The Good, the Bad and the UNgly

by Eugene Kontorovich

Not a good week for U.N. peacekeepers. A confidential U.N. report described in this Washington Post story concludes that Pakistani peacekeepers in Congo have been helping steal that country’s gold. According to the U.N., the blue helmets only helped local plunderers, while Human Rights Watch says they were directly involved in the looting.



But that seems virtually harmless compared to what some of their colleagues have been up to. A battalion of 700 UN troops in the Ivory Coast have just been put under confinement and investigation for the sexually abusing girls.



The blue helmets have in recent years been amply involved in corruption, sexual abuse and worse. The Post article describes some if it, but there is much more. Two years ago, a U.N. report found large-scale sexual abuse by peacekeepers around the world, including rape and child molestation, and of course, promised reform. In Congo, the abuse was particularly pervasive. One would think after the rape scandal there, someone would have kept a closer eye on the peacekeepers to make sure they didn’t add robbery to their list of offenses.



And then there are the French soldiers in the Ivory Coast who suffocated a man to death with a plastic bag, were congratulated by their officers, and covered-up for by some senior generals.



What does it all mean?



There will always be some violence and depredation that accompanies occupying armies; it is a consequence of young men with power. It does not illegitimate the mission they are on. In a well-disciplined force the rate will be lower. When they troops are faced with an enemy they do not consider to be theirs, in defense of people they don’t care about, it may be worse. And their officers will often care more about their men than about strange foreign victims. It does not matter if it is the UN in the Ivory Coast or the U.S. in Iraq.



The question is whether the U.N.’s record is worse than would be reasonable for a force of its size. I think so, and there are many reasons for it. The obscure lines of accountability may make for a higher rate of abuse than one would normally expect. The peacekeepers’ coming from poor and undisciplined armies known for abusing human rights at home makes it unsurprising they they are not on their best behavior abroad. Julian has described a variety of legal obstacles to punishing peacekeepers. Usualy the worst that happens in sex crime case is they get sent back to their home country. Of course, if there were more serious punishments, it would be even harder to get good peacekeepers. Western nations pay for the lion’s share of the peacekeeping bill (27% from the US); the peacekeepers come from (usually) poor countries and go to other poor countries, and the U.N. itself is not a country at all. So who holds who responsible?



Part of the accountability problem may have to do with the positive associations people often have between the U.N. and human rights. The UN represents the world, has the international Human Rights Commission — how bad can it be? People may be more hesitant to criticize the UN because they see it as performing other important functions. When the first pictures were released from Abu Ghraib, America and human rights abuse became synonymous. That creates incentives to change. But despite what to me seems like truly pervasive sexual abuse, far more than one would expect from a force of 83,000, the U.N. has not become synonymous with human rights abuse, at least not in the minds of those who matter.



Finally, one must balance the harm of U.N. peacekeepers with the good they do, and this I think is the really damning point. In many places, from Srebrenica to Lebanon, the troops do nothing — can do nothing — but watch the peace get broken. Abu Ghraib invigorated the movement for a withdrawal from Iraq. How about a withdrawal from Liberia, Ivory Coast, Indonesia, Lebanon…

http://opiniojuris.org/2007/07/28/the-good-the-bad-and-the-ungly/

11 Responses

  1. Eugene,

    Honestly, is this for real? Did you just compare the UN peacekeeping presence all over the world and sporadic examples of abuse to the American occupation of Iraq and the torture/inhuman treatment scandal of Abu Ghraib? Are you seriously asserting that the UN presence in Liberia, Ivory Coast, East Timor or Lebanon is doing more harm than good? REALLY? I can certainly accept the point that UN forces are generally less disciplined, less well trained and under insufficient supervision when they are compared to armies trained to NATO/US standards. But that, as you say, is a consequence of the fact that these soldiers mostly come from countries which are themselves undeveloped or developing. There must be room for improvement, and there must be improvement, but to compare UN peacekeeping scandals to ABU GHRAIB … come on.

