Feature: UN force commanders on modern peacekeeping challenges


From Mali to South Sudan, the Middle East and beyond United Nations peacekeepers are tackling peace and security challenges of increasing intensity and broader global breadth, the top UN peacekeeping official said this week as he urged the full support of the international community for the Organisation’s “blue helmets” as they confront the world’s manifold threats.

Opening the Security Council’s meeting on protection of civilians, operational threats and performance at UN headquarters in New York, Under-Secretary-General for UN Peacekeeping Operations Hervé Ladsous, introduced the force commanders of three UN operations – the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), the Multi-dimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) and the UN Truce Supervision Organisation (UNTSO) – observing each of them had a story of courage and determination to tell.

At the same time, he said, the three UN military officials could also relate the growing challenges they and their peacekeepers were facing in diverse environments across the globe to which they were deployed, particularly due to the unprecedented scale of difficulties faced in protecting civilians, observing the caveats imposed by troop-contributing countries and dealing with asymmetric threats.

Detailing the most pressing aspects of peacekeeping in South Sudan, where an intensifying crisis has forced over two million people into internal displacement and plunged an estimated 4.6 million people into severe food insecurity, UNMISS Force Commander, Lieutenant-General Yohannes Gebremeskel Tesfamariam, told Council Members protection of civilians was not just about ensuring security but also guaranteeing freedom of movement for people.
“The ability to move and proactively protect civilians in their areas of origin, securing their traditional movement and enabling them to undertake their livelihoods must be a focus of our efforts in implementing the protection of civilians mandate,” he said.

Throughout the African country, more than 140,000 people are currently sheltering at UNMISS bases where they seek safety and humanitarian relief from South Sudan’s two-year conflict.

Tesfamariam warned that UN civilian protection sites have increasingly become targets in the fighting with a recent incident, dated between May 19 and 21, seeing more than 20 artillery shells and stray bullets hit the UNMISS base in Melut, in the country’s north-east. This and other similar security threats have contributed to increasingly stretching the Mission’s operational abilities.
“It is well understood protection of civilians is the most resource consuming operation. It requires logistical, financial and human resources, resources that fit the mandate, expectations and realities on the ground. The limitations we face in this respect, particularly the absence of critical enablers, such as close-air support, adequate logistics, intelligence, reconnaissance and responsive Casevac/Medevac capabilities, negatively impact our early warning.”

The appeal for more wide-ranging and better equipment was echoed by Major General Michael Lollesgaard, Force Commander for MINUSMA in Mali, where UN troops are currently operating in one of the more hazardous regions for peacekeeping. MINUSMA forces have frequently been targeted by armed groups operating throughout the vast country with attacks in late April resulting in numerous casualties.
“We need to be fully capable of facing this environment in all aspects. That means capability to face hostile armed groups hiding among the population and to face challenging climates, geography and infrastructure,” Lollesgaard said.

In order to do that UN peacekeepers must be properly trained prior to deployment; properly equipped; assisted with robust logistics; and furnished with “well-protected camps with good living conditions,” among other things he added.
“I know this sounds a lot, but this is what we need if we want to be able to survive in an asymmetric environment.”

The challenges facing peacekeepers also stretch beyond their immediate operational needs and involve distinct political obstacles, added Major General Michael Finn, Chief of Staff at UNTSO – the first ever peacekeeping operation established by the UN – who highlighted the imposition of national caveats as a “significant restriction” on multi-national operations around the world.

Caveats, the Major General affirmed, remain a serious impediment to the command and performance of all UN missions and ultimately restrict a commanders’ ability to exercise command and control in theatres of operation, potentially compromising the ability of “blue helmets” to complete their tasks.
“I fully recognise the national interests that drive caveats, but I also see caveats threatening to drive a wedge between contributing nations, threatening peacekeeping and observer capabilities of the UN,” he noted.
“It is thus a critical challenge to find ways to address the contentious issue of caveats and maintain the integrity of peacekeeping missions into the future.”