Why There's No Easy Fix to U.N. Peacekeeping Woes

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The world's leaders all know what's wrong with the U.N. peacekeeping system, but that doesn't mean they'll be able to fix it. Thursday's discussion at the international body's Millennium Summit saw further eloquent critiques, particularly from African leaders, whose continent has recently seen the most dramatic failures of the blue-helmeted peacekeepers. They pointed to Rwanda, where the U.N. failed to act to stop the 1994 genocide, and to recent savagery in Sierra Leone, where some 500 hapless peacekeeping troops were taken hostage by a ragtag militia. Everyone from U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan to the major Western powers already agree on the need to dramatically overhaul the system. The question is whether they're willing or able to invest the political and material resources that would make it possible, and also how they'll revise the international body's rules to allow speedy intervention to avert humanitarian tragedies.

Resources are the most immediate obstacle to improved peacekeeping. The U.N. has none of its own, and relies on member states to contribute troops for peacekeeping missions. But even the organization's current peacekeeping commitments exceed the available resources, and member states are reluctant to commit more of their forces. The best military resources are in Western countries whose governments find it politically difficult to risk the lives of their troops in remote conflicts in Africa and elsewhere. That means the U.N. missions often have to make do with military units that aren't quite up to the challenge.

The U.N. has also struggled to deal with the changing nature of warfare. U.N. peacekeeping, and even the organization itself, was established to regulate conflict between states, but since the end of the Cold War most pressing international crises have tended to be civil wars, usually along ethnic or tribal lines. More often than not the combatants have seldom been answerable to a political structure, let alone a government. That makes nonsense of the traditional U.N. peacekeeping style of absolute neutrality and keeping weapons holstered. The new style of conflict often requires intervention by an outside policing force that can be rapidly deployed with the freedom and the means to break a few heads when civilians are threatened by paramilitary thugs.

This is precisely what Annan proposes, suggesting, too, that countries put their peacekeeping units on permanent alert and allow them to train together outside of crisis moments, so that, for example, a Jordanian infantry battalion is deployed together with a British logistics unit with which it has previously trained and worked. But all of this will take investment, and the U.N. has a hard enough time getting member states to pony up for its existing commitments. Still, because Western countries are unlikely to raise their enthusiasm for committing combat troops, they may be more inclined to foot a higher bill for improving the effectiveness of U.N. peacekeeping operations. That's the thinking, for example, in President Clinton's recent efforts to boost Nigeria as a regional policeman — while Washington is unlikely to send its own personnel into situations such as Sierra Leone, it may be prepared to create incentives for regional powers like Nigeria to play sheriff.

But the most troublesome issue remains the political rules that govern such interventions. After all, the principle of sovereignty and non-interference in any member state's internal affairs is one of the U.N.'s cornerstones, even if it sometimes operates in conflict with the lofty human rights principles of the organization's charter. And the Cold War-era structure of the Security Council that gives veto power to five permanent members — Russia, China, France, Britain and the U.S. — militates against rapid intervention. China, for example, has a history of nixing any operation that it perceives as interference in the internal affairs of a member state, no matter how irksome, for fear that any violation of that sacrosanct principle might rebound on Beijing some day. And the permanent members certainly don't see eye to eye on issues ranging from Iraq to Kosovo, while Russia reserved its right to systematically bomb and shell civilian villages in Chechnya on the grounds that it was a domestic matter.

So a new system of peacekeeping may be some time in coming. But at least now everyone's openly acknowledging that the current one no longer works.