UN peacekeepers toil in South Sudan and Central African Republic

Officials accept limitations of undermanned forces dealing with complex domestic clashes

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 05 January, 2014, 5:36am
UPDATED : Sunday, 05 January, 2014, 5:27pm

The United Nations has dispatched a record number of peacekeepers to Africa in recent years, deploying soldiers to trouble spots such as the Central African Republic and South Sudan. Yet the “blue helmets” and thousands of other soldiers sent by African regional groups have failed to prevent fresh violence.

The peacekeeping forces have cost billions of dollars, largely paid by the United States and European nations. But they have been hobbled by weak mandates and a shortage of manpower and equipment. Some critics also say Washington, its allies and UN officials are at fault in the peacekeeping failures, for not following through with enough political pressure to prevent crises.

“The political and diplomatic elements of the international response to most Africa conflicts have been slow and ineffective,” said John Prendergast, a longtime Sudan and South Sudan activist with the Enough Project, a human rights group. That, he said, “has put more pressure on peacekeeping missions to fulfil objectives for which they are totally unprepared”.

In South Sudan, a power struggle that US and UN officials were aware of for more than a year has now sparked an ethnic and political conflict that has killed hundreds, raising fears of a potential civil war.

Frustration with the peacekeepers is rife. Ibrahim Muhammed, 30, fled the volatile Sudanese region of Darfur a year ago and arrived in South Sudan searching for a better future. Today, he languishes inside a UN peacekeeping base in the war-ravaged South Sudanese town of Malakal, living in a tent.

“The UN peacekeepers have not been able to stop the violence in Darfur, and so I came here,” said Muhammed, a shopkeeper. “But in South Sudan now, the situation is similar to Darfur. It is tribe against tribe. The peacekeepers won’t be able to stop the attacks.”

Toby Lanzer, a senior UN official in South Sudan, conceded there were limitations to what peacekeeping forces can accomplish in trouble spots. In many situations, including South Sudan and the Central African Republic, UN and African forces lack resources and a sufficient number of soldiers, he added.

“There’s always a temptation when people hear of 5,000 or 10,000 peacekeepers for them to think that they can do an awful lot of good, and they can,” said Lanzer, the deputy special representative for the UN mission in South Sudan. “But what they cannot do is stabilise a situation in a whole country that is erupting into violence.”

There are now more UN peacekeepers in Africa than at any time in history, roughly twice as many as in the early 1990s.

At the end of November, more than 70 per cent of the 98,267 UN peacekeepers deployed globally were in sub-Saharan Africa, according to J. Peter Pham, executive director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Centre. 

“I think one can legitimately criticise peacekeeping operations for not doing enough,” said E.J. Hogendoorn, deputy Africa director for the International Crisis Group, an independent organisation that tries to prevent conflicts. “But without the physical intervention of either UN or African peacekeepers, those conflicts could often have escalated much more.”

African peacekeeping troops not under the UN banner often have even less equipment and training. Yet they are increasingly being called upon to help contain crises around the continent.
In northern Mali, an African force comprised of soldiers from neighbouring countries deployed too late to prevent Islamist radicals – including al-Qaeda’s West and North African affiliate – from carrying out widespread atrocities against civilians.
In the Central African Republic, African Union peacekeepers have been unable to stop the brutalities committed by Muslim Seleka rebels and Christian militias in the sectarian conflict. Soldiers from Chad, a Muslim nation that is part of the peacekeeping force, have been accused of supporting the Muslim rebels.

Even with thousands of peacekeepers, a key reason for the strife in South Sudan is a refusal by the United States, European and African powers, who played a key role in creating the independent nation, to acknowledge its political divides and hold its leaders accountable, said analysts.

For more than a year, there were signs of a split within the ruling party, pitting President Salva Kiir against his former vice-president, Riek Machar. Now, both men’s loyalists within the army threaten to propel the country into more violence and tragedy.