Global Policy Forum

How Safe Would You Feel?


By Jeffrey Laurenti

Chicago Tribune
July 25, 2000

When rebels this spring in Sierra Leone captured 500 African peacekeepers--who were among the first, and least prepared, contingents of an 8,000-man United Nations peacekeeping force to arrive there--the UN's critics in Washington quickly proclaimed that it had "failed" again. Senators who scorn any assistance for Africa professed shock that the UN was trying to make peace with thugs rather than war on them. Sierra Leone was, they intoned, the proof that the United Nations doesn't deserve a dime of dues for peacekeeping.

The ambushed African peacekeepers have now been released. The leader of the rebel faction has been captured and his negotiated immunity annulled. Well-trained troops from India, Nigeria, and Jordan have arrived on the scene. With temporary but timely reinforcement from Britain, which had brokered the peace pact, the situation in Sierra Leone has been stabilized. But there has been no hint from the UN's reflexive critics that they might have been a bit hasty in pronouncing dead a patient that was very much alive.

The temporary setback in Sierra Leone exposed structural weaknesses in the peacekeeping capabilities of the United Nations. After years of shrinking budgets, the organization has scant capacity to respond quickly to crises. But while the Clinton administration has belatedly begun to recognize the need for structural improvements to peacekeeping, naysayers in the Congress block payment of peacekeeping dues. This month the U.S. House of Representatives stripped from the State Department budget a third of the funds required for UN peacekeeping for the coming year. Senate appropriators threaten to do the same. The president must veto any budget bill that fails to fund peacekeeping obligations.

Starving UN peacekeeping carries grave risks for America. It means protracted and costly delays in cobbling together an international force--whether of troops, police, or civilian administrators--in emergencies like Kosovo and East Timor. It means the UN is pressed to take whatever troops are offered, regardless of quality, and rush them to the scene without needed training and equipment, as with the Zambian peacekeepers in Sierra Leone.

Or it means that nothing is done at all. That too has consequences.

Washington stonewalled calls for the UN to stop incipient genocide in Rwanda in 1994, and more than half a million people were slaughtered as a result. The conflict in Rwanda became a contagion across central Africa, and today six African neighbors have armies fighting on various sides in the huge but shattered Congo. By contrast, the UN's much-criticized operation during Bosnia's civil war did succeed in preventing the free-for-all intervention by outside armies that we see in Congo today.

There is no alternative to the United Nations for conflict management in most parts of the world. The moralizing critics of UN peacekeeping pointedly do not propose sending American troops into Sierra Leone--nor did they ever advocate introducing U.S. soldiers into Bosnia's civil war. NATO is not an option outside Europe, and--in contrast to the UN--is utterly dependent on participation of American forces. UN peacekeeping does require payment of America's pro-rated share of costs, but not American troops.

The lesson of Sierra Leone--as of Kosovo, East Timor and elsewhere--is thus not to eliminate UN peacekeeping, but to strengthen it. How?

First, the United Nations needs to provide concentrated training and exercises to troops earmarked for peacekeeping. Some 33 countries, spanning Europe, Africa and South Asia, have recently entered agreements to designate troops for UN peacekeeping service but most are not capable of providing the needed specialized training or equipment. It may also soon be time to look beyond conservative shibboleths about "standing UN armies" and move toward a small rapid deployment force, which some in the Congress now propose.

Second, the UN's peacekeeping operations center is woefully undermanned.

We would never tolerate such thin planning and operational support for major operations in the Pentagon or NATO. As a stop-gap in the mid-1990s, a number of wealthy countries paid for their own military officers to help at United Nations headquarters. That capacity needs to be rebuilt as a core UN function.

Third, member states need to provide the UN with a civilian police force capability, with experienced officers in domestic law enforcement trained for detachment to international operations. The UN's maiden efforts at running civilian police operations in the Balkans and East Timor have suffered for lack of preparation and slow recruitment.

Finally, peacekeeping needs to be put on a reliable financial basis. The spectacle of the Congress arbitrarily blocking payment of America's share of peacekeeping costs has cast a pall on UN peacekeeping efforts. Countries asked to offer troops and police can never be sure if their costs will be reimbursed. In addition, the costs need to be spread more equitably among nations based on current economic realities.

Yes, effective peacekeeping will cost money. But it addresses the conflicts that are the real security emergencies in the 21st Century world. For only a tiny fraction of the amounts we continue to invest in defense and the NATO alliance, we can have a system capable of responding to them.

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