By Global Public Square staff
Take a look at the video at the soldiers in the Congo. The blue helmets are of course a giveaway – they're part of the United Nations peacekeeping force. That's not exactly a terrifying group is it? After all, the U.N.'s peacekeepers have always been seen as a rather hapless, toothless bunch.
But this group is different. They are part of the U.N.'s new Intervention Force Brigade. Unlike the rest of the blue helmets, who are only allowed to act in self-defense, as peacekeepers, these soldiers are on the offense, with the authorization to hunt and attack enemy forces.
This is a first, a historic change for the U.N., and a new strategy in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where more than five million people have died since 1998 amidst a complex civil war. Over the last 18 months, government troops have been fighting a rebel group called the M-23. The rebels were encroaching deeper into the country, and had already taken over the city of Goma. Meanwhile, the U.N.'s peacekeepers were powerless to intervene – they had no mandate to engage.
All that changed in March, when the United Nations gave a 3,000 strong force the green light to attack. The balance of the fight shifted, and this week, the rebels surrendered. Could this be a broader turning point? Could the success in Congo be replicated elsewhere? What effect would U.N. peacekeepers have in Syria, for example?
Well, it's not as simple as it sounds.
Consider the makeup of these peacekeeping forces, for a start. As of September, there were a total of 97,000 U.N. troops, police, and military experts. It's not a permanent force; the personnel are actually loaned from various nations. South Asian countries are the top providers, Pakistan and Bangladesh, with about 8,000 each, followed by India, Ethiopia, and Nigeria.
In return, the United Nations gives these nations a standard rate of $1,028 per soldier, per month. For many developing countries, including India, this is several times more than a soldier actually gets paid by the government. So, if you're a poor country, contributing troops to the U.N. is actually good business.
Now look at the other side of the ledger. According to the United Nations, the total peacekeeping budget comes to $7.5 billion. More than a quarter of that is funded by American taxpayers. That's more than the next three top contributors, combined – Japan, France, and Germany. China and Russia are in 6th and 8th places respectively.
Each of these funders has its own agenda. So, for example, if the U.N. were to propose an aggressive role in Syria, China and certainly Russia would likely oppose. Or take another example. U.N. peacekeeping forces could never police parts of Kashmir, the volatile area contested by India and Pakistan. Among other problems, a substantial number of troops are of course actually South Asian.
It's a reminder that everything at the U.N. has to be sanctioned by its member states, and the U.N. cannot act without the political will, resources, and mandate from these countries. And their national interests will often trump any broader international interest.
A 2005 study by the RAND Corporation compared major nation-building operations that were led by the United States with those led by the United Nations. Of the eight American-led missions, only four could be considered a success – Germany, Japan, Bosnia, and Kosovo – while there were four failures, including of course Iraq and Afghanistan.
The United Nations actually had a better track record, seven of its eight missions brought peace. Of course the U.N. tends to get into a situation when the major powers have already reached some kind of agreement; still it's worth giving some credit to these troops, and hoping that they succeed in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where they now are.