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UN peacekeepers 'at breaking point'

Steve Bloomfield,Africa Correspondent
Monday 28 July 2008 00:00 BST

United Nations peacekeeping forces are over-stretched, under-funded, and increasingly unable to protect the people they have been sent to help, a senior official has warned.

And as UN operations, particularly in Africa, become ever more stretched, those sent to protect some of the world's most vulnerable people are increasingly preoccupied with safeguarding themselves.

In the past few days, Sudan's government has said that it cannot protect the UN and African Union force operating in Darfur (Unamid) following the genocide indictment laid against its President, Omar al-Bashir.

That was followed by a warning from the new hardline leader of Somalia's Islamists, Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, who threatened to attack UN peacekeepers if the Security Council agrees to a request from the Somali government to deploy up to 27,000 military personnel in the war-ravaged country. A threadbare AU force in Somalia faces attacks almost every time it ventures out of its compound.

The threats came as the UN's outgoing head of peacekeeping, Jean-Marie Guéhenno, warned that the world body is reaching the "outer limit" of its peacekeeping capacity.

In the eight years thatM. Guéhenno has been in office, the number of peacekeepers deployed has trebled; 90,000 are deployed in 17 missions, eight of which are in Africa. Critics argue that the Security Council appears to have little problem sanctioning peacekeeping missions but finds it difficult to stump up the resources to carry out their mandate.

Almost one year after the Security Council called for the deployment of 26,000 personnel in Darfur, there are still no more than 10,000 on the ground – most are part of the African Union force that the UN replaced.

The decisions on sending troops are taken by the five permanent members of the Security Council but most of the fighting is done by troops from developing nations. One third of all peacekeepers come from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. China and France provide fewer than 2,000 each, while the United States and Britain, which have other military commitments, tend to supply a handful of senior officials.

As the number of missions, and troops, has increased, so, too, has the cost. UN peacekeeping missions now cost about £3.7bn a year – with the missions in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Darfur taking almost half the budget, and officials on the ground there regularly complain that they do no have enough funding to carry out their mission. Any mission in Somalia would be similarly expensive.

Western leaders had hoped that the African Union, launched in 2002, would begin to take control of peacekeeping missions on the continent. But its first two missions – to Darfur and Somalia – have not been successes. In Darfur, the UN stepped in to form a joint UN/AU force. In Somalia, the fragile government wants UN peacekeepers to replace the AU mission.

Sending peacekeeping missions when there is no peace to keep, as has happened in Darfur and could happen in Somalia, is a "risky business", said Jan Eliasson, who was until recently leading the Darfur peace talks. "There are physical dangers," he said. Unamid has already suffered nine losses this year. Peacekeepers have been criticised for not doing enough to protect civilians, but UN officials argue that the mandates which the Security Council grants often do not allow peacekeepers to offer that protection. Nowhere was this more evident than in Abyei, in central Sudan, which was razed in May while 200 peacekeepers remained in their base.

The US envoy to Sudan accused them of failing to protect civilians. UN officials have admitted that lessons have been learned from the incident but dispute the notion that their troops could have stopped the violence. "In a crowded marketplace, you can't shoot back without the risk of killing civilians," said Chris Johnson, the head of Unmis, the body monitoring Sudan's civil war ceasefire, in Abyei. "Sometimes, people want there to be an easy answer. But there isn't."

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