual military spending. And with the global recession impacting contributions to nongovernmental organizations that undertake vital work in war-torn countries, the United Nations may be asked to pick up even more of the burden, without anyone else throwing in adequate resources for the job.

Going Where Others Won’t Or Going Too Far? Today, the United Nations is the largest multilateral contributor to post-conflict stabilization worldwide. It is also second only to the United States in deploying military personnel to the field.

The United Nations got involved in peacekeeping missions almost as soon as it was founded, with member states sending troops to enforce an uneasy ceasefire between Palestinians and the new state of Israel in 1948. It was the first of 63 U.N. missions of widely varying natures, some short and others with no apparent expiration date.

While the Cold War’s ideological battles between the Soviets and the West limited many missions to merely an “observation and monitoring” role, the Berlin Wall’s collapse resulted in more activist missions to hotspots created by the power vacuum. A string of successful peacekeeping actions in the late 1980s and early ’90s in such nations as Namibia, Cambodia and El Salvador led to increased calls for U.N. intervention in almost any war-torn area.

Indeed, peacekeeping missions have enjoyed many measures of success, enabling people in dozens of countries to participate in free elections, for instance, and helping to disarm more than 400,000 ex-combatants in the past decade alone.

But they’ve had an equal numbers of failures as well. The very public death of 18 American soldiers during peacekeeping operations in Somalia in 1993 quickly dampened optimism for U.N. intervention. The United States reacted by refusing to send troops to other African disaster areas, but later, as horrific reports of the genocide in Rwanda leaked out, global cries for the United Nations to “do something” re-emerged. However, ultimately what the United Nations did — or rather didn’t do — to prevent the country’s genocide was widely condemned as ineffective.

Even the luster of initial victories begins to fade under the scrutiny of time. For instance, U.N. assistance in East Timor allowed the new nation to peacefully break free from Indonesia, ending a violent 24-year conflict with one of the costliest U.N.-led nation-building enterprises in history. But a decade after East Timor’s independence, the results are mixed.

“The international intervention has preserved the peace, which was always its primary objective,” James Dobbins, director of the Rand International Security and Defense Policy Center, recently told the Washington Times. “Its success in promoting political reform and economic development has been more limited.”

An independent review in the late 1990s led by noted diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi took a comprehensive look at the spotty U.N. peacekeeping record. Although the Brahimi Report said the world body had “repeatedly failed to meet the challenge” of its charter commitment to protect future generations from the “scourge of war,” at the same time it recommended tighter limits on deploying U.N. troops. It also outlined the need for clear, credible and achievable mandates for the missions that the United Nations did undertake, along with sweeping changes to reform the peacekeeping and post-conflict peace-building bureaucracies.

As the painful memories of past failures fade, observers say the United Nations is once more in danger of walking back into a firefight for which it’s not prepared, especially in post-9/11 era with the United States preoccupied with its war on terrorism.

One peacekeeping official speaking on background said the United Nations is increasingly being asked to perform missions in countries like Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo that threaten the core recommendations of the Brahimi Report, which urged the world body not to get sucked into intractable conflicts, potentially making them worse.

Yet the world body also faces a catch-22 — nations clamor for the United Nations to help troubled states, but then fail to provide the peacekeepers or resources for it to do so.

As Alain Le Roy, chief of peacekeeping operations, once said: “We are going where others do not want to go.” Yet the question remains, if no one else wants to go there, should the United Nations be there?

A Woman’s Touch Besides the challenge of handling conventional peacekeeping demands, the United Nations is also being called upon to make peacekeeping more dynamic and inclusive. In response, one emerging trend is increasing the role of women. Out of 11,000 U.N. police officers deployed around the globe, just 8 percent are currently

Yet many of the people impacted by violence in a war-torn country are women, especially those who have been sexually abused — and these victims are much more comfortable approaching a woman peacekeeper for help than a male. This is especially true in countries where sexual crimes have been committed by uniformed members of the country’s military or even U.N. peacekeepers themselves. In the Congo for instance, at least 200,000 cases of sexual violence have been reported since 1996.

