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As U.N. Peace Missions Multiply, Civilians See Disconnect

Elizabeth Whitman

UNITED NATIONS, Nov 23 2010 (IPS) - Many United Nations peacekeepers are not only failing to meet the needs of civilians, but they are also perceived as unresponsive once civilians convey their needs, says a new report by Oxfam International.

This topic also was the subject of debate in the Security Council Monday, and questions remain regarding what is actually being done, and whether it is enough.

The Oxfam report, “Engaging With Communities: The Next Challenge for Peacekeeping”, is based on field research in communities in southern Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. It noted that lack of communication between peacekeepers and the communities they were mandated to protect, along with infrastructural issues within peacekeeping missions themselves, were among the greatest obstacles to protecting civilians.

“Unfortunately, the perspectives of those most affected by violence – ordinary women, men and children – are invariably the least heard,” it said.

There are currently some 124,000 personnel serving on 16 U.N. peacekeeping missions around the world – a nine-fold increase since 1999.

The report, and especially those interviewed in it, conveys a clear disconnect between civilians and U.N. peacekeepers in certain areas. “Most of what I hear is, ‘we have not been mandated to do this’. What are you mandated to do? Stand by and watch?” a man from southern Sudan was quoted as saying in the report.

Kirsten Hagon, head of the New York Oxfam office, told IPS, “While it’s true that the needs are enormous in comparison to the resources, it’s also important that they [peacekeepers] can do a lot with what they have, and that’s where political will can come in.”

But political will doesn’t seem to be living up to its potential. In a report issued earlier this month, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said, “There has been progress in strengthening protection on the ground,” and noted improvements in the protection of civilians, mainly that more humanitarian organisations were organising better responses to their concerns.

“Nevertheless,” he wrote, “the need for more comprehensive and consistent action remains.” One challenge is that governments and non-state actors, particularly armed groups, do not comply with international human rights law.

While the feasibility of forcing armed groups to cease fighting and using tactics that target civilians may seem distant, the steps that must be taken to protect civilians seem simpler. Hagon acknowledges that peacekeepers in certain parts of the world have made a very positive impact.

“Just to talk to the communities can have a really big effect, and that doesn’t require a lot of resources,” she told IPS.

The Oxfam report highlighted the importance of Community Liaison Interpreters (CLIs), people who speak languages vital to the region and know the culture. It said that in several communities, CLIs had been enormously beneficial in improving communities’ ability to communicate with the U.N. mission.

Still, the role of the CLI must be defined better by U.N. peacekeeping missions, stated the report. A major hindrance was that “CLIs appeared to speak primarily with community leaders rather than with the community at large.” A lack of female CLIs also hurt the effectiveness of these cultural and linguistic interpreters, because women’s voices in the community are not heard.

Security Council members debated Monday whether requiring that non-state actors obey international law implies that the actors are recognised as legitimate groups.

Sri Lanka’s representative said such a requirement “poses a political dilemma for legitimate governments fighting terrorist groups to protect their sovereignty.” But Uganda’s representative disagreed on the basis that regardless of status, non-state actors such as the Lord’s Resistance Army must still be dealt with.

Valerie Amos, under-secretary for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator, said that where the U.N. could not encourage compliance with international law, “The [Security] Council must do more to enforce it.”

Although Oxfam’s report did not address the issue of abuses perpetrated by peacekeepers, it did call into question how the Security Council and the U.N. could best protect civilians. Should energy be directed at forcing state or non-state actors to obey international law, or should they try to improve peacekeeping operations by accomplishing incremental but crucial steps?

“Political will is required at the top, but there is a will required at every level and with every actor,” Hagon reiterated.

“The fact that the Security Council did engage with this issue is a positive if somewhat small step,” she told IPS, but reaching out to communities to determine their specific needs is a simple yet effective step that peacekeeping missions can take themselves.

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