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How not to build peace: what's been missing from the UN process

War & Peace

Standing to attention – but how attentive to locals’ needs are UN peacekeepers? © Xinhua/Alamy Stock Photo

The last time I met Sultan Ibrahim Senoussi, he was at home in the town of N’délé, sitting beneath his favourite tree, holding court from his armchair. Waiting my turn to speak, I noticed a book on his lap and surreptitiously read the title upside-down.

After we exchanged greetings, I asked why he was learning English. ‘Because of the peacekeepers!’ The sultan waved his book. ‘Those Pakistanis don’t speak French. If they can’t talk to us, we must learn to talk to them!’

In the Central African Republic, traditional leaders wield both political and moral authority. As a sultan, Ibrahim Senoussi oversees local administration, including humanitarian works, so is familiar with the UN peacekeepers, whom Central Africans call casques bleus (blue helmets). The Pakistanis in N’délé are part of the UN’s Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission to the Central African Republic (or MINUSCA), launched in September 2014.

The UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations in New York currently oversees 16 international peacekeeping missions. MINUSCA is the most recent; the oldest is the Jerusalem-based UN Truce Supervision Organization, established in 1948 to monitor ceasefires. These missions now employ over 120,000 personnel from 123 countries. Last year’s budget was $8.27 billion. This represents less than half of one per cent of annual global military expenditure – but in a world of increasingly interlinked conflicts within and between nation-states, is this UN model still relevant?

A tricky beast

Jonathan Cohen, Director of Conciliation Resources, a British NGO working with conflict-affected communities across Africa, South Asia and the Caucasus, has his doubts.

‘UN peace[keeping] operations start with existing solutions, like deploying peacekeepers, rather than the problem that needs addressing, like the unique dynamics of the conflict in question,’ he says. ‘This [approach] makes it hard for them to be tailored or innovative, or to learn from failures or mistakes.’

UN peacekeeping has traditionally been a one-size-fits-all agenda of armed men in blue helmets patrolling conflict zones. What has been missing is a parallel process to build peace from the bottom up, working alongside local communities to resolve conflicts without further bloody violence.

Rebuilding trust between shattered communities involves months, sometimes years, of low-key initiatives

Peacebuilding, though, is a tricky beast. It is difficult to quantify project outcomes for donors, as rebuilding trust between shattered communities involves months, sometimes years, of low-key initiatives. The UN is making efforts to address this. Ten years ago, it established a Peacebuilding Architecture to ‘help countries build sustainable peace and prevent relapse into violent conflict’. This grand-sounding initiative includes a Commission supporting political peace processes, a technical Support Office and a Peacebuilding Fund.

Bautista Logioco works at the Peacebuilding Fund, also in New York. ‘We are moving away from a narrow concept of peacebuilding,’ he says. ‘This is an important departure point. We [now] have to think of peacebuilding in stages, including [national] ownership of processes, political will and commitment.’ Emphasizing that the Fund provides money but does not actually implement projects, he talks up its successes in the Central African Republic. In 2014, for example, civil servants were denied salaries due to lack of government money. The Peacebuilding Fund stepped in, paying police and gendarme salaries for five months. This ‘contributed to prevent destabilization at a very fragile moment,’ says Logioco.

The UN also supports community violence-reduction projects, focusing on local initiatives, often in neglected rural areas. The mission in Darfur (UNAMID) has a community stabilization project that has engaged some 9,000 youths in labour-intensive work, focusing on rebuilding infrastructure and trust between communities while also reinvigorating local economies.

In Tajikistan, female community leaders supported by UN Women have established Women’s Watch Groups across rural jamoats (local councils) that are increasing women’s social protection and their access to vital social services. UN funding for initiatives designed and ‘owned’ by local peacebuilders can contribute powerfully to dynamic change by re-establishing opportunities for trust and security across conflict-shattered communities.

Broken accountability

It is therefore a savage irony that even as it funds projects to reduce violence, the UN has been forced to investigate violations by its own peacekeepers. These allegations are not new: cases of abuses of power and impunity have battered the credibility of peacekeeping for years. The Central African Republic has been rocked by hundreds of cases of child sexual abuse allegedly perpetrated by peacekeepers since the end of 2013. Investigations into violations by UN peacekeepers in the country are ongoing, with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon promising to be ‘unrelenting in facing this scourge’.

But high-level declarations of outrage have been coupled with vicious campaigns against some UN officials who have blown the whistle on abuse. Anders Kompass, a veteran Swedish UN representative, was recently asked to resign after reporting on the sexual abuse allegations against peacekeepers in the Central African Republic. Kompass refused to go quietly, publicly declaring with almost heart-breaking brevity, ‘The UN’s accountability system is broken. It simply doesn’t work.’

The majority of peacekeepers are not predators, and do not rape or abuse civilians. Pakistani peacekeepers in N’délé are now supported by military observers who also provide translation services. No allegations of abuse have been reported there. But in other locations the rot is deep.

Controversially, international UN personnel, including peacekeepers, enjoy effective professional diplomatic immunity. In cases of alleged abuse of power while on duty, an individual can only be subject to criminal proceedings in their own nation, rather than the country where abuse is alleged to have happened. The UN is still managed and controlled by wealthy states, while major troop-contributing countries to UN peacekeeping operations include India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, where poverty and human rights abuses, including by the military, are rife. Peacekeepers are usually assigned to cash-poor countries, where small change buys them power over the civilians they are mandated to protect.

The UN General Assembly recently reviewed its Peacebuilding Architecture, ‘welcoming the contribution of [UN] peacekeeping operations to a comprehensive strategy for sustaining peace and… the contributions that peacekeepers and peacekeeping missions make’. But Tatiana Viviane, Director of Femmes Hommes Action Plus – a Central African NGO supporting vulnerable women and children – argues that the UN isn’t rigorous enough in preventing abuse. ‘UN peacekeepers need to be trained in protecting women and children,’ she says, citing UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on women, peace and security, which calls on all parties to conflict to take special measures to protect women and girls.

With UN member states now registering the highest number of refugees since records began, mainly due to escalations of violent conflict, there has never been greater need for collaboration between peacekeepers and peacebuilders. Ongoing abuses by peacekeepers undermine, and can destroy, efforts to rebuild shattered communities. How is the UN really going to face down this scourge?

At the end of this year, Ban Ki-moon will leave office. The UN General Assembly will appoint a new Secretary-General, who for the first time will probably be female. She will have a choice: to maintain the status quo and tolerate peacekeeper violations of civilians in countries scarred by conflict. Or to lead a new zero-tolerance strategy against abuses by all peacekeepers, demanding the death of impunity and firing up the organization to re-engage with its core principles. Either way, her tenure will have a profound effect on those who need UN protection the most.

Louisa Waugh is a writer who works for international NGOs as a peacebuilder in Africa and the Middle East.

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