From Peacekeeping to "Peace Operations"

A course addressing the issues around military and non-military intervention today

By Metta Spencer | 2004-07-01 12:00:00

I. Two weeks at the Pearson Peacekeeping Centre

Peacekeeping has changed a lot since 1956, when Lester B. Pearson first wisely proposed that the United Nations send an international force to the Sinai desert to prevent fighting. Only this June, for example, the G8 summiteers announced plans to augment capacity by adding 75,000 new peacekeepers for operations that were not envisaged by Pearson or his contemporaries.

Peace Magazine has not kept pace with such changes, so I decided to participate in, and report on, one of the courses at Canada's leading institution in this field, the Pearson Peacekeeping Centre (PPC) in Cornwallis, Nova Scotia. Here I'll share some of the insights I gained in May and June from a two-week basic course, the Peace Operations Summer Institute, (or "POSI"), jointly sponsored by the PPC and nearby Acadia University. I lectured a bit but mostly observed and participated along with the class of thirteen regular students who were taking the rigorous course for credit.

The Pearson Peacekeeping Centre was established by the government of Canada in 1994. It occupies several buildings (especially the handsome officers' club) that were left vacant when a military base was shut down in Cornwallis. Originally the base was a boot camp for Naval recruits before the Canadian forces were integrated in 1968. Nowadays most barracks are empty but a few are occupied by small businesses that enjoy a spectacular panorama of the Annapolis Basin. The PPC offers programs of education, training, and research at Cornwallis, in Montreal, and at various other locations around the world. For example, one upcoming course will be taught in Ghana.

While I was there, several other courses were underway on such topics as humanitarianism and "DDR" -- Disarmament, Demobilization, and Re-integration, the processes following the establishment of a peace agreement when weapons are collected and destroyed and soldiers are mustered out and assisted to return to regular society. POSI offered an overview of the whole array of peace operations, but the enrollees in those more specialized courses sometimes had to undergo challenging hands-on experiences in preparation for their anticipated jobs in war zones. For example, they were taught what to do when coming upon a weapon -- how to dismantle it safely -- or when finding themselves in a minefield, or when taken hostage by armed rebels. A mock minefield was set up for a day and actors unexpectedly hijacked their cars on another day, throwing a few class members into authentic anxiety attacks.

Whereas the POSI participants were spared such thrills, they had plenty of regular work to do. Sometimes members stayed up most of the night working on group assignments. There were three main instructors: Dr. Walter Dorn, now a faculty member at the Canadian Forces College in Toronto; Dr. Sarah Meharg, a researcher at the PPC; and Ambassador Peter Walker, now teaching at Acadia University, but formerly a diplomat representing Canada in India, the OSCE, the OECD, the USSR, and Indonesia. Several other experts also lectured for a day or an afternoon.

The POSI students were a varied, interesting group: two women policy advisers from the Department of Foreign Affairs (no longer called DFAIT, but rather FAC -- Foreign Affairs Canada); four female graduate students; one woman from Ethiopia who does conflict resolution work for a German organization; a Canadian military officer with experience as a peacekeeper in Sierra Leone; and five military officers from Latin American and Caribbean countries, one of whom had served as a peacekeeper in East Timor. A guest lecturer, who also participated throughout the course, was a woman from India who studies the traffic in small arms and drugs. Everyone received a huge binder full of instructional material, including copies of the ubiquitous Power Point documents each lecturer displayed on screen.

Early in the course we became familiar with a graph resembling a statistician's classical "bell-shaped curve," but which in this case represented changes over time in armed conflict. As we follow the graph from left to right, tensions increase and the graph slopes upward until it reaches its peak during wartime, then tapers off into a renewed state of peace. (Of course, in real situations the curve is jagged, not smooth, for there are ups and downs along the way and not all ominous early events actually result in warfare.)

The model is useful for showing the phases when different types of interventions are appropriate to restore peace. During the early stages, as conflicts are becoming increasingly evident, preventive measures can be employed to reduce the odds of armed struggle. When actual warfare erupts and continues, the only possible interventions are attempts at conflict mitigation. Eventually, however, some type of conflict resolution processes occur, resulting in ceasefires and peace agreements. Occasionally, peace enforcement by military units are required to prevent a resumption of fighting. Finally, another kind of intervention is required -- post-conflict peacebuilding.

Four Generations

All of these types of intervention can be called "peace operations," but not all of them are peacekeeping -- a term that did not become widely used until 1956. Walter Dorn distinguishes four "generations" of peace operations.

During the initial generation, all United Nations peacekeepers were military personnel responding to the invitation of the conflict parties by monitoring a ceasefire and observing during the negotiation of a political settlement. Ralph Bunche launched this type of monitoring operation in the Middle East, for which he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1950.

Only in 1956 did the second generation begin, when peacekeepers were interposed as a buffer between opposing troops to prevent impending warfare in the Suez crisis. For this innovation, Lester B. Pearson received the Nobel Peace Prize.

