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The U.N. peacekeeping mission in Sierra Leone has drawn criticism from many commentators. While much of this may be justified, there is a danger of missing the forest for the trees. The specifics of what went wrong and what could have been done better and how are important. However, the more critical point is the structural dilemmas inherent in today’s typical peacekeeping missions.

The United Nations was designed to cope with interstate war. Repelling or reversing a clearcut crossborder aggression of one state by another, such as of Kuwait by Iraq in 1990, is one of the few bottom lines in international affairs. Yet the disputes clamoring for U.N. attention today are almost all internal. Founded on the principle of national sovereignty, the U.N. is ill-equipped to cope with civil conflict.

Most civil conflicts have deep historical roots and are characterized by broad and mutual suspicions based on past traumatic experiences. U.N. intervention in sectarian strife must accordingly acknowledge the prospect of an indefinite commitment, which is not very attractive to Western governments with professional military forces.

To be effective in a peacekeeping role, the U.N. must negotiate with all significant sectarian leaders. But in doing so, the U.N. endows them with a degree of legitimacy. The Revolutionary United Front leader Foday Sankoh was, in fact, brought into the government of Sierra Leone. In return, however, leaders of ill-disciplined and uncoordinated guerrilla groups may be unable or unwilling to honor the agreements made with the U.N., as happened with the RUF.

By freezing a conflict, peacekeeping favors the status quo at the time of its deployment. This makes it more difficult for U.N. peacekeeping forces to stay neutral in a civil conflict than in an interstate war. Ceasefires “in place” might legitimize ethnic cleansing by the militarily most powerful; efforts to delay a ceasefire until territorial gains have been forcibly reversed will drag the U.N. into the quagmire of an internal war.

Traditional peacekeeping forces interposed lightly armed troops to separate consenting combatants after a ceasefire. Civil wars scatter U.N. troops thinly over a wide geographical area under a tenuous ceasefire. These are more vulnerable to attacks when not deployed at fixed positions in a neutral area. The result can be that the U.N. has to devote more time, resources and personnel to protecting its mission than to accomplishing its goals — or risk having its soldiers taken hostage. All this explains why it is difficult to inject U.N. forces into active civil wars in which the fighting forces are unwilling to cooperate with the U.N. and there is little possibility of bringing pressure to bear on the several factions involved. The war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo has the potential for an even greater embarrassment for the U.N. than Sierra Leone.

The roles of peacekeeping operations have expanded to include humanitarian assistance and electoral supervision. These, requiring more military personnel, civilian police and technical experts, face distinctive difficulties in civil wars.

Should the U.N. use force against those who would challenge its authority? The difficulties associated with the organization, deployment and use of military force do not disappear simply because of U.N. authorization. States are reluctant to transfer control over their national armed forces to the U.N. because of doubts over its managerial capacity for military operations, skepticism about its institutional capacity to police the world wisely and effectively, and the fear of creating a military monster that might one day turn against them. A U.N. force is less than the sum of its parts.

The consensus on traditional peacekeeping was that peacekeepers should not have the obligation, the soldiers or the equipment to engage violators in hostilities. International peacekeeping forces express and facilitate the erstwhile belligerents’ will to live in peace; they cannot supervise peace in conditions of war. Turning a peacekeeping operation into a fighting force erodes international consensus on their function, encourages withdrawals by contributing contingents, converts it into a factional participant in the internal power struggle and turns it into a target of attack by rival internal factions.

That is, peace enforcement leads to mission creep, which in turn leads to peacekeeping fatigue. The predicament of peacekeeping soldiers on the ground is that they are unable to move forward into an unwinnable battle, unable to stay put taking casualties for no purpose, and unable to withdraw without repercussions for national foreign policies. Australian Gen. John Sanderson (retired), force commander of the generally successful U.N. operation in Cambodia, argues that peace enforcement is “war by another name.” Often the choice for the peacekeepers, he says, is “you either go to war or go home.”

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