defenceWeb Peacekeeping Africa 2009


Peacekeeping conference report-back
Written by Leon Engelbrecht   
Monday, 29 June 2009

defenceWeb has hosted its first event and I’m pleased to report that Peacekeeping Africa 2009 – held Wednesday and yesterday at Gallagher Estate in Midrand – was a stellar success by any measure.

We had a good turnout – about 100 souls – and the speaker mix was just about right – including practitioners, industry and thinkers. The bulk of the presentations and speakers were interesting and I caught several otherwise-jaded industry exhibitors sitting in on sessions – and not because it was cold in the lobby.

Several themes emerged, both on peacekeeping and on events of this nature. The latter first: conferences can be horrible “talk shops”, long on chatter and short on follow-up or action. This is often convenient. For the organisers it can mean years of annuity income, for the speakers it can be a career and for the delegates a way of doing something while doing nothing.  

At least one participant wanted to know “what next?” What would happen to the knowledge and to the points raised? Good question!

Some conferences, such as the SA Navy’s Third Sea Power for Africa Symposium, adopt a set of resolutions. These can even have timelines and identify action items along with parties responsible for executing those resolutions.

The problem is that those resolutions can get lost in translation. At the Navy conference, delegates were miffed to hear that although previous resolutions had been sent to, for example the African Union Peace & Security Council, they had apparently not arrived and had certainly not been acted upon.

This was apparent from the resolutions themselves; they repeated many points made at the first and second symposia. Hmmm.

defenceWeb offers the advantage that its editorial staff can act as an institutional memory, carrying the knowledge forward in their reports and in editorial. This can also help eliminate the practice where the same speakers say the same things year after year.

As “Members of the Fourth Estate” we carry a professional obligation to act as “watchdogs”. This means we should note what should be done and in collaboration with relevant parties seek to determine who should do it and by when. This then needs to be communicated. Afterwards, parties should be held to account.

This should get us from talking the talk to talking the walk to walking the walk.   

Some observations on peacekeeping

The main ingredient lacking in the current peacekeeping mix is political will. Peacekeeping missions, in fact, any military mission, can only be as successful as the authorities allow.

Unfortunately, most peace operations never rise above the level of public relations exercise precisely because those who authorise such missions, both at multilateral level and in national capitals (where the real authority lies) are more interested in looking serious about doing something than actually doing anything. Everyone says they are sincere but the resources they make available – whether money, troops or equipment – tells an opposite truth. This is why so many deployments are so interminable.

The UN and AU operate by consensus. Agreement is usually around the lowest common denominator. This – reinforced by the idea that peacekeepers must be impartial between a fire and the fire brigade – is the source of so many flawed mission mandates. It also explains why it can take so long to agree on mandates.

Ambassador Victor Zazeraj, now with the Paramount Group, made the point that diplomats often reach “a point where you think any resolution is better than none, even if the resolution is imperfect.”

Bear in mind all this is taking place while combatants are butchering each other and civilians are being brutalised, murdered, raped and robbed. One would expect a sense of urgency…      

“The commander on the ground then has a problem because there is an enormous mismatch between mandate – what is required to fix the problem – and the tools they are given to do it with,” Zazeraj continued.

Force commanders are further not helped by the fact that many contingents assigned them are indifferently equipped, worse led and often under strict instructions to stay out of harms way. These can be so restrictive it would be better if many peacekeepers rather stayed home.     

Caveats are the hidden shame of peacekeeping, creating a fraudulent façade that causes the global community to believe “something” is being done while the troops sit on the sidelines and the savagery continues, sometimes in plain sight just outside camp.                 

As scandalous – and common – is the deployment of peacekeepers for the purposes of revenue generation. I cannot think of a more obscene example of profiting from misery.

Furthermore the leadership and staff-work capabilities of many contingents are hopelessly inadequate, further restricting the options of the commanders – providing they are of mind to exercise any.      


None of this is rocket science and all of this is well known. But what will be done – and by whom – to fix this? When peacekeepers are deployed, the global public expects they will effectively and efficiently keep the peace. So do people in the conflict zone. So let’s have some.          


Major General Patrick Cammaert, until recently the General Officer Commanding, the Eastern Division of the United Nations Organisation Mission in the Republic of Congo is by all accounts the type of officer these missions need. He reportedly acted aggressively within (and perhaps beyond) his mandate to deal with armed groups seeking to spoil agreements or have a go at civilians. To do this he worked intelligently with his allocated forces and staff officers deploying those with the best training and equipment as well as the least caveats.


