In 1994, as the Rwandan genocide got underway, Kofi Annan — then head of UN Peacekeeping Operations — searched desperately for a military that was willing to intervene. No one would. He ended up calling Eeben Barlow, the CEO of the South African private security company, Executive Outcomes, to ask if the company could stop the killing.
“Sure,” Barlow said, estimating that a team of 1,500 men could get control of Rwanda within four weeks and hand it over to the United Nations, for an undisclosed fee.
But Annan didn’t hire Barlow. Apparently, the only thing worse than watching a genocide unfold was the idea of paying a bunch of mercenaries to stop it.
Doug Brooks, the outgoing president of the International Stability Operations Association, an umbrella group of private contractors, tells that story to illustrate why the United Nations should get over its aversion to subcontracting peacekeeping to private firms. Brooks, who advocates outsourcing UN peacekeeping to contractors, says that companies can get difficult tasks done cheaper and faster.
“You can always fire a company,” he said. “You can’t fire the UN.”
This idea has gained traction in recent years, as UN blue helmets have been plagued by bad press. UN peacekeepers accidentally brought cholera to Haiti and ran a sex ring in Congo. Even their most celebrated missions have gotten off to a slow start, because of political wrangling on the UN Security Council. Still, demand for peacekeepers keeps going up, outstripping the ability of countries to deploy them. So what’s the solution?
Brooks believes the future of peacekeeping lies in private companies, but others insist that the answer is private citizens.
Mel Duncan, head of the Nonviolent Peaceforce, has been pushing the United Nations to tap unarmed civilians, which he believes can be more effective and less costly than blue helmets.
Duncan got the idea back in 1984, when he signed up to live in a village in Nicaragua that was vulnerable to attack by US-backed Contra rebel groups. The simple act of being there offered protection, he said.
“During that seven-year period, none of the villages where there was an American presence were ever attacked,” he said.
In 2002, Duncan co-founded the Nonviolent Peaceforce to deploy trained staff to hot spots around the world. They accompanied human rights groups in Sri Lanka. They try to open dialogue between warring factions in South Sudan. They play an official role in monitoring a ceasefire agreement in the Philippines.
Nonviolent Peaceforce’s philosophy takes inspiration from Gandhi, who was assembling a “peace army” when he died. It is one of several groups, including Christian Peacemakers, Peace Brigades International, and the International Solidarity Movement, that believes nonviolence provides better protection. Some volunteers pay the ultimate price, like Rachel Corrie, a college student killed by a bulldozer in Gaza, where she was trying to protect a Palestinian home. (Israel says the bulldozer operator did not see her.) But these movements have surprisingly few casualties.
“In South Asia, being a foreigner was as good as having an AK-47,” said Tiffany Easthom, who is in charge of 92 Nonviolent Peaceforce workers in South Sudan.
What about Rwanda? Belgian peacekeepers were among the first to die in the genocide, even though they had guns.
“We didn’t go from zero to genocide in one day,” she said. Unarmed peacekeepers might have been able change the atmosphere before the genocide and shame the most radical elements into silence. By the time the killings start, she said, it is already too late.
So which of these radically different views of peacekeeping is right? Alison Giffen, senior associate at the Stimson Center, says both civilians and companies have a role to play in peacekeeping, but they ought to acknowledge their own limits.
Unarmed civilians — for instance, human rights monitors — can play an incredibly useful role in some conflict zones. But they also must not insert themselves in places where their presence will make life even more dangerous to people on the ground.
By the same token, private contractors can be a big help when it comes to delivering food or logistical support, but they shouldn’t be soldiers.
“Actors on the ground may not view them as being as legitimate or credible as a blue helmeted force,” she said.
At the end of the day, neither civilians nor private companies can really achieve success unless they are part of a broader strategy for the country where they are working.
Just as we go off to war with the army we have, not the one that we might dream of, we keep the peace with the United Nations that we’ve got. And we keep pushing to make it better.