When should blue helmets walk away from a conflict?

Peacekeepers of the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) patrol the area around the UNMISS compound at UN House Jebel in Juba in July 2016 (UN Photo/Eric Kanalstein)

Richard Gowan

The renewed crisis in South Sudan is turning into a decisive test for the United Nations. There is a growing international outcry over reports that local forces raped and killed civilians almost in front of UN peacekeepers. The Security Council has struggled to persuade the South Sudanese government to accept the deployment of an additional 4,000 troops with a robust mandate to stabilize the capital, Juba. Having initially rejected the proposal, which has strong African support, President Salva Kiir now seems willing to at least consider the reinforcements. There are tensions in the Security Council over how to handle Kiir: the U.S. wants a tough line, but China and Russia insist on respect for that South Sudan’s sovereignty.

Kiir and his advisers profoundly distrust the UN. According to a leaked South Sudanese document they believe that “The UN Secretary General [Ban Ki Moon] has constantly advanced negative views against the Government of the Republic of South Sudan and its leadership,” and even pursued a “regime change strategy.” This is unjust. A few outside analysts have advanced ambitious and probably unworkable plans to turn South Sudan into an international protectorate on the Kosovo model. But the UN is largely struggling to stay on top of the crisis and get aid to the suffering, rather than plotting to overthrow Kiir.

deployment map of UNMISS, United Nations Mission in the Republic of South Sudan (Map No. 4456R23, July 2016) ©UN Cartographic Information Section

Deployment map of UNMISS, United Nations Mission in the Republic of South Sudan (Map No. 4456R23, July 2016) - ©UN Cartographic Information Section

The grim reality is that, far from being in a position to depose the president, the UN has little choice but to work with him and his allies. The alternative could be a severe increase in violence, with peacekeepers in the firing line. This is neither a new or unique dilemma. In “The Peacekeeping Quagmire”, published by the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs exactly a year ago, I argued that the UN’s “greatest strategic weakness” in South Sudan was its ties to an insecure and often aggressive leader such as Kiir.

Yet, as I noted then, peacekeeping forces have ended up in similarly dangerous relationships with other leaders, including Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir and the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Joseph Kabila. While Kiir may be in the news today, there are also growing fears that Kabila’s efforts to quash political opposition and secure an unconstitutional third term as president in the DRC this year will also lead to serious violence – and once again, a large UN peace operation will be on the frontline trying to keep order.

These crises are a reminder that, in trying to understand why UN peace operations succeed or fail, it is necessary not only to look at the technical details of their mandates and functions (DDR, SSR, and so forth) but also at political personalities and dynamics. The 2015 High-Level Independent Panel on Peace Operations (HIPPO) argued that the UN must emphasize the “primacy of politics” in all its peacemaking efforts. But what happens when politicians are fundamentally unwilling or unable to work constructively with international peacekeepers? As I argued last year, and still believe today, there may be times and places where the UN has to walk away from countries where local political elites set ethically unacceptable conditions for keeping blue helmets on the ground, whatever the dangers of retreating.

This line chart shows the increase in the number of uniformed personnel deployed (red line) and UN authorized levels of uniformed personnel (blue line) of the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) from its inception (August 2011) to present.

This line chart shows the increase in the number of uniformed personnel deployed (red line) and UN authorized levels of uniformed personnel (blue line) of the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) from its inception (August 2011) to present.

In January 2015, protests broke out in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), in response to an attempt by President Joseph Kabila to circumvent constitutional term-limits and run for a third term as head of state. Security forces killed dozens. Kabila backed down but many Congolese and foreign observers thought this retreat is only temporary. The violence raised concerns not only about the DRC’s political future but also about Kabila’s relationship with the United Nations.

The UN has deployed peacekeepers in the DRC since 1999 and in July 2016 had more than 18,000 troops and police on the ground. It oversaw the president’s two previous electoral victories in 2006 and 2011, although his supporters were widely believed to have rigged the latter. UN troops have assisted the Congolese army, which has an ugly track record of human rights violations, in efforts to defeat militias in the east of the country. Yet if the UN and Kabila have developed a symbiotic relationship, it is also an abusive one. The President and his advisers have accused the peacekeepers of failing to fight hard enough in the east and accused the UN of “neo-colonization”.

The UN Stabilization Force in the DRC (MONUSCO) has become an emblem of the flaws of the UN’s broader peacekeeping project. The organization in July 2016 had more than 101,000 uniformed personnel worldwide, a record. Some of the largest and highest-profile UN missions, including those in South Sudan and Darfur, are trapped in quagmires of endemic violence and dysfunctional politics. UN contingents are often under-equipped and under-motivated, reducing their tactical impact. Yet the UN’s greatest strategic weakness in these cases is that it has become entangled in fractious and arguably unethical relationships with national leaders who, driven by greed or fear, have little real interest in stable, open and inclusive political systems.