  2. Marko: I don’t know if widespread and pervasive sexual abuse, going on for many years, is worse than Abu Ghraib. But it is pretty bad, given the small number of peacekeepers(in comparison with U.S. troops in Iraq), and given that they are not engaged in the same kind of active combat operations as US troops, abuses are usually worse when combat stresses are more severe.

    I don’t know how to measure these things. How many people were sexually abused by UN troops? How many abused at Abu Ghraib? It is hard to find a metric. Isn’t sexual abuse inhuman treatment? But my point is not to say they are problems of similar magnitude. My main thrust is that the UN can also be guilty of human rights abuses/war crimes, but that for various reasons it is more insulated from outrage. I mean, if the UN wasn’t as bad as the US in Iraq, but only, say, 25% as bad, that would still be something worth yelling about, no?

  3. I’m with Marko here; this is really incredibly silly. Just look at a list of all the places where the UN has had peacekeepers since the end of the Cold War; for the most part, those places are peaceful. And before they were torn by horrible civil wars. And most of the peace deals that the UN policed would never have happened without a guaranteed UN presence.

    Of course the abuse is awful. And of course there is plenty of blame to go around; middle powers such as Canada, Australia, Germany, etc. deserve quite a bit for abandonning the field of peacekeeping to Pakistan, Nepal, etc. But to somehow suggest it’s inherent in UN missions is idiotic.

    And the comparison to Abu Ghraib is insulting. The reports of UN abuse involve negligent commanders and inadequate oversight. Abu Ghraib was the direct result of policy decisions at the top to loosen interrogation standards and abandon any clear message to troops in the field that the Geneva Conventions were iron-clad rules. This was a deliberate decision with intended consequences. There’s no comparison.

  4. Marko,

    Regarding your quote:

    “Did you just compare the UN peacekeeping presence all over the world and sporadic examples of abuse to the American occupation of Iraq and the torture/inhuman treatment scandal of Abu Ghraib?”

    I think its just a “little bit” ironic that you critique Prof. Kontorovich’s use of a sporadic example by citing, yourself, a sporadic example.

    BTW, I do give props to the blog for letting someone on this board with a different viewpoint, comments by the peanut-gallery notwithstanding.

  5. Abu Ghraib is not a sporadic example, as Observer well pointed out. It is a direct consequence of the Bush administration’s stance towards (international) law generally, and torture specifically. The usual line used to describe Abu Ghraib, that it was just a little breakdown in discipline is simply and totally incorrect, just as it would be to the characterize the use of torture by everyone’s favorite fictional super-agent, Jack Bauer, as due to a breakdown in discipline.

    But to your broader point – yes, I agree it is good to have people on this blog who have different viewpoints. But this post was just an example of stereotypical UN-bashing, nothing more. Comparing UN peacekeeping, which, even though it failed to save many lives (see Srebrenica) did in fact save many, many more, to the Iraq fiasco — dear God! I honestly just don’t see how this contributes to academic diversity.

  6. Any discussion on accountability of Blue Helmets is typically met by similar emotional outcries “sleight of hand” using Abu Ghraib or other comparisons. The reality of the situation, as I’ve written elsewhere, is Blue Helmets aren’t accoutable under IHL, period. At best, one can hope the home country will prosecute offenders. The placement of PKF outside, not necessarily above, the law is intentional. To be party of Geneva, for example, would make the UN party to a conflict.

    I’m not entirely clear how US government policies, as problematic as they are, has anything substantial to do with UN PKF accountability? Is the American failed policy of outsourcing everything the cause for UN PKOs to be effectively an outsourced operation? Tell me how PKOs aren’t similar to US use of Aegis and other PSCs after remembering these facts:

    The top five contributors to PKOs — Bangladesh, Pakistan, India, Jordan, and Nepal — contribute nearly 50% of TOTAL PKF and regularly do so. This is not a snapshot figure. Meanwhile the Security Council, the body who decides to send a force, in TOTAL provides less than 4%. The top 5 aren’t doing it out of the goodness of their heart either. They get $1100/man/month for military personnel that cost their home country a helluva less (not to mention transport — often by private military companies — is not borne by these Top 5, and sometimes provisioning as well).