A third generation of peace operations has involved a great expansion of activities, often involving non-military personnel. These multi-dimensional operations include political, military, humanitarian, police, economic, social, reconstruction, and judicial activities. They may be carried out by regional organizations (e.g. the African Union and NATO); NGO monitors (e.g. Amnesty International and the International Crisis Group); army engineers (who rebuild bridges and water systems); UN agronomists (who restore local food production); election monitors; and civilian police seconded from their hometown constabularies. The widening of peace operations occurred after the Cold War ended and civil wars increased, requiring that underlying root causes of disputes be addressed. Unfortunately, such peace operations still are far more often undertaken after a war than beforehand, when they would be more likely to succeed.

Finally, Dorn sees the emergence of a fourth generation of peace operations, whereby the United Nations becomes the authority that actually governs during a transitional period until a new, democratic state can be established. East Timor is an example.

Dilemmas of peacekeeping

Under the terms of Chapter Six of the UN Charter, sovereign countries are expected to settle their disputes through such peaceful voluntary means as mediation. Peace operations should therefore take place in a state only with the consent of its government. Sometimes peacekeepers have had to leave because the government ordered them out.

However, under the terms of Chapter Seven of the Charter, if the Security Council determines that a threat to the peace or actual aggression exists, it may, against the wishes of that State, send troops with a war-fighting mandate. This was the circumstance, for example, under which the Korean War took place, and in recent years other war-fighting operations have been authorized -- either under the command of UN forces (e.g. the new SHIRBRIG units) or some coalition of states. Not all such interventions are achieved. (Rwanda and Somalia are instances of failure.) Security Council members often disagree on whether to authorize such actions. Still, fewer Chapter Six and more Chapter Seven mandates are being issued over the years.

The document Responsibility to Protect was written to establish the criteria for judging whether to intervene militarily in such cases. (See Peace Magazine, Jan. 2003.) However, it remains controversial, especially because it can be construed as justifying the attack against Iraq in 2003. The terms under which war-fighting missions may properly be launched therefore remain ambiguous -- one of several serious issues that trouble the practitioners of peace operations. The longer I stayed at the PPC, the more apparent became the dilemmas that confront the dedicated people who serve in these projects.

Such tensions were mentioned more often outside the classroom than during lectures. We ate all our meals with dozens of humanitarian workers, diplomats, and foreign peace workers, who sometimes expressed their worries. For example, one woman from an African country told me that she believes aid harms as much as it helps it because of the dependency it creates. When she returns to her home village, she sees young men who no longer want to work, but who just sit around waiting for the UNHCR food truck to arrive. Of course, this is not a new problem, and other humanitarian workers say that the solution is to provide most assistance in the form of infrastructure or micro-financing loans so people can build their own earning capacity.

Another problem that humanitarian workers mentioned repeatedly was the fact that their effectiveness and even their lives being compromised by having the lines blurred between military activities and the provision of aid.

Two decades ago, humanitarian workers were never targeted by either side in a war, for everyone realized that they were independent, neutral, and willing to help those on both sides who needed relief such as medical attention, food, blankets, water, or shelter. Today, more and more, humanitarian workers are seen as agents working for a particular state or army. This blurring of their roles has resulted largely from the attempts by military officers to manage and "coordinate" the activities of NGO personnel in their areas of operation. For example, a commanding officer may insist on sending armed soldiers to escort supply trucks and paramedic teams, against their wishes. Or, even worse, soldiers may be sent out to distribute potable water and groceries to random households as a way of winning over the "hearts and minds" of the local populace. If, on the following day, a CARE worker and a Médecins Sans Frontières physician show up, they may be shot because people will suppose they are part of the same military unit. Indeed, while POSI was going on, five staff members of Médecins Sans Frontières were murdered in Afghanistan -- the kind of tragedy that has come to be expected everywhere in war zones.

II. David Rieff and the Humanitarian Crisis

Other concerns of humanitarian workers were stated most vividly by a visitor, David Rieff, who delivered a public lecture one evening and spent the next day with our POSI class. Rieff is author of A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis. Having spent much of the past decade in war zones, mainly in the company of aid workers, he claims pessimism as a badge of honor. Rieff's hostile manner put off most of his audience, though he articulated some concerns that apparently lurk in their own hearts. Having read his previous book, Slaughterhouse, I thought I knew what he would say, but he fooled me.

Slaughterhouse was written during the seige of Sarajevo and constituted an impassioned demand for the United Nations to fight against the Serbs who surrounded the Muslim inhabitants. I expected therefore that Rieff would again promote international readiness to undertake war-fighting missions in hot-spots around the world.

While occasionally he has supported such interventions, he now points out the complications that have negated all anticipated benefits. Accordingly, he does not support the Responsibility to Protect doctrine, since he believes it will never be applied universally. Interventions will never be authorized into powerful countries that abuse their own citizens, but only into weak ones.

