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UNpopular – Public Resistance to UN Peace Missions

MINUSTAH peacekeepers fire tear gas to disperse demonstrators in Port-au-Prince, courtesy of UN Photo/Logan Abassi

Most UN peace missions established during or after conflict need the permission of the host country in order to deploy international troops. Once deployed, UN operations come to play a formative role in helping to re-build the state apparatus. They operate by, among others, establishing the rule of law, providing security, jump-starting economic development programs, and helping the host government build its capacity to form functioning state institutions.

However, government consent does not necessarily translate into popular support for such a strong foreign presence, which can be seen by local populations as too intrusive and pugnacious. A recent wave of popular backlash against UN missions has brought into question the universality of the UN’s internationalist norms and practices.

In Sri Lanka, following the government’s defeat of the Tamil Tigers’ 25-year armed campaign for an independent Tamil state, Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon appointed a three-member panel to advise him on allegations of human rights violations that allegedly occurred during the protracted conflict. Resistant, a Sri Lanka government cabinet minister, Wimal Weerawansa, calling on Ban Ki-Moon to dissolve the panel, is leading hundreds of Sri Lankans in protest outside the UN office in Colombo, blocking access to the UN offices as well as harassing and intimidating officials.

Similarly, both the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) and the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) have experienced regular confrontations with local communities since their respective deployments. In Haiti, large-scale popular protests continually call for the UN to withdraw MINUSTAH, which many Haitians see as a violent foreign occupation force. Likewise, in Lebanon, small-scale clashes — pelting rocks, seizing weapons and even injuring UN peacekeepers — between villagers in the southern Lebanese border with Israel and UN peacekeepers have become a common occurrence; like in Haiti, they see the UN force as intrusive, violent and politically biased.

Is such popular resistance an indication of the need to shift the UN’s normative and operational approach to peacekeeping and peace-building at the grassroots level?

Rather than dealing solely with political elites, UN personnel on the ground should seek to increase the level of dialogue, interaction, and cooperation with ordinary citizens  in order to also address their needs and interests.

More talk and fewer guns might just be the key secure the warm welcome the UN must be desperately looking for.

5 Responses to “UNpopular – Public Resistance to UN Peace Missions”

  1. Nice Piece! I just disagree with the last paragraph “UN personnel on the ground should seek to increase the level of dialogue, interaction, and cooperation with ordinary citizens in order to also address their needs and interests.”
    This is the job of the nation state in which the peacekeepers are stationed. The UN should not overtake the responsibility of the state, otherwise the state might lose the (few) legitimacy remaining and “post-UN-peacekeepers” time will be even harder to manage.

  2. Dear Jonas,

    Thank you for your comment; it is well taken. I agree that the host government should, as the responsible state, provide the necessary services to its population. However, in situations where the UN comes to play an authoritative and executive role, such as in post-conflict states not yet capable of carrying out all its responsibilities, the organization is endowed with certain responsibilities. Encouraging good governance and setting a viable basis for the burgeoning state to build upon is crucial to a successful transition from short-term peacekeeping to long-term peacebuilding (with or without UN presence).

    UN peacekeepers, both military and civilian, should establish a relationship of trust and dialogue with local populations, not only because they are their “clients,” but because it could help foster a vibrant civil society willing to actively participate in the peacebuiliding process. How often do we hear stories from the field, in which civilians complain that UN peacekeepers, more often than not, hide in their barracks, behind large concrete walls, rather than reaching out to the people they are there to protect? This is, of course, not the case everywhere, but where it is, it should be addressed.

    Furthermore, to conclude, I would like to ask you: if the international community becomes involved in state-building, who is supposed to provide basic goods and services to the population until said state is fully capable and operational?

    Thank you,
    Albert S. Mulli

  3. I do not agree with “Jonas” who differed with the last paragraph of the article. That sentence says the most important thing to do by UN. Unless you increase the level of dialogue with the citizens around you cannot get their cooperation to give what they need. So dialogue with the ordinary citizens is essential.

  4. More talk and fewer guns is what the UN is all about. And a major criticism of the institution. Political conflicts need political solutions. Clausewitz’s dictum that war is politics by other means applies here. What you are proposing is a counter-insurgency (COIN) strategy for the UN’s peacekeeping missions. In COIN the goal is to win the hearts and minds. The terrain to be won is the population. This is at odds with the UN’s mandate in these places. Good governance and a state that delivers to its people should not be the goals of UN peacekeeping missions. To expand peacekeeping goals is to ensure their failure.

    Peacekeeping should preserve the status quo after conflicts have been mediated and grievances redressed. Such political settlements should be facilitated by the UN. For an organization seeking wider legitimacy with domestic society, clear and obtainable goals should be the norm – not more “dialogue, interaction, and cooperation with ordinary citizens in order to also address their needs and interests.” That’s a job best left to the state and domestic civil society. The root cause of failed states is not lack of security or good governance but the tempestuous challenges of establishing formal power. And history teaches us that a long-term solution to such challenges must come from the people.

  5. Dear Mr. Klaus,

    Thank you for your comments. Please let me address some of your points. General McChrystal’s COIN strategy is nowhere near what I am advocating here. The UN shouldn’t HAVE to win the hearts and minds of the local population because as a neutral, impartial and government-approved force, a peacekeeping mission is meant to serve the people, not convince them that they are the “good guys.” Now, if you do not think that good governance and security can act towards creating stability and help structure a weak and fragile post-conflict government, then perhaps you must take this up with the entire peacebuilding establishment. The UN’s entire peacekeeping and peacebuilding doctrine today is based on this premise; rule of law and security are crucial for development and peace, or so the UN believes.

    My article simply meant to underline that when UN-backed troops are on the ground to protect the population by ensuring public safety (through the rule of law and the monitoring of human rights), they cannot and should not be isolationist, paternalistic and aggressive towards local inhabitants. Before a functioning government is actually created, UN peacekeepers are the only providers of security. Therefore, how can they, as providers of a temporary public service, ignore or even directly oppose the concerns of those they are there to serve? That is my question.

    Thank you,
    Albert S. Mulli