    There are multiple levels of accountability to be discussed here and the discussion can, and should, be constrained on the UN and its efforts to previously avoid even put in contracts “asking” contributors to abide by Geneva (they often left those clauses out). Let’s not forget the variety of use of force arrangements (patrols happen upon atrocities in progress but their home nation prevents intervention) that may themselves be violations of international law… well, assuming the UN is subject to international law, which it is not by its own repeated admission.

    There’s no need to compare to US or Iraq. There’s enough material to focus exclusively on the UN…

  7. Did you just compare the UN peacekeeping presence all over the world and sporadic examples of abuse to the American occupation of Iraq and the torture/inhuman treatment scandal of Abu Ghraib?

    Actually, the accusations against the UN are significantly more severe than the Abu Ghraib incident.

    Abu Ghraib is not a sporadic example, as Observer well pointed out. It is a direct consequence of the Bush administration’s stance towards (international) law generally, and torture specifically.

    Kindly demonstrate how this was so, especially in light of the actions of UN peacekeepers discussed therein. Were there actions a direct consequence of the views of their respective administrations for international law?

  8. It’s absurd to try to pin the criminal behavior of troops assigned peacekeeping missions on the UN’s shoulders. The UN authorizes the missions and underwrites costs, but the troops involved are not UN employees and the UN has no criminal code it can enforce against them. These troops are under the military discipline of the sending state and any failure to maintain control over them should be blamed on their officers, not the UN.

    The larger issue is the failure of leading nations with reasonably professional armed forces to pony up their own forces for these missions, relegating them to third world countries lacking the professionalism and discipline necessary to execute the missions properly and lacking requisite respect for the populations they’re sent to protect. As long as developed nations choose to contribute payments instead of personnel, these missions must necessarily rely on “hired guns” from cash strapped countries willing to rent out their armies for some foreign currency. This isn’t the fault of the UN per se, but rather the US and other developed member states who’d rather pay than play.

    If you want to bash the UN, at least pick something the institution has some control over to do so about.

  9. I second what Professors Milanovic and Glazier have said.

  10. In response to Marko Milanovic and Dave Glazier’s characterization of my post as “UN bashing.” Since when is criticism a form of “bashing”? Perhaps “bashing” means criticism one objects to or is not convinced by. So if I am not convinced by some commenters on this blog, who have in responses to some of my posts attributed everything form terror attacks in Pakistan by the Taliban to the sexual abuse of women around the world by UN blue helmets — would it be useful to describe them as “America bashers”? I don’t think so.

    Prof. Glazier’s comment illustrates my point about the difficulty in holding the UN accountable. The amorphous nature of the UN makes it hard to hold it accountable. Yet “the UN authorizes the missions and underwrites the costs.” I don’t see why the UN’s use of independent contractors rather than employees for peacekeeping significantly reduces their responsibility. If one hires an independent contractor knowing he has a history of sex crimes, I believe one would be responsible for the consequences. Surely if the US used independent contractors in a conflict or foreign militias, even if it was a conflict authorized by the UN, and those contractors systematically committed abuses, one would think the US would share at least some of the blame. If one accepts the thesis that America is ultimately is responsible, it reduces pressure for reform in shall we say the more proximate agents of causation.

    By the way, I happen to agree that the U.S. is to blame, partially. It pays roughly a quarter of the peacekeeping budget, and if you are paying soldiers, you have at least some responsibility for what they get up to.

  11. It’s absurd to try to pin the criminal behavior of troops assigned peacekeeping missions on the UN’s shoulders. The UN authorizes the missions and underwrites costs, but the troops involved are not UN employees and the UN has no criminal code it can enforce against them. These troops are under the military discipline of the sending state and any failure to maintain control over them should be blamed on their officers, not the UN.

    …but not the states who supply the troops? Are they not the ultimate authority to which they report? Do the actions of their troops thus demonstrate an inherent contempt their countries have for international norms?

    Mr. Kontorovich’s analogy is also particularly apt.

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