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International Peacekeeping stinks, but it’s infinitely better than the alternative

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International peacekeeping: there’s hope for improvement

UN peacekeeping can be ugly. A recent BBC documentary examined the plight of aid workers in South Sudan that were viciously attacked, robbed, beaten and raped by local soldiers in July 2016. They called for help from a nearby UN base but it never responded. Sex scandals involving UN peacekeepers in Haiti, the Central African Republic and other locations have regularly blighted UN missions.

I have long championed greater use of the private sector to support peacekeeping and stability operations. In doing so, I have been quite critical of past international missions. But I have also always made the point that while such missions are sometimes only a marginal improvement on total unrestrained conflict, they are better and they do save lives.

International peacekeeping operations are most often run under the auspices of the United Nations or the African Union and have a checkered history to be sure: unrealistic mandates, underutilized rules of engagement, child prostitution, black market dealings, and sometimes decades-long deployments that solve nothing or even congeal an unacceptable status quo.

Nevertheless, there is no practical alternative on the horizon. Nor is the developed world prepared to stand by idly while humanitarian catastrophes play out on their evening news shows without demanding some action, no matter how futile it may appear. So peacekeeping is here to stay and our best option is to seek innovative means to improve how we do it.

There have been a number of high-profile efforts to improve peacekeeping that have had mixed results. One example from the late 1990s was the UN’s ‘Brahimi Report’, which itemized some of the most glaring problems as well as steps to address the issues. These included shockingly inadequate staffing support at the Department of Peacekeeping in New York, unacceptable delays in commencing authorized missions, and ensuring that deployed ‘blue helmets’ arrived trained, equipped and capable of carrying out their assigned mission.

The Stimson Center in Washington, D.C. did some groundbreaking work operationalizing and benchmarking the Report’s recommendations. At first the UN did surprisingly well in addressing the problems, even exceeding some of the goals. Subsequently there has been significant backsliding, and we have seen the tragic results in Haiti, the Central African Republic, South Sudan and other locations.

Nevertheless, there are a number of reasons to expect improvements in international peace operations.

While in the past too many peacekeepers hailed from developing countries with limited abilities to train and equip their deployed units, today we are seeing a growing interest in participation from ‘middle income’ countries such as Brazil and China. These countries offer better trained and equipped militaries that bring with them greater professionalism and effectiveness. History shows that truly capable militaries, those essentially up to NATO standards, add backbone and bring better equipment and professionalism to multinational missions.

Canada used to be the last NATO country to contribute significant military units to some of the more forgotten peacekeeping operations until even they withdrew. Now under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau they have indicated they may be returning. They will be joining French, British and other NATO forces already robustly supporting international stability efforts. To be sure, even the best units have failed their mandates on occasion but in general the more professional units offer better results.

Technology is also improving the way we conduct these operations. For example, the perennially undermanned peacekeeping missions are becoming more effective and efficient using unmanned aerial surveillance capabilities. Innovative technology also helps humanitarian response with pioneering water purification systems, unexploded ordnance detection and disposal techniques, rapidly deployable emergency housing, renewable power options and many other improvements, all of which vastly improve the way we carry out these vital operations.

Of special note, U.S. efforts, especially ACOTA (Africa Contingency Operations Training & Assistance) have done much to help the quality and interoperability of African militaries deployed on stability operations. In Africa, APSTA (Africa Peace Support Trainers Association) helps to coordinate training and policy among militaries that deploy frequently to hotspots on the continent. There are a number of other programs from the European Union that further help to equip, train and professionalize the militaries from developing countries that form the core of the international missions.

(Photo UN)

While private sector peacekeeping support was often shunned in the past, there has been a growing recognition of the value and capabilities for-profit firms bring to international peace operations. The sector brings innovation, unlimited capabilities, cost savings and speed of deployment. These are all things we should take advantage of if we really care about making these vital humanitarian missions more effective. The private sector provides logistics, aviation, medical services, military and displaced population facilities, clean water, proper sewage treatment, unexploded ordnance disposal and many other vital services.

Good procurement and contract management practices can ensure significantly higher contractor standards than peacekeeping operations have tolerated in the past. Some of the focus of mission improvement with our allies needs to be on the boring, bureaucratic side to make sure the best qualified companies are utilized for these critical missions, and that they are monitored to ensure success. Unlike military units proffered for international missions, private firms can be fired for misbehavior or poor performance; it is a competitive market and there are plenty of companies ready to take their place.

Ultimately, security is 90% of the problem but only 10% of the solution in conflict and post conflict environments. So while there is official skittishness about utilizing private security in international stability operations, they are already used for facility and personnel security in many missions. Further, allowing the local industries and commercial operations to hire their own private security reduces the need for national police and military forces to stretch their limited resources to provide static security and allows them to focus on their national security and counterinsurgency roles. Even in terms of supporting the larger international missions, the private security role can be vastly expanded in terms of the protection and policing of displaced populations. For the more robust peacekeeping operations, the offensive roles can be reserved for trained military units, but the private sector can do much to ensure those units are more effective.

Private firms hire and train locals to do much of the work and support the local economy, even employing expertise from the pools of displaced civilians. They play a capacity building role that is rarely noticed but is vital to reconstructing damaged societies. Companies operate not just for short-term deployments, but for the duration of the mission, saving transportation costs and minimizing hand-off disruptions seen when international units are swapped out. All this reduces the need for large numbers of foreign forces to achieve international mandates while allowing the smaller numbers to be vastly more effective.

UN Peacekeepers, South Sudan, April 2017 (Photo UN)

Terrible things happen in international peace operations, and we are right to be critical and demand transparency especially regarding inaction and inappropriate behavior by the very people we send to solve difficult problems. Nevertheless, technology and innovative private sector solutions are improving the ability of the international community to effectively intervene in critical humanitarian crises. Peace operations do ensure that conflicts are less terrible, and they can offer the various factions time to reconcile and develop solutions, and most importantly they do reduce the mortality and waste of conflict.

As the U.S. and other governments review their levels of support for UN peacekeeping they should keep in mind that, despite its flaws, UN peacekeeping is improving and it does serve an invaluable humanitarian function.

Doug Brooks, for Lima Charlie News

[Edited by May Hamza]

Doug Brooks founded and developed the International Stability Operations Association (ISOA), the world’s leading private sector association focused on advancing the global role of the industry in supporting international efforts in conflict, post conflict, humanitarian rescue and disaster relief environments. Mr. Brooks led the association during a decade of unprecedented activity when ISOA teamed with multiple stakeholders from academia, think tanks, industry, government and nongovernmental organizations to develop and negotiate international codes, norms, standards and guidelines instrumental in shaping the modern Stability Operations industry. Now President Emeritus, Mr. Brooks serves on the Board of the Afghan-American Chamber of Commerce, teaches as Adjunct Faculty at the University of Fiji, and continues to maintain a close relationship with ISOA as he shares his expertise with leading firms in the industry as an independent consultant.

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