UN Keeping the Peace in Ivory Coast

Ed Note: This is a special guest post from Peter Yeo Director of the Better World Campaign and Vice President for Public Policy at the United Nations Foundation. (Disclosure).

By Peter Yeo

In the Ivory Coast today, what is standing between a mere political crisis and full-scale civil war are about 9,000 lightly armed UN Peacekeepers. Since the outbreak of violence in mid-December, these peacekeepers have played an indispensible role protecting the rightful winner of a presidential election and reinforcing this fragile nation’s democracy.

United Nations observers certified Alasanne Outtara the winner of a November 28 presidential election. The incumbent, Laurent Gbagbo, has refused to step down.  Though lacking international support, Mr. Gbagbo controls Ivory Coast’s armed forces and has shown a willingness to unleash them in a stubborn effort to hold onto power.

The UN estimates that at least 210 people have been killed in violence. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have warned about several “disappearances” and there are persistent rumors of mass graves.  After calls from Mr. Gbagbo for the UN’s eviction from Ivory Coast, there were numerous attacks on peacekeepers themselves.

Amid the violence, Mr. Ouattara and his government have been forced to find refuge in a hotel in the city of Abidjan.   About 800 UN peacekeepers are standing guard around the hotel and have so far prevented an all out assault on the legitimately recognized President.  The peacekeeping force, known as UNOCI, has also stymied Mr. Gbagbo’s attempts to flush out Mr. Ouattara by bringing food, water, and medicine to the hotel by airlift and armored vehicle.

The peacekeeping mission is backed by a united international community.  The United Nations, Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), and the African Union, with strong leadership from the United States, are solidly behind Mr. Ouattara.

That Mr. Gbagbo would want the swift departure of UN peacekeepers from Ivory Coast is hardly surprising.  UN Peacekeeping has been largely responsible for a regional transformation from conflict to democracy in Ivory Coast’s neighbors.  UN peacekeepers were first dispatched to Sierra Leone in 1999. Ten years later, Sierra Leone is among the most stable democracies in western Africa.  Similarly, peacekeepers are helping set the conditions for lasting peace in Liberia, which elected Africa’s first female head of state in 2006.

UN peacekeeping is a bargain for the United States.  There are over 100,000 peacekeepers deployed to 14 hotspots around the world. In countries like Sudan, Lebanon and Haiti, the United States has a stake in its stability, but is unwilling or unable to send its own troops.  For these efforts, the United States picks up less than one third of the tab, with the rest of the world covering the difference.  In all, the United States spent about $2 billion on UN peacekeeping last year. In comparison, the United States spends about three times as much per month in Afghanistan.

For this investment, the United States reaps the benefit of having foreign troops serve global interests and promote American values like protecting human rights, keeping a lid on volatile situations — and in the case of Ivory Coast, standing on the front line to defend a fragile democracy.

The Ivory Coast is in a precarious situation; the UN has limited resources and personnel.  In the coming days, the United Nations will hold strong to prevent the descent to violence in the Ivory Coast.