Back at The Seminal, Alex Thurston, citing UN peacekeeping missions’ struggles in places like Darfur, Ethiopia-Eritrea, and Somalia, last week opined that “criticizing the UN sometimes feels like the equivalent of beating up a cripple.” Well, he’s right in that many commentators — including himself, on occasion — do often take up the chance to criticize the UN, using it as a convenient scapegoat for Member States’ own individual failures. When a complex problem arises, and the international community’s response is decried as insufficient, the simple answer is to toss the UN under the bus and look the other way.

Not only is this tactic a deplorably crass — and self-defeating — oversimplification, but it also frequently distorts the facts under which the UN is operating. Take the example of the recently shut down mission in Ethiopia-Eritrea. If the UN is “crippled” in its position straddling this contentious border region, it is only because the governments of Ethiopia and Eritrea decided to cripple it, flouting international agreements and depriving it of fuel. In Darfur, too, the host government has persistently made UNAMID’s effective operation a practical impossibility. Are peacekeepers to be expected to take on host governments with force? In both of these instances, fault lies with the offending obstructionists — as well as with the individual member states that allow such manipulation to occur unchecked.Alex does have a legitimate gripe, though:

From an outsider perspective, it feels like UN missions in the post-Cold War period, especially in Africa, have suffered from a lack of precisely defined goals. They enter into missions without a clear framework, stumble, and then are forced to make an embarrassing exit. That’s what happened in Somalia in 1993-5, and that’s what’s happening in the Horn now. At the very least, they have a problem interfacing with the public and communicating to us exactly what they achieve – or try to achieve – in these situations.

[snip]

Is it a question of overreach, and should they set more modest goals? It’s hard to see what the point is of deploying 9,000 troops to stop a genocide, or 1,700 troops to prevent a war, when those numbers are clearly inadequate. I honor the men and women who serve in such difficult circumstances, but in the broader picture it seems their presence is largely symbolic.

Setting up missions with a mandate they cannot possibly carry out, with troop levels they cannot possibly reach, and in conditions in which they will only face hostility and violence — or, in the words of the former AU mediator in Darfur, pursuing “peacekeeping on the cheap” — is a serious problem that the Security Council will have to get over. Peacekeepers need a peace to keep, and it is not their job to create this peace. A distinction must be drawn between their function and that of the Security Council — or, more specifically, the countries that comprise it, and even more pointedly, those that have significant influence in bringing peace to certain regions.

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