April 7, 2011

April 7, 2011 | Commentary on Africa

Lessons From the Ivory Coast

In late March, as many as 1,000 people were killed in Duékoué, Côte d’Ivoire, it was recently discovered. The victims “were mainly men who had been shot and left where they fell . . . either alone or in small groups dotted around the town, which lies at the heart of Ivory Coast’s economically crucial cocoa producing region,” according to one news report.

It’s unclear who is responsible. The U.N. points to forces loyal to former president Laurent Gbagbo, who lost the recent election but refused to leave office, sparking the current conflict. However, the area where the killings occurred was controlled at the time by fighters loyal to the current president, Alassane Ouattara.

There were 1,000 U.N. peacekeepers based in Duékoué. Reportedly, most peacekeepers were protecting about 15,000 refugees at a Catholic mission, U.N. troops also claim to have conducted “robust” patrols in the town.

Although the role of U.N. peacekeepers is far from clear, it is hard not to conclude that the mission has fallen short in its mandate to protect the civilian population. This isn’t the first time U.N. peacekeepers were seemingly in a position to stop an atrocity, but failed. The U.S. should take this as a lesson and be more vigilant in assessing whether U.N. operations are achieving their objectives.


The 1994 genocide in Rwanda, which resulted in at least 800,000 deaths, occurred despite the presence of a U.N. peacekeeping force under Lt. Gen. Roméo Dallaire. General Dallaire has famously related how his request for support and intervention was denied by the U.N. Security Council and how, with peacekeeping contingent reduced from 2,500 to 450 as various countries called their troops home, he and others tried to save as many lives as possible.

In July 1995, more than 8,000 Muslim Bosnian men and boys were slaughtered in the town of Srebrenica in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The United Nations had declared Srebrenica to be a “safe area” under U.N. protection, but the 400 peacekeepers assigned there took no action to prevent Serbian forces from capturing the town or to stop the subsequent massacre.

Although there are many examples of misconduct and shameful irresolution on the part of U.N. peacekeepers in these incidents and elsewhere, these failures are not solely the fault of the U.N. missions on the ground.

The Security Council typically approves a mission in situations where the major powers have little direct interest. This allows the permanent members to claim that they are addressing a situation when, in reality, they are avoiding responsibility because they do not care enough to assume the costs of action.

The end result, typically a U.N. political mission or peacekeeping operation, is more a show of international interest and support than an expression of determination to resolve a situation, with force if necessary. Failure to understand the limited nature of the political commitment has yielded tragic results. Indeed, lessons learned in the 1990s led the “Report of the Panel on United Nations Peace Operations,” also known as the Brahimi Report after the panel’s chairman, to conclude, “The United Nations does not wage war.”

U.N. peacekeeping missions can be useful in situations in which war is not necessary, but the U.N. has ventured into more difficult missions in recent years. Tragedies such as those in Rwanda and Srebrenica have led the U.N. to embrace the idea that the international community should be under an obligation to intervene to prevent humanitarian crises — an idea called the “responsibility to protect.”

The assumption is that a timely intervention could have stopped these tragedies from occurring. Unfortunately, it is difficult to predict when they will occur, and just what level of intervention is the right amount. So unrealistic burdens and expectations wind up being placed on the U.N.

The inclination of countries to offload difficult problems onto the U.N., combined with the drive to protect civilians, has contributed to a dramatic increase in U.N. peacekeeping over the past decade. U.N. peacekeepers have increasingly been asked to perform missions for which they ill-suited, or that they lack the resources to fulfill, because the “international community” feels obligated to do something, even if it is ineffectual. For instance, U.N. missions in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and in Darfur are often incapable of protecting civilians in their areas of responsibility, and the Lebanon mission ignores its mandate to disarm Hezbollah because of political difficulties.

Although the missions in Cyprus, Kashmir, and Western Sahara have been around for decades and predate the “responsibility to protect,” the ideas behind the theory help justify their habitual renewal, despite little tangible change on the ground. After all, who knows what might happen if they were ended?

These missions often perform tasks that help individuals or alleviate suffering. But are they putting tense situations in stasis rather than facilitating their resolution? Is their presence providing an excuse for others not to act? Is the benefit illusory — i.e., will a similar loss of life occur, just over years instead of months? The Security Council needs to be asking these questions whenever an operation comes up for renewal.


