Soldiers from South Africa in the African Union-United Nations Hybrid Operation in Darfur (UNAMID) Soldiers from South Africa in the African Union-United Nations Hybrid Operation in Darfur (UNAMID) Photo credit: UN Photo/Stuart Price
Robust peacekeeping in Africa: the challenge for humanitarians
by Simone Haysom and Jens Pedersen October 2015

The origins of peacekeeping lie in an attempt to create a different kind of military operation, one that did not seek to give one side an advantage over the other. Central to this effort was only using troops from ‘states with no stake in the outcome’.+Rupert Smith, The Utility of Force: The Art of War in the Modern World (London: Allen Lane, 2005). Yet in the last decade and a half many missions in Africa have rejected this approach and adopted partisan positions on the outcome of the conflict. Using high levels of force to change the balance of power between armed groups, these missions have drawn heavily on regional troops. Some have been undertaken under the direction of the UN, others by the African Union (AU) and some as ‘coalitions of the willing’, condoned by UN resolutions. The growing role of robust multilateral military interventions in peacekeeping in Africa means that the humanitarian sector will have to commit new resources to relationship-building on the continent, and step up existing engagement on protecting a distinct humanitarian identity in conflict zones.

The scope for robust action in Africa

The push for more aggressive peace operations can be traced to the early 1990s. While the number of UN missions increased markedly after the Cold War, it was the mass killings in Srebrenica and Rwanda that galvanised the development of more far-reaching concepts and norms on the use of violence to prevent atrocities. The soul-searching within the UN after these events fed into the landmark Brahimi Report of 2000, which argued that peacekeepers should be obligated to stop violence ‘in support of basic United Nations principles’, ideas reaffirmed in subsequent reports and doctrine. The concepts embodied in the Protection of Civilians (POC) agenda and ‘Responsibility to Protect’ were also developed during this period. The first peacekeeping operation with a POC mandate was the UN mission in Sierra Leone in 1999. Since then, the majority of mandates issued to UN missions have authorised peacekeepers to use ‘all necessary means to protect civilians when under imminent threat of physical violence’. The size, number and aims of peacekeeping missions expanded, and interventionist tactics were increasingly institutionalised.

Despite mandates including explicit calls to ‘protect civili-ans’, many of these missions were seen as lethargic and ineffective.+See Evaluation of the Implementation and Results of Protection of Civilians Mandates in United Nations Peacekeeping Operations: Report of the Office of Internal Oversight Services, 3 July 2014. Chapter VII missions, such as the UN–African Union (AU) hybrid mission UNAMID in Darfur and the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), are known more for their inability to stand up to government forces than for their robustness. For those who wish to see the UN take a more interventionist stance in conflicts, the key challenge has been securing the political will to condone troop deployments in aggressive operations.

Almost all of the mandates for robust peacekeeping opera-tions have been written by the US, France and the UK. These countries, all Permanent Members of the Security Council, have political, security and economic interests on the continent, including a desire to contain conflicts that might give haven to terrorist groups for training and recruitment, fears that conflict will spark further migration to the West and a desire to maintain advantageous trade relationships and access to natural resources. Protecting these interests creates an incentive to reduce instability and shape the post-conflict environment in African countries. These interests are not necessarily opposed in Africa to the extent that they are in many other conflict hotspots, for example in Ukraine, where Western powers would face a credible military threat from Russia and a broader geopolitical backlash if they intervened. This lack of opposition increases the scope for robust regional peacekeeping as one way of addressing instability.

At the same time, Western troops will not deploy under UN command except in small specialist non-combat units, often under a bilateral or European Union (EU) mandate. South Asian countries contribute the bulk of troops to UN missions, but resist the trend towards robust peacekeeping. Major troop contributors India and Bangladesh have few direct political interests in the outcomes of conflicts in Africa, and as such they too are highly reluctant to engage in fighting and risk losing personnel and equipment. This makes African support crucial.

Regional troop contributions and political frameworks

The AU is unique among regional organisations in facilitating external interventions in conflicts in its member states. The organisation has adopted the principle of Responsibility to Protect and established structures for implementing its security aims. Western powers, on which the AU is still highly financially dependent, have strongly encouraged this. The alignment of interests between African troop-contributing states and the West has supported the move towards robust multilateral peace operations.

