Peacekeeping is an essential part of the core mission of the United Nations, which was created, as its Charter says, “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war”. From Suez to Liberia, the UN really has often managed to keep the peace.
But when these multinational military operations go wrong, they inflict wounds on the UN itself. Two tragic cases in the news recently demonstrate that 68 years after the UN was founded, the legal framework of peacekeeping still urgently needs to be made clearer and more practical.
Last month the Supreme Court of the Netherlands ruled that the country’s government is responsible for a fatal mistake by Dutch soldiers during the massacre at Srebrenica, Bosnia, in 1995. Ordering three Bosnian Muslim men to leave a UN-protected compound was sending them to their death at the hands of Bosnian Serbs, the Dutch court said.
And in New York on Wednesday, the UN was sued over a 2010 cholera outbreak in Haiti, which killed 8,000. The infection was traced to poor sanitary practices at the camp of peacekeepers from Nepal. The UN has been maintaining order in Haiti since 2004; 10,000 troops are there now.
Future peacekeeping may now hang in the balance. Today the UN has 100,000 uniformed personnel from 93 countries deployed in 15 missions. But without legal immunity, what country would offer troops?
The top 10 manpower-contributing countries are among the world’s poorest – Pakistan, India and Ethiopia head the list. This is no coincidence: the UN pays governments more than $1,100 per man per month, far more than some states actually pay their soldiers. Bangladeshi soldiers, in particular, are well-regarded, but some other UN detachments have bad reputations for disorder, looting and even rape and murder.
Even the best troops will, however, inevitably do things wrong; future UN missions, and the states in which they operate, both need a form of insurance policy. This already exists, in theory: the standard paperwork for such missions provides for a “claims commission” by which local people can get redress of their grievances, be it a cholera outbreak or a stolen goat. But no such claims commission has ever actually been set up; countries that need peacekeepers, after all, have bigger problems to worry about.
But this is not good enough. If UN peacekeeping is to live up to its promise, it must be refined and improved, by international agreement.