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“Who will watch the peacekeepers?” asks a former UN internal investigator in a New York Times op-ed today. The issue at hand are allegations that a contingent of Pakistani peacekeepers in eastern DRC trafficked in arms for gold with a local militia. The allegations are serious, and at least one prominent human rights organization has taken issue with the way the United Nations has handled the situation.

But the op-ed today drives at a deeper question: what to do about miscreant peacekeepers in general? Right now, there are over 100,000 peacekeepers in 19 missions around the world. The vast majority are putting their lives on the line every day to help bring peace to the most troubled places on earth. But by the laws of averages, a certain percentage is going to be bad apples. The challenge, therefore, is to reduce the percentage of bad apples through strengthening procedures that ensure individual criminal accountability.

This is much easier said than done. One of the main hurdles is jurisdiction; where should Pakistani soldiers who commit crimes in DRC be held accountable? Principals of justice would demand that the crimes be tried locally, but most places where peacekeepers are deployed don’t have functioning judiciaries.

The other option is to send them home. As of June 2007, there is a new “Model Memorandum of Understanding” between a troop contributing country and the Department of Peacekeeping Operations which obliges countries to forward allegations of improprieties to national authorities. In practice, though, once a peacekeeper is repatriated there is no way for the DPKO to force prosecutors of his home country to actually take on the case. To further complicate things, the growing demand for peacekeepers around the world means there would be grave consequences for missions around the world should the DPKO refuse troop contributions from a country that does not adequately punish its miscreant peacekeepers. With demand for peacekeepers so high, punishing a major troop contributing country for reneging on its agreement with the DPKO may simply not be feasible.

One possible solution to the jurisdiction problem may be the use of on-site courts-martial. In a landmark report on peacekeeper accountability, Jordanian UN Ambassador asked Prince Zeid Ra’ad Zeid Al-Hussein, (a former civilian peacekeeper) recommended this option because of its potential to demonstrate to the local population that peacekeepers do not enjoy immunity and do not go unpunished. (And because troops would still fall under national jurisdiction.) Member states and troop contributing countries have yet to fully get behind this idea. But to the extent that scandals like the current one in eastern DRC raise questions about the legitimacy of UN peacekeeping operations in the minds of locals, there must be stronger accountability mechanisms for miscreant peacekeepers.

(Image: Peacekeeping forces at a ceremony in East Timor. From Britannica. )

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