5 Questions for UN Peacekeeping Chief Hervé Lasdous

I recently caught up with the head of the United Nations Department of Peacekeeping Operations, Hervé Lasdous. There are currently 16 UN peacekeeping operations fielding about 120,000 personnel across 4 continents. In the conversation below, Mr. Lasdous discusses some of the hotspots in which peackeeping is currently engaged–or may engage in the future.

Our interview was conducted prior to the sacking of Goma by M23 rebels in DRC this week. Still, his remarks about the strengths and limitations of peacekeeping in eastern Congo are more relevant than ever. Read on.

1) The Security Council has put pressure on the international community to address the situation in Mali. Can you discuss your role and the role of UN peacekeeping in addressing this conflict?

The deterioration of the security and humanitarian situation in northern Mali is of grave concern. Over 200,000 people have been displaced as a result of the instability there and the region is witnessing an increasing entrenchment of terrorist elements including Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and affiliated groups.

This is why in response to a request of the Malian authorities regarding the deployment of an international military force in northern Mali, the Security Council has declared its readiness to act upon receiving a report from the Secretary-General. That report is being prepared.

In the meantime experts from the Department of Peacekeeping operations are already working with the Malian authorities, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the African Union (AU) on planning for the deployment of an international force should the Security Council mandate one. Different models and options are being explored. A key principle of our engagement is that this is a process being led by Mali and that we are supporting ECOWAS and the African Union as the key regional and continental organizations.

I must emphasize that without a sustainable political solution no military intervention will be successful. Security measures alone will not be sufficient to hold and build on any military gains without a credible political process as well as the delivery of tangible benefits to the population in terms of law and order, governance and effective administration. This is why the whole UN system is working with national, regional and international actors on a political solution to the crisis.

2) Are there any contingency plans for some sort of peacekeeping force in Syria in the event that a ceasefire agreement is reached?

As you know, DPKO deployed 300 military observers to Syria between April and August this year, until the Security Council decided that the conditions on the ground made the work of our observers unsustainable, and decided not to renew the mandate beyond August. We are very proud of the courageous work of UNSMIS, first led by General Robert Mood and later by Lieutenant-General Babacar Gaye.

However, before we talk about contingency planning, I must emphasize that right now our focus must be on supporting the work of Joint Special Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi. The United Nations is focused on in his efforts to help Syria achieve both a cessation of violence and ultimately a political process that would meet the legitimate aspirations of the people of Syria.

Everyday we see many civilians being killed. The humanitarian crisis is escalating, with over 2.5 million Syrians in urgent need of daily humanitarian assistance. Our humanitarian colleagues are warning us that this number could climb even further before the end of the winter. Ordinary Syrians are bearing the brunt of those who continue to choose military means to resolve what must be solved politically.

Peacekeeping must be prepared for a future role, but it will be up to the Security Council to determine if this is the right tool at the point when the fighting ends. Right now, all efforts must be on ending the violence and addressing the urgent humanitarian needs.

3) Sudan and South Sudan have reached an agreement in late September that seems to be more or less holding. However, the humanitarian situation in South Kordofan and Blue Nile region of Sudan remains increasingly dire. Are there discussions of how the UN will address this additional humanitarian crisis?  How can the USA further support the UN further in the region?

The nine agreements signed by Sudan and South Sudan on 27 September mark a positive turning point and  these have been rightfully applauded by the international community. You would remember that last April the two countries were terribly close to open war. Now that these agreements have been signed and ratified by both parliaments, the two countries must start implementing them. They must also address the outstanding border issues, and agree on a resolution of the future status of Abyei as per the decision of the African Union Peace and Security Council.

About the critical humanitarian situation in South Kordofan and the Blue Nile Region where the United Nations does not have a peacekeeping mission, the Secretary-General has expressed his deep concern in relation to the continuing fighting. He has also made clear that the two fighting parties (the Government of Sudan and the SPLM/N rebel group) must grant access to humanitarian assistance in the rebel-held areas. Over two hundred thousand refugees from the two states have already arrived in South Sudan and Ethiopia since the beginning of the fighting in August 2011, indicating the likelihood of a humanitarian crisis affecting thousands of people in these areas. They need food, medicine and clean water yet they cannot be reached. This is unacceptable.

In early August 2012, the signing of a “tri-partite proposal” for humanitarian access to the populations of South Kordofan and Blue Nile between both parties and the African Union, the Arab League and the United Nations had given us hope of progress. But so far, this accord has not been implemented.

The United States is a Member State whose involvement has always been crucial in this particular region, and can play an important role in continuing to press for implementation of this humanitarian proposal as the humanitarian crisis in those two states is very severe.

4) In the Democratic Republic of the Congo the M23 is wreaking havoc and continues to be a destabilizing force. How can the peacekeeping mission in the region effectively address the M23 situation? 

