Over the past decade, as crises in the Sudan and Congo have succeeded massacres in Rwanda and the Balkans, there has been a growing demand that United Nations peacekeepers, or those operating under their remit, prove more robust in enforcing ceasefires. Now the French in Ivory Coast have done exactly that, responding to an aerial bombardment by the Ivory Coast government on rebel centres, which killed nine French soldiers, by seizing the government airport and wiping out its entire military air fleet. The result has been riots in the street against Europeans, government accusations that the French, far from being neutral, are favouring the rebels, and a resort by the French to the UN Security Council demanding sanctions against the government of President Laurent Gbagbo.
One can have sympathy with the French on this occasion. In the past five years Paris has tried to disentangle itself from this country as it has from other of its African possessions. It has worked hard to broker a workable peace between the government and largely Muslim rebels, achieving a deal in January of last year backed by the UN.
In reality the peace has never been more than an uneasy truce kept by more than 6,000 UN forces and 5,000 French troops under UN command. When the rebels failed to keep the October deadline for disarmament, the Government launched a series of attacks aimed at taking their strongholds. The French, held back by UN orders, declined to intervene until their own troops were caught in the crossfire.
It's not a happy situation, and one which may be impossible to bring to a comfortable solution. But France is surely right to show muscle in the face of such obvious breaches of the peace and the UN should now fully back it if it is not to end up, as it has so often before, with its role as peacekeeper fatally weakened. Longer term, however, there must be a question whether it is right for the organisation to depend as heavily as it does on former colonial powers to provide the military muscle for its peacekeeping operations. The UN needs its own professional forces and, until it gets them, the confusions apparent in Ivory Coast are bound to keep recurring.
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