UN Peacekeeping in Somalia: No, Still Not A Good Idea

To the persistent question of sending a UN peacekeeping mission to Somalia, the Secretary-General very prudently still says something along the lines of: “Not such a good idea right now.”

The deployment of a United Nations peacekeeping operation directly, at this stage, would be a high-risk option…Given the divergent views among the main Somali political players…such an operation could trigger opposition from substantial elements of Somali society opposed to international military intervention. It is highly likely that those opposed to the peace process would portray the mission as a new enemy, which would consequently add momentum to the insurgency and detract from the political process. This could result in attacks against peacekeepers, and in efforts to draw the United Nations force into the conflict. Equally important, the deployment of a United Nations peacekeeping operation would undermine the efforts of the new Government to continue its national reconciliation efforts. [emphasis mine]

Ban hits on all the right points here. The extremist Somali groups bent on undermining the country’s fledgling government would benefit from nothing more than an infusion of “foreign troops.” These groups have no short record, let’s remember, of attacking UNcompounds and personnel, and the blue helmets would be a bright new target for them.

As dangerous as such a mission would be for the peacekeepers, it would ultimately prove even more deleterious for Somalis. Increased violence, particularly of the indiscriminate kind, will only cause more suffering and displacement for civilians. And the country’s Transitional Federal Government is not exactly in a position to weather significant setbacks. If it falls, then one of Somalia’s best (but still faint) hopes for peace will dwindle.

For now, the best option in terms of peacekeeping is to do what the EU just did, and significantly bolster international commitments to the under-staffed and under-supplied African Union force currently operating in Somalia. The AU has already suffered numerous incidents of violence, and would be deeply unfair for UN Member States to ask it to hold the place of a UN mission without equipping it to do the job.  The hypocrisy would be particularly acute because no Member State has volunteered to provide troops to a hypothetical UN mission in Somalia; when the Department of Peacekeeping Operations sent requests to 60 countries, only ten responded — all with a curt “no, thanks.”

The UN’s role for now, at least until the political and security situation in Somalia stabilizes somewhat will need to have, in Ban’s words, a “light footprint,” focusing on political reconciliation, good governance, and institution-building efforts. UN humanitarian operations — helping some 3.2 million people in need of aid — will continue, of course, but these too require a level of security that the Somali government is simply unable to provide right now.