Spiegel Interview with UN Peacekeeping Boss "The Way We Operate Is Dangerous and Problematic"

UN peacekeeping forces have never been so thinly stretched as today. Every six months on average, peacekeepers are sent on a new mission. SPIEGEL spoke with Jean-Marie Guehenno, 57, about the world's short attention span, finding troops for UN missions, and what might be done in Darfur.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Under Secretary General, during the Cold War, United Nations peacekeeping forces were deployed about every seven years on average. Now, a new mission begins every six months on average. Is there a danger that the UN will become overextended?

UN peacekeepers have more to do than ever before. Here, a soldier from Ghana helps keep an eye on the coast of Lebanon.

UN peacekeepers have more to do than ever before. Here, a soldier from Ghana helps keep an eye on the coast of Lebanon.

Foto: REUTERS

Guehenno: You bet there is. During the Cold War the Security Council was paralyzed, and peacekeeping was essentially preventing conflict from escalating to the central east-west conflict. Now you have continuous expansion. When I combine the military, the police, the civilians that we have, it is about 100,000.

SPIEGEL: And new missions in sight.

Guehenno: Yes, if you add to that the full deployment and the strengthening of our mission in Timor where we left too early, the complement of Lebanon and then the probable mission in Darfur, you go to maybe 120,000 to 130,000. Only the Pentagon has more troops on missions in the world.

SPIEGEL: What are the risks?

Guehenno: It is dangerous for several reasons. It is an operational stretch here at headquarters. It is a stretch in terms of finding the right troops for all those missions and it is a political stretch.

SPIEGEL: How so?

Guehenno: Very often people focus only on what is visible: Will you get enough troops and will you support them? But the political overstretch is a big issue. When a peacekeeping operation is deployed, it is in support of a political process, it is part of an integrated approach. It is there to help when a state has broken down and to help that state regain some kind of balance. There is no quick fix. The pressure for these political peacemaking missions has to come from the Security Council, but there is only so much time that the key leaders of the world can devote to an issue. Peacekeeping works in some situations, but it very often needs other ingredients. We are happy to do our job, but peacekeeping is not the aspirin of international security.

SPIEGEL: So the only important crisis is the one making world headlines that week?

Guehenno: There are so many big issues: Afghanistan, Kosovo, Lebanon to name the most obvious ones. The danger is that only a few of them will make it to the top of the list. The attention span is too short. For a state that has collapsed, like Liberia, it takes time before you rebuild the institution of state, before you have real reconciliation.

SPIEGEL: The world community lacks patience?

Guehenno: Sometimes the international community feels that, okay, we stabilize the situation, we organize an election, and that's it. The election starts a new phase, but it is not the end of the road, and we see it in Afghanistan. I was in Kabul for the inauguration of the new parliament in December of 2005, an incredibily moving moment. But this created expectations that now the state is going to deliver the goods, but the state doesn't have the resources to deliver the basic services. So, if you pull the plug too early, you are in trouble.

SPIEGEL: How serious is the trouble in Afghanistan?

Guehenno: I think the situation is of serious concern. Security is a key issue and I am happy that NATO has strengthened its presence. If they do not have security, people will lose patience. They will be disappointed with the government and then wounds can reopen when they are just healing. But this is not the whole answer. There is this fancy word of "governance," but for the Afghans or for most people in post-conflict situations it is something very simple: That the roads are maintained, that there is a school to go, that there are some basic facilities for health. UN and NATO have to stay the course because we cannot fail the Afghan people.

SPIEGEL: NATO has complained recently that it doesn't have enough troops at its disposal to do the job. Would the UN consider providing peacekeepers?

Guehenno: We are working hand in hand in Afghanistan. We contribute to the coordination of the reconstruction, we support the political process. There are operations conducted by NATO which are more war operations than peacekeeping operations and there is always a risk, if you are not very careful, that you are going to antagonize the population. So it is a very tricky situation. It compares with what we have encountered in some places in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where we have to be very robust with militias that kill civilians. You have to be strong, you have to be respected. At the same time, the success will come from the trust that you build with the population. So for NATO it is very important to be very, very careful in Afghanistan in the way it conducts its operations.

SPIEGEL: Would a peacekeeping mission for Darfur be similarly robust?