The DRC is by no means the worst case. In South Sudan, President Salva Kiir has marginalized the UN mission (UNMISS) since the country slumped into civil war in December 2013. In July 2016, the peacekeepers are sheltering an estimated 200,000 civilians on their compounds but can do little more. In Darfur, troops and militias loyal to President Omar al-Bashir regularly harass peacekeeping patrols. UN officials have allegedly covered up cases where government troops have attacked international personnel.

The Security Council has regularly renewed the mandates for these missions and the UN continues to work with Kabila, Kiir and Bashir. Having aspired to instill democracy and good governance in countries like the DRC and South Sudan, the UN has ended up propping up unreliable and even autocratic leaders in the absence of better alternatives. Peacekeepers have to try to defend civilians from precisely the governments and security forces they are meant to partner with.

It might be honest to declare defeat in Darfur or announce that the UN will pull out of DRC or South Sudan if national leaders do not engage in less destructive politics. But the risk of renewed chaos after the peacekeepers hangs heavily over the Security Council: Nobody wants to close a mission and see massacres spread as the last peacekeepers leave. How did the UN get into this mess? Can it ever escape it?

From elections to autocrats?

To understand how the UN finds itself in its current predicament, as argued in previous articles, it is necessary to have a sense of both irony and tragedy. The irony is that the UN’s dilemmas arise from earlier efforts at democratization and humanitarian protection by the UN a little more than a decade ago. The tragedy is that in cases such as the DRC and the Sudans, UN officials, having lost whatever political leverage they initially had, are stuck trying to mitigate cycles of violence that they can foresee but not prevent. Some historical context is necessary here.

Twenty years ago, the UN’s reputation nosedived in the wake of Rwanda and Srebrenica. Blue helmet missions dwindled as alternatives such as NATO took the lead in the Balkans and swathes of Africa, including the DRC, toppled into conflict. Yet from 1999 on, the Security Council and then Secretary-General Kofi Annan collaborated to revitalize UN peacekeeping to manage crises and instill peace, above all in battered African countries such as Sierra Leone and Sudan. The UN also took on small trouble spots elsewhere, like Haiti, Kosovo and Timor-Leste. But Africa has been the priority: over 80,000 of the personnel now under UN command are on the continent.

The new generation of UN missions not only managed to bring a series of bloody conflicts under control but also looked like an effective force for democracy promotion. The peacekeepers facilitated technically impressive elections in cases such as Liberia and the DRC. “Helicopters were deployed, bulletins were printed and electrical generators were sent to remote voting centers,” former UN Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations Jean-Marie Guéhenno recalls of the Congolese effort in a new memoir, The Fog of Peace. “For the presidential elections, some 50,000 polling stations were opened.” Yet as Guéhenno underlines, the sheer scale of these processes obscured far deeper political challenges to democratization.

Almost everywhere the UN deployed in the early 2000s, it found it hard to grasp, let alone unpick, complex local political alliances and patronage systems. In some cases, power-brokers were able to delay elections for long periods: The UN sent a mission to Côte d’Ivoire with a mandate to prepare for polls in 2004, but was unable to deliver on this until 2010. Elsewhere, national leaders took advantage of elections to consolidate their power and do down their rivals. Guéhenno noted in his book that Joseph Kabila pushed his rival in the 2006 elections, Jean-Pierre Bemba, out of the DRC by force. “At enormous and unsustainable cost,” he adds, “the international community consolidated the presidency through elections and largely ignored the other institutions of state,” limiting parliamentary and legal restraints on Kabila.

This focus on bolstering a leader rather than more credible institutions points to a deeper challenge for the UN. Officials sometimes opt for a version of the Great Man theory of history, emphasizing the personal qualities and weaknesses of the leaders they have to work with. Alan Doss, a UN veteran who led the UN mission in Liberia in 2005-2007 and that in the DRC from 2007 to 2010, concludes that while peaceful states require strong institutions, “strong institutions also require strong men and women capable of making a qualitative difference to the way those institutions function.”

Doss contrasts the “particularly effective” Liberian president and former World Bank official Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (elected on the watch of UN peacekeepers in 2006) with the “reluctant communicator” Kabila. Recent research affirms that leadership is indeed an important factor in shaping weak states. But peacekeepers and aid agencies have arguably invested too much political capital in individual leaders, raising their sense of entitlement and compromising the UN’s impartiality.

