Global Policy Forum

Strengthening the Peacekeepers

Washington Post
September 6, 2000


At the end of their extravagant millennium summit on Friday, the United Nations and its member states will issue dreamy calls to defeat poverty, illiteracy and AIDS. But a more practical statement may emerge today from the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council.

The P5 are due to consider ways of strengthening the United Nations' peacekeeping efforts, which have expanded rapidly since the end of the Cold War, not always successfully. In Bosnia, Rwanda and, most recently, Sierra Leone, the United Nations has sent too few people too late with too weak a mandate. As a result, many thousands of civilians who might have been saved were instead slaughtered.

Last month an expert commission appointed by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan listed the causes of these setbacks. It proposed that the United Nations' tiny peacekeeping staff in New York be strengthened: At present there are only 32 military officers at U.N. headquarters to oversee 27,000 troops deployed in 14 operations around the world, and only nine police specialists to supervise 9,000 police officers. An expanded staff might make it possible to get troops into trouble spots faster and to anticipate necessary deployments earlier.

One reason for the United Nations' failure in Rwanda was that the New York staff was too ill-equipped to respond to a warning memo from a field officer. The headquarters reforms are intended to give U.N. peacekeepers some of the managerial guidance that national military machines take for granted. By the same token, the expert commission recommended that field troops have rules of engagement more akin to those of a national army. They should be authorized to fight, not just to observe; they should stop striving to be impartial and be willing to lock swords with thugs bent on genocide. When Bosnian Serb militia massacred civilians in the U.N. "safe haven" of Srebrenica, the U.N. troops meekly stood aside, lacking the strength or authority to do anything.

The permanent members of the Security Council seem to welcome the experts' proposals--the Clinton administration has endorsed them, and Britain has even offered extra reforms of its own -- but one question is whether they'll pay for them. The chief culprit on that score is the United States, which is more than $1 billion in arrears to the United Nations' peacekeepers.But the challenge also goes beyond the nettlesome issue of back dues.

When confronted with a humanitarian crisis, the world's leading nations often can't bring themselves to say that they don't care but can't bring themselves to commit sufficient resources to make muscular U.N. action possible either. So they pretend that the thugs really want peace and that a small, lightly armed force can preserve that peace. Then, when facing the inevitable result of this hypocrisy--failed peacekeeping missions--they can blame the United Nations and call for U.N. reform. The reforms may indeed be positive. But all the improvements in U.N. structure can't help if the United Nations' strongest members are using the organization more to cover their fecklessness than to help solve real problems.



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