Beyond exceptions like Cammaert, the system will not fix itself. The best hope will be a “coalition of the willing” of the type that outlawed anti-personnel landmines and is seeking the same for cluster munitions, because so many are duds that pose a real danger to ordinary people years after the guns fall silent. The current UN peacekeeping model is a flop and as dangerous to those it is meant to help as a unexploded cluster bomblet or mine. Let’s get to work…  

New clichés

One of my first news editors, Lloyd Coutts, had an air of the eccentric about him. He would always say we should seek “new clichés”. I always thought this was by definition impossible but when I first saw the phrase “green shoots” some months ago in a report on the economic situation I knew I had been wrong. “Green shoots” was that paradox: a new cliché. It has since lost that lustre of newness but has given rise to a whole slew of derivative clichés such as “brown shoots” and imported into financial reporting a range of gardening metaphors and a concern for frost. Ah, Lloyd would be proud!  


The pen now her sword

The quest for an intern is over. I would like us all to welcome Palesa Matseke to Team defenceWeb. Palesa joined us a week ago and is now largely responsible for selecting, sub-editing and publishing wire reports. She is doing well. Her mettle will be further tested next week when I attend a conference in Cannes, France, next week. I’m sure she’ll be able to handle it. Palesa served SA for three years as a corporal in the SA Army Ordnance Service Corps, including a tour in the Congo.  


defenceWeb is holding its first event, the Peacekeeping Africa 2009 conference at Gallagher Estate.

I’m pleased to report the first day – today – Wednesday – went well. All the speakers had something interesting to say. We’ll be posting their presentations online shortly so that those who could not make the conference can see. We’ve posted a number of reports for your attention in the meantime. Watch out for more tomorrow.    

Guilt by denial

I recently came across a classic “do you still beat your wife?” story. An online publication called Digital Journal carried an item just after last month’s beaching of a pod of 55 false killer whales at Kommetjie on the western side of the Cape Peninsula.  

Titled “SA Navy not ‘responsible’ for beached Cape Town whales” the report says the South African Navy has rejected claims that its activities caused the beaching.

The report adds other, unspecified, reports in the South African media claimed a Navy live-fire exercise in Simon’s Town, which is roughly on the other side of the Cape Peninsula from Kommetjie caused the whales to beach. “Still others claimed it was naval sonar that confused the animals,” the Digital Journal added.

Navy spokesman Commander Prince Tshabalala said the last gunnery exercise was three weeks before the beaching “so any link would be highly unlikely.”

“The probability that we would be responsible is negligible. No study has been done to show that gunnery exercises affected the whales. Until such a study is done, until a scientist comes to us … (if a study proved it) then we would take responsibility, but until then we cannot take responsibility,” he was further quoted saying.

The item adds that the gunnery exercise involved fire from shore and that no sonar had been used. Linking whale and dolphin beachings to naval sonar is an environazi cottage industry in the United States. Add a bit of “politician’s logic” and you get something that goes like this: There are accusations that US naval sonars disorientate sea mammals. SA has a navy. It has ships with sonar. So it must be disorientating whales and dolphins.

The Navy does not have a monopoly on sonar. There is any number of vessels, commercial and leisure, banging away with echo sounders and fish-finders. Perhaps the unseen reports blamed them too…        

The trouble with this type of report is that even when one protests one’s innocence because one is innocent, one still appears guilty.

For the history-minded

This week marked the moment in 1944 that Stalin unleashed 43 armoured and 146 infantry divisions on the German armies occupying Belarus. In a matter of days they destroyed the field formations of Heeresgruppe Mitte (Army Group Centre), 30 divisions in all of whom 44% of personnel were dead or wounded. It was the worst defeat the Nazis suffered and moved the front from Vitebsk-Mogilev to the suburbs of Warsaw.     

This cataclysmic battle was the direct result of one of dictator Adolf Hitler’s more serious mistakes – the invasion of the Soviet Union on June 21, 1944. Whether Stalin timed Operation Bagration to broadly coincide with the Wehrmacht‘s attack three years before is not clear. What is certain is that Hitler’s misadventure was a catastrophe that would engulf all of Eastern Europe from the Elbe River in the west to Moscow in the East.

Operation Bagration, named for a prince who won fame against Napoleon, is well worth studying as one of the great examples of operational art and one of the few examples of a real Blitzkrieg.