“The UN provides the necessary legitimacy”

UN Blue Helmets and international peacekeeping

In sixteen UN peace and reconstruction missions around the world, there are some 120.000 men and women at work.‘A real UN army does not exist’, says Marco Bianchini, head of the UN liaison Office for Peace and Security in Brussels. The growing need to prevent or control conflicts on the international stage results in complex UN missions   – and the UN would like us to believe that this patchwork approach represents progress.

  • Gie Goris Belgian blue helmets in Lebanon Gie Goris

‘Peacekeeping missions are hard to anticipate’, says Marco Bianchini. ‘Since 1999 the number of missions and people has risen exponentially, to current levels. We think it will decrease in the years to come, but one never really knows.” Referring to the sudden peaks of instability in Sudan in recent years, and the uncertain balance that exists in countries like Liberia and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) Bianchini underlines how difficult it is to predict just how many blue helmets and civilian staff will be needed in the future.

Definitively predictable, however, is the trouble the UN continues to experience in finding the resources needed to answer all questions rapidly, efficiently and professionally.

Bianchini: ‘We have to make hard choices. The EU insists on reducing the salaries of UN military personnel (“blue helmets”), and this certainly has to do with the financial crisis.

We could do with a bit more flexibility, and should not always depend on the UN, on NATO or the EU. Somalia is a good example – various international institutions have their role there: The EU finances the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) ; the UN has a responsibility for everything political; the African Union provide the troops, including those from Kenya and Ethiopia.

In the past the UN simply would have planned a mission.

The absolute precondition to a successful peace mission, according to Bianchini, is that the UN Security Council reaches a consensus on a clear mandate. ‘Mandates are often too broadly formulated while the means are insufficient; and political issues impose all kinds of restrictions on the actual operations in the field. The mission in DR Congo for instance contained 41 different orders.’

Furthermore there’s the persistent imbalance between those that fund UN operations and those that provide the troops. Bianchini: ‘Three to four percent of the blue helmets are from Europe, while the EU provides 41% of the financial support for those missions.’

It seems richer countries buy off their duty to send troops.

Marcho Bianchini: Big changes take time and we have to consider which is the best course to steer. In this respect I do see increasing collaboration between the UN and the EU’s own anti-crisis structures. Especially on macro-level issues, the EU and the UN share a multilateral policy. The EU sometimes needs the legitimacy the UN provides for an external intervention, as was the case in Lybia, and this collaboration must be fine-tuned. At the end of May, in New York, we started negotiations concerning the EU contributions to UN missions. We examined to which extend the EU can coordinate the joint international effort of European countries. EU missions in themselves are rather specific, focusing on arms proliferation, state failure, international crime and extremism. In the Sahel, where all these elements converge, the EU itself is present. Already in June of this year the negotiators made a report to the Security Council. So quite a lot is happening behind the scenes.

In the Horn of Africa the UN appeal to the African Union.

Marco Bianchini: There is no mandate for a UN operation, so for now only the African Union can operate there – and it is reasonably successful at it, too. Mogadishu is more or less secured, Al-Shabaab has lost ground.

Collaboration with regional organizations is already included in chapters 5,6,7 and 8 of the original UN Charter, and the UN cannot  be everywhere. Sometimes the UN takes the initiative, and then others take on a leading role later on; the Balkans is a good example of that. In other circumstances, other better-equipped organizations will carry out the operation. This was the case in DR Congo and in Chad in 2007, when the EU could deploy troops faster, and then later on the UN took over responsibility for the mission.

UN impartiality is put under pressure when they have to collaborate with politicized partners like the EU or NATO. This is evident in operations in Ivory Coast and Afghanistan.

Marco Bianchini: The civilian presence in Afghanistan, which cooperates with the NATO-led military presence of ISAF, is not a typical UN operation. The size and nature of this operation is specific to Afghanistan. In the case of the Ivory Coast, the UN Secretary General took a clear stance on the conflict because, according to the Security Council, the elections had been free and fair, a view the majority of the population shared. I do think that looking back upon the conflict, the country ended up having a new beginning. Generally speaking, despite all the problems and all the restrictions, I would evaluate all peace operations in this way.

Nevertheless the UN is often severely criticized, including for the bad behaviour of the blue helmets, such as corruption, sexual exploitation or abuse of power.

Marco Bianchini: A Professional approach is crucial in UN peace missions, this counts for each and every one of the tens of thousands on-the-ground personnel. But a rotten apple can hide in any barrel. The UN will always condemn unacceptable behaviour, but it is up to the countries that send the troops to act. They send the military concerned back home, but we at the UN do not know if there is ensuing punishment.

Even if blue helmets show exemplary conduct, any peace mission of considerable size disturbs economic relations. Anyone who can read and write cannot leave the public administration quick enough to offer his services as an interpreter, or chauffeur, for the UN, NATO or international NGO’s.

Marco Bianchini: In all honesty I don’t really see a way to change these dynamics. But we do try to lessen the economical shock of our presence once we arrive, as well as after our departure.

A deliberate strategy is necessary to breathe new life into the economy, and to restore a functional state. At the moment it is indeed true that interpreters are better paid than judges or professors in their country; salaries in international organizations are high, but we have to attract the best personnel possible for the mission as well. Would it do any good to the countries involved if we cut in half the salaries of our co-workers?

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