November 11th, 2013
08:34 AM ET

The changing role of U.N. forces?

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.

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Topics: United Nations

soundoff (14 Responses)
  1. rightospeak

    The UN in the Congo is another farce. It is all about GOLD ,DIAMONDS, URANIUM – Our president Roosevelt was generous enough to order 1 kg of uranium from the Congo to be delivered to the Soviet Union as a sign of friendship with Stalin ( Harry Hopkins in the White House was Stalin's agent ). So the uranium mines are big.
    The UN serves the BIG MONEY TRUST to get the goodies there, not the people of the world. So it was with the League of Nations before- they always serve the best interest of the BIG CAPITAL and millions get killed. Let us hope that the Thought Police is on a break.

    November 11, 2013 at 9:57 am |
  2. rightospeak

    The UN force has a huge pool of unemployed people in the world to be used as a private muscle in getting at the goodies they want. In Haiti they created cholera- unthinkable ! What are the UN troops doing all over the world ?-they create misery and conflicts.Rwanda massacres were predictable – the country was artificially set up to be unstable . The League of Nations after WW I did a similar thing in Europe, the British in Iraq to get at the oil.
    To make a better world the huge media monopolies need to be broken up so that the truth is known instead of the propaganda of the BIG CAPITAL and maybe the conflicts can be prevented.

    November 11, 2013 at 10:13 am |
  3. youcankeepyourdoctor

    Those shiny blue helmets must make wonderful targets.

    November 11, 2013 at 3:40 pm |
    • rightospeak

      May be it is the UN plan for population control., otherwise, it is pretty stupid. Maybe they are so drunk that they can't tell who is fighting whom.

      November 11, 2013 at 3:47 pm |
  4. ComeOn

    China, the next superpower replacing the US, is 6th in contributions? Come on.

    November 11, 2013 at 3:56 pm |
    • marc

      their per capita income is low, just cuz they're big doesn't mean they're rich, it's like drawing a big circle over all of Africa and calling them a big economy and rich

      November 12, 2013 at 11:03 am |
  5. Organic1

    I hope they find different helmets, the blue is not going to work long.

    November 11, 2013 at 4:38 pm |
  6. Katumbayi

    It is too early to talk about success or, to put it in another way, this pyrrhic victory, if of course there any victory, can be interpreted from different angle. Doesn't it look odd for any critical observer that the same so called M23 who have been defeated can still be a political force to be reckon with ? How come the loosely called international community is still shoving a peace agreement between the Congolese government and the M23 political branch. No one can tell what exactly is going on behind the scene but what is indisputable given the ongoing so called peace negotiations is that those same forces that have been pulling the strings have decided to put an end to their game or it lull is simply a strategy to provide a respite from the suffering. it is the same beguiling strategy. Needless to say the Rwandan force were not involve in the fight alongside the M23, at least as overly as used to be the case.

    November 11, 2013 at 6:40 pm |
  7. jaynine

    The people of the Congo desperately need this UN intervention, since they have been left in degradation and misery from previous colonialism and from the tug-of-war between local authorities and rebel groups.

    November 11, 2013 at 7:09 pm |
  8. j. von hettlingen

    It's uncertain, when the conflict in the DRC would come to an end. Civil wars and militia conflicts have plagued the country for two decades. In 1997 ethnic and political tensions exploded into a full-scale civil war, fuelled in part by the country's offshore oil wealth and other valuable minerals, which motivated many of the greedy warlords.

    November 12, 2013 at 8:37 am |
  9. Rick McDaniel

    The U.N. has always been, an entirely ineffective organization.

    November 12, 2013 at 11:56 am |
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