“Thou shalt not be a victim, thou shalt not be a perpetrator, but, above all, thou shalt not be a bystander.” In suggesting so, Yehuda Bauer, Holocaust historian, rested his case wherein the ‘bystander’ was brought center-stage and held accountable alongside the perpetrator for crimes against humanity. The bystander implies the collective conscience of the world which must work as the weapon of the powerless. So while the United Nations through Chapter 6 of its Charter is committed to peaceful settlement of disputes, Chapter 7 of the same Charter prescribes use of armed force with the authorization of Security Council in cases of aggression and breaches of peace threatening international security. Chapter 7 further exhorts member States to make available such military or police forces as may be required to establish peace. In fact Chapter 8 goes further and prescribes robust ‘regional arrangement’ in enforcing peace upon authorization by the Security Council.
Thus one would be led to an erroneous belief that UN has everything in place in its strongly worded Charter and its over 100,000 peacekeepers on the ground to eliminate war and exploitation from the world. Yet, even though UN political diplomacy and peacekeepers established peace in many theatres in its seven decades of peacekeeping – Cambodia, Mozambique, Sierra Leone, Angola, Timor Leste, Liberia and Kosovo to name a few notably successful UN engagements – there have been glaring instances where UN is accused of being a bystander; unwilling or unable to protect non-combatants and vulnerable sections, especially women and children.
We shall examine two theatres where despite UN presence in close vicinity, large scale murder of civilians took place, thereby betraying core UN values of integrity and professionalism. That in subsequent missions, notably Sierra Leone (UNSMIL), Timor Leste (UNMIT), Darfur (UNAMID), South Sudan (UNMIS) and Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUSCO), the UN brought protection of civilians centre stage and thus restored substantially, if not wholly, its commitment to its core values, is a tribute to its willingness to use institutional memory in improving peacekeeping and saving lives.
Rwanda and Genocide of 1994
The UN Assistance Mission in Rwanda (UNAMIR) was sanctioned in October 1993 under Chapter 6 of the Charter to further the implementation of Arusha peace accord signed amidst much distrust between the Hutu-dominated government (and military) and the Tutsi-led rebels, the Rwandan Patriotic Front. The situation in Kigali quickly escalated to full ethnic strife when in April 1994 a plane carrying the president and the president of Burundi was allegedly downed by the Tutsis. This triggered retaliation when the Tutsi prime minister and 10 Belgian UNAMIR troops guarding him were killed, followed by a genocide of nearly a million civilians, mostly Tutsis, over three months even as UNAMIR forces were bystanders and at best providing limited succour.
Thousands of critiques have been published on the Tutsi genocide and failure of the UN to prevent it. The French and the US, among the Big Five, came under scathing criticism for not doing enough in this crisis; the French for continuing to support the Rwandan Army, the main perpetrators of the genocide, and the US for being reticent following reverses in Somalia and dragging its feet when a genocide was imminent. Within the UN, actions or lack thereof, by the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO), then headed by Kofi Anan, incurred criticism for its wait and watch approach despite the UN force commander on the spot pleading for more troops and authorisation to act decisively. In its defence, the UN argued that the Security Council had mandated UNAMIR under Chapter 6 which calls for peaceful settlement of disputes rather than giving the peacekeeping operation the authority for proactive military action that would have been possible if the mandate was under Chapter 7 of the Charter. By the time some 5000 troops were sanctioned and boots on the ground, partly due to delay by troop-contributing countries in view of the mayhem in Rwanda), there was little left to protect.
Bosnia and Genocide of 1995
The UN protection force (UNPROFOR) was established in 1992 in erstwhile Yugoslavia as a ‘passive and impartial’ peacekeeping force to deliver relief supplies in safe enclaves for Croats, Serbs and Bosniaks, the last two seeking to enlarge their respective territories in a disintegrating Yugoslavia. In 1995 the UN force was a mute witness to what Kofi Annan later described as “worst crime on European soil since the Second World War”. Now known as the Srebrenica genocide, the July massacre of Bosnian Muslim males was perpetrated by the Bosnian Serb army under Ratko Mladic in an ethnic cleansing operation. UNPROFOR being the guarantor of the ‘safe enclave’ of Srebrenica, failed to force a withdrawal or demilitarisation of the Serbian army, but allowed it to capture the besieged city. What followed was the segregation of Bosnian Muslim males and females, and massacre of 8000 males and rape and abuse of nearly 20,000 women.
