11/26/2013 05:55 pm ET Updated Jan 26, 2014

Futility in a Blue Helmet

How should the world react when there are credible signs that a country is on the verge of genocide What can we do to stop another Rwanda happening?

France has warned that the remote and desperately poor Central African Republic (CAR) is sliding toward genocide. A mostly Muslim rebel group called Seleka overthrew the CAR government in March, and anarchy reigns. Muslim gangs have been slaughtering Christians, and Christian defense militias are now retaliating. The UN Secretary General wants to send peacekeepers, otherwise known as Blue Helmets. But what if there is no peace to keep? And why send soldiers without robust enough marching orders to defend themselves and protect civilians?

The UN's peacekeeping efforts have attracted criticism bordering on contempt. Yet, earlier this month they salvaged their reputation by defeating the M23 rebel insurgency in the Democratic Republic of Congo(1). Only a year ago the 17,000 UN force stood by without firing a shot as M23 invaded Goma, a city of a million people. The Congolese army they were supposedly supporting retreated, looting and raping their own people as they went. The peacekeepers, costing $1.5 billion a year, looked on(2).

This episode provoked the UN to adopt tougher rules of engagement for "targeted offensive operations." By providing the soldiers with the political backing they needed, they changed the
dynamic. A year later, and the UN, supporting a more disciplined Congolese army, defeated M23.

Previous peacekeeping missions have been criticized for good reason. In Bosnia the UN's own internal investigation revealed Blue Helmets stole aid and sold it to the Serbs who were laying siege to the country; they raped Bosnian women being held hostage in Serb brothels; they passed intelligence to the Serbs, and they averted their eyes from Serb-run death camps (3). More recently, in Haiti they may have brought cholera to people who already had enough problems, following an earthquake (4).

A so-called Chapter 7 mandate in theory allows UN soldiers to protect peacekeepers and aid groups. However, if officers on the ground know they will not be backed by their masters in New York should they use force in a volatile situation, they are loath to risk their necks.

In his book "Cambodia's Curse" Joel Brinkley describes the UN force's first trip beyond the Cambodian capital. An 18-year-old member of the Khymer Rouge, armed only with a rifle, stopped an entire convoy. When he refused to let them pass they turned around and retreated. Why? Because they interpreted their mandate narrowly, knowing that if they argued with the 18-year-old and put up a fight, they would get no political backing from their UN bosses in New York (5).

Despite the best intentions of the heroic UN commander in Rwanda, Romeo Dallair, New York refused to heed his warnings that extremists were accumulating weapons and planning a massacre. In "A People Betrayed," Linda Melvern says the UN then withdrew troops at the very moment they should have sent reinforcements to signal to the extremists that the world was watching and would respond. One million unarmed civilians were killed in the 100 days that followed (6).

Recent positive lessons from Congo should be applied immediately both in CAR and in Darfur in Sudan where UNAMID, a joint UN/Africa Union peacekeeping force of 19,300, is being reduced to 14,000, despite the surge in violence against civilians there. Critics, as well as local people, charge that UNAMID lacks the political backing from New York to fulfil any useful role. Many Darfuris believe the vastly expensive ($1.3 billion annually) force is on the side of the Sudanese regime which continues to wage war against unarmed civilians in the remote western region (7).

The UN/African Union soldiers face the daily indignity of being stopped by Sudanese security personnel who prevent them from investigating incidents. Although 173 UNAMID personnel have been killed, mostly by militia aligned to the Khartoum government, the regime has not been pressed to investigate, and no one has been held accountable. Sudan's leaders have correctly interpreted this as an invitation to continue harassing the peacekeepers (8).

The recent Congo victory showed that peacekeepers can be effective if they get political backing. The UN must support its own soldiers in CAR and the existing force in Darfur when they try to do their job. Otherwise, why do we bother to extend this false hope to civilians facing ethnic cleansing? The answer, of course, is that sending Blue Helmets makes us feel better.

(1) Congolese Army and hardened UN Forces make gains against rebels | PBS NewsHour | Oct.
30, 2013 | PBS

(2) Financing peacekeeping. United Nations Peacekeeping

(3) Has the UN learned lessons of Bosnian sex slavery revealed in Rachel Weisz film? |
World news
| The Observer

(4) Haiti cholera outbreak victims sue UN peacekeepers | Mail Online

(5) Brinkley, Joel, "Cambodia's Curse: The modern history of a troubled land," Public Affairs, 2012.

(6) Melvern, Linda, "A People Betrayed," Zed Books, 2000

(7) UNAMID Facts and Figures - African Union/United Nations Hybrid operation in Darfur

(8) Ibid.