“We’re trying to build a society’s trust while deterring potential spoilers,” said Nick Birnback, chief of the U.N. Department of Peacekeeping Operations Public Affairs Section. “Women often have a better perspective on that than men. For every door we kick in place likes Haiti, there’s a thousand peacekeeping operations that don’t involve the use of force, such as training cops.”

Kathleen Kuehnast, who organized a panel on women peacekeepers last year at the Washington-based U.S. Institute of Peace, agreed that increasing female participation in peacekeeping is crucial to effectively assist those most affected by war. “Women are often the part of the population responsible for dealing with food security and other related issues that come up during and after conflict,” she explained.

According to Kuehnast, the number of women peacekeepers is increasing not only in Africa and the Balkans, but also in repressive cultures such as Afghanistan. Although cultural hurdles in those lands are being overcome only slowly, Kuehnast said female peacekeepers set a standard in creating awareness that women can have a role beyond the traditional home life.

One such woman is Lynn Holland, America’s first female executive law enforcement officer to deploy on a U.N. mission. Holland, a one-time “officer of the year” in Oklahoma who is known for her expertise in domestic violence, was drawn to peacekeeping work after viewing a news report on a Haitian woman who had been sexually abused during the country’s civil strife.

“I came out of my chair and said I’m going to Haiti and I’m going to help that lady,” Holland said. Recruited by the U.S. Department of Justice to train Haitian police in handling domestic violence, Holland later deployed to Kosovo and the Balkans. “I realized that I could never go back into a patrol car because I had the opportunity to affect a nation,” she said.

The United Nations recently selected Holland and three other law enforcement executives for advice on how to increase the number of female police peacekeepers. “I see an emerging understanding that you have to have women in leadership positions in peacekeeping to be effective,” she said.

However, Holland added that this is particularly challenging in many societies where there isn’t cultural acceptance of women mentoring men and where there aren’t any female police officers.

“Women in Haiti didn’t even know how to wear their hair as a police officer,” she recalled, noting that when she was hit on by a male colleague in Haiti, Holland turned the incident into a training session on how to interact professionally with women.

“It’s more about how the woman conducts herself rather than how the men will receive her,” Holland explained, adding that being a woman in countries like Kosovo was in some ways an advantage. “I wasn’t a threat,” she said. “They didn’t feel like they had to be in charge.” She also noted that not only were Bosnian women who had been raped during the country’s war more comfortable approaching her for help, so were men who had been sexually abused.

Some occupational hazards come with the job, however. Holland drank Turkish coffee in the Balkans even though it made her sick because that’s what men did. “It was a very small price to pay to have them bring me into their confidence,” she said. It apparently worked — Holland said many of her informants in the Balkans were men.

New Problems, New Missions? As climate change emerges on the international agenda, calls have also been raised for the United Nations and leading nations to take action to protect globally important natural resources that are threatened by the same conflicts that prompt U.N. missions.

Congo, which has seen an estimated 5 million deaths during its decade-long civil war, is also home to massive forests that provide an important “carbon sink” for the world’s emissions. More than 19,000 U.N. peacekeepers are currently deployed to the vast country, but the force is struggling to execute its mission of creating peace among multiple rebel factions and the government to keep civilians from being killed or raped, let alone protect trees.

“The environmental dimension of peacekeeping is one that we take quite seriously,” said Birnback, noting that nations are responsible for providing security for their citizens, which includes protecting natural resources for future generations.

“Having said that, the U.N. is ultimately an organization of man — its mandate is to help save mankind from the scourges of war,” he said. “We’re thrilled about the attention being given to environmental issues, but that doesn’t change the fact that we’re limited by our resources.”

Birnback added that limited resources means that the United Nations must occasionally make tough decisions on when to end a mission so that scarce peacekeeping resources can be deployed elsewhere. He forecast that the United Nations will begin drawing down its commitments in Haiti, Liberia, Kosovo, Burundi, Sierra Leone and East Timor because those nations are stabilizing.

“Peacekeeping is a bit like traditional combat operations,” he explained. “Our mission is to work ourselves out of a job. But the U.N. is tempted to declare victory and withdraw as quickly as possible, and the lessons of premature withdrawal are sometimes learned painfully, as in East Timor and Haiti.”

About the Author

Mark Hilpert is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.