Since the start of the M23 mutiny last April, the situation in the North Kivu province in eastern DR Congo has dramatically worsened. Progress made in combating armed groups over the past years, including by the UN Mission for the Stabilisation of the DR Congo (MONUSCO), are being reversed. As a result of the M23 activities, over 260,000 people in eastern DRC are now displaced. Some 60,000 are refugees in Rwanda and Uganda. The M23 is responsible for numerous human rights violations, including the enrolment of child soldiers and acts of killings and rape. This is totally unacceptable. Equally unacceptable are reports of external support to the M23 which constitutes a clear violation of the sovereignty of the DR Congo.

In response to the situation, MONUSCO has adopted a robust posture in protecting civilians. This is our priority as mandated by the Security Council. The mission has increased patrols in villages and towns of eastern Congo. In Goma, the capital of North Kivu and the major city of the region, our peacekeepers have beefed up their patrols and presence.

MONUSCO and DPKO are also actively supporting the Joint Verification Mechanism set up by International Conference on the Great Lakes (ICGLR). This mechanism monitors the activities on the border between DRC and its neighbours in order to prevent the potential spill-over of the crisis. Our advisers are also working with the ICGLR on the proposal for an international neutral force.

But what is really needed is a political solution to address the crisis. Peacekeeping can work to stabilise security and protect civilians in some areas, but it cannot itself be the solution. This is the main reason why, last September, the Secretary-General convened a High-Level Meeting on the situation in eastern DR Congo. The meeting was attended by President Kabila of the DR Congo and President Kagame of Rwanda, among others. It served as a platform to move forward the political efforts led by the International Conference on the Great Lakes (ICGLR). The Summit also reaffirmed the need to respect the territorial integrity of the DR Congo and the necessity to stop the suffering endures by the people of this country. But there is a long way to go to achieving this comprehensive political solution.

5) During this austere fiscal climate, UN peacekeeping has cut its budget and is considering “right-sizing” of missions. This has led to reducing forces in Liberia, Darfur, and Haiti. Can you explain what these reductions would entail, and how UN peacekeepers can carry out their mandates with a reduction?

I have committed to Member States to reviewing all missions on a periodic basis, at least every two years, so that we ensure that they are configured in the right way to meet the needs on the ground and that we are using our resources efficiently.

Since commencing this process we are seeing, overall, a modest reduction in uniformed personnel.

In Haiti, some progress has been made towards strengthening the country’s democratic and rule of law institutions, as well as in the overall maintenance of security throughout the country, again allowing us to consider a careful and responsible hand-over of responsibility for security from military to formed police units and ultimately to the Haitian National Police. This should translate into a phased withdrawal of approximately 1,000 infantry and engineering personnel from the Mission.

In Liberia, the progress in the consolidation of peace allows us to consider the reduction of UNMIL’s military component by approximately 4,200 troops in three phases between August 2012 and July 2015. During this time UNMIL will support the Government to build national institutions.

In Darfur, the previous large-scale conflict has mostly abated since UNAMID was established in 2008. However, challenges remain, with conflict continuing between Government and opposition forces, increased criminality and banditry, and restlessness among militia formerly supportive of the Government. Progress has also been slow in the implementation of the Doha Document for Peace in Darfur. However, in view of the prevailing and projected security situation, the Security Council endorsed the Secretary-General’s recommendation to right-size the Mission’s military from 19,555 to 16,200 personnel, and that of its police from 3,772 to 2,310 personnel.

Let me highlight Timor-Leste, where we expect the UN peacekeeping presence to withdraw at the end of the year after more than 13 years of peacekeeping and political operations. UNMIT has started a phased drawdown which is expected to lead to the closure of the Mission on 31 December 2012. This is the outcome that we wish for all our Missions.

“Right-sizing” of missions is not so much about the numbers as it is about getting it right in each mission, through constant evaluation of missions and the situations they are operating in. Each mission must be evaluated and resourced based upon its individual merits and needs.

More generally, I would like to say that the Government and the people of the United States are right to expect the best from UN peacekeeping, including continual improvement in management and financial efficiency. Just as governments and citizens around the world have had to tighten their belts since the global financial crisis, we in UN peacekeeping must be vigilant to ensure that we are using the resources made available to us by Member States both effectively and efficiently.

I think it is important that American citizens appreciate that UN peacekeeping is a very versatile tool and also a cost effective one. The resources spent by the international community on UN peacekeeping are but a small fraction of global defense spending.

Despite UN peacekeeping’s relatively low price tag, a credible body of research credits peacekeeping with contributing significantly to the decline in casualties due to civil wars over the last two decades. The investment in peacekeeping has also prevented and alleviated suffering for an untold number of people. Put plainly: peacekeeping works.