Lessons from the Ivory Coast
U.N. peacekeeping missions need more oversight.


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.