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  • Title: [SW News] Nairobi (The Nation) Deaths of UN soldiers signal a rethink of peacekeeping duties
  • From:[]
  • Date :[Friday, May 05, 2000 4:14 PM EST ]

 

"A casual reading of the UN definition of peacekeeping could mislead almost anyone into believing that it is all one big adventure. But "implementing peace agreements, monitoring ceasefires, patrolling demilitarised zones, creating buffer zones between opposing forces, and putting fighting on hold while negotiators seek peaceful solutions to disputes" is not easy."


Deaths signal a rethink of peacekeeping duties

Story Filed: Friday, May 05, 2000 4:14 PM EST

Nairobi (The Nation, May 5, 2000) - Kenya has no border dispute with Sierra Leone. It has no trade conflicts with it, it does not even depend on it for aid, nor is it competing with that West African nation for donor assistance.

It does not have a foreign mission or an ambassador there. But it has 130 of its best-trained soldiers keeping the peace in that country that is at war with itself. A peace shattered not by them, but by local belligerents, funded by international criminals trading in arms and diamonds. Now, seven of the Kenyan peacekeepers are dead, killed in the line of duty.

Keeping peace has become part of Kenya's international brief for some time now. It may be encouraged because our soldiers get first-hand experience of the battlefield, but it is largely seen as a once-in-a-lifetime chance to command a UN-level salary that goes with such assignments. In Kenya's armed forces, being deployed for peacekeeping duties is a perk many soldiers hope for.

The killing of seven Kenyan soldiers in Sierra Leone is, in a way, brings an undesirable sobriety that shatters the romanticism attached to this job. Depending on how the government chooses to play it, the incident is likely to be a watershed in our foreign policy, and could change the perception that our military is permanently on call duty for risky peacekeeping operations.

Kenya has never turned down a peacekeeping request from the UN. Whether the assignment is in Namibia, Angola, Yugoslavia, Croatia or East Timor, our soldiers have been ready and willing at all times to go and guard peace. Only once, when the invitation to go to East Timor came, was there a slight lack of enthusiasm to deploy troops. The consideration, in this case, was that the UN's compensation for using our military hardware in previous such duties had not been made for a long time.

A casual reading of the UN definition of peacekeeping could mislead almost anyone into believing that it is all one big adventure. But "implementing peace agreements, monitoring ceasefires, patrolling demilitarised zones, creating buffer zones between opposing forces, and putting fighting on hold while negotiators seek peaceful solutions to disputes" is not easy." It may seem like a piece of cake for a professional soldier, and ours are good, very good; but people die doing just that.

Their professionalism notwithstanding, peacekeepers are highly trained people. The cost of preparing a peacekeeper is not something mean, even as it beckons UN help.

Kenya suffered its first peacekeeping casualty in Croatia, and then lost three more in that same country. It happened over a stretch of time, and so nobody thought too hard about how risky it really is. But ultimately, it needs to be recognised that we are frequently sending our soldiers on dangerous assignments without assessing our national interest.

It cannot be denied that Kenya has an obligation, as a member of the UN to contribute to peace in the world. It cannot also be denied that peacekeeping is a tempting chance to show just what stuff Kenya's military is made of and thus discourage aggression. But it is very unlikely that wider national interests are served by agreeing to serve in peacekeeping units anywhere and everywhere a conflict needs policing.

The rebels in Sierra Leone cannot have killed the peacekeepers because they confused them with their combatants. UN soldiers wear a distinctive blue beret and badge that cannot be missed. Besides the dead, there are some peacekeepers who are being held hostage as the rebel leader, Vice-President Foday Sankoh, says those killed were tactless!

If we keep emotions aside, and forget for a while that the UN won the Nobel Peace Prize for peacekeeping, it is clear as crystal that the success of such operations depends largely on the consent and cooperation of the opposing parties to lay down arms and live amicably. If they want an environment to negotiate, the UN provides it. In this case, one side has signalled that it does not need such an environment, and would rather fight.

Lightly armed for self-defence and often unarmed, Kenyan soldiers are among peacekeepers who are being impartial in the conflict. They rely on persuasion and minimal use of force to defuse tensions and prevent fighting. Before they were sent out, was there a risk assessment from our military and foreign affairs ministries?

If warring parties are unwilling to seek peaceful solutions, neutral troops are of little use. However, there are no incentives for the belligerents in Sierra Leone to cooperate, except perhaps that they are tired of war and the senselessness of it. The UN intervention alone can only be used for creating an environment in which it is easier for the factions to go on fighting and forget about negotiating for peace.

War weariness, crushing economic hardship, and conclusive battlefield defeats are admittedly brutal, but they are also key factors in compelling warring opponents to sue for peace. Entrenched belligerents will not stop fighting until peace presents a better option for their people than war.

In large part, peacekeeping operations sometimes only serve as an apology for not dealing with the root cause of a conflict. In Sierra Leone now, voices are rising that Foday sankoh should be declared a war criminal and tried. Under the Lome Agreement, signed last year, he is the Vice-President. The chorus may be maddening the rebels, who probably realise now that the blanket amnesty for war criminals will soon wear out.

The UN does not force peace down anybody's throat. Its peacekeeping operation is only mandated to do humanitarian work in conflict areas. The UN does not have the resources to create or shape an environment in which its forces are a prime determinant of success. Luck is all they can fall back on.

Closer home, in Somalia - where wearing factions are seriously disinterested in making a political accommodation and rebuilding their ruined society - the UN does not have a force. And yet, the insecurity in Somalia has a direct effect on Kenya's security and economy. The option of Kenya ending participation in UN peacekeeping may seem morally repugnant, but sometimes, non-intervention can be a way of dealing with conflicts that do not concern you.

There will be time for grieving this loss. The well of tears among family and friends can never run dry, and unreasonable as this may sound, the many who knew the dead soldiers will be wondering why this ultimate sacrifice had to be made in a distant land, for a war they can hardly comprehend.

When our envoys get to the UN headquarters, they will probably snore from the jet-lag. New York is a long way from here, and we have a bullet factory in the interior. But it need not be like that, the rebels in Sierra Leone and the elected government of President Tijan Kabbah should know that peacekeepers are not in Sierra Leone to fight them. They are there to help them reach a settlement.

The Kenya government should make a bold foreign policy step that could, perhaps, shape the future of peace keeping. We do not want our soldiers dead, at least not when keeping peace, and the time to make that statement is now.

Copyright 2000 The Nation. Distributed via Africa News Online.

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