CAR Scandal Reflects U.N. Peacekeeping’s Loss of Strategic Direction
Richard Gowan |Monday, June 8, 2015
Do peacekeepers do more harm than good? An appalling abuse scandal has come to overshadow the two parallel peace operations, led by France and the United Nations, currently based in the Central African Republic (CAR). There is credible evidence that French troops made local children commit sex acts as entertainment. The U.N. appears to have, at the very best, mishandled its investigation of these crimes.
|Moroccan peacekeeper serving with the MINUSCA|
The small force of African peacekeepers that was already on the ground in 2013 apparently lost all discipline. Individual units allegedly sold their protection services to those locals who could afford them. France also had troops in the capital, Bangui, but initially tried to stay out of the fight. Paris only changed course in December 2013, when it deployed a larger force to try to restore order. African nations sent additional troops, providing the basis for a new U.N. mission—MINUSCA—in September 2014. The international response was slow, grudging and insufficient.
This was the chaotic backdrop for the alleged abuses by French and African troops in 2014. It does not excuse their behavior, but it helps explain why they might have assumed they could get away with it. The bulk of the peacekeepers sent to CAR most likely knew very little about its history and divisions. What they probably did grasp was that they had entered a country where the state had imploded, leaving no one to enforce the rules or hold them accountable for their actions.
They may also have guessed that, given their haphazard and tardy deployments to the unfolding humanitarian disaster, very few outside powers really cared about what happened to CAR’s citizens. The European Union initially offered to send a hefty additional force to CAR in early 2014, but member states ended up committing only a small mission to guard the main airport. French, African and U.N. peacekeepers may well have assumed that their political masters, having previously demonstrated little real concern for CAR, would not pursue individual acts of child molestation or torture.
This makes their actions no less vile. But it points to some ugly truths about how peace operations are launched and evaluated. It is right and necessary to insist that every peacekeeper everywhere adhere to the highest possible moral standards, wherever they go. Yet from the Balkans to Haiti, reports of sexual abuse by peacekeepers have been common. An internal U.N. report leaked earlier this year warned of a sense of “impunity” in many missions, with numerous obvious cases of abuse going uninvestigated. The U.N. has extremely limited powers to discipline troops under its own command other than repatriating them; it can do little more than investigate allegations of misbehavior by those serving under other flags like the French in CAR.
But focusing on investigations and disciplinary matters is only part of the story. It is also arguable that the political decision-makers who send peacekeepers into broken states, often without clear strategic goals or the military assets they need, deserve some of the blame for the scandals that ensue.
In Bosnia in the 1990s, the Security Council sent peacekeepers to carve out secure zones in the midst of an ongoing war, while doing little to actually stop the broader conflict. This was a patently half-hearted plan. Peacekeepers visited brothels run by the warring factions, and even became involved in human trafficking. If the U.N. had pushed harder to resolve rather than merely mitigate the Bosnian conflict, it would not have set the stage for such despicable acts. Similarly, if the Security Council had seized the initiative in CAR as the country hurtled toward breakdown in 2013, it might have avoided a situation in which peacekeepers assumed that they could treat civilians so callously.
Some individuals will commit abuses under any circumstances. International personnel continued to be guilty of sex exploitation in Bosnia long after the civil war ended in 1995. There is a long track record of sexual misconduct by American personnel in Japan. This can hardly be ascribed to the stress of their postings. Nor are uniformed personnel the only ones prone to such behavior. Civilians from the U.N. and nongovernmental organizations often misuse the power and privilege their positions afford them too.
These individuals deserve our full contempt. But peacekeeping’s critics should also train much of their fire on the governments, diplomats and planners who deploy international operations without a serious strategic vision or political plan. If peace operations were deployed more strategically—with stronger campaign plans, clearer targets and a greater sense of urgency and direction—they would be less likely to sink into situations where aberrant behavior can seem normal and malefactors feel invulnerable.
The overall strategic direction of peace operations will be up for renewed debate later this month. Next week, a blue-ribbon U.N. panel will submit a major report on peace operations to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. (My own institute, the Center on International Cooperation, will launch a new website offering fresh data and analysis on U.N. and non-U.N.-led missions to stoke debates).
It is crucial that disciplinary issues are part of any peacekeeping reform agenda. But they cannot be the sole, or even the primary, focus of such an agenda. Peace operations need to become much tougher to handle challenges like CAR in future.
Getting tougher involves addressing issues ranging from logistical problems to differences over doctrines around the use of force. If these problems can be resolved, peacekeeping will regain some of its overall strategic credibility. And if peacekeepers can regain their sense of strategic purpose in trouble-spots like CAR, they might be a little less likely to commit or tolerate acts of sexual abuse that undermine their missions.
Richard Gowan is research director at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation and a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. His weekly column for World Politics Review, Diplomatic Fallout, appears every Monday.