U.N. Takes on Offensive Role

If you’ve seen the movie Hotel Rwanda, or any of a variety of others that I’m sure exist but I can’t think of off the top of my head, then you probably have some idea about what U.N. peacekeepers are. (If you haven’t seen that movie, you probably should.)

Anyway, if you’re familiar with those films, you probably recall that those peacekeepers had a lot of rules to follow about when they could use their weapons or engage with hostiles. Those rules led to some criticism of the U.N. saying that its peacekeepers were unable to actually stop the violence they were intended to prevent.

Enter the U.N. Intervention Brigade. Approved in March 2013, the intervention brigade is composed of U.N. peacekeepers authorized to use lethal force in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in order to help defeat rebels in the country’s ongoing civil war.

Let’s back up a little and look at the situation here. First:

The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)

Located in central Africa, the DRC was a Belgian colony (called the Republic of the Congo) from 1908 until 1960. Several years after independence, its name was changed to Zaire and spent 32 years under the dictatorship of Colonel Joseph Mobuto, later called Mobuto Sese Seko.

In 1994, the ethnic violence in neighboring Rwanda spilled over into the DRC, leading to the spread of similar violence there. There were a series of coups and interventions, until national elections in 2006. However, ethnic violence and conflict over the country’s diamonds continues to this day, particularly in the eastern part of the country.

U.N. Peacekeepers

U.N. peacekeeping missions are composed of soldiers provided by the member states of the organization, as well as police and civilian personnel. They are meant to follow three principles:

–       consent of the parties: countries must agree to have peacekeeping forces enter their territory

–       impartiality

–       non-use of force except in self-defense or defense of the mandate

While they’ve had some successes, U.N. peacekeepers, or blue helmets, as they are also called, have also had some failures, most notably during the 1994 Rwandan genocide, and their fair share of scandals. We’ll save those for another day.

The New Intervention Brigade

The creation of the Intervention Brigade gives the U.N. greater leeway to engage in offensive operations in order to protect civilians. While that idea may seem to have promise, especially in the wake of such atrocities as Rwanda, it also creates a lot of complex issues.

For one thing, it makes the U.N. a party to the conflict between the DRC government forces and the rebels – on the side of the government. That pretty clearly goes against the long-vaunted principle of impartiality in peacekeeping operations. While in this particular instance, that may be appropriate, it does set a precedent that could affect peacekeeping operations in the future – say, in a conflict where the government is committing atrocities against civilians. If countries have more reason to question the U.N. impartiality in peacekeeping operations, they might have less reason to consent to having peacekeepers enter their territory.

Or it could lead to increased dangers for the civilian components of the peacekeeping mission, whom rebels may well consider legitimate targets, based on the U.N.’s new status as a party to the conflict.

The impact doesn’t stop there. The French aid group Doctors without Borders, widely known by their French acronym, MSF, issued a letter criticizing creation of the brigade and asking that U.N. peacekeepers stay away from MSF facilities. Far from providing them with greater security, MSF’s leaders worry that a U.N. force considered party to the civil war would attract rebel attacks to the very people they try to protect. The U.N. responded that no such attacks on aid workers they guard have taken place.

Another interesting development in this story is the fact that, following an attack on U.N. peacekeepers stationed in the Darfur region of Sudan, the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court at The Hague has said that attacks on peacekeepers may constitute war crimes. The ongoing conflict in DRC is another situation being monitored by the ICC.

While I haven’t seen a lot of research on that topic, it seems to me that the basis for declaring attacks on peacekeepers a war crime would be that they are not considered combatants in the traditional sense or parties to the conflict. Except now they are, in the DRC.

UPDATE 7/31/13

The U.N. has issued a statement that all rebels in the DRC city of Goma must give up their arms within 48 hours. After such time, anyone (other than a member of the DRC armed forces) carrying a weapon within the city will be considered a rebel and will be disarmed, with force if necessary.

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