Even the widely admired Johnson Sirleaf, a joint winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011, has been accused of taking unfair advantage of her position. She appointed three of her sons to senior positions, including a senior position in the Central Bank. The tensions inherent in peacekeepers’ relations with national leaders were much more brutally illustrated in Liberia’s neighbor Côte d’Ivoire in 2010-2011. President Laurent Gbagbo did a fine job of neutering the UN mission in his country, reducing it to a bit part in internal political dialogues. When Gbagbo lost the long-delayed Ivorian elections in 2010, and the UN validated the results, he took the offensive, unleashing mobs on both his political foes and ill-prepared peacekeepers.

The UN mission came close to collapse in 2011 but, reinforced with Ukrainian attack helicopters, eventually helped to restore order in tandem with French forces. Gbagbo surrendered and was later transferred to the ICC. For a brief moment, the UN’s actions seemed to confirm its credentials as a robust defender of democracy.

Yet the Ivorian crisis may have been the exception to a rule: In general, UN missions fail to respond decisively to national leaders’ abusive tendencies. Leaders such as South Sudan’s Salva Kiir have found more effective ways to assert their leverage.

There may be times and places where the UN has to walk away from countries where local political elites set ethically unacceptable conditions for keeping blue helmets on the ground, whatever the dangers of retreating.

The case of Kiir is striking because he once looked like a natural partner for the UN. Having first deployed peacekeepers to facilitate the end of the intra-Sudanese civil war in 2005, the UN oversaw an unexpectedly smooth independence referendum in the south in 2011. Almost 99 per cent of voters supported secession from Khartoum. The Security Council gave UNMISS an explicit mandate “to help establish the condition for the development in the Republic of South Sudan, with a view to strengthening the capacity of the Government of South Sudan to govern effectively and democratically.” This sounded like vote of confidence in Kiir’s leadership. But their relations with the authorities in Juba soured. The UN worried that the government was growing rapacious and unaccountable. The government complained that the peacekeepers were not doing enough to stop Sudan aiding to revolts on its territory.

James Copnall paints a nuanced portrait of Kiir’s position. “The man with ultimate responsibility for South Sudan,” he writes, “probably never imagined himself running a country.” John Garang, the charismatic leader of the South Sudanese independence movement, died in a helicopter crash in 2005. Kiir has had to keep his supporters satisfied. “Generals and politicians have built multi-story houses in South Sudan and abroad,” Copnall complains, “and drive cars the size of ordinary people’s huts. Corruption has become a defining feature of the new country.” Catering to such an avaricious political base, Kiir bridled at criticism from UNMISS.

These tensions peaked in 2013, when violence between Kiir’s supporters and backers of his former deputy, Riek Machar, spiraled out of control. Kiir scape-goated the UN, accusing it of bidding to form a “parallel government” while his supporters have harassed UNMISS convoys and allegedly shot down one of its helicopters (Machar’s forces have also threatened the UN, and there is a proliferation of armed groups that answer to neither leader). The government and its regional allies cut the UN out of peace talks in Ethiopia. The Security Council ordered UNMISS to focus on protecting civilians – including those on its bases – monitoring human rights and facilitating aid. The dream of close coordination between Kiir and the UN had given way to a more minimalistic focus on saving lives.

Compromise and complicity

It is hard to quibble with saving lives in a crisis. But what should the UN do over the longer term when its relations with national governments have gone off the rails? In many cases, international officials choose to temporize, hoping that they can nudge abusive leaders towards better governance over time. The leaders themselves may find this irritating (Joseph Kabila has refused to meet top UN officials for months at a time) but they do have incentives not to cut off relations completely. The presence of a peacekeeping force offers them some extra security and, perhaps most temptingly, may facilitate international aid. As Giulia Piccolino and John Karlsrud point out, the UN finds itself in a state of “mutual dependency” with these abusive leaders. If Bashir, Kabila or Kiir were to turn against the UN completely, peacekeeping would become impossible. But they would also lose “the opportunity to blame the international peace operation for everything that is not working.”

Nonetheless, abusive leaders can extract a high price from the UN for maintaining even the tenuous cooperation. In the DRC, Kabila has pushed the peacekeepers to assist a series of military offensives against militias in the east of the country. The UN has frequently worried that these are likely to cause unjustifiable human and political harm, and international NGOs have highlighted the presence of notorious alleged war criminals in Congolese officer corps. But UN officials have argued that it is necessary to play along to limit the damage of these adventures. “We were left with no choice, either we were in or we were out,” an anonymous official explained to Human Rights Watch after one notably brutal operation in 2009. “We believed that being on the inside would give us a better chance to protect civilians.”

