India's Contribution To United Nations Peacekeeping Operations & Continued Participation

There is so much the international community can do to ensure the maintenance of international peace and security, and there is no way it can absolve itself of that responsibility.

India's Contribution To United Nations Peacekeeping Operations & Continued Participation

In following the news this morning (22 Feb 2023)  I was particularly pleased to note that at a meeting of a Special Committee on UN peacekeeping of the UN General Assembly yesterday (21 February 2023), our Permanent Representative found it appropriate to suggest the winding up of 'age-old' peacekeeping missions (a couple of them were set up over 70 years ago), and stress the imperative need to evolve exit strategies for many of the others in place. A point that practitioners like me have been making over the years, but without drawing any response. An extract on the subject from one of the many papers I have written over the years on UN peacekeeping, but to little avail, is as follows - 'Absence of Exit Strategies.'

As things stand, it would seem that once a UN peacekeeping mission is set up, it carries on into eternity. This, from the point of view of practitioners with whom one has had occasion to inter-act, is largely due to the vested interests of the various players in the political arena, within the UN system and in mission area. Other than the military, and possibly the civilian police, who have fixed tenures of six months to one year, others have little motivation to see the termination of the mission. They would be out of a job! This applies to much of the international UN staff as well as to locally employed staff. Equally, local leadership of at least some of the parties to the conflict, are dependent on the continued presence of the UN to sustain the patronage they can provide to ostensibly boost the economy as well as to ensure retention of their status. Some regional and even global players need the UN in place to deflect adverse criticism of their inadequacies, or for manipulations of the local situation in pursuance of their own interests.

India’s spontaneous and unreserved participation in United Nations peacekeeping operations over the years, has demonstrated clearly India’s commitment to the objectives set out in the United Nations Charter. Not in terms of rhetoric and symbolism, but in real and practical terms, even to the extent of accepting casualties to personnel. This commitment has been acknowledged by the international community, successive Secretaries General and the United Nations Secretariat. But even more significantly, the effectiveness of such participation and commitment to United Nations peacekeeping efforts has drawn respect and praise from fellow military-men of other countries and many others that have served jointly with our commanders, observers and contingents, in various parts of the world. Hence, the image of the Indian Armed Forces and Police in the international arena is that of highly competent and well-trained professionals.

It is important to emphasise that much of our participation in United Nations peacekeeping operations relates to national security interests. Participation in the Korean and Cambodian operations demonstrated our stake in the stability of East and South East Asia. Our vital interests in West Asia, both in terms of energy requirements and our historical connections, were more than adequately reflected in participation in the United Nations peacekeeping operations undertaken in the Gaza Strip and Sinai, Iran/Iraq, Iraq/Kuwait, Lebanon and Yemen. Our geo-strategic interests in the stability and well-being of the newly emerged states of Africa, has been demonstrated by our contributions and participation in the operations in the Congo, Namibia, Mozambique, Angola, Somalia, Liberia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Ethiopia/Eritrea. India has the unique distinction of having participated in every UN peacekeeping operation in Africa to date.
As we look forward into the 21st Century, there are many of us in India, as also in the international arena, who perceive a more dynamic and significant role for India in the field of international relations, including the maintenance of international peace and security. This obviously means a greater role in the various organs of the United Nations, possibly even as a permanent member of the Security Council. If we are to fulfil such a role with any degree of credibility, it is inescapable that we not only accept the responsibilities that go with such a perceived role, but offer our acknowledged expertise in areas of United Nations activity like peacekeeping. We must exploit our undeniable experience and professionalism in this field, and put it to good use in the maintenance of international peace and security.

In preparing ourselves for such continued participation in United Nations peacekeeping operations in the future, it would be appropriate to take stock of the changes that have taken place in the environment in which such operations are being increasingly mounted in recent years, and the manner in which they are being executed. The end of the Cold War and the euphoria generated by the success of the Gulf War in 1991, resulted in the international community (particularly the dominant Western powers), assuming a greater role in the maintenance of international peace and security. There was therefore a greater demand for United Nations peacekeeping operations. The perceived setbacks suffered by the Organisation in its efforts in Somalia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, and inadequacy of response to the situation in Rwanda were not attributable to any deficiency in the performance of peacekeepers. They were occasioned by the confused mandates issued by the Security Council and the lack of political backstopping. Even so, they induced a sense of retrenchment. There is therefore a more measured approach to the subject of UN peacekeeping.

It is important that we take into account the radical changes in the nature of the peacekeeping commitment. United Nations peacekeepers are increasingly being sent to regions where civil-war type situations prevail; where there are no agreements, or if there are, these are rather tenuous, or broken without compunction; where the consent or cooperation of the belligerent parties cannot be relied upon; where constitutional authority does not exist in many cases, or if it does, it has limited authority. In such situations, today’s peacekeepers are not only required to keep the warring parties apart to the extent they can, but are increasingly called upon to safeguard humanitarian relief operations, monitor human rights violations, assist in mine clearance, monitor state boundaries or borders, provide civilian police support, assist in rebuilding logistics infra-structure like roads, railways, bridges, and to support electoral processes. In much of this the Indian Army has practical experience based on the conduct of counter insurgency operations in North East India (Nagaland, Mizoram, Tripura, Manipur and Assam), Jammu and Kashmir (since 1989), and the Punjab; thus providing our forces with a marked advantage over most other forces from other parts of the world. This was more than amply demonstrated by the performance of our contingents in Cambodia, Somalia, Mozambique, Angola, Rwanda and Sierra Leone. And continues to be demonstrated by the military personnel and civilian police deployed in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, South Sudan, Lebanon, and the Golan Heights; as also by military observers and civilian police in other missions as in Liberia, Haiti, Cyprus, Western Sahara, etc.

