May 17, 2006 | World Defense Review

Keeping an Eye on the “Peacekeepers”

The Bush administration has recently shown an uncharacteristic enthusiasm for United Nations peacekeeping efforts. Last week Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice was dispatched to New York to reinforce Ambassador to the UN John Bolton's press for the rapid deployment a 14,000-person UN mission to take the lead from the relatively ineffective 7,000 African Union “peacekeepers” already in place in Darfur.

On the pragmatic level, the move is understandable: U.S. military resources are stretched by the ongoing commitments in Afghanistan and Iraq, while genocide in the troubled Sudanese region apparently continues unabated despite a peace agreement between the Khartoum regime and the main Darfuri opposition group. And, obviously, it goes without saying that something must be done to mitigate the humanitarian tragedy currently being played out in western Sudan (a topic to which I will return in another column in the near future). However, while UN missions have on occasional succeeded in providing post-conflict societies with the breathing space to make the transition back to relative normalcy – one thinks of the achievements of the 2003-2005 UN Mission in Liberia (UNMIL), led by Ambassador Jacques Paul Klein, a retired U.S. Air Force major-general, in preparing the West African country for the first truly democratic political process since its independence in 1847 – the record of international “peacekeeping” in still conflicted situations is far less distinguished. In fact, an examination of the record in one such case – that of Liberia's neighbor to the east, Côte d'Ivoire – raises serious doubts about what the editors of The New Republic called in their current issue “the belief that salvation will come from blue helmets.”

Last month, in his report to the Security Council on the United Nations Operation in Côte d'Ivoire (UNOCI), UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan called once again for reinforcing the overall force strength of the blue-helmeted “peacekeepers” in the African nation – already authorized to be at 7,090 personnel – by an additional four battalions, three formed police units of undetermined composition, and 100 civilian police officers “with commensurate increase in civilian staffing.” As of now, the proposal has gone nowhere, in part because there have been few volunteers for the mission, in part because no budget has been agreed to. What has not been addressed, however, is whether the “peacekeepers” are not themselves part of the problem in what was once the jewel of West Africa.

An inquiry into the roots of the crisis that has gripped Côte d'Ivoire since September 2002 – elements of which include a failed coup-turned-rebellion by disgruntled partisans of a failed military dictator, the maneuvers of a political leader ready to exploit the violence to accede to power, and the neo-colonial machinations of the country's former colonial rulers in Paris (who, under the pretense of “helping” the international “peacekeepers” maintain their own independently operating military presence, the 4,000-strong “Force Licorne,” in Côte d'Ivoire) – is beyond the scope of this article. However, if the international community is truly serious about promoting reconciliation in Côte d'Ivoire, it would do well to examine some the conduct of the self-proclaimed international “peacekeepers” it has sent there to affect that progress. Among the incidents that have, unfortunately, gone largely unreported in the Western media one could cite the following as representative:

In September 2004, twelve French soldiers with the “Force Licorne” robbed the Central Bank of West African States (BCEAO) branch in Man, west of Abidjan, making off with 65 million West African francs (CFA), worth about 100,000 euros. The “dirty dozen” obviously took pointers from their four colleagues who earlier took 38 million CFA (approximately 57,000 euros) from a BCEAO branch in the northern city of Bouaké while ostensibly pushing back a rebel attack.

Two months later, when Ivorians tired of this sort of conduct on the part of their “rescuers” gathered in front of the Hôtel Ivoire in Abidjan and other public places to demonstrate, the “peacekeepers” responded by opening fire on the unarmed protesters. While French Defense Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie admitted in a television interview that her troops fired on the crowds and that “there were without a doubt some victims,” she gave no figures. The estimate given by Ivorian sources was 57 civilians killed and 2,226 wounded.

In May 2005, peacekeepers in search of a bandit named Nestor Koho Mahé stopped an unfortunate compatriot named Firmin Mahé (the two men are not related, the surname “Mahé” being a common one in the western regions of Côte d'Ivoire). Sadly for Firmin, as a subsequently inquiry revealed, the “impartial” peacekeepers had instructions that it would be “ideal” if the presumably guilty Mr. Mahé had “died of his wounds” by the time he was brought in.

In January 2006, Bangladeshi UNOCI contingents in two towns, Guiglo and Duékoué, claiming to be under attack by protesters angry about a UN decision to unilaterally disband the Ivorian parliament, opened fire, killing four civilians. The reaction to the outrage by ordinary Ivorians was so strong that the UN units had to be pulled back under cover of darkness.

The following month, French “peacekeepers” seized seven members of the Ivorian defense and security force operating in their designated area in Zouan-Hounien, stripped them naked, bound them, and left them exposed to the merciless tropical sun for eight hours. While no direct linkage has been yet shown between the February abuse of the Ivorian soldiers and the humiliation of the two international units by ordinary Ivorian men, women, and children one month earlier, one has to wonder.

As Ambassador Philippe Djangoné-Bi, permanent representative of Côte d'Ivoire to the United Nations, noted in a May 2 letter to the current president of the Security Council, Ambassador Basile Ikouébé of Congo, “one of the main tasks entrusted to the blue helmets is to integrate human rights in all their activities, in particular in the ultimate objective of helping to restore peace and stability as well as to reinforce the rule of law in my country.” It is rather difficult to discern how “peace and stability” are being restored by the multiple abuses perpetrated by the “peacekeepers,” much less how their conduct does anything to reinforce the “rule of law” – especially since the abuses mentioned above have gone largely unpunished or, in the case of the last two, example mentioned, entirely uninvestigated.

While, from the point of view of Machtpolitik, it is at least understandable that French policy with regard to Côte d'Ivoire is what it is – President Laurent Gbagbo, the democratically elected head of state, has never concealed his intention of ending the system where French administrators “advise” every Ivorian civil service office and French commercial interests enjoy privileges that businesses of other countries (including the United States) do not – it is incomprehensible that the U.S. has not only gone along with this pernicious farce, but pays for it. The bill of UNOCI's “peacekeeping” runs $438.2 million for the fiscal year ending June 30 and, like that of all UN operations, approximately one-quarter of the tab is borne by the American taxpayer through assessments to the world body.

Given the checkered record of the international “peacekeepers,” America's principles as well as her self-interests in an increasingly strategic part of the world demand that the United States think twice about expecting effective action out of whatever force the UN cobbles together on an ad hoc basis, whether prospectively for Sudan or currently in Côte d'Ivoire. And, in the case of the latter, instead of merely acquiescing to the progressive encroachments of UNOCI, Force Licorne, and other foreign interlopers in the Ivorian crisis, U.S. policymakers should be asking the question that the Roman poet Juvenal posed two millennia ago: “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” (“Who guards the guardians?”).

— J. Peter Pham is Director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. He is also an academic fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C.


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