What is the most effective way to neuter a peacekeeping operation?
Last week, the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Mali, known by its French acronym MINUSMA, lost 10 soldiers when jihadis attacked their base. A few days later, a roadside bomb killed two more peacekeepers.
Although this was an especially grim week, guerrilla forces regularly hit U.N. camps and convoys in northern Mali. Since it was deployed in 2013, MINUSMA has lost over 100 personnel to hostile acts. A 2018 study suggested that the mission devotes about 90 percent of its military resources to protecting itself.
Many U.N. officials and experts on Mali question whether the operation should continue against such odds. There are rumors that an independent review of the mission last year proposed pulling out of the north or winding up its military component altogether. But MINUSMA does not seem to be going anywhere. After each attack, the U.N. promises to keep supporting Mali.
This contradicts the cliché that U.N. missions are unable to endure serious violence. The organization’s critics like to claim that the blue helmets will always retreat under fire. There is no doubt that individual peacekeeping units have at times refused to put themselves in danger. Internal investigations have chronicled depressing cases of U.N. troops refusing to protect civilians and aid workers under attack in the Central African Republic and South Sudan in recent years.
In some cases, such as the Darfur region of Sudan, armed groups have effectively paralyzed peacekeeping efforts for long periods. Yet, it is notable that the Security Council and U.N. leadership have generally insisted on maintaining these missions in place despite the dangers.
Nobody wants to repeat the mess of the U.N. deployment in Somalia in the 1990s, which pulled out after militants killed U.S. troops in Mogadishu, leaving the country to chaos. In the past two decades, the Security Council has responded robustly to serious violence against peacekeepers.
In some cases, such as Sierra Leone in 2000 and Cote d’Ivoire in 2011, individual council members like Britain and France swung into action to back up the blue helmets. In others, council members have approved significant reinforcements for beleaguered missions. After a militia seized the city of Goma in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo in 2012, the council authorized a new Force Intervention Brigade with more proactive rules of engagement to “neutralize” armed groups in the region. Some critics see this as a sign that the U.N. is marching away from peacekeeping toward war-fighting in response to such crises.
The U.N. can stand up to direct acts of violence better than its critics suppose. But it can struggle to respond to more complex political maneuvers.Still, the U.N. has at least avoided the humiliation of having to withdraw a large-scale mission under unsustainable military pressure. Armed groups in places like Mali and Congo can use violence to pin peacekeepers down and stop them from protecting local communities. But in some cases, this actually motivates the Security Council to double down on its peacekeeping efforts.
If you really want to undercut a U.N. operation, it is better to use political guile than brute force.
For ideas about how to do that, it is only necessary to look at Congo, where the U.N. has had peacekeepers deployed for two decades. Last week, President Joseph Kabila handed over power to Felix Tshisekedi after a controversial presidential election. Independent observers, including from the Catholic Church, believe that another opposition candidate won last December’s polls, but that Tshisekedi cut a deal with Kabila and his supporters to secure office. While the U.N. still has 16,000 troops in the country, it was largely a political bystander during this controversy. The Security Council considered evidence transmitted by video link from state and Catholic officials earlier this month but made no serious effort to demand a review of the results or otherwise challenge the official outcome.
Congolese political players probably expected little else. While the U.N. oversaw quite credible elections in Congo in 2006, which Kabila won, many observers believed that it overlooked major irregularities when the president secured another term in 2011. The Security Council has leaned on Kabila to stand down since 2016, when his tenure was officially up, and there is relief that he eventually agreed to quit. But the U.N. was never likely to stoke further tension by probing the vote to replace him in excessive detail. China and Russia in particular have called for Congo’s sovereignty to be respected. And so the council may have ended up facilitating a stolen election after 20 years of talking earnestly about building good governance and democracy.
Critics of the U.N. in Congo have accused it of enabling Kabila’s authoritarian tendencies at the expense of its pro-democracy platform. One recent study, by Oisin Tansey and Sarah von Billerbeck, concludes that U.N. officials overinvested in cultivating the president and have taken a “lax” approach to repressive government behavior. For his part, Kabila grew adept at keeping the U.N. on edge, refusing to meet its representatives for months at a time and threatening to expel the peacekeepers altogether.
The implicit threat of large-scale violence has lurked behind these interactions. Security Council members have fretted that Kabila could spark a civil war, or new regional conflict, by pushing the peacekeepers out. It remains to be seen how the U.N. will get along with Tshisekedi, but it will want to avoid clashing with an ostensibly democratically elected leader.
The combined lesson of the last week’s events in Mali and Congo is relatively straightforward. The U.N. can stand up to direct acts of violence better than its critics suppose. But it can struggle to respond to more complex political maneuvers by the governments it is supposed to support.
If you want to neuter a U.N. peace operation, in other words, shooting at it will only get you so far. It’s smarter to get it bogged down in a messy political process with no easy practical solutions.