UN’s checkered peacekeeping efforts marred by political agendas (Part 2)

March 19, 2010

“The reason the UN didn’t respond to the crisis in Darfur was because the major powers – US, China, France, England and Russia – didn’t want to do anything,” says Jocelyn Coulon, director of organization at the Canadian Defence & Foreign Affairs Institute in Calgary and head of Montreal University’s Center on Peace Operations.

“It was that simple,” says Coulon. “The point is that if a nation wants to do something on the international scene, it takes all necessary means to do it.

The US did it in Iraq.”

Understanding Darfur

Coulon returns to the horrific events in Darfur.To this day, pundits are still trying to understand what happened in Darfur. “The only political leader who said that genocide was taking place in Darfur was the US’s Colin Powell. No other country -not France, Great Britain or even Canada-would call it genocide,” Coulon explains.

Academics are still trying to determine what constitutes genocide.

Coulon steers clear of the genocide debate and dwells on the essential issue, which is that “the world should have acted much sooner than it did.”

No escaping the haunting truth

This disturbing fact will always haunt Coulon and other historians and peacekeeping diplomats.

“I remember the Darfur debate well,” continues Coulon. “Paul Martin (Prime Minister of Canada, 2003-2006) was one of the first to say that we should intervene in Darfur. And so did Romeo Dallaire.” (Dallaire is a Canadian Senator representing the Liberal Party of Canada. In 1994, Dallaire, a general at the time, commanded the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR). Dallaire went on to write a book about his experiences in Rwanda, Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda , which was awarded the Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction in 2004. It was also made into a film by the same name.)

Yet nothing was done to stop the atrocities.

In hindsight, Coulon says that peace operations could have been aborted in Darfur.  “An international coalition should have been set up to invade Darfur and take it over so the population could be saved,” he says.

There will always be unanswered questions and lingering guilt for nations that failed to act on their own while horrific atrocities were taking place.

“Why did the US feel that it was so urgent to send troops to Iraq and not Darfur?” asks Coulon.

By the same token, Coulon says that while many peacekeeping efforts have failed miserably, the UN has enjoyed more successes than failures. “Of the approximate 100 peace operations over the last 15 years, most of them have been successful.”

“So the UN’s peacekeeping instrument does have merit because it has solved some problems, but it cannot solve all of them,” he adds. “We cannot lose sight of the fact that the UN is the sum of its member states.”

Public perception of peacekeeping

Melissa Labonte, an international organizations scholar and assistant professor at Fordham University in New York City, says the problem lies in unrealistic expectations about peacekeeping.

“People in the peacekeeping community understand that peacekeeping is not a solution – an end in itself,” Labonte explains. “It is an instrument used in the service of peace. It’s part of an ongoing process, and cannot create peace on its own.”

The essence of peacekeeping is to keep people apart so the political and diplomatic process can be nurtured, says Labonte.  “But peacekeeping has become a Frankenstein, because it’s supposed to accomplish many goals, which include disarmament, administration, normalization, protection and gender mainstreaming,” she says.

When peacekeepers become actors in the conflict, either to defend themselves or to protect people, it’s really not peacekeeping anymore, according to Labonte.

The solution, as Labonte sees it, is to, rather than focus energy on peacekeeping, concentrate on creating a “more robust and diplomatic process alongside peacekeeping.”

Agreeing with Coulon, Labonte says that while diplomacy and political solutions to conflict often work, unfortunately they do not succeed all the time.

“When a despotic leader is hell-bent on eliminating part of its population, the sad reality is that no one can stop him, unless the UN’s major powers agree to use armed force to stop him,” says Labonte. “It doesn’t make anyone sleep better at night knowing this fact of life,” she adds.

“There are circumstances where the mass atrocities are so hideous, use of force is necessary,” says this teacher and student of diplomacy.  “Unfortunately, the countries that are best equipped to do this have the least amount of political wealth to actually do anything about it.”

And that’s a sad reality.

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