How aid can abet a war: The role of UN peace-keepers is dangerously undefined, writes Francoise Bouchet-Saulnier

Click to follow
The Independent Online
SINCE the Kurdish crisis in 1991, humanitarian aid workers have increasingly found themselves in the uneasy company of a new breed of peace-keepers: armed forces deployed under the United Nations flag, not to monitor a ceasefire as in Cold War times, but to protect relief operations in a war zone. This combination of military might and charity might initially have sounded an attractive proposition, but humanitarian organisations soon discovered that it fostered only ambiguity and compromise.

Peace-keeping is not a recent invention. Now that UN troops are deployed in areas of open conflict, however, their mandate has become practically untenable. The difficulty of keeping the peace in the midst of war, a contradiction in terms, has meant that the UN's humanitarian operations have progressively breached humanitarian law and that UN troops increasingly violate the rules of war.

Humanitarian action, as defined in the Geneva Conventions, seeks to minimise the strategic value of aid to the victims of war so that aid workers will be tolerated in the midst of fighting. Peace-keeping and peace-making, by contrast, require the skilful juggling of dialogue and the use of force - be it deterrent or offensive. The UN's attempts to reconcile these contradictory mandates have worked to the detriment of both.

Nowhere has the full absurdity of this new armed humanitarianism become more apparent than in the former Yugoslavia, where international intervention derives its authority not from the use of force - which was ruled out from the beginning - but from the quality of its humanitarian intentions. Since UN troops are not fully authorised to use force, the only commodity that can be bartered is humanitarian aid.

The result is that the UN pays a price for all aid delivered. That price may be corruption, further displacement of civilians, even impunity for war criminals. Sometimes it is hard to say whether the soldiers are protecting the aid workers or the other way round. Since the deployment of UN troops in former Yugoslavia, every decision on aid has been carefully weighed against the possible implications for the safety of the international troops.

The UN's failure to recognise that international humanitarian law takes precedence over the vagaries of peace-keeping has had tragic consequences. The UN troops have at times turned back refugees seeking protection in UN-controlled areas, because of political agreements made with the warring parties. The Geneva Conventions say that prisoners should be freed unilaterally and unconditionally. In former Yugoslavia, no prisoners were freed through the good offices of the International Committee of the Red Cross for more than a year: other international organisations were full of 'humanitarian' brokers who were prepared to organise the exchange of, for instance, prisoners of war against civilian hostages. With this shameless bartering of political and military favours, UN operations have seriously eroded the fundamental principles of humanitarian law. In effect, the UN has helped to undermine the ability of independent organisations to work 'for free'.

The UN is frequently required to juggle humanitarian operations against political and military negotiations. It is not difficult to see which of those mandates has taken priority in the handling of war-crimes cases. When the UN Human Rights Commission identified the guilty parties in the Yugoslav conflict, the Security Council rushed to set up a new body to investigate whether the fact of these crimes could be substantiated. The tacit rule of political negotiations with war criminals means they are more than likely to escape punishment.

The chief strength of the Geneva Conventions lies in the protection they afford to non-combatants: civilians and civilian installations may not be attacked. The UN's revival as a military-cum-humanitarian institution, however, can only be described as a legal fraud. The UN resolutions that were welcomed as pillars of a 'new humanitarianism' - the setting up of safe havens in Kurdistan, the protection of aid operations in former Yugoslavia and Somalia - focus only on the protection of aid convoys. None of them mentions the protection of civilians. The providers of aid seem to deserve more protection than the people they are supposed to rescue.

That humanitarian principles have been sidelined in the course of UN peacekeeping should come as no surprise, given the UN system's complete lack of military accountability under humanitarian law. Since the Military Staff Committee provided for in the UN Charter has never been set up, command of UN operations in the field always reflects a compromise between national contingents, each with its own interpretation of the mandate. Unlike a national army, the UN has no common code of military discipline, no military police with responsibility for investigating abuses by military personnel, no authority to punish the guilty or compensate the victims. Self-criticism goes no further than expressions of regret at abuses committed by some less well-organised contingent.

The root of the problem is that the UN has not subordinated its peace-keeping operations to international humanitarian law. Blue Helmets go on the military offensive without formal recognition as fully-fledged combatants subject to the laws of war - laws that impose strict limits on the use of force, irrespective of the cause at stake and the conduct of the enemy.

The consequences on the ground are disastrous. In Somalia the UN attacks civilian districts and relief compounds without early warnings or prior evacuation. UN troops prevent civilians from reaching hospitals during fighting and prevent aid workers from bringing relief to the wounded. In Liberia, aid convoys have been attacked by the regional peace-keeping force of the Economic Community of West African States, which is vested with the authority of the UN Security Council.

To say that international policing operations are in a dangerous state of flux is a genteel understatement. It is imperative that the UN strengthen the legality of its peace- keeping operations by anchoring them in the Geneva Conventions, which almost all states have ratified but too rarely uphold. International law will not solve all the UN's military and humanitarian problems, but it would help the UN to recover much of its lost sense of purpose.

The real scandal, however, is that the international community - and thus the United Nations - has so far failed to define clearly what constitutes a threat to peace and international security so grave as to justify armed intervention. The Bosnian crisis demonstrates that massive violations of humanitarian law are seen as threats to nobody except the Bosnian victims.

The author is head of legal affairs at Medecins Sans Frontieres. This article is based on her contribution to 'Life, Death and Aid, The Medecins Sans Frontieres Report On World Crisis Intervention', published today by Routledge, price pounds 9.99.

(Photograph omitted)