U.N. Peacekeepers Often Lack Supplies, Support

The global community has condemned violence against women and children in the Congo. Some criticize U.N. peacekeepers for not preventing the attacks. More than 88,000 U.N. troops are stationed worldwide, but often lack funds and supplies to carry out their mandates. A former head of peacekeeping operations explains the complex role of U.N. Peacekeepers.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

And now, the blue helmet - peacekeeping troops that many see as one of the prime purposes of the United Nations and too often as part of the problem not the solution. Most recently, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, U.N. Peacekeepers faced allegations that they did little to prevent systematic rape and violence against women and children by armed rebels, even that U.N. peacekeepers may have participated in some of those crimes. Currently, the U.N. has more than 88,000 troops and military observers stationed in places like Darfur, Haiti and Lebanon.

If you've been in a conflict zone where U.N. troops played a role, call and tell us what worked, what didn't. 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website, that's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And our guest is Jean-Marie Guehenno, the director of the Center for International Conflict Resolution, associate director of the Arnold A. Saltzman Institute for War and Peace Studies at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs. For eight years, he served as undersecretary general for peacekeeping operations, with us today on the phone from his office in New York. Nice to have you with us today.

Mr. JEAN-MARIE GUEHENNO (Director, Center for International Conflict Resolution; Associate Director, Arnold A. Saltzman Institute for War and Peace Studies): Hi. Very, very nice to be with you.

CONAN: And can you give us some idea of what's - the allegations flying back and forth in the Democratic Republic of Congo - what went wrong there?

Mr. GUEHENNO: Well, first, I mean, you have to say that the Democratic Republic of Congo, it's as big as Western Europe. And the U.N. there has less than 20,000 troops and police. So you don't establish security in a country like that with 20,000 people. That being said, I think that the troops must be very proactive, they must take the initiative and they don't always do. And I think that has been one of the problems.

CONAN: Is this an issue of command?

Mr. GUEHENNO: It sometimes is an issue of command. You see that from one unit to the other there are big differences, to be honest.

CONAN: And these are units from, well, all over Africa, in this case.

Mr. GUEHENNO: There are units from Africa. There are units from South Asia. I mean, there are units also - I mean, from all the world, except, actually, the developed countries, which are not present in Africa.

CONAN: And that is a decision the developed countries have taken. And given the colonial history, they may not be welcome.

Mr. GUEHENNO: No, that's not the real reason. The reason is that after the Yugoslavia and Somalia, essentially, the developed countries pulled out of peacekeeping because they, I mean, they were not comfortable with the U.N. and they left. There were too many risks and they left it to developing countries to do the peacekeeping. And I think that's a serious problem today. We need the whole world, not just the developing countries, to be involved in peacekeeping.

CONAN: Is - again, is it an issue of being uncomfortable with the U.N., uncomfortable with the mission, uncomfortable with the command?

Mr. GUEHENNO: Uncomfortable with command and control arrangements. Uncomfortable with the notion that these operations need a great deal of interaction with - between military and civilians, because you need to have a very political use of force.

I think, actually, that the experience both of Iraq and Afghanistan is beginning to bring developed countries to the understanding that military force, in complex situation, needs to driven by a political strategy. So maybe that will bring them back to peacekeeping someday.

CONAN: All right. And particularly with the United States, as I understand it, it's an issue that the United States is uncomfortable, very uncomfortable with U.S. troops being under the command of foreigners.

Mr. GUEHENNO: That's indeed the case. I think some arrangements can be made. I think it'll be very important at some point to see the U.S. and the Europeans back in peacekeeping. The Europeans are in peacekeeping in Lebanon, but that's about the only mission where there's a serious presence of developed countries.

CONAN: And remind us, the United Nations, as we've been talking about, does not have a standing army of its own. If the Security Council calls for peacekeepers to be sent somewhere, they have to be donated.

Mr. GUEHENNO: Exactly. I mean, Sergio de Mello, who died in Baghdad, used to say, you know, we are the firemen of the world, but we have to build a fire truck when there is a fire. The U.N., when there's a crisis, has to call on the member states to give some troops.

CONAN: And is it also not the case that, generally speaking, peacekeeping works best if all sides are interested in peace?

Mr. GUEHENNO: Absolutely. The problem today is that most of the time you are in a gray area where there is no more full war, but there is no peace. So you are in that sort of intermediate space where you need to be strong enough to discourage spoilers from derailing the peace. But at the same time you're not engaged in full-fledged fighting.

CONAN: So in a situation like Cyprus - and people may not be familiar with the situation in Cyprus - but that may be because both sides are generally interested in keeping the peace.

Mr. GUEHENNO: Yeah, absolutely. In Cyprus, when the peacekeeping force plays a useful role - because there is a real agreement. I would say in - on the Golan Heights, between Syria and Israel and - I mean, certainly these are not - these are countries that have no diplomatic relations, that are certainly enemies, but the front between Syria and Israel is quiet because both countries have an interest in supporting the peacekeeping mission there.

