Congolese rebels killed eight U.N. peacekeepers on Nov. 15. The same rebel group was responsible for the death of 15 peacekeepers in December 2017, the deadliest single assault on the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Congo in its 25 years of existence.
U.N. peacekeepers also face heavy armed resistance in places such as Mali, South Sudan and the Central African Republic. These serious attacks may obscure another crucial threat to peacekeeping missions: Government forces and rebels obstruct and intimidate peacekeepers to prevent them from fulfilling their civilian protection mandate.
For instance, government forces and the Kamuina Nsapu militia fought in Congo’s Kasai-Central province in March 2017. The government army heavily targeted civilians as part of its counterinsurgency operations in the region, which resulted in numerous civilian deaths, including women and children.
News outlets reported that the government restricted the access of U.N. officials to the area where the army’s reprisals occurred and averted a credible investigation regarding these human rights abuses. A Nov. 27 Foreign Policy article revealed that the Congolese government might also be responsible for the killing of two U.N. human rights experts in March 2017 who were examining the mass killing of civilians in the region.
In a recently published article in the Journal of Peace Research, I find evidence that the Congolese army’s approach is common. Armed forces regularly obstruct and intimidate peacekeepers, both to carry out attacks against civilians and to prevent peacekeepers from monitoring human rights violations.
Civilian protection is at the forefront of U.N. peacekeeping activities. Recent research clearly shows that peacekeeping lowers levels of armed fighting and reduces violence against civilians. Yet there is surprisingly little research on rebel or government forces that may try to circumvent these efforts.
My research looks at violence against civilians in Darfur
My study draws on unique data compiled by U.N. information analysts between Jan. 3, 2008, and April 6, 2009. This field information was collected to understand violence against civilians in Sudan’s Darfur region, in support of the U.N.-African Union Mission in Sudan (UNAMID).
My analysis suggests that intimidation and obstruction against peacekeepers is more likely to take place in areas with higher levels of violence against civilians. Government forces or rebel groups are particularly likely to interfere with peacekeepers in areas where there is violence against civilians. The figure below illustrates this effect in Darfur during this period.
Of course, there could be other reasons to target peacekeepers and civilians. But these findings hold when controlling for factors such as the presence of peacekeepers, the occurrence of armed clashes, whether territory is disputed, the presence of mountains in an area and the presence of a major town in an area.
The findings are in line with several reports on the obstruction of peacekeepers by the Sudanese armed forces and nonstate armed forces/rebel groups. For instance, U.N. peacekeepers were denied access to Tabit following attacks against the civilian population of this town in North Darfur in October 2014. Similarly, the government of Sudan repeatedly prevented U.N. peacekeepers from conducting investigations following the use of chemical weapons against civilians by government forces in the Jebel Marra area during the first half of 2016.
Sudanese government soldiers also blocked peacekeepers in Darfur from protecting civilians. On Jan. 26, 2011, about 200 Sudanese government soldiers in 40 vehicles arrived at a UNAMID base near Shangil Tobay, according to news reports. The soldiers subsequently surrounded the peacekeeping base, and the government army commander then threatened to burn down the UNAMID team site if the peacekeepers continued to try to prevent the government soldiers from searching the camp of internally displaced people adjacent to the UNAMID base.
Is there a way forward?
These findings suggest that efforts to obstruct the work of peacekeepers can be a serious problem. The obstruction of peacekeepers may be a much less costly strategy, both politically and militarily, than directly attacking peacekeepers, but it can be equally effective in terms of preventing peacekeepers from protecting civilians.
The very fact that government or rebel forces may try to obstruct peacekeepers seems to provide some indirect evidence of the effectiveness of peacekeepers. These forces try to undermine the activities of peacekeepers precisely because peacekeepers are effective in protecting civilians.
And there’s some evidence that the United Nations is becoming more proactive in dealing with obstruction. The U.N. Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), which deployed in July 2011 to support peace and stability in the newly independent country, found that various armed groups severely hampered its civilian protection efforts. On Nov. 10, 2016, the U.N. secretary general formally noted in a report on South Sudan that the restrictions on access of peacekeepers have made it difficult for UNMISS to fulfill its mandate — and demanded unhindered access.
The UNMISS leadership also instructed field commanders to hold their ground when government troops block their patrols. There were several instances of platoons sleeping at checkpoints for up to three days until they were finally allowed to continue on their way. The head of UNMISS, David Shearer, has also occasionally responded to some roadblocks with public pressure, such as demanding access to the Torit orphanage on U.N. radio.
The United Nations faces a trade-off when it comes to maintaining good relations with government forces and rebels on the one hand and protecting civilians on the other hand. National armies and rebel groups often try to undermine the civilian protection efforts of peacekeepers.
Previous research suggests that peace missions need to be robust to be effective. And these latest insights further suggest that peacekeepers also may need to find an effective strategy to deal with armed groups that may try to prevent them from fulfilling their mandate.
Allard Duursma is a senior researcher at the Center for Security Studies (CSS) at ETH Zurich. Follow him on Twitter @AllardDuursma