Moreover, Rieff considers it unwarranted to identify one side in a fight as innocent victims and the other side as guilty perpetrators. (One member of the POSI class called him a 'post-modernist' for his evident cultural relativism.) Often, he says, the victims are also guilty, or will become so as soon as they get the chance, as in the case of many Kosovar victims after NATO's 1999 defeat of their Serbian oppressors. Nevertheless, Rieff does not urge the world to stand back, for he considers wars mainly unavoidable, even if they accomplish nothing positive. For example, he sees the American population as increasingly brutalized by warfare, yet claims it was impossible for them not to strike back at Al Qaeda and the Taliban after 9/11.

In war zones Rieff accompanies humanitarian workers, whom he respects greatly. Still, he claims that realistically they can only alleviate immediate suffering (e.g. by providing a "bed for the night") and that their capacities have been compromised by entertaining utopian aspirations to accomplish more.

Over the past two decades, a world-wide human rights movement has arisen and humanitarian workers are increasingly viewed as participants in it. Clearly, most of the people they aid in war zones are actually suffering because their human rights have been violated. To alleviate their misery may be only a short-term "band-aid" solution since it will not change the root causes. In fact, by providing food and medicine even-handedly, relief workers know that they may be prolonging the conflict -- or even contributing to the misry of the victims by helping the very people who are causing that suffering.

Sometimes it is necessary to compromise with a dictator, just to be allowed to bring in supplies. Nevertheless, at a certain point, some NGO charities have felt compelled to draw the line for moral reasons. A few organizations openly declare that their assistance is part of a political reform movement and that they will no longer assist any government or rebel group that they find politically or morally unacceptable.

Rieff has written in A Bed for the Night that during the seige of Sarajevo he too criticized the International Red Cross as immoral for remaining scrupulously neutral toward both Muslim and Serb belligerents. Later, however, he came to view neutrality as the best position for all NGO humanitarians.

His pessimism is multi-dimensional and pervasive. He knows the horrors of warfare but expects it to continue unabated. He knows that relief workers can accomplish nothing permanent for war victims by offering only alleviation, but thinks that they should limit themselves to that. And he believes that they won't. He expects humanitarian aid to become increasingly political in nature, and increasingly managed by the military. He believes that armed interventions will become more common, under the banner of human rights, but that these military actions will be unable to establish democracies. Instead, troops will often have to remain indefinitely as an occupying force, protecting victims from further violence and being regarded locally as colonial rulers.

The Nonviolent Option

Rieff seems to take pride in issuing these bleak predictions with relentless stoicism, swatting away every hopeful alternative that anyone in his audience proposes. Nevertheless, some of us did try. I had a drink with him after his evening lecture and shared my misgivings about his position on Bosnia in Slaughterhouse. While I had sympathized with the Muslims and wanted to protect their lives, I had not considered it a wise precedent to fight their separatist war for them. For one reason, most countries that have divided have had tragic futures long afterward.

Rieff replied that he had argued exactly for that -- that the United Nations should fight their war for them -- but for political, not humanitarian, reasons. It was not to save lives but rather because he believed the Muslims had a chance for democracy if they could get rid of the fascistic Slobodan Milosevic.

But all that fighting did not get rid of Milosevic. What got rid of him was nonviolent resistance. Long after the interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo failed to dislodge him, the United States gave some $40 million to a group of young Serbs, who ousted him from power without killing a single person. If to me that was a hopeful observation, it did not appear so to Rieff, who did not reply.

In the classroom later, I suggested the same solution. He had given cogent reasons for rejecting the Responsibility to Protect doctrine, spelling out the pitfalls that often follow military interventions to rescue victims of oppression. But those objections do not apply to nonviolent actions. Instead of sending troops, the United Nations or certain countries such as Canada might help people to oust their dictators by nonviolent means. After all, political defiance has been used successfully many times. It takes time, training, strategic planning, and enough money for cell phones and photocopiers, but it should always be given priority over military intervention and over separatist declarations of autonomy.

Admittedly, there may still be a few occasions, as in Rwanda, when international military action is necessary because genocide is imminent. Often such a UN intervention can save far more lives than it costs, as proved to be the case in East Timor. But, as Rieff insists, such cases should, and can, be rare.

Pessimism is David Rieff's code of self-discipline, his way of keeping himself honest. He has every right to uphold that code. But the Pearson Peacekeeping Centre is not a pessimistic environment. The humanitarians I met there were eager to go off to their next assignment in Darfur or Congo or Afghanistan. They have every right to uphold optimism as a code, as self-encouragement. And -- thank goodness! -- it is also realistic.

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2004

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2004, page 8. Some rights reserved.

Search for other articles by Metta Spencer here

Peace Magazine homepage