The blue helmet caste system
U.N. peacekeeping has its own caste system. Rich countries pay most of the financial cost of keeping the peace. Poorer countries provide the peacekeepers. These days, they also die in far higher numbers than their wealthier counterparts. No country has paid the price as often as India. On Tuesday, India lost five of its U.N. ...
U.N. peacekeeping has its own caste system.
U.N. peacekeeping has its own caste system.
Rich countries pay most of the financial cost of keeping the peace. Poorer countries provide the peacekeepers. These days, they also die in far higher numbers than their wealthier counterparts.
No country has paid the price as often as India.
On Tuesday, India lost five of its U.N. blue helmets, who were ambushed by a force of 200 unidentified armed fighters in South Sudan. Five other Indian peacekeepers were badly injured. "We are in a process of assimilating the information about what happened," said Manjeev Singh Puri, the charge d’affaires at India’s mission to the United Nations. "These soldiers have acquitted themselves with bravery,"
This is not the first time that India — which has deployed more than 160,000 of its soldiers over the past 60 years in peacekeeping missions, more than any other nation — has taken peacekeeping losses.
Since the dawn of U.N. peacekeeping, 154 Indian peacekeepers have died in the line of duty, more than any other country. Other developing nations, including Nigeria (135), Pakistan (132), Ghana (130), and Bangladesh (112), have posted large casualty figures.
Compare that with the U.N.’s top financial donors’ death tally: the United States (70, although only a fraction have occurred in the past 15 years), France (108), Britain (103), Germany (15), South Korea (9), and Japan (5).
It was not always like this. In the first decade of U.N. peacekeeping, the majority of international casualties, some 41 out of 45 fatalities, were from Western armies. In the 1990s, the United States, France, Britain, and other Western powers formed the core of U.N. peacekeeping missions, sending tens of thousands of their troops to Cambodia, Somalia, and the Balkans. U.N. peacekeeping stalwarts that endured heavy fatalities in these causes and others include Canada (121), Ireland (90), and Sweden (67).
But many of those countries have since retreated from U.N. peacekeeping, preferring to serve in NATO-backed operations in Afghanistan, and leaving it to the developed world to stand sentry at the far reaches of the world.
Edward Luck, a historian and dean of the Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies at the University of San Diego, said that Western governments have found it more difficult to maintain political support for U.N. peacekeeping after suffering serious losses.
In contrast, he noted, India, Pakistan, and other developed countries have been able to sustain far larger casualties in U.N. missions. Pakistan, for instance, lost 40 peacekeepers in the U.N. mission in Somalia in the early 1990s, but it had little impact on its willingness to sign up for more. For many developed countries, according to Luck, participation in peacekeeping has a financial motive. "The U.N. pay scale is higher than what they can pay their own forces," he said. "I don’t think that’s true for countries like India and Pakistan," he added, noting that their peacekeeping role elevates their standing on the international stage. India frequently cites its peacekeeping service in making a case for a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council.
The United States, Luck recalled, largely ended its U.N. peacekeeping role in Somalia — where it lost a total of 44 soldiers — after the "Black Hawk Down" incident, an ill-fated military raid which resulted in the death of 18 U.S. Rangers and Delta Force operatives. Although the U.S. team was not serving under U.N. command at the time, the American public blamed the United Nations. In May 1994, President Bill Clinton signed a presidential directive that imposed strict conditions for U.S. involvement.
The Belgians and the Dutch suffered setbacks in Rwanda, where 10 Belgian peacekeepers were killed by Hutu extremists during the 1994 genocide, and Bosnia, where a small contingent of Dutch blue helmets were powerless to halt the mass killing in Srebrenica. Both countries subsequently scaled back their participation in U.N. peacekeeping missions.
Bruce Jones, the director of the Center on International Cooperation at New York University, says that the number of troops allocated to a given peacekeeping mission provides an incomplete measure of Western powers’ commitment to run risk in foreign stabilization operations, noting that U.S. and European troops in Afghanistan have endured far higher casualty figures than their counterparts in U.N. peacekeeping.
France, too, has shown an increasing willingness to participate in peace operations in Africa, even if it continues to deploy its forces under French command. "My bet is as the battle-hardened West pivots out of Afghanistan we will see a greater willingness by Western governments to participate in a major way in blue-helmeted operations and to take risks," Jones said.
Follow me on Twitter @columlynch
Colum Lynch was a staff writer at Foreign Policy between 2010 and 2022. Twitter: @columlynch
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