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Week of 5.15.09

Transcript: Can the U.N. Keep the Peace?

BRANCACCIO: Right now the United Nations has peacekeepers deployed in 20 countries around the globe. That should be a relief to all of us because many of these hotspots have broken governments and could become havens for terror. But critics say that the peacekeeping model is broken, even in the biggest and most expensive peacekeeping mission currently underway, in The Democratic Republic of the Congo. What's gone wrong and can it be fixed?

Correspondent Paul Beban and producers Jason Maloney and Kira Kay of The Bureau for International Reporting have our story.

BEBAN: To get a firsthand look at peacekeeping in action, we've traveled to the heart of Africa... To the most ambitious United Nations mission in the world: the Congo. It's a vast, rugged place with very few roads and even less law and order. It is poor and war-torn. The U.N.'s job? Secure it. Welcome to peacekeeping in the 21st century.

We're out here at what's called a TOB, it's a temporary operating base, it's about 50 soldiers here they are only going to be here for about a week before they move on to another hilltop. And you can see that the people here feel safe now that these soldiers are here. The problem is there's thousands of hilltops like this all over the Congo, the U.N. can't possibly put a base on every one.

And for every hilltop in Congo, there are countless other hilltops in conflict zones around the world. Today, the U.N. has more peacekeepers in more places than ever before... a record 115,000 men and women reporting for duty.

It's a far cry from what U.N. peacekeeping used to look like: relatively small U.N. forces standing between two armies... monitoring a peace deal. The U.N. got very good at that.

But today, the job is much more complex... in a chaotic new landscape of failing states, shifting battle lines and unpredictable combatants, the U.N. is struggling.

COL. MARCELO MONTANER: One of the things you learn here in Congo is that the situation change rapidly. One day you have huge violence, the other day everything is calm. It is like weather, you have sun and you have immediately rain and that's it.

BEBAN: It's an outright thunderstorm when you look at what the U.N. has orders to do in Congo: enforce a fragile peace deal... disarm the rebel groups who often break it... train Congo's rag-tag police force... and rehabilitate its notoriously abusive national army. All this and more with just 17,000 troops in a country as big as the eastern United States... with 60 million people.

And it is the people who are the top priority here. The U.N. has what's called a mandate - a direct order - to protect them from harm.

VAN WOUDENBERG: The United Nations has one of the strongest mandates in the world in Eastern Congo.

BEBAN: Almost nobody knows this part of the world better than Anneke Van Woudenberg, a lead researcher for Human Rights Watch. She spends much of her time in Congo, documenting its brutal war... and observing the U.N.

VAN WOUDENBERG: They have what is called the Chapter Seven mandate, which means that U.N. peacekeepers can use force in order to protect people. So, if people are at risk and the armed militias are coming, the U.N. can open fire. It's rare that we see such a strong mandate.

BEBAN: Giving peacekeepers the power to use force to protect civilians is a response to a devastating litany of U.N. failures to do just that... first, in Rwanda, where close to a million were slaughtered... and then, just over a year later, in Bosnia, where thousands were executed... both in the presence of U.N. troops.

Since those dark days, there have been successes ... notably in war-ravaged countries like Liberia and East Timor.

But compared to those places, Congo is on another level entirely. The sheer size and complexity of the mission, combined with the explicit orders to protect civilians, make the Congo a definitive challenge for the United Nations.

VAN WOUDENBERG: This is a true test case. If this U.N. mission cannot do this adequately, and is not seen to be able to do this adequately, we have to start to question peacekeeping in other parts of the world.

BEBAN: So if Congo is a test case, then it is here, in a town called Kiwanja, that the U.N. failed the exam.

By late last October, the U.N. had built a base here... a key crossroads and a scene of fierce fighting. Rebels took the town on November 5th, without the U.N. firing a shot. Many of Kiwanja's residents ran for their lives. Some who did not paid the price... as the rebels carried out a bloody revenge campaign.

VAN WOUDENBERG: House to house, door to door they started slaughtering them. They killed them with machetes, with guns, with spears. Whatever they could find. They beat some to death. And at the end of the day more than a hundred and fifty people had died.

BEBAN: And all this less than one mile from the base where 100 U.N. troops were stationed, troops who had explicit orders to use force to protect the people.

According to Anneke Van Woudenberg's research, the U.N. force in Kiwanja lacked armored vehicles... didn't have the intelligence to track and counter rebel movements... and didn't even have enough translators.

VAN WOUDENBERG: So, when the local people came and said, 'people are being killed, there are problems,' they could only communicate via gestures. So, the local people would come and would go 'they're cutting their throats,' you know,'we're being killed.' And the U.N. peacekeepers could understand this sign, but couldn't really understand who was doing it, or what was happening.

