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Peacekeeping Is Deadly Business

Today the United Nations honors those who have died in the service — however ineffective — of world peace.
May 29, 2014, 9:03pm
Image via United Nations

On Thursday the UN marked the International Day of United Nations Peacekeepers, honoring 106 who perished in 2013. It’s the sixth year in a row that saw the death of more than 100 UN personnel.

“We mourn the passing of every one of these courageous individuals,” said UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. “We grieve with their friends and families and we recommit ourselves to ensure that their contributions to the cause of peace will never be forgotten.”


The casualty figures have much to do with the sheer number of deployments: Among 16 peacekeeping operations, there are over 116,000 UN employees from more than 120 countries in the field.

Half of the 36 peacekeeper deaths from conflict took place in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where the UN, faced with decades of lackluster traditional operations, aggressively deployed a narrowly focused Force Intervention Brigade (FIB) to defeat Rwandan-backed M23 rebel groups in the country’s east.

'You know, sometimes we have to behave like diplomats. We can’t say all that we see in Darfur.'

For some, the effectiveness of FIB was a model for other missions. But rarely are peacekeepers faced with such a precise military objective, where the only question is how much force to apply.

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Peacekeepers’ primary role is the protection of civilians, but even that has proven difficult.

Documents leaked by Aicha el Basri, former press officer of the UN Mission in Darfur (UNAMID), in April showed the mission’s stunning ineptitude and a willingness to cover up ongoing crimes against civilians. “You know, sometimes we have to behave like diplomats,” one peacekeeper commander told her. “We can’t say all that we see in Darfur.”

Yet, these revelations didn’t come as a surprise to many.

An internal UN study found that a situation like that at UNAMID may be only the most extreme, and best-documented, illustration of endemic ineffectiveness. Between 2010 and 2013, peacekeepers authorized to use force did so in only 20 percent of cases when the lives of civilians were in danger.


Of the 507 incidents studied in the report, immediate intervention took place only 101 times. Remarkably, the document found that peacekeepers were not present at the 10 deadliest incidents for civilians — each of which claimed over 100 lives — that took place within the area of their mandate.

“We are always late. Always. No exceptions,” said one peacekeeper interviewed.

But as the report makes clear, it’s difficult to source peacekeepers when they and their home countries shy away from dangerous missions. Peacekeepers often hail from some of the world’s poorest countries, but are sent into conflict zones by members of the UN Security Council, whose five permanent members rarely if ever contribute soldiers.

'Part of this failure is the combined effects of the violence peacekeepers are faced with, the mandate they are given, and the expectations that they are placed under.'

The UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) was caught unaware when fighting broke out in December between forces loyal to Salva Kiir and those who support his former vice-president, Riek Machar. Overwhelmed by the extent of violence, peacekeepers retreated to their bases, where they sheltered upwards of 90,000 civilians. Even playing that limited role, they were unable to stop an attack on a UN compound that claimed at least 48 lives — let alone halt atrocities outside their walls.

But decision-making is often out of the hands of the UN’s Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO), which can only comply with what the Security Council approves.


In the Central African Republic, despite reports of ethnic cleansing, DPKO was hampered by the Council, which held off approving an official mission for months. They finally did so at the end of April, but the mission there won’t begin until October and even then will likely be thousands of troops short. Though CAR is one of the least accessible countries in the world, that six-month time frame for deployment strikes many as too long. The current contingent of African Union troops, supplemented by French and EU forces, has been unable to prevent the country from effectively being split in half along religious lines.

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“Part of this failure is the combined effects of the violence peacekeepers are faced with, the mandate they are given, and the expectations that they are placed under,” Dr. David Curran, Lecturer at the Department for Peace Studies at the University of Bradford, told VICE News. “It’s not only the peacekeepers in the field that have to be questioned on this, but the whole system — from the creation of mandates, through to their implementation.”

Since 1948, over 3,200 UN military, police, and civilian personnel have died while deployed.

Follow Samuel Oakford on Twitter: @samueloakford

Photo via Flickr