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.