Case for Transformation of UN Peacekeeping
Following the catastrophes in Rwanda and Bosnia, the working of UN and its bureaucracy came under scrutiny. It was informally admitted that there are two UNs: the visible UN comprising the General Assembly and the Permanent Five-led Security Council, that mandate the Secretary General to act under chapter 6, 7 or 8 of the Charter, thereby setting the boundaries of action. Then there is the other UN under the Secretary General that executes the mandate of SC almost verbatim, no more, no less. So whose failure is it if action on the ground is ineffective in any deteriorating situation? The UN under the Secretary General pleaded the failure of the Security Council for its inaction in both Rwanda and Bosnia. The world community, even though it did not give the UN sufficient teeth in the General Assembly and the Security Council, blamed the UN for not doing enough to save the non-combatants and vulnerable. The UN Peacekeeping force in Rwanda and Bosnia was too big to hide and too small to make a difference. In the absence of any effective policeman, the world for the first time was exposed to the reality of mass rape used as a weapon and as a concomitant aspect to internecine conflicts. The two genocides had a profound impact on the affected societies. In Rwanda, rape caused a spike in HIV infection, and in both countries the massacres of males led to thousands of households reduced to shreds because only widows, unwed mothers and orphaned children survived. The two cases were a huge setback for UN, calling for reclaiming UN values through concerted action rather than relying on the moral strength of a UN presence.
Protection of Civilians & Value-based Peacekeeping
The first lacuna was that while the UN was impartial, the threat to non-combatant civilians living in conflict zones remained unaddressed, which questioned the legitimacy and credibility of peacekeeping and the UN itself. The Security Council, hitherto roughly relying on peaceful and negotiated settlement of disputes under Chapter 6 of UN Charter, brought protection of civilians centre-stage and as a core element in future mandates. The UN Mission in Sierra Leone, (UNAMSIL), in 1999 was the first “to afford protection to civilians under imminent threat of physical violence.” By 2010, ten UN Missions with a total strength of nearly 100,000 military and police peacekeepers were mandated above all to protect civilians and internally displaced persons. As UN Deputy Commissioner of Police (Operations) in Timor Leste (UNMIT 2006-2008) I led a 3000-strong international police contingent whose core mandate was to restore order, provide security for elections, protect nearly 200,000 internally displaced persons and create a security cover for their voluntary return to their homes. This mandate was practically unrecognizable from the UN mandates in Rwanda and Bosnia which were ‘monitoring and reporting’ oriented and stopped well short of intervention. In the past two decades of peacekeeping, there have been no massacres of civilians under any UN watch, even as hundreds of UN personnel died saving millions of civilians in Sierre Leone, Timor Leste, Kosovo, South Sudan, Darfur, Haiti, Congo, Cote d’Ivoire, Liberia, Central African Republic and Mali.
Sustainable Peace: Value-based Engagement and Exit
“To save succeeding generations from scourge of war” is a promise in the Preamble of the UN Charter. Legitimacy and credibility of the entire UN system rests on its ability to discharge its mandated responsibilities in conflict arenas in a value-based engagement that not only addresses the scourge of war but helps re-build societies. No number of troops can maintain peace for long where issues of justice, human rights and development are not addressed. The lofty UN values of integrity and professionalism are addressed only if the peace established by the peacekeepers is stable. Recognizing that peace cannot exist without justice and development, the Security Council has mandated most UN Missions after 1999 as ‘integrated’ missions. In Timor Leste, besides the Special Representative of the Secretary General who was head of mission, two deputy Special Representatives, one each for ‘Rule of Law & Security Institutions’ and for ‘Governance support, Development and Humanitarian coordination’ worked for the consolidation of peace through sustained action on the development and humanitarian fronts. When the UN exited Timor Leste, not only was peace established between 2006-2008 consolidated but the integrated approach ensured an exit which left behind a cohesive Timorese society on the cusp of unprecedented growth.