CONAN: And both countries also are very good at making sure that the only armed forces in those countries are forces of the state. And as we...

Mr. GUEHENNO: Absolutely. No non-state actors there.

CONAN: No non-state actors in either one of those countries. That is not always the case.

Mr. GUEHENNO: Exactly. And when you're a non-state actor, you have much less to lose if you break an agreement. You have no international standing, so you need to be deterred by real force.

CONAN: Let's see if can get some callers in on the conversation. 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. Let's see if can start with Ibrahim(ph). Ibrahim with us from Jacksonville.

IBRAHIM (Caller): Yes. How are you doing, Neal?

CONAN: Very well. Thank you.

IBRAHIM: Yeah. I'm a long time listener, first time caller.

CONAN: Well, thank you for that.

IBRAHIM: Well, yeah, I'm calling to elaborate about the problem that happened in Liberia at one time when they killed Samuel Kanyon(ph), the former president.

CONAN: And...

IBRAHIM: Okay. And the point was, United Nations was standing on the sidelines while Samuel Kanyon went out for a conference, and they killed him right there at the conference. And the United Nations didn't do anything. And Samuel Doe did say that he will not get out of that mansion unless he had the United Nation mandate. The United Nation agreed for him to come out through the African peacekeeping force so they will have a conference. When he came to that conference, he was killed. All the United Nations peace troops just disappeared. They (unintelligible) on there. So I want your guest to elaborate on that. I appreciate your time.

CONAN: Thank you very much. And Ibrahim, we thank you for you call. Jean-Marie Guehenno?

Mr. GUEHENNO: Well, what I would say is that the United Nations can act only if the - if all the members of the Security Council agree, at least the five permanent members, none of them object to a mission. And I would say that in Liberia, after the fall of - and later, I mean, after the fall of Charles Taylor, I mean the United Nations has played a very positive role in stabilizing the country. And now Liberia is, I mean, in a better situation than it has been for many years, and the peacekeeping mission has made a difference there. But it is true that there is not -in every crisis when - the United Nations is not always there.

CONAN: And there is also the situation that if you take action you are seen as taking sides. And if you don't, you are accused of being ineffectual.

Mr. GUEHENNO: That's exactly it.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller in. This is Dan(ph), Dan with us from Greeneville in - is that Tennessee?

DAN (Caller): Yes, sir.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

DAN: Good afternoon, gentlemen. My question is - I was involved in a peacekeeping operation in Somalia in 1993. And I can't help but wonder why the U.N. waits until there is a crisis to send peacekeeping troops in. You know, can we not help stabilize governments before it becomes a crisis level situation?

CONAN: Which would have been several years before that in Somalia. Jean-Marie Guehenno, that's really a decision for the Security Council, though, is it not?

Mr. GUEHENNO: Yes, it is for the Security Council. But I think when -you're making a very important point, is that usually the Security Council acts only when it is under pressure. And it is under pressure when the crisis has already exploded. It's very hard to muster(ph) the political will to launch a mission to - which sometimes could be much smaller when the crisis hasn't exploded yet, and that's why prevention is so difficult.

CONAN: Getting back...

DAN: Yes, sir. You use the analogy of a fire truck. Is fire prevention not better than fighting the fire itself?

Mr. GUEHENNO: Absolutely. But, you know - I mean, when it's your house, you're prepared to pay for the fire brigade. But some endeavors, there's not a strong sense of solidarity worldwide. So the U.N. is funded by its member states. When it comes to some distant crisis, there is not much sense of urgency, and so no willingness to pay for the fire truck before the fire has erupted.

CONAN: And these are expensive fire trucks.

Mr. GUEHENNO: These are - I mean, yes and no. I mean, peacekeeping today costs roughly $8 billion a year, which is a lot of money in one sense. But in another sense it's very little money when you think that it's less than half a percent of world military spending.

CONAN: Dan, thanks very much.

DAN: Thank you, gentlemen. Have a good afternoon.

CONAN: I just wanted to follow up a little bit on his conversation. In this country we think of the engagement in Somalia as a disaster. The image, of course, is "Black Hawk Down." But a disaster for the United States. This was a U.N. mission. Was it a disaster for the U.N.?

Mr. GUEHENNO: I think it was a disaster for the world, frankly, because what happened in Somalia is that there was not a unified strategy. Was it a peacekeeping mission about, I mean, reconciling different factions or was it going after one faction? And because there was no unity, once things went wrong, there was a panic. The United States pulled out. And that had an impact on peacekeeping beyond Somalia. I think the reluctance of the international community after that to get involved in Rwanda has a lot to do with what had had happened in Somalia.

CONAN: And as you look at Somalia today, obviously things have not improved. You have the piracy operations going on in part of the country, al-Shabab. An Islamic extremist organization fighting the rump of a government. And well, there are some African peacekeepers in Somalia but very little commitment by the rest of the world.

