Peacekeeping and the UN: Useful...Not

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November 18th 2008
Published: December 24th 2008
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Armed conflict in Africa overall seems to have eased a bit in recent years but obviously still rages in certain pockets, primarily now in Darfur, Somalia, and the Congo. Conflict in Africa festers immediately in the current environment, lacking democracy, development, control on human rights, and proper governance. Really, the fundamental peacekeeping I would think should lie with Africa itself, and in fact some African governments have contributed to facilitating negotiations (such as I believe the Congo negotiations in Nairobi currently.) In reality though, Africa lacks sufficient capacity both financially and militarily, and does require the assistance of other countries beyond the continent.

Other countries may provide assistance in many ways: training, intelligence, deployment, diplomacy. Why do we provide this assistance? What is Africa to us? If we were to look at this as simple humans, it seems obvious enough that we should feel compelled to help in any way the immense human toll being taken. Estimates of these numbers include but are not limited to: up to 400,000 killed and 2 million displaced in Darfur, 1.7 million displaced in northern Uganda (2006), 5.5 million killed (1,500 each day) in the Congo. But what else motivates our governments (the United States, in my case) to hold off on assistance or provide it?

I found the US's involvement in Darfur to be an interesting and important story. During the Rwandan genocide, the Clinton administration was reluctant to recognize it as genocide per se because this meant the US would need to take immediate and direct action. In 2005 the UN came out with a report saying that the Sudanese government in Darfur was not acting with a "genocidal intent." I'm not sure where we're at now officially but I think it's pretty clear to the world now that this UN report was in short, full of shit. During the current genocide in Darfur, the Bush administration had likewise dragged its feet in recognizing the genocide and acting in response. It was being pulled in two directions. On one hand, out of all the African conflicts that the US provides aid for, Darfur is up there at number one. There was a religious angle to the Darfur conflict that caught the attention of many Christian congregations, and as a result Bush was under a lot of pressure to appease his Bible Belt constituency, who cared not for any other raging African conflict but this one. On the other hand were factors that weigh in with the President's current war on Iraq. Africa was not a key region for the US and our efforts were heavily concentrated in the Middle East. Public opinion in the Middle East of the US were already extremely negative due to both our intervention in Iraq and our lack of progress on any Israel-Palestine solution. America's Middle Eastern interests would only suffer more with intervention in yet another Muslim country. In addition, US-China relations should dictate that the US not agitate the Sudanese government with China quickly rising as another superpower heavily invested in Sudan's oil industry. Needless to say, Bush was not in any rush to poke around against Sudan's wishes.

This little story about Darfur, short and sweet, gives us a glimpse into some of the factors playing into why/how/when our governments are willing to stick our necks out to help in an African conflict. All in all, it seems that Africa is just not that high on the US's agenda right now, which really doesn't come as much of a surprise considering everything else we are involved in globally.

As we Americans aren't as invested in African conflicts, on this note does anybody know about the conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea, its neighbor to the north? Does anybody know about Ethiopia's involvements in the Somalian conflict to its east? I don't know if it's just me, perhaps I'm ignorant and not adequately informed, perhaps I'm just being American, but I didn't expect to see UN vehicles and convoys patrolling around all of north and east Ethiopia when I came through here. I haven't mentioned this before yet because I didn't know exactly what I would write. I still don't know what to write, because to be honest I can't write much about Ethiopia-Eritrea. My knowledge is limited to the basics, but I suppose this can make some of you at least aware that there is a stirring war over here as well.

Ethiopia has long (historically, way back when) considered Eritrea to be part of its country. I think sometime back there before the Italians came and failed in their colonization of Eritrea, Eritrea used to be one with Ethiopia. They were the same people and spoke the same language. After the Italians came in and royally screwed up, proving to the rest of Europe that it couldn't handle colonization in Africa like France, Britain, Portugal, Germany, or the Netherlands could, Eritrea declared independence. It was used as battleground for all sorts of wars, it was used by all nations including the US and Britain as an off the map post for random needs. It was used as a junkyard for old WW2 machines. But basically, the end result of the failed colonization was that Eritrea came out with an agreement that somewhat linked it to Ethiopia but not really, in legal terms it was pretty independent. The two countries fought in a war over the land (Ethiopia is eager to have some coastline) and still today the borders are not settled. There are no crossings open on the border, in fact the border moves around according to which map you are looking at.

Anyhow, this is the explanation then for why I see so many UN vehicles around a seemingly peaceful and well-to-do country. They are everywhere. They are north up to Axum (and further a bit to the border), all along the border, and in most of the little shit towns I have been traveling through. Unlike the UN vehicles I saw in the Congo and Rwanda though, these vehicles aren't armed. I don't see soldiers sitting in back with their AKs, I don't see broken windows. Mostly I see nice white SUVs with the UN logo splattered everywhere. I'm not sure what they are doing.

The funny thing is, I have met a few UN troops on the road. The first guy I met in Turkey, Nelson, was Canadian and was stationed in Darfur for 6 months. He hated it and only spoke negatively on the UN, its actions, its effectiveness, and its competency. Most recently though, funnily enough, as I was "fleeing" from the Congo when I finally arrive at the crisp white beaches of Zanzibar, I met two Indian UN soldiers (stationed in Goma) on vacation. They were middle age, normal, had many of the same things to say about the UN operations, and were... on vacation. 4 days after the violence reached Goma, they were on vacation. Doesn't anybody else find that weird? Now I'm not necessarily passing complete judgement on the UN as I am not comfortable with the amount of information I do have and probably lack, but I merely want to raise a few issues in our heads about some of these organizations, what else they are doing, other viewpoints, and how they may work past the shiny advertisements we see on TV. The crazy thing is, I heard wild stories about how some of the UN officials are quite corrupt as well, gossip and scandals, even to the point of being involved in mineral trades for weapons. Hey man, you didn't hear it from me! They really shouldn't be discussed in such a public medium though. Shocking? Not to me, not anymore...

Some figures and facts about US economic and humanitarian aid to sub-Saharan Africa that you may or may not know:

US contributions to peacekeeping operations in sub-Saharan Africa (2007 total: 868) in millions of dollars:
- UN Mission in Sierra Leone: -
- UN Operations in the DRC: 153m (cut from 300m in 2006)
- UN Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea: 39.3m
- Burundi Operation: -
- UN Mission in Liberia: 150m
- UN Mission in Sudan: 442m
- UN Operation in Cote d'Ivoire: 84m

The UN has stationed upwards of 65,000 troops and military observers in peacekeeping operations around the world, and 56,000 of these currently serve in sub-Saharan Africa.

Seven sub-Saharan countries rank in the top twenty providers of these troops, in total supplying around 22 percent.

Africa's leading providers of peacekeepers come from Ethiopia, Ghana, Nigeria, South Africa, and Kenya.

* The figures above are taken from "The United States in Africa" by Raymond Copson, and are all as of 2007. Some numbers, surely such as the DRC numbers must have grown a bit in the last two months, but in general I just wanted to give you a comparison on our government contributions through the UN and the obvious emphases.


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