These questions have increased in pertinence because of the post-election violence in Côte d’Ivoire. After several years of instability and conflict, the U.N. established a peacekeeping mission (United Nations Operation in Côte d’Ivoire or UNOCI) there in 2004, charging it with monitoring the 2003 ceasefire agreement, keeping rival forces separate, and facilitating a national election. Among its responsibilities are monitoring the cessation of hostilities and movements of armed groups; disarming and dismantling militias; protecting U.N. personnel, institutions, and civilians; promoting law and order; and supporting the organization of open, free, fair, and transparent elections.

Gbagbo’s original presidential term expired in 2005. The U.N. has approved numerous election delays in hopes that it would mollify tensions and provide time to institute a free and fair electoral process. As long as no election was imminent, the situation was tense, but relatively quiescent. But as the election approached — it was finally held in November of 2010 — it became clear that the negotiations and U.N. mission had only disguised, not solved, the underlying problems.

By independent accounts, Gbagbo lost the November presidential election. The U.N. and most countries recognize Ouattara as president. However, Gbagbo rejected the result and sought to retain power. The past few months have seen widespread instability and violence, including the recent massacre. There is concern the situation could reignite the civil war that raged from 2002 to 2004.

The Security Council has passed three resolutions this year condemning the situation, expanding and enlarging the peacekeeping mission, and adopting targeted sanctions. It has also approved an intervention by France (of which the country is a former colony) and called on parties to protect civilians and observe human rights.

And yet despite these moves, and despite a seven-year peacekeeping presence, some estimate that as many as a million people have fled the violence. More than a thousand people, perhaps many more, have been killed. U.N. peacekeepers and aid workers have become targets of violence for supporters of Gbagbo since the U.N. declared Ouattara the winner. Ethnic and religious rivals remain hostile and armed. The prospects and timeline for resolving the conflict are uncertain. In fact, Côte d’Ivoire over the past several months has been sadly reminiscent of the situation in 2003, before the current mission was established.


With added pressure from the French intervention, Gbagbo’s days appear numbered, and reports indicate that he may be negotiating his surrender. However, that serves only to emphasize that the U.N. mission itself proved inadequate in fulfilling its mandates to set the stage for a peaceful election and ensuring the safety of the civilian population.

Short, easy peacekeeping missions or interventions are extremely rare. The pressure to “do something” should not trump sensible consideration of whether a U.N. presence will improve or destabilize a situation. Sensible consideration includes establishing clear and achievable objectives, securing pledges for the necessary resources before authorizing the operation, and planning an exit strategy. This process should apply also when reauthorizing existing missions, which are too often rubber-stamped. If a mission has not made evident progress after a lengthy period, the Security Council should reassess whether it is serving a constructive role in resolving the situation. If it is not, it should be ended, or the mission’s expenses should be shifted to the nations seeking to continue it for political reasons (as has partially happened with the Cyprus mission).

One member of the Security Council in particular should be stingier with its authorization votes: the U.S. Frequently, when a poorly planned or insufficiently scrutinized mission fails, there are expectations that the U.S. will intervene to salvage the situation. Thus, the U.S. should take special care when deciding to authorize a mission. It should not let an “emergency” override the prudent evaluation necessary to maximize a prospective mission’s chance of success.

Whether by design or simply a welcome lull in demand, the U.N. has not approved a new peacekeeping operation under the Obama administration. In fact, the missions in Chad and the Central African Republic have been closed. However, the situation in Côte d’Ivoire and in other countries demonstrates how much more scrutiny is needed.

U.N. peacekeeping can be useful if conducted seriously and if entered into with an awareness of the U.N.’s limitations and weaknesses. Ignoring these issues can result in tragedy or perpetuation of instability. It’s unfortunate that the Security Council is frequently more interested in grandstanding and expressing its “serious concern” with situations than in seriously considering whether U.N. missions are the best option to address a situation or ensuring that missions are capable of fulfilling their responsibilities.   

Brett Schaefer is the Heritage Foundation’s Jay Kingham Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs.

About the Author

Brett D. Schaefer Jay Kingham Senior Research Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

First appeared in National Review Online