By Rebecca Friedrichs – Last week, forces loyal to President Ouattara seized Former President Laurent Gbagbo from his home, ending a stalemate that began after elections in November 2010. The recent events in Côte d’Ivoire have reignited the debate about impartiality, neutrality and protection of civilians. The United Nations Mission in Côte d’Ivoire (UNOCI) has come under scrutiny for its use of force against Gbagbo’s compound and weaponry. In light of criticism, it is important to reflect on the meaning of “impartiality” and remind skeptics that UNOCI was not obligated to remain neutral in the conflict.
From April 4 to Gbagbo’s surrender on April 10, UNOCI launched strikes against Gbagbo facilities and pro-Gbagbo heavy weaponry in a pro-active effort to protect civilians in the commercial capital of Abidjan. The UN’s decision to act during this volatile time has made it easy for those opposed to the mission to portray it as an international intervention aimed at deposing Gbagbo and therefore an overstep of its mandate. Critics included Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov who claimed, “The peacekeepers have a mandate which obliged them to stay neutral and impartial.” This serves to remind us that even those involved in UN affairs do not always differentiate between the concepts of “impartiality” and “neutrality.”
Historically, UN peacekeeping missions were deployed to uphold interstate peace agreements and neutrally monitor borders and disputed territories. In the post-Cold War environment however, peacekeeping missions have been increasingly deployed to countries characterized by intrastate war. Facing new challenges and more complex environments, the United Nations struggled to remain neutral and effective in the face of clear belligerents and victims. Responding to this challenge in 2000, the Report of the Panel on United Nations Peace Operations (“The Brahimi Report”) shifted away from neutrality and concluded that impartiality was a bedrock principle of UN peacekeeping. Describing the meaning of impartiality, the report states that:
Impartiality for such operations must therefore mean adherence to the principles of the Charter and to the objectives of a mandate that is rooted in those Charter principles. Such impartiality is not the same as neutrality or equal treatment of all parties in all cases for all time, which can amount to a policy of appeasement.”
Elaborating on the pitfalls of neutrality in current situations, the report also explains that “where one party to a peace agreement clearly and incontrovertibly is violating its terms, continued equal treatment of all parties by the United Nations can in the best case result in ineffectiveness and in the worst may amount to complicity with evil.” In this way, UN peacekeeping is not to permit or ignore clear violations of the peace process or violations of international norms and UN Charter principles.
The peacekeeping mission UNOCI was created in 2004 to monitor the implementation of a January 2003 peace agreement that ended the Ivoirian Civil War. The Chapter VII mandate included clauses of impartiality and mandated the protection of civilians, and in 2007, UNOCI was further tasked with certifying the upcoming elections. After numerous delays, the presidential election was finally held this past November and Special Representative of the Secretary-General Choi Young-Jin certified Ouattara as the winner. EU, AU and ECOWAS all acknowledged Ouattara, but former President Gbagbo refused to concede and relinquish his power. The stalemate that followed presented UNOCI with numerous obstacles. The Gbagbo government withdrew consent for the mission, but the UN remained at the request of President Ouattara and UNOCI’s mandate was extended on December 20. Designating UNOCI troops as foreign invaders, Gbagbo called on his supporters to target them. As a result of this call to violence, UNOCI personnel have been injured and assets have been destroyed by armed combatants on both sides of the conflict.
Upon escalation of the conflict and rising civilian casualties, regional leaders urged the Security Council to give UNOCI a stronger mandate. The result was Resolution 1975 (March 2011), which tasked UNOCI, along with the aid of French troops, with “impartially implementing its mandate, to use all necessary means to carry out its mandate to protect civilians under imminent threat of physical violence…including to prevent the use of heavy weapons against the civilian population.” The UN Security Council deemed that civilians were under threat of imminent violence: pro-Gbagbo forces repeatedly fired rocket-propelled grenades against UNOCI personnel and used armored carriers equipped with machine guns to fire indiscriminately at civilians. UNOCI had the right to use force in self defense and had the mandate to protect those citizens and do what they could to destroy the weapons.
As Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon clarified on April 11, “The United Nations, together with [French] forces, have…been trying to prevent heavy weapons from killing the civilian population, and we really had to defend the United Nations peacekeepers’ safety and security…This is exactly what we did in accordance with the Security Council mandate.” Nevertheless, the Secretary-General’s statement may not be enough to silence critics like Foreign Minister Lavrov. Suggesting that the use of force makes a peacekeeping mission partial has dangerous implications for missions elsewhere. Current UN peacekeeping missions such as those in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan, and Haiti also have mandates that contain language of impartiality and also authorize the use of force for the protection of civilians.
Peacekeeping missions are increasingly deployed into conflicts where civilians are targeted and there is little peace to keep. In these complex situations the difference between impartiality and neutrality is critical: a mandate to protect civilians means that sometimes UN peacekeepers are faced with the difficult task of becoming involved in and shaping the conflict.
For more information on the election crisis in Ivory Coast, view Stimson’s timeline (pdf) detailing incentives and disincentives offered by the international community to resolve the stalemate.
Photo Credit: UNOCI Force Commander Arrives at Hotel Attacked by Gbagbo Loyalists in Abidjan, April 2011 (UN Photo # 469705 by Basile Zoma)