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Failed states and refugee crisis prompt peacekeeping surge

Peacekeepers assisting displaced civilians in South Sudan by providing protection, building sanitation and providing medical support. (Credit: U.N.)

International peacekeeping may be changing significantly over the next year. Last month President Obama announced that U.N. member states had pledged 40,000 new troops and police for peacekeeping missions around the world. He made the announcement at a U.N. summit for peacekeeping.

The pledge comes at a time when the world is facing the worst refugee crisis since World War II. People are fleeing civil wars, failing states and terrorism. Millions of people from such varied war zones as Syria, Iraq, Somalia and South Sudan are risking their lives to cross the Mediterranean to flee the violence.

This new peacekeeping surge was in large part engineered by the White House and U.S.  Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Powers – who was famously critical of the lack of support for peacekeeping operations during the 1990s. The 40,000 troops is a huge boost – significantly more than the 10,000 Powers and Obama had hoped for. They join more than 100,000 troops already operating in more than 16 countries.

“I called for this summit because U.N. peacekeeping operations are experiencing unprecedented strains,” Obama said. “Old challenges persist – too few nations bear a disproportionate burden of providing troops, which is unsustainable.”

British Prime Minister David Cameron pledged 70 British troops to advise African Union peacekeepers in Somalia and as many as 300 troops to the U.N. mission in South Sudan. He was straightforward about the connection between the refugee crisis and his newfound enthusiasm for peacekeeping.

“If we can, as peacekeepers, help to maintain order and peace and see stable development in that country then that is going to be, again, less poverty, less migration, less issues that affect us back at home,” Cameron told the BBC.

Peacekeeping has changed significantly over the last few decades. Originally, the U.N. envisioned peacekeepers as observers who would watch over ceasefires between rival nations, usually patrolling defined borders to look for incursions and report any violations they saw.

But since the end of the Cold War, these missions have become much more complicated. Increasingly, blue-helmeted troops have been called upon to protect civilians – and confront abusers.

Peacekeeping perils
The early 1990s saw peacekeepers deploying to failed states and complex civil wars. From Somalia, the Balkans to Rwanda, the U.N.’s Department of Peacekeeping Operations was constantly overstretched as troops watched countries tear themselves apart. These operations were incredibly dangerous, often claiming the lives of troops who found little peace to keep.

The high-profile deaths of U.S. troops in Somalia and the murder of Belgian peacekeepers in Rwanda made many western governments hesitant to deploy soldiers on U.N. missions. In recent years, that’s that meant the burden increasingly falls to troops and police from developing countries – mostly in Asia and Africa.

Peacekeepers with the South Sudan Mission headed a security sweep up of the IDP Camp in Tom-ping, Juba South Sudan, on Jan. 14, 2014. (Credit: U.N.)

Peacekeepers with the South Sudan Mission headed a security sweep up of the IDP Camp in Tom-ping, Juba South Sudan, on Jan. 14, 2014. (Credit: U.N.)

Though some of these peacekeepers are relatively competent at soldiering and police work, they’re often modestly equipped and struggle with logistics operating abroad. Many of these soldiers come from countries that are reeling from civil wars and violence themselves. Though western nations back missions financially, they’re often hesitant to send material support.

Despite these limitations many missions, like The United Nations peacekeeping mission in Liberia, have actually been fairly successful. There were fears during the massive West African Ebola outbreak that Liberian institutions could break down and usher a return to civil war. It was the first true test of Liberia’s new government, which the peacekeeping mission has helped prop up and mentor for nearly a decade.

There was indeed some scattered violence during the outbreak, but ultimately the country’s fledgling democratic government remained mostly functional and streets were relatively secure. But the crisis did highlight some of the government’s weaknesses, and the U.N. Security Council voted last month to extend the force’s mandate for one additional year, though at a much reduced size.

But the successes are often overshadowed by high-profile scandals and failures.

The joint African Union-United Nations peacekeeping force in Darfur was one the largest and most expensive peacekeeping operations to date when it was authorized in 2007. It often struggled to enforce its mandate to protect civilians.

Many commentators blamed the peacekeepers themselves. Some accused the mostly African peacekeepers of being incompetent, lazy and unwilling to actually protect civilians. But the force was plagued by poor logistics from the start. Troops struggled to get spare parts to keep vehicles running and many even had to pay out of pocket for paint to turn their helmets U.N. blue.

They hardly had any of the helicopters the Security Council had promised and mostly drove around the vast desert in beat up pickup-trucks. When peacekeepers did witness Sudanese troops or rebels harming civilians, their options were often limited. Lightly equipped infantry in Toyotas could hardly stand up to Sudanese army tanks and attack helicopters.

But the force has provided a measure of security to displaced people in camps around the country, keeping watch over the perimeters and patrolling for armed bandits.

Armed men
Many members of the humanitarian community have an instinctive distrust of soldiers. Military men and women are often viewed as a cause of conflict and humanitarian and human rights problems. Over the years, humanitarians have pointed to cases of sexual abuse by peacekeeping troops as reason to distrust them. It’s a problem that Obama himself acknowledged himself in his remarks.

“It’s an affront to human decency, it undermines the core mission because it erodes trust with communities,” he said. “It has a corrosive effect on global confidence in peacekeeping itself.”

While abuse by peacekeepers is a serious problem, the problem of rape in war zones and impoverished nations is unfortunately widespread. While humanitarians are quick to point fingers at soldiers, there have also been problems with aid workers themselves taking sexual advantage of local people – and even fellow humanitarians.

Abusive behavior is easy to get away with in lawless conflict-ridden regions. In order to restore rule of law, there needs to be security. Unfortunately there are times when armed men and women are needed to provide that security. These solutions are rarely clean or perfect.

Indian peacekeeping troops donate blood for civilians at a refugee camp in South Sudan. (Credit: U.N.)

Indian peacekeeping troops donate blood for civilians at a refugee camp in South Sudan. (Credit: U.N.)

In December 2013, newly independent South Sudan erupted in bloodshed when barracks violence turned into a nationwide ethnic civil war. Almost immediately South Sudanese civilians fled to U.N. peacekeeping bases for protection. Members of the local peacekeeping mission quickly opened their gates. The influx of occupants strained the base infrastructures and their limited supplies.

It was never clear when the crisis began how long the soldiers would be responsible for the refugees. Now almost two years later the war still has no end in sight as South Sudanese President Salva Kiir and former vice president turned rebel leader Riek Machar continue their blood feud intermittently interrupted by half-hearted peace agreements.

Today, peacekeepers have designated several “Protection of Civilians” sites around the country under the guard of blue-helmeted soldiers and police. They currently protect the camps from roving militias and bandits. Two Indian troops have died protecting the bases, while several others have been wounded in firefights protecting the camps.

Though imperfect, the arrangement has saved thousands of lives.

A major emphasis for this peacekeeping surge is to bring in specialized capabilities. That means more intelligence units, engineering troops, medical personnel and boosts to their aviation assets. Overall, countries pledged more than 40 helicopters, 15 engineering companies and 10 field hospitals. These are many of the things missions have for years insisted they needed most.

With new support, peacekeepers may finally have the proper tools, expertise and support to protect civilians and help lay the framework for security in war ravished lands. Ultimately though, they are only a part of the solution. Long-term peace can only truly be attained by sustainable political solutions, diplomacy and development.


About Author

Kevin Knodell is a multimedia journalist base in Tacoma, Wash. He's a senior news team member at, where he was editor for the Iraq field team from June 2014 to April 2015. His work has also been featured at Vice, The Week, The (Tacoma) News Tribune, The Ft. Lewis Ranger and others. Reach him at