BEBAN: To find out for ourselves what had gone so terribly wrong in Kiwanja, we went to the scene of the massacre. In a hilltop neighborhood, high above town, residents showed us these pits where they say rebels tried to hide some of the dead. At the time, Marie was in a nearby hospital, giving birth to twins. Her husband had come home to get her a change of clothes.

MARIE: When he arrived home, the shootings began. The rebels began kicking in doors and killing people. I heard that news at the hospital. I waited, and waited, hoping to see my husband, but I haven't ever seen him again.

BEBAN: Were the U.N. forces here supposed to protect you and your family and your neighbors from the rebels?

MARIE: They didn't come to protect us.

BEBAN: Local human rights worker Jonathan Mpji says he called the base for help in the middle of the massacre—but was told there was nothing the U.N. could do.

If there are more problems in Kiwanja, what do you think will happen next time?

MPJI: We don't have any more confidence in the United Nations. We'll have to look after ourselves and hide in our homes, that's all.

RICE: It is tragic in any circumstance where the U.N. is present where civilians become the victims of violence.

BEBAN: Susan Rice has come to the U.N. to make some changes, as the Obama administration's new ambassador. She told us that making the U.N. work better is vitally important to the United States.

RICE: Often the other alternative to the United Nations is that we do nothing and that these conflicts fester and spill over and create an environment in which extremists and criminals can operate, where terrorists can find safe heaven. So we have a stake in the successful resolution of conflicts even in parts of the world that may seem distant and far-flung to the average American.

BEBAN: But Ambassador Rice admits in light of recent failures, the U.N.'s peacekeeping capacity is stretched thin.

RICE: The number of complex challenges that the U.N. is trying to tackle is greater and yet the number of troops that the world has been able to muster to fulfill the mandates that we in the Security Council have given it is not infinite, and so there's a gap, a growing gap between supply and demand.

BEBAN: A growing gap, that much is clear. But around U.N. headquarters in New York, the choice of words is even stronger... that peacekeeping is in crisis... at a breaking point... and you might be surprised by just who is saying this.

LE ROY: A number of our missions face risks that are so significant that there is a potential for mission failure with terrible consequences for the whole United Nations.

BEBAN: That startling admission comes from Alain Le Roy, the man in charge of all U.N. peacekeeping operations worldwide... the man whose job it is to get this right. And you know things are bad when a top U.N. official is willing to admit he has a problem.

BEBAN: Is the Security Council responsible for asking you to do more than is possible by setting up these huge mandates, by asking for too many missions? Is it setting peacekeeping up to fail?

LE ROY: It is clear that the decision maker is the Security Council. I don't think the Security Council is sending us in places where we shouldn't go, but we would like very much continuous support from member of the Security Council and additional member states from the U.N. to make sure we have the adequate resources to perform the mandate that the Security Council decides.

BEBAN: The resources Le Roy is fighting for are exactly what the U.N.'s top man in Congo says he needs.

Alan Doss took me on a helicopter tour to a few of his more remote and vulnerable bases... like here in Kanyabayonga, on the front lines of a new rebel advance. The U.N. is trying to stop this place from becoming another Kiwanja.

Is the U.N. overstretched in Congo?

DOSS: Well, we're pretty stretched, I don't know if we'd call it overstretched. You know we know we can't be everywhere all of the time. We can't have a soldier in every field, behind every tree, so we have to use our resources as cleverly as possible.

BEBAN: Part of the problem is, the U.N. doesn't have its own army. Every time the Security Council ok's a new mission, it has to ask countries to volunteer troops. Never an easy task.

Case in point: last fall, just before the Kiwanja massacre, Doss came to New York, pleading for reinforcements. The Security Council quickly authorized 3000 more troops... but as of this broadcast, more than six months later, those extra boots are still not on the ground... and neither is the equipment to support them.

DOSS: In the package that the council approved last October at my request were 18 helicopters. I haven't had a single offer yet.

BEBAN: Months ago now, why isn't it here?

DOSS: It's the same as I mentioned you've got to knock at all those doors and negotiate them with the countries concerned. We have no standing force, you know we don't have the Pentagon here, I can't order up an aircraft carrier or something.

VAN WOUDENBERG: We bring our reports to members of the Security Council...

BEBAN: When she's not in the Congo, Human Rights Watch's Anneke van Woudenberg is often at the U.N., trying to push countries to put their money where their mouths are.

VAN WOUDENBERG: These are the very countries that when they pass these resolutions to give the ability to use force, they're the same nations that will not give the United Nations those very troops to do so. The U.N. is dependent on third world countries for the troops to these missions. They don't have European forces. They don't have American forces, which have better logistical capabilities, which can move more quickly. So, sure, it's easy to criticize the U.N., but the United States, the United Kingdom, the European Union, they're not stepping up to put their troops in Congo.

