UN Peacekeepers

Reinforcing the Thin Blue Line: Supporting UN Peacekeepers to Meet the World’s Expectations

by George Somerwill

Bangladesh_7Bangladesh_3_tableBangladesh_1_audienceIn May this year I spent two weeks, along with a group of three senior former United Nations military peacekeepers from Nepal, India and the United States, as an instructor in a training mission at the Bangladesh Institute of Peace Support Operations Training (BIPSOT). The training school is located 35 kilometres north of Dhaka and our task was to deliver a two-week training course covering all aspects of peacekeeping, to middle ranking military officers drawn from across Asia. Each of them would sooner or later become a contingent commander within a UN peacekeeping mission.

UN peacekeeping today, like the UN in general, is under the permanent glare of the international media spotlight. Over recent years, most recently in the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, UN peacekeepers have appeared in the media for all the wrong reasons. Often, though not always, allegations of peacekeeper wrongdoing are related to sexual exploitation and abuse of women or children.

And yet, in a very imperfect world, UN peacekeepers carry out a seemingly impossible task always in conflict zones – a mission that no individual nation wants to undertake. It may be a cliché, but very often UN peacekeepers are the ‘thin blue line’ doing their best to prevent chaos in remote corners of the world.

Because they belong to no single individual country, it is too easy for UN Peacekeepers to sometimes become the world’s political football – criticized by many and defended by few.

These men and women, in order to have any chance to do their work properly, require training. This was what took my fellow instructors and me to Bangladesh this year.

There were no women on this course, although there are increasing numbers of military women participating in UN peacekeeping missions around the world. Each of the 25 participants had been chosen by his national military leadership to be ready to command a national contingent of his compatriots as part of a larger UN peacekeeping mission anywhere in the world. A majority of the participants were from Bangladesh, currently the UN’s largest contributor of peacekeeping troops, but ten participants were drawn from other frequent UN troop contributing countries, including Indonesia, Malaysia, Mongolia, Nepal, the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Vietnam.

The Peacekeeping Operations Contingent Commanders Course (PKOCC) is part of the Global Peace Operations Initiative (GPOI), a US-funded program that started in 2004 following that year’s G8 summit. The program’s goal is to strengthen the United Nations’ overall ability to effectively conduct peacekeeping operations, by providing training to peacekeepers from troop-contributing nations that request it. In 2004, when the program started, the goal was to have US forces train peacekeepers from other nations. But in subsequent phases of the program starting in 2009, instructors were drawn from former UN peacekeepers (mostly retired military or civilian officers) coming from many nations, including a small number of Canadians.   The course closely follows a syllabus based on the UN’s own requirements and is designed and updated in co-operation with senior management from the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO).

Specifically the GPOI aims to strengthen the professionalism of all UN peacekeepers. As well as buttressing their purely military skills, future leaders are trained in such skills as post-conflict peacebuilding, civil-military co-operation and humanitarian project support.

Each of the instructors at BIPSOT 2015 PKOCC, one of whom was a former UN Force Commander, had a broad range of UN experience. While each one was responsible for delivering specific areas of the syllabus, all instructors worked together to oversee the practical and fictional post-conflict scenario – known as Exercise Blue Commander – in which participants worked in teams to put into practice the concepts which they had learned in the formal presentations. As well as the exercise, large group discussions with the whole group dealing with such matters as gender Issues, child protection and human trafficking were also facilitated.

Much of the material in the PKOCCC is strictly practical in nature, (e.g. the challenges of a multinational command, or the role and tasks of the military in a peacekeeping mission). This is critically important to a contingent commander about to lead his or her men into a conflict zone. The military aspects may be already familiar to an experienced Lieutenant-Colonel, but many other aspects of the course deal with issues that are sensitive, both politically and within the media. As such, those issues may be new to an aspiring contingent commander who has only worked within his own country.

Each PKOCCC instructor at BIPSOT used his own experience to reiterate the importance of all UN staff strictly adhering to the Peacekeepers’ Code of Conduct. As a Communications/Public Information professional, I emphasized that the personal behaviour of individual UN staff within peacekeeping missions must always reflect the highest standard. It is essential that contingent commanders understand that public attitudes towards the UN depend entirely on the quality of the UN’s leadership at all levels, both military and civilian. Since the UN is a global organization, bad behavior in any one part of the organization will reflect negatively on the UN globally, as the international media broadcast the story around the world.

At the same time, it is important to note that not every allegation of impropriety leveled at UN peacekeepers is based on fact since in some countries and in some media, the UN has become a useful political football.

Another important area of knowledge for any military officer aspiring to leadership within a UN peacekeeping operation must include attitude and cultural awareness. Working within peacekeeping missions I have sometimes noted that civilian and military UN staff often have little or no experience of dealing with each other. Both sides, especially at the middle levels sometimes hesitate to cooperate. Yet it is precisely at this level that success within a peacekeeping mission – strengthening civil-military relations – depends on maximum cooperation. Training contingent commanders in being culturally aware of their civilian counterparts both within and outside the mission is a positive step toward removing barriers to cooperation at the mission level.

This year’s Contingent Commanders Course at BIPSOT was just one of many ongoing courses under the auspices of the Global Peace Operations Initiative. The military officers who benefit from these courses need all the hands-on training they can, so all of the instructors come from military or civilian peacekeeping backgrounds. Being the only civilian instructor on a course such as this can sometimes be challenging, and yet most of these future peacekeeping leaders express enthusiasm to collaborate with their civilian counterparts in a UN mission. I remain optimistic that it opens a new perspective about the broader work of the UN for young mid-career military officers.

Peacekeeping is one of the UN’s many tasks around the world that has the highest public profile. We owe it to the young uniformed men and women who do this work – as well as to those civilians who will ultimately rely on them for security – to provide them to the best of our ability with the knowledge they need to fulfill the expectations the world holds.