Losing Legitimacy? UN Peace Missions in Africa

By   // Wednesday, February 1, 2017

The United Nations has long enjoyed legitimacy as the international arbiter on issues of war and peace. A UN mandate signals international support for military action to maintain or restore peace. “Blue Helmets” are usually welcomed as guarantors of peace.

2016 has been a difficult year for UN peace missions in Africa. High-profile missions in the Central African Republic, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Mali are at high risk of failure. Even in Darfur, which has been off the front page, violence and suffering continues. The legitimacy of UN peace missions in Africa is now in question because of dramatic failures to protect civilians and widespread sexual exploitation and abuse by peacekeepers.

The UN is still trying to recover from catastrophic failures in Rwanda and Bosnia. In South Sudan, where civil war has created has over 1.6 million internally displaced persons (IDPs), Protection of Civilians (POC) is the top priority of the current UN peace mission (UNMISS). More than 200,000 have sought refuge in six POC sites set up within UNMISS bases across the country. However, UNMISS troops have failed to protect civilians in these sites from internal as well as external violence. In February 2016, they failed to keep weapons out of Malakal, a POC site housing 48,000 civilians; they failed to quell fighting in the camp and failed to repel attacks by South Sudanese government troops on the site that killed dozens, wounded more than 100, and displaced over 30,000 over the course of several days. The negligent peacekeepers were eventually sent home but loss of public confidence in UN peacekeepers remains.

In July 2016, UNMISS troops again failed to protect civilians, this time in Juba. When fighting among President Salva Kiir’s and then-First Vice President Riek Machar’s forces resumed in the capital, UN forces abandoned their posts. Government and opposition forces attacked UN facilities and the POC sites. Some 70 civilians, UN personnel, and international aid workers were raped, tortured, and beaten by South Sudanese government forces in the Hotel Terrain on July 11. Peacekeeping units ignored desperate calls for help. The top force commander of UNMISS, Lt. Gen. Johnson Mogoa Kimani Ondieki of Kenya, was removed from his post but nothing has really changed.

Reports from South Sudan in December 2016 foreshadow genocide in the making. Early warning indicators are everywhere. Civilians have no confidence that UN peacekeepers will even try to protect them. Legitimacy is lost.

Problems with the MINUSCA mission in the Central African Republic have also made headlines. There peacekeepers violated the very civilians they were supposed to protect. Republic of Congo peacekeepers murdered at least twelve people that they had arrested in March of 2014. They lied about their disappearance until the bodies were found in the summer of 2016. French troops were notorious for sexual abuse of women and girls in their early deployment to CAR prior to the arrival of UN troops; a reprise of French abuses of women and girls in Mali. Later, Congolese and other UN peacekeepers were accused of similar abuses of women and girls across the CAR. Sexual exploitation and abuse became so rampant in the MINUSCA mission that Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon fired Special Representative Lt. General Babacar Gaye of Senegal in August 2015. In addition, one hundred and twenty Congolese soldiers were sent home for their actions. Although the expulsion marks a stepped up effort by the UN to discipline troops for criminal behavior, repatriation is wholly inadequate in the eyes of the victims.

Reversing the Decline of Legitimacy

Troops from both developed and less developed countries have failed to protect civilians. Their situation is often seen as untenable. Protection of Civilians (POC) is often the first priority in a mission mandate. Protection of force—the need for peacekeeping forces to protect themselves—is not far behind. Although data show that overall fatalities among UN peacekeepers actually declined in 2016, death rates among those serving in Mali and South Sudan have been high. More important, the perception of increased threat is common among troops preparing for deployment. The difficulty in distinguishing civilians from combatants in asymmetric conflicts pits POC against force protection responsibilities in the field. In truth, no one wants to die for the UN.

Peacekeeping officers from Togo and Rwanda recently argued that a change in mindset is needed so that peacekeepers do not abandon, let alone abuse, civilians in their care. Exhortations and humanitarian appeals will not work, but a demonstration of the complementarity of effective POC and force protection will. That is, the better the relations with the local community, the more likely locals will alert peacekeepers to imminent threats. Good relations are built on effective POC. POC and protection of force then become mutually reinforcing. Strict disciplinary action against those who violate local trust and UN personnel accountability to the host country must also be part of the equation.

As with protection of civilians, UN civilian and military personnel from both developed and less developed countries have engaged in sexual exploitation and abuse. French abuse of locals in Mali and CAR was mentioned above. NATO forces operating under a UN mandate in the Balkans were also guilty of highly publicized abuse of civilians. Therefore, the problem is not limited to a few peacekeepers from one country or region and it has a huge negative impact on mission legitimacy.

Where the local population does not know whether to fear insurgents, government troops, or peacekeepers more, or whether peacekeepers can be trusted, the mission is lost. And where peacekeepers are not trusted, their lives are at greater risk. This vicious cycle has come to dominate high-profile UN peace missions in Africa. Unless it is reversed, the legitimacy of UN peace missions will continue to decline.

The Outlook

The declining legitimacy of UN peace missions leaves fragile and conflict-affected African countries and regions in a precarious position. Only the UN or the African Union under UN mandate has engaged in significant numbers to try to bring peace. If UN peacekeepers are no longer trusted, there is no alternative organization waiting to fill the void. To reverse the declining legitimacy of UN peace missions in Africa, the UN must carefully vet peacekeeping troops and apply the leadership standards set forth in the High Level Independent Panel on Peace Operations, from the battalion commander-level up to the mission commander. Many peacekeepers do excellent work under difficult circumstances. But getting enough troops for any mission has been a constant challenge. To be more selective, the pool of troop-contributing countries must expand substantially as a first step. Attention to incentive structures and disciplinary actions must follow. Every country has an interest in the success of UN peace operations. The political will for each to contribute its fair share is urgently needed. The new US Administration signals a move in the opposite direction, however. A draft order calls for a minimum 40 percent cut in U.S. funding for the United Nations, much of which supports peacekeeping operations. If a similar political wave of nationalism engulfs Europe, the heyday of UN peace operations will be over.

Dr. Ann L. Phillips is a scholar and practitioner who has worked on external assistance to fragile and conflict-affected states for more than 20 years. She has worked with African peacekeepers in several countries over the last three years.

This article was originally published in a much shorter form in Africa: Year in Review 2016, a publication of the Wilson Center Africa Program.