How Fast Can UN Peacekeeping Move?

The Darfur UN force would replace the African Union troops originally sent to supervise a cease-fire which never existed.  The situation in Darfur is getting increasingly dangerous as there is a splintering and re-grouping of the Darfur insurgencies which are fighting among themselves as well as against the regular Sudanese army and a government-sponsored militia – the Janjaweed.  For the moment, the Sudanese government has refused the replacement of the African Union troops by the UN, claiming that the UN in Darfur would be a new form of "Great Power colonialism."

However, there are some 12,273 UN troops in south Sudan (UNMIS) to oversee the return of refugees and displaced persons after the north-south comprehensive peace agreement between the Sudanese government and the SPLA.  This UN presence has led some to argue that the Darfur operation would not be new but only a broader mandate for UNMIS.  Can the UN organize two major, difficult operations at the same time? How fast can the UN move?

In "The Missing 13,000: What Force for the Lebanese Frontier?" posted on Toward Freedom on August 22, I indicated some of the difficulties in creating for each new crisis a separate UN peacekeeping force with different national components, different mandates, and different leadership on the ground.  I also raised the question as to whether military personnel are the best suited for the tasks of peacemaking assigned to them.  Personally, I could see 13,000 Buddhist monks on the frontier between Israel and Lebanon as being just as effective peacekeepers.  In fact, 13,000 Buddhist monks withdrawn from the 30,000 in Sri Lanka might help reduce social and political tensions in Sri Lanka which have been growing worse these last couple of months.  However, Buddhist monks are not structured to be transported, have not trained together, do not necessarily speak English – which in practice is the language of communication in UN forces – and coming from different temples, it is not certain that they would follow commands from those chosen to lead. Also it is not sure that the Israeli and Lebanese government would have confidence in the peacekeeping ability of Buddhist monks – although it is not sure that these governments really have confidence in the ability of diverse national military components to keep peace either.

Thus in practice, the UN turns to national military for its peacekeeping forces, in part because the military are trained to work in units, to obey order (no decision-making by consensus).  Since nearly all states have armies, one does not have to explain their function.  I believe that there might be alternatives to the military as a base for UN peacekeepers.  From 1982 to 1995 I was a "Regional Representative" – basically the contact person at the United Nations in Geneva for Peace Brigades International (PBI)  an NGO inspired by Gandhian non-violence and which has sent small teams into conflict areas, especially during the 1980s to Central America.  Twice, I was contacted by UN staff about the possibilities of fielding teams of observers.  One was on the Burma-Bangladesh frontier when there was a flow of Muslim refugees from Burma to Bangladesh and some danger that the Burmese Army would cross the frontier in "hot pursuit". The second case was for the protection of relief convoys during the fighting in former Yugoslavia.  In the Burma case, a team would have been needed in ten days as events were moving fast. In the Yugoslav case, there would have been a need for 1000 people also within 10-14 days.  A series of phone calls to PBI headquarters and other organizations concerned with non-violence convinced me that we could not field competent teams with that speed and that 1000 people of even minimal non-violent training in two weeks was impossible. It is only the military who are sitting around waiting. As John Milton wrote "They also serve who only stand and wait."

The expanded Unifil for Lebanon was created in part through the leadership of the new Prime Minister of Italy, Romano Prodi, who had long experience in multi-nation diplomacy as the chief executive of the European Union Commission.  He understands the need for fast, cooperative action.  Probably, he is also happy to give Italy another image than that created by his television-network-owner predecessor.  With Italy starting to play a leadership role, France, which was already in command of the current 2000-person Unifil, added 2000 additional troops.  Other European states – Spain, Belgium, Finland, and Poland followed.  A broader mandate was given to the force, and a chain-of-command with fewer stops was put into place.

The expanded Unifil is effective only as a temporary, confidence-building measure.  There has to be broader political and economic measures taken to settle the Middle East conflict, in particular the Israel-Palestine divide.  There is also a need for local "grassroots" peacemaking and conflict resolution in Lebanon where the five-week war has brought again to the surface deep divisions.

UN forces do not exist in a vacuum.  They are part of world politics.  They have limited but crucial roles.  The expanded Unifil is a key test and needs to be watched closely.

Rene Wadlow is editor of the online journal of world politics

Photo credit: and an NGO representative to the UN, Geneva