The Department of Peacekeeping Operations at the United Nations is, well, pretty hectic these days. There are currently 16 major operations taking place – over half of which are located in Africa. During the Cold War, Peacekeepers were deployed only to the world’s most conflict-ridden regions. Now, over 100,000 personnel are spread across the globe doing their best to monitor, observe and aid the implementation of peace agreements.
Susan Matthew, retired Chief Administrative Officer at the UN Peacekeeping Operations, has been deployed to some of the world’s horrific war zones; from genocide in Rwanda to Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait.
Notorious complexities in the modern application process to join the UN, says Matthew, reflect the growing complexities of the role itself. ‘It’s wide-ranging these days. We get involved in so many different aspects; there are people observing elections, training police, training military personnel, doing political negotiations … It used to be restricted to Peacekeeping, now the diversity of responsibilities for a mission are much broader than observing a ceasefire.’
Growing complexities is of course, in response to the growing number of missions that require UN attention. Responding to the many who speculate that Peacekeeping forces are overstretched, Susan suggests that ‘the UN as a whole is overstretched, having to put the missions in place and finding the civilian staff to provide the back up and support. Many of the Peacekeeping troops come from nations that have large armies – places like Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Egypt … the difficulty is administering all of these peacekeeping operations.’
Peacekeepers are employed from across the globe to delve into conflict zones with appalling human rights abuses. Many Peacekeepers, however, come from nations with their own calamitous records on human rights. Recent sexual abuse controversies involving UN staff in their place of deployment have made headlines and raised questions about how Peacekeepers can be vetted.
‘They can’t really vet Peacekeepers’, Matthew tells me. ‘What happens now is the UN tells countries they have to train their personnel in the ways of the UN. The UN asks for volunteers for a particular mission, and if a country says yes, it’s very hard to turn round and say, “OK, now we want to vet you all” – even if you have the facilities to do it.’
We digress to the international influence countries have over the UN. I highlight incidents in which countries have rejected UN orders to intervene in a particular conflict, such as Chinese troops abandoning their post in South Sudan recently.
‘It’s not necessarily the UN these other countries dictate to’, Susan tells me. ‘It’s usually a controversial situation that they’ve been asked to go into in their home country when they refuse orders. But…it doesn’t happen very often. You have to remember there’s not always enough military there to do a task. Not only that, sometimes the member states just don’t volunteer enough people – if the whole number of member states are being asked to volunteer troops, sometimes the state in which members are being asked to volunteer troops just don’t volunteer them. So sometimes a bad situation develops purely because of a shortfall of personnel, not because they don’t want to carry out the task.’
‘This is sometimes the best that can be achieved: a temporary ceasefire in the hope that warring factions can get together.’
Africa is the region that currently has the most Peacekeeping missions operating within it. Often, as in the Middle East, conflicts have origins in intricate and complex tribal disputes that seem impossible to resolve. I call attention to the scepticism surrounding the effectiveness of Peacekeepers in these long-running conflicts. ‘But you have to try and stabilise a situation.’ Matthew counters. ‘Even if it doesn’t create peace, you have to aim for stability so people can start talking about peace. This is sometimes the best that can be achieved; to stabilise or to monitor a temporary ceasefire in the hope that warring factions can get together.’
It must be difficult to resist taking sides within these conflicts – especially when it is clear who the perpetrators of the suffering are, and atrocities are out in the open such as those being committed by the Islamic State. Matthew made this very clear: ‘No, you don’t want to take sides. Your job is to go in and keep the peace … you shouldn’t get involved in what side to take. As a UN staff member, your nationality is (formally recognised as second) to your position as a UN staff member so that no special favouritism is given to your home country if you’re in a mission. In a Peacekeeping Operation, everyone is strictly working for the UN and not taking sides.’
I found the idea that Matthew has never mentally taken sides problematic. She reiterates: ‘You just have to follow the Security Council mandate. In the Gulf War, UN personnel had to follow the mandate, which was Saddam had to be pushed back into his own country. It wasn’t us (the UN) who fought the oil field blazes there – independent people came in to do the firefighting. No, I’ve never found myself torn as to who I should support in a mission.’
‘I’ve never found myself torn as to who I should support in a mission’
On asking what the hardest decision she has ever had to make is as a Peacekeeper, Matthew, surprisingly, found it difficult to pinpoint anything of significance: ‘Every day there are things you decide, but at the time, it’s just another job, so you just get on with it … When I was in Somalia in the eighties, near to the beginning of the armed conflict, we were trying to move troops from Kenya up into Somalia very quickly. I had to move them fast – I had New York telling me you have to move these people as quickly as possible. I was faced with a dilemma: do I go to South Africa, which was still under Apartheid, and get a South African aircraft from there which would come the next day? Or, do I wait a week for somebody from a different country? That was a difficult decision the time but in retrospect it was just an ordinary administrative decision. As it happened I went for the South African aircraft – sanction busted – and nobody ever said a word!’
Although no longer playing a part in UN missions and seeing the world’s most urgent humanitarian crises firsthand, the former Peacekeeper keeps a sharp eye on the most pressing disasters as they unfold, one of which is now taking place on Europe’s shores. Matthew outlined what she thinks are the main problems Europe faces when it comes to the Syrian refugee crisis.
‘A lot haven’t been processed. This is one of the difficulties. They have come across from Syria and traversed the Mediterranean, landed in Italy, then many have gone to Germany – but nobody processed them. And it’s usually the UN High Commissioner for Refugees who processes refugees; they interview them, they establish whether or not they are genuine refugees, or whether they are economic migrants. There’s also the problem with the Schengen region policy, which states that you should stay in the country you first arrive as a refugee. They haven’t done that.’
The former Peacekeeper sympathised with the pressures facing Europe, but was surprisingly critical of Angela Merkel’s response to the crisis.
‘How can any country cope with thousands of people landing on its shores, without any papers, without anything except what they’re standing up in … although some do seem to have mobile phones and chargers, and you do wonder just whether these are genuine refugees. So there are an awful lot of imponderables. It’s a terrible situation, but I do think on the whole the UK has taken the right attitude in providing funding for the camps around the borders of Syria … one hopes that when peace comes to Syria, people can go back home easily because of this … Clearly Angela Merkel didn’t give the best advice.”
There are high expectations of the UN these days – too high, in her view. Despite this, Matthew’s experience of being a Peacekeeper was no doubt eventful. With the high demands placed on Peacekeepers these days, and chaos seemingly unravelling anywhere with a vacancy, she is probably happy she retired when she did.