Blue helmets as cannon fodder
Western nations are shunning UN peacekeeping and leaving developing
countries to shoulder the burden
Tuesday February 17, 2004
The Guardian [UK]
A peacekeeper was killed this month in Afghanistan. However tragic, it
is not unusual for soldiers of peace to die on a tour of duty. Since
1990, in missions in Sierra Leone and Liberia alone, more than 1,200
peacekeepers died. What was unusual about the death of this soldier is
that it made CNN news. He was Canadian. The 1,200 dead peacekeepers in
west Africa were Nigerians.
Another single death, of an American peacekeeper in Somalia in 1992, not
only made headlines, but was also decisive for the way we practice
peacekeeping today. This GI's Blackhawk helicopter was shot down. A CNN
camera crew filmed his body being dragged through Mogadishu. US TV
viewers, who had long forgotten why Americans were in Somalia, woke up
with a start and President Clinton withdrew US troops from the
operation. The US didn't participate in UN peacekeeping missions again
until late last year.
Dutifully following the US, most western countries have also been saying
no to UN missions. And if they do show up, it's with a very small number
of troops. The west has become unwilling to accept casualties in UN
When, in the late 1990s, the security council ordered a UN mission to
replace the Nigerian-led peacekeeping operation in Sierra Leone, the
secretary general begged rich member states to send troops. Not one did.
Liberia, last October, was luckier. A handful of Irish commandos and a
Dutch warship came to help. The ship remains safely off shore. The crew
has orders to sail back to Holland at the first sign of danger. The
Dutch and Irish troops number fewer than 300 - the other 30,000 UN
peacekeepers that are or were in west Africa were sent by third world
Of the 191 UN member states, 94 contribute 39,329 troops to 13 different
missions. The overwhelming majority are from the UN's poorest members.
Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nigeria, India and Ghana are the five main
contributors, providing 18,745 troops. The five permanent members of the
security council (the US, Britain, France, Russia and China), who
effectively ordered all those blue helmets dispatched, provide 1,030
troops in total; far fewer than each of the large contributors
Poor countries willingly send their soldiers to dangerous places
because, for them, peacekeeping is a lucrative business. At home
soldiers cost money, but as blue helmets they generate income, about
$1,000 per soldier per month. Blue helmets have become an export
Peacekeeping is often dangerous and complicated, and always expensive if
you want to do it properly. To carry out resolutions, the UN should have
well-trained, well-equipped troops. Blue helmets are supposed to come
fully armed and prepared, but often poor soldiers don't even bring boots
when they show up for UN duty. There is never enough equipment to make
missions run smoothly.
Some of the troops from poorer countries find themselves as a result
having to carry out their duties under very difficult conditions. With
less participation from western countries, the missions in west Africa
can be seen as blueprints for the future: UN peacekeeping will largely
be left to the developing countries. As a result, less money is made
available by donor nations. But, in spite of their shoestring budget,
the African and Asian soldiers in Sierra Leone succeeded in their
mission. There is peace in Sierra Leone, even if it was (for budgetary
reasons) hastily negotiated and still has to prove itself. In UN
peacekeeping, you get what you pay for.
Tony Blair claims credit for the success of this UN mission, pointing to
the few hundred British troops he sent to "intervene". But the army only
came to protect British citizens in Sierra Leone. And the one battle it
fought was to rescue British troops in rebel hands. The fact that Sierra
Leoneans profited was "collateral gain".
Similarly, the US military seeks to defend its own interests. In October
2000, presidential candidate George Bush promised that, if elected, his
"guiding question" on military intervention would be: "Is it in our
nation's interests?" UN missions are not. They are humanitarian
undertakings to maintain peace and security for all peoples.
This is why President Bush has only committed himself to limited support
for peacekeepers in Liberia. Just seven US marines landed in Monrovia
last autumn. At the same time, the president was bribing the rest of the
world to send troops to Iraq.
The US has deployed a quarter of a million troops in Iraq and several
thousand in Afghanistan. To serve the UN last year, it sent two
soldiers. The UK does slightly better: 415 British troops currently wear
To perform better, the UN needs the trained troops and equipment western
armies can provide. Most of all, it needs the backing of the west.
Although western participation in peacekeeping is no guarantee of
success, it is just not good enough that the west provides the cannons
and the third world the fodder.
* Linda Polman is a journalist based in Sierra Leone and author of We
Did Nothing: why the truth doesn't always come out when the UN goes in