Typically, the majority of African troop contributions come from countries in the same region. Within the large pool of African states contributing army or police troops, a sub-set including Ethiopia, Burundi, Rwanda, Nigeria, Kenya, Chad and South Africa stand out as important players. Their importance is derived from the consistency, size and military effectiveness of their contributions. Significant incentives to contribute include increased access to international forums and stronger bilateral relationships with powerful states that ask for contributions. It can also affirm the rule of the political parties which authorise deployments.+See Charles Onyango-Obbo, ‘Somalia Is Sweet and Sour Business for Burundi, Uganda’, East African, 14 March 2011; Danielle Beswick, ‘Peacekeeping, Regime Security and “African Solutions to African Problems”’, Third World Quarterly, vol. 31, no. 5, 2010. Crucial too are the interests of countries within the region in containing or suppressing the conflict itself.

While some may argue that this is all the better for promoting ‘African solutions to African problems’, this can have negative consequences for African citizens, including exposing them to poorly paid and resourced troops with low levels of training and little respect for civilians; further entrenching despotic regimes; or regionalising existing conflicts. Even so, troops originating from neighbouring countries remain a desirable component for ‘peacekeeping’ because of two main advantages over troops from further afield: they can be deployed faster and their governments have a greater political commitment to take risks. This is where robust operations and the use of regional troops come together. The ability to provide a force that is willing to act aggressively is often dependent on using troops from countries that have a direct stake in the outcome.

Implications for humanitarian operations

We have already witnessed how robust mandates are playing out in practice. In the Central African Republic, for instance, Chadian ‘peacekeepers’ were widely reported as having backed the Séléka coalition, one of the main parties to the conflict, with financial and logistical support. In April 2014, Chad withdrew all its troops after accusations by the UN that they had fired on a civilian market without provocation, killing 30 people.+‘Chad Withdraws All Troops from CAR’, Al Jazeera, 17 April 2014. In the DRC, MONUSCO’s concept of operations includes a ‘shape, clear, hold and build’ approach, similar to that used by NATO in Afghanistan. Integral to this approach are ‘Islands of Peace’ – areas which have been cleared of rebels through military action – and activities which support the extension of government control and services are prioritised, including humanitarian activities. In Somalia AMISOM has ‘rehatted’ two forces, from Ethiopia and Kenya, that initially entered the country through unilateral invasions. In the case of Ethiopia, the original intervention – driven by fears of events in Somalia destabilising its own territory – had disastrous consequences by inadvertently empowering the fundamentalist elements in the Islamic Courts Union, which reconstituted themselves as Al Shabaab.+‘Ethiopia, Somalia and Some Gentle Diplomatic Blackmail’, Daily Maverick, 25 April 2013. In each case, robust peacekeeping is just one aspect of a complex conflict, but often one which compounds already acute challenges for humanitarian actors, including the tendency among donors and multilateral organisations to integrate and incorporate humanitarian operations into state-building efforts and the criminalisation of negotiations with non-state actors.

Ostensibly, the operational procedures used by humanitarian actors in robust peacekeeping operations should be the same as in other situations where humanitarians and military forces find themselves in the same space. However, there are two important differences. First, where the humanitarian parts of the UN system are integrated within UN peacekeeping operations (as in UN Integrated Missions), it is much harder for humanitarian organisations to distance themselves from the UN than from a NATO or AU military operation. Second, the label ‘peacekeeping’ and the involvement of multilateral organisations with a mandate for peace and development, such as the UN, AU and ECOWAS, confers an aura of legitimacy over and above that of a standard military intervention. This is central to the rationale for using multilateral forums for these interventions in the first place. This legitimacy will be undermined when multilateral forces use partisan military means and violence to achieve their aims, and reports of displacement and civilians harmed directly or indirectly filter into local and international media. In other conflicts – for instance in Iraq and Afghanistan following military invasions by Western coalitions, where human rights and democracy were central to appeals for legitimacy – this has led to pressure on humanitarian actors to be seen to be ‘onside’ with military actors, and the adoption of the language and activities of humanitarianism by military forces.

Regional ‘peacekeepers’ in Africa with robust mandates are here to stay. To ensure the best chance for assistance to reach civilians trapped in African conflict zones, humanitarian agencies need to protect their neutral identity and open lines of dialogue with all parties to the conflict. Currently, however, most humanitarian organisations are primarily geared towards dialogue with the UN and Western militaries and diplomatic players. This is not adequate: humanitarian organisations need to urgently improve dialogue not just with the AU (and its subsidiary regional economic communities) but with key African troop-contributing states.

Simone Haysom is an Independent Researcher and HPG/ODI Research Associate. Jens Pedersen is Humanitarian Advisor, MSF-South Africa.