By RJ Marco Lorenzo C. Parcon*
“Aquino slams ‘mission impossible’ for Filipino peacekeepers in Golan Heights” – this news headline reflects the growing volatility of the areas where peacekeepers operate and points to the necessity of instigating clear and robust peacekeeping mandates. One of the three principles in the practice of peacekeeping is the non-use of force except in self-defense. However, even with the growing complexities of the problems faced by peacekeepers, the use of force is a difficult and politically sensitive issue. It has been pointed out that hostile environments make it difficult to guarantee the safety and respect for peacekeepers, as in the case of the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) and the UN Disengagement Observer Force in the Golan Heights (UNDOF).
Hostile environment, self-defense and the use of force
MINUSMA operates in a volatile and vulnerable location. Although ceasefire agreements were signed between the government and the separatists groups, notably the Ouagadougou Preliminary Agreement and the ceasefire agreement signed last 23 May 2014, Mali still needs to address recurring crises and challenges, especially in terms of governance, security, development, and humanitarian aid. These challenges not only greatly affect the safety and security of the country, but also have great impact on the peacekeepers’ duties and mandate. The latest assault last 8 March 2015 on the peacekeepers in northern Mali injured 11 peacekeepers and three civilians, and resulted in the death of two Malian children and one Chadian peacekeeper. This attack came a day after a similar incident took place in Bamako, Mali which also resulted in five civilian fatalities and seven injuries.
The abovementioned case does not only question the effectiveness and respect of the parties to the agreed ceasefire terms, but also highlights the defense mechanisms available to the peacekeepers. A 2011 Briefing Paper of the Institute for Democracy and Conflict Resolution noted that it is often unclear when peacekeepers can “use force” and the level of force that peacekeepers can legally use. It must be noted that previous peacekeeping operations may have had great impact on defining “self-defense” and the use of force. The UN Operation in Congo (ONUC) for instance initiated this change as the increased violations of parties involved led the Security Council to authorize ONUC to take all appropriate measures, including the use of force, to prevent the occurrence of a civil war in Congo. Another notable peacekeeping operation that changed prior definitions of the use of force is the United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus, as it was given authority to use force against attempts to prevent them from carrying out their mandate.
On the other hand, the UN Mission in South Sudan‘s (UNMISS) mandate shifted from peace consolidation to protection of civilians, human rights monitoring, delivery of humanitarian assistance, and the implementation of the cessation agreement through Resolution 2155 (S/Res/2155). Two of the most important actions authorized by the Council are in the fourth and eighth operative clause, noting that the Mission will have a higher military component and a lower level of civilian participation.
Experts also observed the problem of combining “peace enforcement” and peacekeeping in one operation as this will bring considerable military and political risks, as in the case of the Somali Peacekeeping Operation from 1992 to 1994. The combination of enforcement and peacekeeping gives rise to uncertainties regarding the capability of the UN to carry out the mission, including whether enforcement can increase the legitimacy of the operation and preserve its impartiality. Further complicating the issue is when missions are situated in areas where political institutions have collapsed and the danger of confrontation between UN forces and parties involved is likely. If a mission’s authorization is categorized under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, the rules of engagement must be observed, and must be robust and consistent as variation in engagement procedures can undermine the mission and other peace operations.
Philippines and Peace Operations
Last August 2014 UNDOF peacekeepers faced a predicament as 43 Fijian peacekeepers were taken as hostages by Al-Nusra Front rebels, an Al Qaeda affiliate. Thereafter, 72 Filipino peacekeepers were engaged in a seven-hour standoff with Syrian rebels, and thus their movements were restrained. The high level of tension around Golan Heights again puts into question not only the sincerity of the parties involved in respecting the ceasefire and other agreements in place, but also the employable defense and strategies that peacekeepers can utilize, especially when the mandate of the mission is solely focused on peacekeeping, ceasefire maintenance, and peaceful settlement of disputes. Security Council Resolution 350, the UN resolution that established UNDOF, outlined the mandate of the mission, but not the possible operational remedies to hostile situations.
Although the mission in Golan Heights is considered to be generally peaceful, there is a notable increase in hostilities even prior to the hostage situation in 2014, and this has been underlined in the UN Security Council Resolution 2163 (S/Res/2163) that renewed the mandate of UNDOF, noting that the situation in the entire Middle East is highly volatile.
Given this development, various groups called for a semi-military operation or an operation with an enforcement mechanism rather than a mission that solely focuses on peacekeeping, as these missions tend to have lower defense options especially in terms of self-defense and defense of the mandate. Moreover, Resolution 2163 does not clearly identify the defense mechanisms that peacekeepers can utilize.
Philippine troops can truly benefit from peacekeeping operations as it will enable them to enhance their professional capabilities on several fronts. But the country will not disregard the safety of its troops. Thus, it is of prime importance for peacekeeping missions to provide a clear and achievable mandate, and to ensure that peacekeepers are protected. A more comprehensive approach in terms of dealing with the issue, especially with regard to the rule of law, principles of engagement, and the safety and security of peacekeepers, is also necessary.
Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary, Albert Del Rosario has stated during the 69th Session of the General Assembly’s High Level General Debate last 29 September 2014 that, “outstanding operational and tactical issues relating to United Nations peacekeeping must be resolved at the highest levels as soon as possible.”
The UN peace operation efforts have had its fair share of successes and failures. Still, the UN is regarded as one of the few international actors capable of peacekeeping, being an organization that has a reputation for neutrality and impartiality – and a neutral third party is an important asset.
It is essential for relevant international and national agencies to continue to discuss issues that affect peacekeeping and to further develop a comprehensive plan for peacekeepers. Dialogues must also take into consideration the firsthand experiences of peacekeepers so that relevant institutions can make suitable recommendations and plans-of-action.
Ultimately, the international community must answer relevant questions, especially with regard to the current landscape that peacekeepers operate in and to further enhance their safety and security. Enhancing peace and stability is of paramount importance, but so is the safety and security of peacekeepers.
*RJ Marco Lorenzo C. Parcon is a Foreign Affairs Research Specialist with the Center for International Relations and Strategic Studies of the Foreign Service Institute. Mr. Parcon can be reached at [email protected]
The views expressed in this publication are of the authors’ alone and do not reflect the official position of the Foreign Service Institute, the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Government of the Philippines.