There is a perception among the troop contributor countries of the developing world to United Nations peacekeeping, that there is reluctance in the militaries of the developed world to participate in United Nations peacekeeping missions on grounds of possible casualties to personnel. This is a perception that needs to be removed if the credibility of United Nations peacekeeping is to be sustained. I have had the great honour and privilege of commanding military personnel from 34 countries of the world (as also a large number of civilian police and international and local civilian staff). The ground experience is that no self-respecting soldier, sailor or airman generally has any reservations whatsoever about participating in a peacekeeping operation. Provided the mandate is clear and achievable; adequate resources are provided; and he or she is assured that it has the political backing and support of the international community. The very purpose of deputing military personnel into a mission area is that there is an element of danger. Which, because of their training and conditioning, they are reasonably well equipped to handle. If there was no danger, there is no reason why a group of unarmed civilians cannot undertake the task. Having stated that however, it needs to be emphasised that because the military as a well disciplined force, undertakes an allotted mission without questioning the political merits and demerits, a greater responsibility devolves on those who confer the mandate and send the military into a mission area. The problems really arise with the political authorities in the developed world, obsessed as they are with the need to respond to their electoral constituencies.

United Nations peace operations are a most useful area for effective and increased military to military co-operation, which if properly orchestrated, could lead to better understanding and appreciation even between personnel of contingents from countries that are otherwise in a state of hostility with each other. There are a number of examples of the understanding and camaraderie built up between otherwise antagonistic armed forces personnel when operating under the United Nations flag. With the nomination of  'stand by' forces by member countries for deployment in United Nations peace operations, the scope for periodic inter-action and training increases. This lays the foundation for more effective joint participation in international operations.

Even so, I think the UN as an international organization, has little future unless it undergoes radical overhaul. UN PKO is probably one of the few activities that confers on it some degree of credibility. It is therefore being increasingly used by the ‘powers-that-be' in the developed world to convey the impression of their deep commitment to  addressing  many of the problems afflicting the international community: like terrorism, climate change, genocide, intervention operations, peace-building, etc. Without of course, committing any 'boots on the ground' as it were; or even ‘state-of-the-art’ equipment resources. A few weeks back I recall reading a news item about a draft resolution in the UN Security Council on 'Mental Health Support for UN peace operations personnel' (whatever that means).

In my view, while it is fine for research scholars, analysts, theorists, etc from the developed world to engage in the application of UN PKO to these esoteric issues in glamorous locations in Europe and the USA, my suggestion to the practitioners in the Indian Armed Forces, Police and the Centre for United Nations Peacekeeping (CUNPK), is that they focus on gut issues our commanders and troops are likely to face in the mission areas our forces are deployed in - namely, protection of innocent civilians, women and children; making efforts to bringing warring parties together for resolution of conflict; providing access to basic infra-structure and medical facilities, etc.

In context of this view of mine on the subject, I was happy to note that while speaking in the Security Council at a meeting on the subject on 23 Sep 21, REENAT SANDHU, Secretary (West) Ministry of External Affairs, had cautioned, among other things, that addressing climate security in the Security Council is not desirable, warning that ignoring basic principles and practices relating to climate change could disrupt the nature of overall discussion on that extremely important topic.  She also warned against building a parallel climate track, saying: "To view conflicts in the poorer parts of the world through the prism of climate change will only serve to present a lopsided narrative when the reasons for the conflict are to be found elsewhere.”  She went on to say that the report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change clearly states that the effect of climate variability on violence is contested.  Highlighting the need to bring the focus back to where it should be, combating climate change, she said India is a leader in climate action and is on track to meet its commitments under the Paris Agreement on climate change, adding that it also has the world’s fastest growing solar energy programme.

I also noted that, at the same meeting, China’s representative similarly warned against 'sidestepping' the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Paris Agreement, the main international negotiating channels on the issue, emphasizing that the Council lacks the necessary specialized tools and knowledge.  That it should therefore refrain from including climate change in peacekeeping mandates, so as not to diminish the ability of peace operations to deliver on their core tasks.

In that context therefore, my advice for whatever it is worth is, that rather than focusing on seminars, dialogues, and conferences in countries that no longer actively participate in UN PKO, it would be more useful for our practitioners to engage in discussions for evolution of concepts and operational principles with representatives, scholars and analysts from countries that now provide the forces for UN PKO; namely countries like Ethiopia, Rwanda, Bangladesh, Nepal, Egypt, Indonesia, Nigeria, Kenya, etc. And not only evolve relevant operational concepts and philosophies, but also insist that key command and staff positions at UN PKO and in mission areas, be held by such contributors.

As we move forward in the 21st Century, it is essential that we do not allow the perceived inadequacies of some past operations to cloud our judgement, and swing from one extreme of attempting to undertake too much, to undertaking too little. There is so much the international community can do to ensure the maintenance of international peace and security, and there is no way it can absolve itself of that responsibility. India’s past experience and its wealth of talent and expertise in the vital fiel ds of military, police and administrative capabilities confer on it a great advantage in terms of furthering its national interests by active participation in this area of United Nations activity.

A recipient of the Padma Bhushan Lt Gen Satish Nambiar, former Force Commander & Head of Mission of UNPROFOR.

(Views expressed are the author's own and do not reflect the editorial stance of Mission Victory India)

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