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UN peacekeeping: Between words and deeds, the interests of nations

India announced 850 additional soldiers — modest when compared to the 8,000-strong “standby force” China pledged.

Written by Sushant Singh | New Delhi |
October 6, 2015 12:48:31 am
Modi at the UN peacekeeping summit in New York on September 28. Reuters Modi at the UN peacekeeping summit in New York on September 28. Reuters

Prime Minister Narendra Modi was among the leaders of more than 50 countries who pledged more forces for UN peacekeeping operations at a meeting convened by US President Barack Obama in New York last month. India announced 850 additional soldiers — modest when compared to the 8,000-strong “standby force” China pledged. Many others were rather timid: France announced a programme to teach African peacekeepers French; Uruguay pledged a canine unit under the UN flag.

Not all pledges will be kept. Promises made at a similar summit convened by the US last year have remained on paper. The September 28 summit brought home certain harsh truths about the current state of UN peacekeeping.
Islands of success notwithstanding, UN peacekeeping is largely seen to have failed in achieving its stated aims. Lack of consensus and political direction has seen missions drag on aimlessly, as in Congo and Haiti. There are often strong disagreements between the host government and the UN over the command, control and employment of peacekeeping troops. In Côte d’Ivoire in 2005-06, government-backed militia attacked UN personnel, leading to UN staff deployed in government-controlled territories being evacuated to The Gambia for six weeks.

The more significant disagreements are between countries which approve and fund UN peacekeeping missions, and those that provide troops for them. Funders blame troop contributors for the poor quality of soldiers, outmoded equipment and unwillingness to join combat under the blue flag. They also point to recent cases of sexual abuse, corruption and smuggling by peacekeepers.

Troop contributors — India is the leading contributor to UN forces — accuse the P-5 of choosing missions that suit their narrow national interests, and of asking troops to take needless risks. And despite protracted negotiations, the allowances to UN peacekeepers have seen only a modest increase.

UN peacekeeping, Obama said, “is something that we do collectively because our collective security depends on it”. And yet, the US provides just 40 of the nearly 1,20,000 soldiers and policemen in 16 UN peacekeeping missions worldwide — a number that Obama pledged to double at the summit.

Having emerged from two politically lacerating military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US is not willing to push its troops into any more dangerous missions abroad. But it recognises the need to tackle Islamist terrorists in Central and West Africa militarily — and is thus willing to train African peacekeepers, while urging other countries to provide more and better peacekeepers. A quarter of the $ 9 billion UN peacekeeping bill is paid by the US — but it’s still much less than the cost of sustaining an equal number of American troops.

The motives for troop-contributing countries are very different. Most pay lip-service to the ideals of the UN, but their interests essentially boil down to either the foreign exchange it brings to the country and troops in case of poor African and Asian countries, or strategic interest — such as China looking at commercial gain in Africa or India seeking to bolster its claim to a permanent Security Council seat. These countries are thus more interested in peacekeeping than in active combat missions.

To overcome this challenge, the Security Council created a Force Intervention Brigade of UN peacekeepers in Eastern Congo. While South Africa, Tanzania and Malawi contributed troops to this more active combat mission, India remains opposed to a change in the nature of UN peacekeeping. Its Ambassador to the UN, AK Mukerji, has been quoted as saying, “If peacekeeping is to be seen as peace enforcement, then unfortunately we can’t see the UN charter allowing such a radical departure of the use of peacekeeping.”

This contrasts with the then Indian Ambassador to the UN, V K Krishna Menon criticising the Security Council for authorising force only in self-defence in the Congo mission of the 1960s. “If there was no question of using force, why did the Security Council send 20,000 armed troops to the Congo? They were not going to play in a tournament! If the idea was not to use force, then engineers, scientists, parsons and preachers would have gone,” Menon said.

Despite its unhappiness, India has few real options today. At the turn of the century, an Indian pullout would have finished the UN peacekeeping system. Today, China is willing to commit more troops. Indonesia aims to be among the top 10 contributors. At the Obama summit, most South Asian countries said they would send more troops.
India should perhaps assess the extent to which its contribution to UN peacekeeping missions has helped its quest for a permanent Security Council seat. And then review its commitment and, perhaps, choose missions that further its national interest — either by projecting power or by building strategic alliances.

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