The UN has tried to place some conditions, such as the vetting of senior personnel, on its Congolese military counterparts, creating new frictions. Kabila’s relations with MONUSCO reached a nadir after the UN failed to halt rebels from seizing the city of Goma in late 2012. The following year, the Security Council tried to regain his trust by mandating a special brigade to neutralize militias in the eastern DRC. Kabila also agreed to enter a regional political dialogue aimed at resolving the east’s problems, and the brigade was initially successful. Yet by early 2015, both the military and political processes were losing steam as Kabila prepared for the 2016 elections.

At least Kabila and MONUSCO remain nominally on the same side. In Darfur, the Sudanese government has sometimes treated the joint UN-African mission (UNAMID), launched with Western backing in 2007, as an enemy. The government views the UN with suspicion, believing that it aims to dismember the state. The International Criminal Court’s 2009 decision to indict President Bashir for war crimes in Darfur further poisoned relations. In early 2014, Foreign Policy released leaked UNAMID emails about attacks by the Sudanese military and pro-government irregulars on its personnel. The army even threatened to bomb a UN convoy. Yet the investigation found that, fearing a rupture, “the UN leadership has routinely withheld information linking Khartoum to threats – let alone violence – against UN personnel.”

UN officials insist that their presence does still provide some security for imperiled Darfuris. But this leaves deeper strategic questions open. At what point do efforts to maintain relations with abusive leaders and regime become morally and politically unsustainable? Does such collaboration contribute to protecting civilians over the long term, or does it simply allow abusive rulers to fortify their positions?

Conclusion: Time to go?

UN officials are fully conscious of these dilemmas. They are able to identify how they might have been avoided. If the UN had not rushed to early elections in so many cases, or focused less on national politics and more on local conflict dynamics, it might not be in so many quagmires today. It should not have cultivated certain leaders so naively. The Security Council should never have sent peacekeepers to some places, like Darfur, at all. There are important lessons from these past mistakes for current and future UN deployments. But while the organization has recently been tasked with stabilizing Mali and the Central African Republic, it still has to grapple with its “legacy operations” in the DRC, the Sudans and West Africa.

Having tried to parlay with Bashir, Kabila and Kiir, the Security Council and UN officials are losing patience. While divisions between the West, Russia and China have complicated diplomacy in the Security Council, in March 2015 it established a sanctions regime for South Sudan that could be used to freeze Kiir’s assets. In February the same year, MONUSCO suspended its backing to a Congolese anti-militia operation over the involvement of two generals accused of human rights abuses. The U.S. has also leant on Kabila, with President Obama calling his Congolese counterpart to discuss how his “legacy as a leader who brought the DRC out of war and set it on a path of continued democratic progress would be consolidated by free and fair elections in 2016.” (A date for these polls remains to be set.)

If Kabila ultimately concludes that he cannot run for a third term in office – or hold onto power by a ruse such as delaying the polls – it will send a signal that national leaders cannot ignore international opinion and the UN indefinitely. But there is no guarantee that his successor will be vastly more accommodating towards the UN: the Congolese elite is divided between relatively pro-Western moderates and hardliners who might prove tougher on MONUSCO. If Kabila does go, it will also make Bashir and Kiir even more suspicious that the UN plans to oust them as well.

Perhaps not coincidentally, Kabila and Bashir launched parallel campaigns to downsize the UN forces on their territory in late 2014. The Congolese president proposed cuts to MONUSCO of a quarter (6,000 personnel) or more. Bashir called for plans for a complete end to the “burden” of UNAMID. In both cases, the Security Council responded with smaller cuts, but the UN set up a working group with the African Union and Sudanese authorities to explore exit strategies for UNAMID. It is likely that the UN’s representatives in the DRC, Darfur and South Sudan will face endless negotiations over further reductions to these missions. A series of gradual reductions could render the peacekeepers less operationally and politically robust, leaving them ever more vulnerable to bullying and manipulation.

The Security Council and UN officials should maintain, and be willing to threaten, the nuclear option of withdrawing peacekeeping forces more rapidly in those cases where national leaders grow too confrontational or autocratic. While it may be hard to imagine pulling peacekeepers out of countries where civilians remain at risk, there have to be moral limits to the sort of regimes that peacekeepers are asked to fight and die for. The longer the UN continues to prop up leaders and governments that treat the organization with contempt, the more that contempt will be deserved.

Richard Gowan is a non-resident fellow at the Center on International Cooperation and a fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. | Twitter@RichardGowan1