Using UN troops to make countries more stable can be a risky business

In 2017 56 UN peacekeepers were killed in malicious acts such as when they were deliberately attacked, the most fatalities of that kind since 1994. All but one of the fatalities resulted from an operation that included “stabilisation” in its name.

Four blue-helmeted UN peace operations have had “stabilisation” included in their title. These include operations in Haiti, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mali and the Central African Republic.

The UN has not defined stabilisation in official documentation. As a result, the practice of stabilisation by UN forces has developed organically in recent years. The Security Council has given increased attention to the concept with recent research showing the term is used more and more during open meetings. In 2001 stabilisation was mentioned in 16% and by 2014 the use of the term had spiked to 44%.

Nevertheless, when mandating peace operations the Security Council has not given a consistent indication of what activities fall under stabilisation. Likewise, UN personnel have differing understandings of what the term means.

The mandates of stabilisation missions have one major similarity – they are routinely instructed to support efforts that extend state authority.


In the stabilisation mission to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, for example, this is achieved through the use of a Force Intervention Brigade. The brigade operates in cooperation with Congolese forces and is mandated “to prevent the expansion of all armed groups, neutralise these groups, and to disarm them”. The brigade has used offensive rather than defensive force, which is not the norm in UN peace operations.

In the Central African Republic, the UN has taken a “proactive and robust posture” to help create conditions that will reduce the presence and threat of armed groups. For that purpose, the UN has operated alongside Central African forces on a number of occasions.

These two examples illustrate that stabilisation missions are increasingly acting in concert with government forces, posing a potential problem on two fronts. First the UN risks alienating communities it is mandated to protect and, second, the increased intensity of violence against UN forces puts those troops at greater risk.

What does stabilisation mean?

The UN appears to have adopted a combination of US and UK understandings in its approach to stabilisation. The US sees stabilisation as militarily defeating an insurgency to give the “legitimate authority” the monopoly on the use of force while supporting a locally owned transition.

The UK, however, sees stabilisation as civilian led action undertaken with military support aimed at long-term recovery from conflict.

Both the UK and US are heavily involved with the mandating and planning of operations as part of the Security Council’s P3 (US, UK and France). The three are the so-called “penholders” on most resolutions relating to UN peace operations.

As a result, UN stabilisation missions typically do two things. First, they displace and deter armed groups and, second, undertake peace building activities to entrench state authority and create state legitimacy in the power vacuum left behind. Depending on the situation, the displacement and deterrence of armed groups has been sought by using offensive force or by taking a robust defensive posture.

This approach can be seen in the UN stabilisation mission in the Central African Republic. When the mission was deployed in 2014, the state had little authority beyond Bangui, the capital. From the outset UN forces understood robust force would be needed to support the state’s authority outside Bangui and to prevent armed groups from entering the capital.

READ MORE: A tourist’s guide to Bangui

Three examples bear this out. In February 2017, UN troops opened fire on 40 members of an armed group approaching the city of Bambari. An airstrike was used to show that the armed group had crossed a “red line” around the city that had been imposed to protect civilians. The UN mission also announced that a joint deployment was underway with Central African forces to establish state authority in Bambari.

In January 2018, the UN launched a joint military operation with government forces to deter armed groups from entering the town of Paoua. The most recent example was in April 2018 when UN forces undertook a “joint disarmament and arrest operation” alongside government forces. The targets were criminal groups that threatened civilians and obstructed state authority. The operation led to exchanges of fire and the death of a peacekeeper.

The Congolese, Malian and Central African missions have all operated during ongoing conflicts in contrast with traditional operations where there is peace to keep. These missions are also mandated to use varying degrees of proactive, robust force to prevent attacks on themselves and people they’re trying to protect. This invariably means extending a state’s authority.

Consequently, the lines are increasingly becoming blurred between using robust force for protective purposes and the use of offensive force to fight an enemy alongside the host state government.

A new precedent for UN peace operations?

It may be the case that the UN has now set a precedent of entering conflict zones ready to stand its ground and fend off armed groups rather than wait for peace to keep. But there are risks.

One is increased peacekeeper deaths where troops are increasingly targets of attack. The other is that support from UN member states may wane in the long term as the dangers associated with contributing troops multiply.

What is undoubtedly true is that stabilisation efforts will have an effect on the civilian populations the UN is there to protect. The robust use of force by well equipped peacekeepers who can access the latest intelligence and logistical equipment from Western contributing states could lead to the effective deterrence of armed groups and a better chance at a normal life for civilians.

But the importance of who the UN chooses to work with cannot be underestimated. Where the UN seeks stabilisation in cooperation with the government it risks marginalising communities disillusioned with the current regime. The UN promotes local ownership in peace building, yet this may be prove more difficult to achieve where UN personnel are seen to be synonymous with state authorities that aren’t trusted by sections of the population.

Alexander Gilder, PhD Candidate and Graduate Teaching Fellow in Law, City, University of London

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The Conversation

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Related stories

We should not ignore Guinea’s constitutional coup

Citizens have for a year protested against the president seeking a third term in office despite a two-term limit. Many have been killed — and 90 more people died in this week’s crackdown

Women accuse aid workers of sexual abuse during the DRC’s Ebola crisis

More than 50 women have accused Ebola aid workers from the World Health Organisation...

Searching for justice in the war on womxn’s bodies

In a world defined by gendered violence, what can we do differently?

Mali’s constitutional flames could mean smoke in Côte d’Ivoire

The fire of constitutional crisis burns in Mali, but observers shouldn’t ignore the smoke in Cote d’Ivoire.

Why do presidents cling to power?

Four former heads of state speak about what being president is actually like

The diplomats without an embassy

For breakaway territories, quasi-states and would-be secessionists, diplomacy is hard – but not impossible
Advertising

Subscribers only

SAA bailout raises more questions

As the government continues to grapple with the troubles facing the airline, it would do well to keep on eye on the impending Denel implosion

ANC’s rogue deployees revealed

Despite 6 300 ANC cadres working in government, the party’s integrity committee has done little to deal with its accused members

More top stories

Eastern Cape universities concerned by rising Covid cases

Fort Hare says 26 more students have tested positive while Walter Sisulu University says some of its students have been admitted to hospital.

SAA in talks to recoup R350-million in blocked funds...

The cash-strapped national carrier is in the process of recouping its blocked funds from Zimbabwe, which could go towards financing the airline’s business rescue plan

NSFAS’s woes do not help its mandate

Nehawu wants the scheme’s administrator, Randall Carolissen, to be removed

Unions cry foul over SABC dismissal costs and retrenchments

Broadcaster bodies say claims that a recent skills audit is unrelated to retrenchments are ‘irrational’
Advertising

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday