‘Peacekeepers Without a Peace to Keep’

In his Week in Review piece yesterday, New York Times reporter Jeffrey Gettleman gets to the heart of the peacekeeping dilemma in Darfur.

The problem with Darfur is that it is not a Kosovo, an East Timor, or a Cyprus, all places where United Nations blue helmets have stepped between well-defined warring parties and stopped the bloodshed. Darfur is experiencing a different, messier kind of war.

Though often simplified, the situation in Darfur has become a chaotic free-for-all with many warring pieces, Arab versus Arab, rebel versus rebel, bandit versus bandit, all fighting one another in a desiccated, burned-out wasteland overrun with weapons and increasingly lethal for aid workers and peacekeepers.

If anything, Darfur resembles Somalia in the 1990s, when the failure of American-backed United Nations peacekeepers to subdue teenage gunmen in flip-flops ushered in 16 years of chaos that rages on today.

Also, unlike East Timor, Kosovo, and Cyprus, (and Sierra Leone and Liberia) Darfur has no powerful western backer willing to lead an intervention when things get completely chaotic. East Timor had Australia, Kosovo had NATO, Sierra Leone had the UK, and Liberia had the United States to bolster the peace with direct intervention at critical moments. No similar dynamic exists for Darfur. (To make matters worse, not only are developed countries not taking the lead, but they are being frustratingly slow in send the heavy equipment like helicopters and other ‘force multipliers’ needed to deploy the mission.)

Even if the mission does get off the ground, with no peace to keep what should UNAMID actually do? John Prendergast has some thoughts:

“Let’s say a village has been attacked and the attackers are retreating,” he said. “If there’s good intelligence about who did this, then it’s very important for the peacekeepers to engage them, whoever they are — rebels, militias, the government — so they and other groups know there is a cost to their actions.”

The peacekeepers, he said, can’t forget their core mission — protecting people. “For example, they need to go on firewood patrols and protect the women collecting wood from getting raped,” he said. “No, this isn’t going to end the conflict. But it could at least end one of the most horrific subplots of this saga.”

Well said.