Guehenno: We are working on a political process to consolidate a real cease-fire in Darfur and then to back up this process with a force. I hope we have moved closer to that goal. The notion that you can just throw troops at a problem is wrong. Darfur is about the size of France, with no roads, no infrastructure. We will have to trade size for mobility, we need a very mobile force that can quickly react.

SPIEGEL: So will you stop the slaughter?

Guehenno: The notion that a force of 20,000 or 22,000 is going to resolve the issue is unrealistic. And if you wanted to deploy 100,000, well, you wouldn't find them.

SPIEGEL: In other words, the world remains incapable of forcing peace in Sudan even in the face of another genocide?

Guehenno: Peace enforcement is a completely different setup. To go into a country and enforce peace is a very tall order. And frankly, I doubt that you can enforce the peace in Darfur. I doubt that there would be the resources.

SPIEGEL: Bangladesh, Pakistan, India or Nepal have traditionally supplied many of the troops for the missions. Now you have German, French and Italian soldiers serving in Lebanon. Are the Europeans coming back to peacekeeping?

Guehenno: I think so. What happened in Lebanon is very good for peacekeeping. It was not a good situation to have one set of countries paying the bill, one set of countries making the decisions, and one set of countries taking the risks on the ground. It weakens the hand of peacekeeping. Now it shows that the key countries in the world are prepared to really take some risks to back the resolutions of the Council.

SPIEGEL: And you desparately need the better equipped forces that Europe has to offer.

Guehenno: By any standard, Lebanon was one of the most rapid deployments of a military force in post-World War II history. I doubt that we could have done it without the Europeans.

SPIEGEL: Before Lebanon it looked as though there was something of an unofficial load sharing agreement. NATO on the strategic battlefields like Afghanistan and UN peacekeeping forces in the rest of the world.

Guehennno: Yes, and that sends a wrong signal. Some crises make the front pages, the bigger headlines. But when I think of many crises in which we are involved, they are crises of the first order when you think of the human cost.

SPIEGEL: The political situation in Lebanon is very fragile at the moment. Are you concerned that the UN troops may soon find themselves in the middle of a civil war?

Guehenno: I hope not. I am worried about the political developments because our success very much depends on the broader context. The troops make a very important contribution because now we are sufficiently robust in southern Lebanon that any hostile activity would be much harder to launch. But the troops only open a window, and that window has to be used by the politicans. If the political process is derailed in Lebanon, eventually we would find ourselves in a delicate situation.

SPIEGEL: In the past, numerous accusations of corruption and abuse were brought against UN peacekeeping forces. How do you ensure that such behavior will not be repeated?

Guehenno: That has done enormous damage to the image of the United Nations. We are paying the price for having seen peacekeeping as a sort of exceptional activity. So you get people, you put them together, and you throw them in the midst of broken societies, away from their families in an unstable environment, in a stressful environment. And you hope it is going to work. What you need are very robust structures to make sure that professionalism is maintained. Today we do much more training, we have discipline units in 10 of our missions. Every case of misconduct is investigated immediately. Sometimes we have repatriated whole units.

SPIEGEL: Would you wish to have your own UN army?

Guehenno: No. It is very important that peacekeeping be owned, so to speak, by the member states. My concern would be that member states would say: "Oh the United Nations is taking care of that, we don't need to be involved."

SPIEGEL: But running around and trying to recruit soldiers when a crisis occurs doesn't seem to be the best solution either.

Guehenno: We know that the way we operate is dangerous and problematic. Shopping around in the middle of a crisis is not a very comfortable situation. We are looking for an intermediate solution where we would have much more solid commitments for deployment of troops. So for example, Germany could have a batallion ready to deploy very quickly, in two weeks, or a month. The member states could preselect specific missions, or areas.

SPIEGEL: Private contractors like "Blackwater" in the United States are hoping to create highly mobile units for hire. Is this the future of peacekeeping?

Guehenno: I don't think so. We make extensive use of private contractors for a lot of logistical support, but it has to be different for those who carry guns. Otherwise the signal would be: Ok, it is important, but not important to the point where I would want to risk the lives of my people. And if you fund 100,000 people at the rate private military companies charge, the budget would go through the roof.

Interview conducted by Georg Mascolo.

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