Foreign Policy Blogs

UN Peacekeeping Again Under Fire

If reports coming out of South Sudan are true the United Nations may be facing its biggest embarrassment since its missteps in the Democratic of Congo. The New York Times reports that UN Peacekeepers stood by idly while Nuer tribesman massacred fleeing Murles. Unconfirmed reports suggest that over a thousand men, women and children were brutally murdered while a well armed UN force did nothing.

What is disturbing about this story is that UN officials were tracking this development for weeks, even after a group calling itself the Nuer Youth White Army told the media that they were going to wipe out the Murle.

There seems to be an inability on the part of New York to effectively operate a remote operation with essentialy an all volunteer force and a rather dodgy chain of command. The Security Council is always an issue in these kinds of affairs as well. Voices calling for the scrapping of the current system will likely gain a hearing after yet another episode of ‘failure to protect.’

The very existence of the UN Peacekeeping operation may be a real obstacle for getting things accomplished. Since the creation of South Sudan was largely a project of various groups in the U.S. it should perhaps be the U.S. Marines who are protecting the Murle instead of a force of poorly trained and unmotivated peacekeepers with no dog in the fight.

If we can send some troops to Uganda why not to South Sudan as well? The U.S. has just as much skin in this game as the U.N. and as the blue helmets have failed to do their job then others more willing to engage should be given the responsibility before more people needlessly die.

  • Hi Professor Keating,

    I too agree that UN Peacekeeping could improve in many respects, not least in providing adequate resources to its missions so they may fulfill ambitious mandates. Having covered the UN – particularly the Security Council – for the last year, I witness and document these failures often.

    But I’ve also seen some successes. Indeed, without UN Peacekeepers, the atrocities that have unfolded on their watch – Rwanda, the DRC, Srbenica, the list goes on – would likely be far greater in number.

    The solution should not be to scrap DPKO, but to improve it. For one, UN Peacekeeping might be more cost-effective than the Pentagon, according to this RAND study:

    Regarding Uganda, I believe the US sent only about 100 special ops forces to train the country’s military. In the face of thousands of violent, heavily armed Nuer youth, 100 US troops directing a ragtag army likely would have fared no better than the Blue Helmets.


    • Keating

      UN Peacekeeping might be more cost-effective but that is certainly small comfort to the people who are dying because local Blue Helmets can’t get a green light from New York. As long as the Security Council is calling the shots we will continue to witness debacles like this one as well as what we saw in Congo, Darfur and most revoltingly, in Rwanda. There is a wonderful documentary called the Peacekeepers, which highlights many of these issues and kudos to the UN for participating in that project.
      As for the specific situation in South Sudan. The US was main pusher of that project but now we want the UN to deal with it. I say that the US has more of a stake in what happens in South Sudan than any other non-African country and we ought to be paying a little more attention. Simply trying to deal with the situation on the cheap by funding ill prepared Blue Helmets may look good on the bottom line but many innocents will die.
      Never again always seems to mean “after this one”.

      As for the projection of force…I think two Apache helicopters launching a couple of demonstration rounds would deter the Nuer militias, who I cannot believe are heavily armed beyond ak’s and RPGs. I am not saying that the US has to solve the world’s security problems but somehow South Sudan seems to be on our side of the ledger. The UN people were aware of this situation for weeks and were even tracking the Nuer as they made their move. It was not a surprise therefor the lack of response was a terrible strategic blunder that should really not be excused without comment.

      The UN, according to the Times report, have 3,000 combat ready troops in South Sudan and only sent 400 to the scene of the massacre. If that isn’t a strategic blunder what is? We need people there who know what they are doing.


Michael Keating
Michael Keating

I am the Director of Operations at the Center for Peace, Development and Democracy at the University of Massachusetts Boston. I also lecture in the graduate program in International Relations. I have spent much of the past decade looking, learning and hopefully contributing in West Africa, most deeply in Liberia. My interests are in the areas of economic development, political leadership, media and higher education. In a former life I was a Partner with the Boston Consulting Group and an executive with Bertelsmann. I can be reached at [email protected]