No Time to Think: Military Leaders & Halting Mass Atrocities

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By Victoria Holt – The blue skies and waters outside Accra, Ghana hug the entrance to the Kofi Annan International Peacekeeping Training Center, where former mission leaders of military peacekeeping operations met in February 2007 to talk about their experiences. The conference center is painted UN-blue and boasts the flags of the dozen nations represented by those who flew in from five continents for the workshop. The first session was cheerful, as ambassadors and dignitaries welcomed the international group.

Yet once the public left and the formal meeting got underway, the topic and tone turned more sober: The main participants were all invited for their experience in leading military missions sent to operate in regions where mass atrocities and genocide either had—or would—afflict the civilian population.

The story of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda is well-known to the public and to those who prepare for peacekeeping missions. What is less well-understood, however, are the terrible dilemmas that military officers there and in other peacekeeping operations have faced when the civilian population comes under threat from growing or sudden violence. Too often, the missions have tried to take actions to protect civilians without preparation for this role and without clear guidance and support from their home government, the United Nations, or their leadership. They have also tried to take such action despite the fact that it might contradict the primary goals of their mission and its political objectives.

As demonstrated by the workshop, senior and experienced military leaders were deeply distressed and haunted by their experiences, and they argued strongly that future leaders should not be put in the same situation.

As described by a senior general with experience leading multiple peacekeeping forces in Africa, “When things go wrong in the field is the worst time to come up with a strategy … there’s no time to think.”

History has shown that using military forces to protect civilians in hostile and volatile environments is a daunting challenge for unprepared forces, such as those deployed in Rwanda in 1994, the Balkans and Kosovo in the mid-1990s, in Sierra Leone and East Timor in 1999, and the Eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) in 2000-2004. Even the best prepared forces will face demanding challenges in providing physical protection to civilian populations, as NATO troops learned firsthand in the Balkans. Public expectations of such forces will also be high when peacekeepers or militaries arrive in such conflict zones.

In Rwanda, the mission leadership of the UN peacekeeping force made an effort to protect civilians as violence escalated, even without a clear mandate or rules of engagement to do so. One former leader of the beleaguered mission there (UNAMIR) recalled that they operated on sheer determination since they could not “fight” as an underequipped peacekeeping force. Another military participant said that “physical protection was neither a physical or implied task” in his humanitarian-oriented relief mission to Rwanda. A general with experience leading Western military forces in peacekeeping argued that in his mission, “If there was protection reference, it was by accident.” Another senior leader who directed a UN force and faced direct, mass and systematic violence against the civilian population said that the Security Council mandate had “nothing about protecting civilians.”

Other missions, however, did not lack for equipment or Security Council mandates as much as for a mission concept of protection that was understood down the chain of command and resulted in a strategy and willingness to act. Participants with experience in the eastern DRC, where four million have perished since the late 1990s, pointed out that interpretations of the UN mandate to protect civilians differed between leadership and the troop contributing countries, many of which lacked a “mindset” to protect civilians. One general who served in the DRC with authority to use force, for example, urged that a protection strategy must be “very, very clear” and understood throughout the mission. Another commander of UN forces explained that he had actively sought to translate the UN’s mandate to protect civilian into “action,” despite no help from UN headquarters. He nevertheless gave his peacekeepers direction to develop an approach.

As the international community continues to deploy peacekeeping forces in record numbers, and as the US and Western forces try to bring stability to Iraq and Afghanistan, the word of these military leaders should ring true. Without advance preparation to support deployed forces, missions that encounter physical threats to civilian populations too often must make up strategies on the ground—and hope for the best. This is not a wise approach, and the nations that provide troops and the multinational organizations that authorize missions—the UN, the African Union, the European Union, NATO and the Economic Community of West African States—should correct this large gap.

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