Mr. GUEHENNO: Yes, because there is no real solid political foundation. And I think the lesson of Somalia really is that if you decide to get involved, you have to be prepared to stay the course. Just getting involved and then pulling out without thinking of how the country will stabilize, that's a real disaster and that's the tragedy of Somalia today.

CONAN: We're talking with Jean-Marie Guehenno, the under-secretary-general for peacekeeping operations from 2000 to 2008, currently director of the Center for International Conflict Resolution and associate director of the Arnold Saltzman Institute for War and Peace Studies at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Let's go next to Josh(ph), Josh with us from Lansing, Michigan.

JOSH (Caller): Hi. Thanks. This is a first-time call for me. (Technical difficulties) My question was about human rights violations in Colombia. I'm a documentary filmmaker, and I was down there working on a story about an oil spill in Ecuador, near the border. And I interviewed some refugees from the other side of the river in the Putumayo region who had suffered from some of the fumigation campaigns that were taken out -they were taken place during the recent years.

And some of those stories were - that I received in terms of cases where there were rape and also murder, taken out by the state forces, the Colombian armed forces. And I was wondering, in terms of accountability, who - state forces - non-state actors, and then also as a follow-up, if could you comment on what I heard. When I was down there in '09, I was hearing that the fumigation campaigns had ended. And as of this year, in 2010, I've heard that they - the government is also reinstating some fumigation programs in that region. I was wondering if you could just comment about that. I'll take my comment off the air. Thank you.

CONAN: Well, Josh, just a second. Are you U.N. troops involved there? Are peacekeeping forces involved there? I don't believe so.

JOSH: No, the United Nations has a High Commissioner of Refugees.

CONAN: Right. And...

JOSH: U.N. troops are not there.

CONAN: All right, Josh, your line is also breaking up so we're going to let you go. But those are all important issues, but not areas where the United Nations forces are. And it might be important for them to be there. But a reminder to listeners - they cannot go there unless they are authorized to do that by the Security Council of the United Nations.

And Jean-Marie Guehenno, there might be all kinds of situations where you might think they would be useful or helpful, but nevertheless that doesn't mean a lot.

Mr. GUEHENNO: Absolutely. I mean, the United Nations is not the police of the world that goes wherever it thinks there is a problem. It goes wherever the Security Council decides there is a problem.

CONAN: And that's a very different issue indeed. Mike(ph) is on the line. Mike calling from Tucson.

MIKE (Caller): Yes, hi. Basically, my question is that Colin Powell, he stood in the United Nations and he had all those diagrams about the mobile chemical or whatnot...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

MIKE: ...that Iraq had, yet when the United Nations went there, they found absolutely nothing. And that was a false pretense of - basically it paved the way for the United States and the Brits and Australians...

CONAN: And, Mike, I'm...

MIKE: ...to make the invasion.

CONAN: ...not going to disagree with you one little bit. However, again, another part of the United Nations not involving peacekeeping forces.

There were peacekeeping troops in Iraq, Jean-Marie Guehenno, but they were there to enforce the agreement between Iran and Iraq from a previous conflict. I think we're talking about 1991.

Mr. GUEHENNO: Yes, absolutely. No, I mean, at the time of the Iraq war, the only presence which had been - which was left was in southern Iraq, between Iraq and Kuwait. And that was just monitoring the border, and it pulled out with the war, but no role in the run-up to the war.

CONAN: And if I could just get back to where we started, the issue of Congo - and you spoke about the difficulties of being effectual in that regard, there have been issues, allegations, raised about the discipline of U.N. forces and that is a stain on the entire organization.

Mr. GUEHENNO: Absolutely. That's the thing that irked me the most in my eight years, because when we come to a country, I mean, the least we can do is do no harm. And when troops abuse their position of power, abuse civilians, that's something terrible. The challenge there is that the discipline rests with member states.

And so if you want to really address the situation, you need to convince every military establishment in the world to take problems and discipline seriously. And in my experience it's essentially a command issue. If the commanders take the issue of sexual abuse seriously, then we have hope. If they think that boys are boys and they don't care, then it's very difficult to fight it.

CONAN: And we just have a few seconds left. In sum, are U.N. peacekeeping troops, do you believe, more useful than not?

Mr. GUEHENNO: Well, I think peacekeeping troops, they have an enormous role to play in places where they really are the last hope for people. When the state has broken down, nobody wants to go there. The U.N., if the council authorizes it, it's their last hope. And so it's an enormous responsibility, and I think from my visits to many conflict situations, that they can make a big difference.

CONAN: Jean-Marie Guehenno, thank you very much for your time today.

Mr. GUEHENNO: Thank you.

CONAN: Jean-Marie Guehenno served as under-secretary-general for peacekeeping operations for eight years. He joined us on the line from his office in New York City.

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