BEBAN: The vast majority of the troops in Congo come from India, Pakistan, South Africa, Nepal and Uruguay. In fact, only 2% of all U.N. troops in Africa come from North America and Europe. Fewer soldiers from rich nations means fewer resources... because the U.N. also owns almost no equipment. Member states supply everything from trucks to helicopters, tanks to night vision goggles.

And what does the United States contribute? Well... money... more than any other nation... picking up more than a quarter of the U.N.'s 8 billion dollar peacekeeping bill. Ambassador Susan Rice says it's money well-spent.

RICE: If the United States were to act on its own unilaterally and deploy its own forces in many of these contexts, for every dollar that the United States would spend, the United Nations can accomplish the mission for 12 cents. That's a good bargain for the American taxpayer.

BEBAN: Rice says that under her watch, the U.S. will mend fences with the U.N. and bolster peacekeeping.

Is this a moment for the United States to his a reset button with the United Nations?

RICE: I think this is a term that's gotten some use in other contexts, and yes, it is a moment for the United States to renew its leadership internationally, and a moment to see that manifest here in the United Nations.

BEBAN: What specifically is the U.S. going to do help rebuild peacekeeping?

RICE: As I mentioned, there's a supply and demand gap, there is something of a quality gap. And the United States can increase and sustain our support for the training and equipping of soldiers and specialized units from countries that are able and willing to contribute them. We can play a much more, uh effective roll to ensure the mandates given these operations are achievable, well crafted and scoped so that we're not asking the organization in the future to take on responsibilities that we can't reasonably expect it to fulfill.

BEBAN: But what we're not going to see is American combat troops on the ground in a U.N. mission. That hasn't happened since black hawk down... the Somalia debacle of 1993.

And so the U.N. must continue to rely on countries willing to send troops. And here's where the problem can get even worse... some of these countries actually restrict what their troops can do and where they can go... before they're even deployed.

VAN WOUDENBERG: And it's there that some of the troubles start, right? So we have some troop contributing countries who will say 'yes, well I'll send this many but only to this area.' Or 'I will send this many but not with helicopters.' And so then we find that it's a patched-together U.N. peacekeeping operation, with all of the faults that we see in the field in Congo.

BEBAN: It can be a logistical nightmare for commanders in the field who are sometimes at the mercy of other countries' rules.

MONTANER: I understand that some of them, they cannot fly in the night. And which is of course a constraint for the military. Because if you have a risky mission you need to be extra people in the night you have to. But is the way the U.N. is. I am afraid that I cannot go further now on this issue.

BEBAN: Maybe the colonel can't go further, but his bosses are both pretty frank about how these deals can drag down a mission.

DOSS: I get very frustrated myself and I'm on the phone and banging away there. We have a memorandum of agreement with every country that sends troops to the mission and we have many countries here. That regulates where they're going to be, what they're going to do, how they're going to equipped and so forth. If we want to change that we have to consult that country. That takes time.

BEBAN: But time is exactly what this man says the U.N. does not have.

CAMMAERT: You have the old days of peacekeeping and you have the peacekeeping anno 2009.

BEBAN: Dutch Major general Patrick Cammaert is fighting his own battle to reform U.N. peacekeeping - bringing a soldier's perspective to the current crisis.

CAMMAERT: In peacekeeping you are not launching a war. But I always said in order to keep the peace, one has to enforce it sometimes.

BEBAN: Cammaert is now retired from active duty and lives in the Hague, but he speaks from years of experience wearing the blue beret of a U.N. peacekeeper: in New York, Cambodia, Bosnia... and for two years as commander of U.N. troops in eastern Congo.

That's where he pushed his mandate to the limit... launching aggressive and pro-active operations he says prompted 18,000 rebels to turn in their weapons.

General Cammaert left the Congo before the Kiwanja massacre. Today, he is in disbelief over the failures at the heart of his old mission. He's convinced that if the U.N. wants to avoid another Kiwanja, then commanders must restore the active and engaged soldiering he demanded in the field.

CAMMAERT: There were all sorts of excuses later why they didn't do it. But in my view it is not so much the immediate uh, issue there, it is, you, one should start studying the reasons why they didn't act a few months before. Because what was then the routine: were the peacekeepers during the night on foot, patrolling, in that village? Yes or no? Were they seeing what was going on, were they in contact with the local leaders and the clan leaders and the village elderly so that they knew what was going on? Or were they driving in an APC from A to B and had no contact with the local population?

BEBAN: So the explanation of we didn't have enough men, we didn't have a good translator, we didn't know what was going on, that's not good enough.

CAMMAERT: For me it's not good enough. And I know because I've been there. It is not good enough.

BEBAN: Do you think commanders are too afraid of having body bags come home?

