Tag Archives: peacekeeping

Another UN peacekeeping meltdown in the make … but who’s got time?

by Rhodri C. Williams

Hat tip to Shane Quinn for forwarding me an alarming Guardian commentary by Simon Tisdall on the humanitarian meltdown presumably taking its leisurely course as I write this. An encampment of 60,000 wretched displaced persons “emptied overnight” in the face of an advancing rebel army covertly sponsored by neighboring states intent on natural resource extraction. The UN deeply committed to a corrupt and abusive national army that is melting away along with the displaced. Some peacekeepers futilely attacking the rebels from helicopters as the rest nervously wait for them to arrive.

Its Goma, in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). But how is anyone supposed to keep track right now, with Syria and now Gaza and everything else, like the inundation of Haiti and destruction of its food for next year completely overshadowed. And anyway, eastern DRC is the emblematic basket case, if its been this bad for this long, how could it get worse? If you want a vision of the depths of human misery and debasement, look at the situation there four years ago. What could change?

What worries me – beyond the profound waste of it all – is the UN being up to its neck in this. Monusco is a party to a conflict most people couldn’t locate on a map let alone understand, with a long hangover from the Rwandan conflict, the transplantation whole of one of the world’s most vicious rebel groups from Uganda, and natural resources galore to fuel and pay for people’s indulgence in their worse instincts, seemingly until the end of time. And all this at a time when the UN is still reeling from having failed – profoundly – to take steps that might have saved at least some of the 40,000 civilians mown down in 2009 during the final stages of the war in Sri Lanka.

So maybe Goma will be the next public failure of the UN, ironically taking place just a few miles away and a bit shy of two decades after its first great post-Cold War stagger in Rwanda, in 1994. Or maybe it won’t. Negotiated resolution, withdrawals, resumption of the miserable status quo. At times like this, I can’t even formulate the questions, let alone think of the answer.

Jon Unruh to guest-post on new guidelines on land rights and demining

The Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining (GICHD) just released a new Policy Brief on “Landmines and Land Rights in Conflict Affected Countries”. The Brief is based on case studies undertaken in Angola, Cambodia, Bosnia, South Sudan, Sri Lanka and Yemen (also available for download with the Angola and Cambodia reports to be posted by the end of January).

The report admonishes de-mining agencies for past failures to understand the local implications of their work, and encourages them to actively coordinate with humanitarian and development actors working with displaced populations and land issues:

Mine action organisations are not neutral when it comes to land rights. Releasing land which was previously contaminated with landmines and explosive remnants of war (ERW) and making it accessible changes its status. This inevitably involves land rights issues, even if the intent is to avoid them.

The report is a timely attempt to apply the type of conflict-sensitive, do no harm approach now commonplace to other humanitarian aid sectors in the heretofore somewhat distinct area of demining. I am therefore very happy to announce that its primary author, Jon Unruh, will be guest-posting on some of the report’s key findings in the coming days. Stay tuned!

Refugees International on civilian protection: a cautionary note on Blue Helmet HLP interventions

by Rhodri C. Williams

Refugees International just released a report on peacekeeping and civilian protection that makes for some interesting but sobering reading from an housing, land and property (HLP) rights perspective. This in a context where a number of advocacy documents have recently called for peacekeepers to be given a greater role in protecting the property rights of displaced civilians, ranging from ensuring that abandoned properties are not occupied or destroyed to enforcing, where necessary, orders for the eviction of occupants of claimed properties.

For instance, the UN Secretary General’s 2007 report on the protection of civilians in armed conflict recommended “strategic deployment of peacekeeping troops to prevent evictions and the illegal appropriation of land and property” as well as “the inclusion of [HLP] issues as an integral part of future peacekeeping and other missions, with provisions for dedicated, expert capacity to address these issues” (paragraph 59).

UN-HABITAT has gone further in its 2007 “Post-Conflict Land Administration and Peacebuilding Handbook“, proposing that international security forces be mandated to provide assistance in lawful evictions from occupied property (page 23) and that UN peacekeeping forces carry out eviction orders against criminal elements where necessary to execute demolition orders for illegally built structures (page 33).

Finally, the 2005 Pinheiro Principles call for international peace operations to help maintain a a secure and stable environment such that restitution programs can be implemented (Principle 22.5) and, upon request, to “support the protection of the right to housing, land and property restitution, including through the enforcement of restitution decisions and judgments” (Principle 22.6). UN Security Council members are encouraged to consider including these roles in the mandate of peace operations.

By contrast, the new Refugees International report points out the difficulties peacekeeping missions have faced in the exercise of the most fundamental protection mandate imaginable, namely the physical protection of civilians under “imminent threat of violence”. The report points out that structuring even such basic protection is often complicated by the failure of peacekeeping mandates to provide guidance on how to prioritize numerous conflicting tasks. However, it also notes the structural difficulty of getting trained soldiers to to do things they were not trained for – and do them well and consistently:

The lack of clarity is made even more challenging by the fact that peacekeepers do not have a standard doctrine on how to conduct protection activities. This forces peacekeepers to improvise tactics in the field. Traditional military doctrines and training were built mainly to defend territories, not to protect individuals. While a refugee camp is more straightforward to defend, it is much more difficult to plan an operation to protect civilians in far-flung communities.

The report does not really address protection of abandoned property, with the implication that the authors may view this as the type of peripheral task that can raise dangerous expectations on the part of affected populations while distracting peacekeepers from the type of basic protection work they may actually be able to achieve.

This conclusion would largely resonate with international experience in Bosnia, where peacekeepers’ presence and arrests of war crimes suspects was helpful in achieving an overall security environment conducive to restitution but any direct military involvement in actual evictions would have invoked rather unhelpful shades of prior ethnic cleansing and undermined the idea that addressing property disputes was an essentially civilian rule of law exercise.

Moreover, post-Bosnia situations in which international military personnel have been drawn into property disputes appear to reinforce RI’s central point that uninformed protection interventions will lead to improvised, ad hoc outcomes, potentially doing  more harm than good. A good example is provided by Human Rights Watch’s description, in its 2004 Claims in Conflict report on northern Iraq:

In the absence of any legal framework or practical mechanism for resolving property disputes, U.S. forces in some places began conducting their own mediations to resolve property disputes. There appeared to be no coordinated approach to these mediations, and the approach of different U.S. commanders varied widely. Some commanders told Human Rights Watch that they refused to engage in resolving property disputes. ….

Other U.S. troops, however, decided to play a limited mediation role, to resolve the least controversial of property disputes and to prevent inter-ethnic violence. The U.S. efforts presented a host of problems. While well-intentioned, the ad hoc mediations were often conducted by U.S. military personnel with limited knowledge of the complex property issues involved, and without the guidance of a standardized framework to ensure fairness. No clear guidelines were developed to structure the ad hoc mediations, so the weight given to different claims was determined by the mediators, rather than by standardized policies. Neither was it clear that all affected parties, including the displaced Arabs, were fully represented at the negotiations. ….

This message is underscored by the fact that forthcoming UN guidance to humanitarian actors in the field – who could reasonably expected to be more sensitized to the complexities of HLP issues than peacekeepers – has adopted ‘do no harm’ as its departure point and primarily advises humanitarians to avoid getting in over their heads where possible and to defer to land tenure experts.

Given the fundamental importance of HLP issues to security and stability in post-conflict settings, it is not unreasonable to expect peacekeepers to be aware of them and to consciously take on at least indirect roles in securing HLP rights in the course of exercising their mandate. However, RI’s findings serve as a reminder that unclear and unrealistic expectations of what peacekeepers can do will serve no one’s interest.