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Q&A: “Warts and All, Peacekeeping Works”

Rousbeh Legatis interviews PAGE FORTNA of the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies

UNITED NATIONS, Jun 8 2011 (IPS) - U.N. peacekeeping missions face myriad problems but they remain the most effective strategy for dealing with post- conflict situations, says Page Fortna, a political science professor at Columbia University who has extensively researched the impact of various missions around the world.

Page Fortna Credit: Courtesy of Page Fortna

Page Fortna Credit: Courtesy of Page Fortna

“Warts and all, peacekeeping works,” says Fortuna.

She nevertheless acknowledges that problems of contemporary peacekeeping are legion.

U.N. missions are “underfunded and understaffed, equipped with ambiguous mandates, [and] they struggle with problems of compatibility, including language, among troop contingents and of communication between the U.N. headquarters and the field,” says Fortna, author of the book “Does Peacekeeping Work?”.

Fortna spoke with IPS correspondent Rousbeh Legatis about why peacekeeping halves the risk of nations returning to armed conflict, builds bridges of communication between deadly enemies, and leads primarily to non-military political solutions.

Excerpts from the interview follow.

Q: In your book, you say that peacekeeping is successful with “a clear and resounding yes”. How does it work? A: I find that it works through four important pathways:

By changing belligerents’ incentives so that going back to war is more costly, while maintaining peace is more rewarding.

By alleviating belligerents’ fears about each other’s intentions and ameliorating the atmosphere of severe mistrust that is built up during war.

By helping to prevent or nip in the bud accidents and misunderstandings that might otherwise spiral back to war.

And by pressuring the parties to live up to the terms of their political settlements so that neither party is excluded from the political process in a way that makes them feel they are “losing the peace” and would therefore be better served by returning to war.

Q: How specifically does it work? A: One example of the way that peacekeeping can work to change belligerents’ incentives is the fund that was set up ostensibly to help RENAMO [Mozambican National Resistance] in Mozambique transform itself into a political party – this was a straight cash payout that helped to coopting RENAMO and its leaders into a peaceful political process.

It was legitimised by the fact that the funds came from a neutral party (the U.N.). If the funds had come from the government – as was done in another case I examined, the Chittagong Hill Tracts in Bangladesh – this would have led to charges that the leadership had sold out. But this fund gave a direct incentive to RENAMO leaders to maintain peace.

Peacekeepers can also help oversee military and political processes, such as disarmament, that are likely to be plagued by mistrust such that the parties can’t accomplish them on their own, even if they sincerely desire peace. Monitoring disarmament in Mozambique was one example of this, and taking control of strategic diamond mining areas in Sierra Leone was another example.

By investigating allegations of misconduct by both sides, peacekeepers also provide an important “third option” for parties that might otherwise return to war. If peacekeepers are not present, the parties have only two options if they think the other side has violated some part of the agreement: ignore it and risk looking weak and having the other side take advantage of them more and more, or respond in kind and risk an escalation back to war.

Q: Is military strength required in U.N. peacekeeping missions to bring real change on the ground? A: One of the most surprising findings of the book is that the more “robust” and militarily strongest peacekeeping missions are not necessarily more effective than missions with less military strength.

This is not to say that military strength is unimportant, it is often very helpful for peacekeepers to protect themselves in insecure environments. But many of the ways that peacekeepers work is through non-military mechanisms: through on the spot mediation, through political cajoling, and by linking peace to ongoing attention and aid from the international community.

The lesson here is that peacekeeping can be effective even where large militarily robust missions are not feasible.

Q: How important is local ownership to make peacekeeping work? A: Peace is maintained, or not, by the parties to the conflict – the government and rebel leaders who fought the war, whom I refer to as the “peacekept.” I do not necessarily argue that there needs to be “local ownership” of peacekeeping – part of the point of peacekeepers is that they are outsiders, and therefore relatively neutral. If the parties could solve the problem on their own, peacekeepers wouldn’t be needed.

Rather, the point is that those designing and directing peacekeeping efforts need to keep in mind how what they do will affect the decisions of the peacekept. Locals don’t need to own peacekeeping, but by definition, they own the peace process, for they are the ones who decide whether peace will hold or war will resume.

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