CAMMAERT: I think that is certainly one of the reasons of their hesitations to really implement a mandate.

BEBAN: Cammaert is adamant that U.N. leadership make it loud and clear that protecting the peace is risky business, and that sometimes, U.N. troops will die.

CAMMAERT: Talk to the commanders, talk to the troops, inform troop contributing countries and say "why are you sending troops?" If you are sending troops because you think it is a good thing to do, then you should accept that once in a while you might have a problem. Because you are not going there to club mediterranee!

BEBAN: Another point Cammaert makes is that before commanders can succeed, the U.N.'s notoriously inflexible bureaucracy has to be tamed. Cammaert's own run-in with U.N. rules involved, of all things, helicopter doors.

CAMMAERT: I had 30 military aircraft, helicopters on that command. But the rules and regulations of the United Nations are all for civilian helicopters. So if you want to land somewhere, then the rules said that you land at a certain place, and you wait 'til you can switch off the rotor and then the ladder comes out and then you walk out of the helicopter. But you know that doesn't work in the eastern part of the Congo when you are after rebels you have to fly in with an open door so that you hover over a certain area. That is cursing in the church of the United Nations because that is against the rules!

BEBAN: After fighting for an entire year, Cammaert received special waivers... just to fly with his helicopter doors open.

BEBAN: Is the U.N. bureaucracy not allowing for these smart adjustments on the ground? Is it too slow to respond to changing conditions?

LE ROY: That's part of the reform I intend to conduct, and having some reform adopted by this year, is to try to give more flexibility to the troops on the ground, to the mobility and flexibility in the conditions in which they operate.

BEBAN: Meanwhile, back in Congo ... there are signs that the U.N. is, in fact, responding to its failure in Kiwanja. Many of the changes are exactly what Cammaert is calling for... changes the U.N. was very happy to show to NOW's cameras.

The U.N. force at the base in Kiwanja has quadrupled...and a take-charge new leader has been brought in... Colonel Ranbir, from India.

COL. RANBIR: So we will have a whole night patrol on next seven days in Mutabo, it's ok to you?

BEBAN: The colonel holds regular meetings with village elders and local chiefs... and he's started night patrols on foot, down the very lanes where the killings occurred.

It's not lost on the population that there is a new sheriff in town:

JAGDISH: Thanks for the confidence...we will try to build on the confidence.

BEBAN: But it is also clear that this confidence-building has a long way to go.

INTERPRETER: OK, they're saying that sometimes they are patrolling only in the vehicles. They need to make also foot patrol.

BEBAN: You want to see more men on foot here? You think that would

make you feel safer?

PEOPLE: Assent noise.

BEBAN: Perhaps even more troubling is that in just a few weeks, Colonel Ranbir will already be back home in India. His U.N. service complete. Whether another reformer will continue his initiatives is unclear. Major general Cammaert's own experience is not reassuring.

What happened after you left the Congo?

CAMMAERT: Well unfortunately there was no one to hand over my command because there was no replacement for six months.

BEBAN: There was no replacement for six months.

CAMMAERT: For six months there was no replacement, which I think was, was very difficult to swallow. So the momentum was lost, the momentum that was built up over two years was lost.

BEBAN: So where does all this leave us? A massive mission in Congo with no end in sight, waiting for thousands more troops.

A United Nations deeply in need of institutional change and renewed commitment from bottom to top... from member states to leadership.

And most importantly, the people in the Congo and elsewhere... desperately hoping the troops in blue helmets will finally be able to deliver on the world's promise to protect them.

Should we be surprised though, if we hear of another failure of the U.N. to protect civilians?

RICE: No.

BEBAN: No?

RICE: You can't be surprised because in fact there isn't sufficient force capability on the ground in these conflict zones to ensure that there will never be another instance of civilians killed in the presence of a United Nations mission. That's an unrealistic expectation.

VAN WOUDENBERG: I think this is the sad reality for the people in Eastern Congo. Who do they turn to, to help? Everyone seems to let them down. But yet they keep a degree of faith in the United Nations. They put up their little houses, their little tents, around the barbed wire outside of the base even though they know sometimes that the U.N. can't protect them. In many ways the U.N. is the only hope for the people of Eastern Congo.

BRANCACCIO: Covering this story took the team on an arduous journey through Rwanda into Eastern Congo. Follow correspondent Paul Beban's experiences through his journal and photos exclusively on our website.

And that's it for NOW. From New York, I'm David Brancaccio. We'll see you next week.

WEB FEATURES
Can the U.N. Keep the Peace?

Reporter's Notebook: Challenges in the Congo

Slideshow: On Patrol with the U.N.

Essay: Violence in Congo

Video: Lancaster: U.N. Peacekeeping "Inadequate"

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