Hostile Forces: Cruz Report Risks Distracting from Strategic Context

A peacekeeper a day after the town of Bunagana in Eastern DRC was recaptured from the rebel group known as M23. (UN Photo/Clara Padovan)

Rarely do reports on United Nations peacekeeping generate as much press and interest as the one released this past month nicknamed the “Cruz report” after the Brazilian general who led the high-level review of peacekeeping fatalities and injuries due to violent acts. This is due in part to the unusual bluntness of the report, which may be part of a new communications strategy the UN is trying out, but the message may not be the right one and presents risks.

The Cruz report speaks to how the UN can change the way it does business in high-risk environments to address the increase in peacekeepers fatalities due to violent acts—as other forms of fatalities such as illnesses and accidents, which still represent the larger number of fatalities, have been decreasing—witnessed since 2013, when the Security Council authorized the missions in Mali and the Central African Republic (CAR).

Anyone who knows General Carlos Alberto dos Santos Cruz and his personal experience with the UN would not be surprised at some of his conclusions that “hostile forces do not understand a language other than force. To deter and repel attacks and to defeat attackers, the United Nations needs to be strong and not fear to use force when necessary … Missions should go where the threat is, in order to neutralise it.”

General dos Santos Cruz indeed became famous for his leadership as Force Commander of the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) where he led the anti-gang operations in 2007. The election of President René Préval who had publicly called on gangs to “surrender or die,” the full support of then head of mission Edmond Mulet, the sophisticated information gathering (including networks of informants) and analysis mechanisms it had set up, and the well-trained, equipped (including small tactical UAVs and snipers) and, most importantly maybe, willing peacekeepers—the bulk of which from dos Santos Cruz’s own Brazil—all played important parts in making such operations possible and successful.

Such intelligence-led offensive type operations have not been carried out since, with the exception of the Force Integration Brigade (FIB) the Security Council authorized in 2013. This followed the fiasco of 1,500 peacekeepers part of the UN Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) not being able to prevent the (brief) fall of Goma in the hands of M23 rebels in November 2012. The FIB defeated the M23 within three months thanks to its Special Forces and Rooivalk attack helicopters of course, but also because of the political might members of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) brought to bear, with South Africa, Tanzania, and Malawi contributing the 3,000 troops of the FIB. This became evident when the celebrated FIB proved much less effective against other armed groups of eastern Congo, which these same troop contributing countries (TCCs) were less keen to go after. This is something General dos Santos Cruz as the MONUSCO Force Commander from June 2013 to November 2015 wrestled with as he endeavored to make the whole force, not just the FIB, more effective.

The Cruz report emphasizes the need for TCCs and Police Contributing Countries (PCCs) to have the right “posture, mindset, training and proper equipment… and be held accountable for it,” in other words to receive better mission-specific pre-deployment training and in-mission training, but also to perform well without caveats, and to accept repatriation in serious cases of shortcomings. Also key to operating safely in high-risk environments is tactical intelligence, “especially human intelligence, networks of informants,” as well as the right kind of technology, including “appropriate vehicles, special rifles for snipers, special ammunition, night vision capability.” The quality and availability of medical first-aid and Level 1 hospitals should also be improved. Securing bases requires action around them, and large footprints lead missions to focus on self-protection, with the added problem of UN administration rather than operations “dominate logistics.” Last but not least, the report suggests that the UN should not let criminals enjoy impunity after attacks.

While these findings are not all that new—many for instance already came out of the Special Investigation into the violence in Juba in 2016 and the UN Mission in South Sudan’s (UNMISS) response, led by General Cammaert—the novelty of this UN report is that it is the first to focus specifically on high-risk environments and to make such bold recommendations with a detailed Action Plan. Building a strategy for reforming peacekeeping solely around these operational aspects, and focusing only on the large missions (Mali, DRC, CAR, Darfur, South Sudan), however, presents risks.

The first risk is that such a report narrows the discussion about adapting the peacekeeping tool— initiated by the 2015 High-Level Independent Panel on Peace Operations (HIPPO)—by framing it solely in military terms and around the safety and security of peacekeepers, when more UN-wide strategic thinking should instead explore other types of responses in high-risk conflicts. As already suggested in a 2016 International Peace Institute report, “The added value of the UN in confronting terrorism and violent extremism is not to deliver a decisive military response but to support and strengthen preventive, multi-stakeholder approaches to waging and sustaining peace.”

This return of a militaristic rhetoric at the UN may simply reflect the increasingly militarized responses adopted by countries and regions in the face of violent extremism, despite the fact that these have long shown their limits. This may also unfortunately be one of the negative side effects of the UN reform discussions at headquarters, which seem to have re-polarized the Departments of Peacekeeping (DPKO) and Political Affairs (DPA) as well as member states around the antiquated sharp distinctions between peacekeeping operations and special political missions (SPMs). But it certainly takes us backwards in terms of the essential shifts the HIPPO had compellingly called for, including the primacy of politics, a full spectrum of UN peace operations to be used more flexibly to respond to changing needs on the ground, and people-centered approaches. We are far from the motto that “politics is the best force multiplier.”

Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who has called for a renewed focus on prevention and sustaining peace, should take care not to unwittingly give the impression that he is promoting security solutions. In an interview he gave on the margin of the recent African Union summit, the Secretary-General outlined the following vision for UN peacekeeping: 1) not all situations require UN peacekeepers and in some cases non-UN peace enforcement and counterterrorism forces are needed and should be financed by the UN when authorized under Chapter VII of the UN Charter; 2) “traditional” UN peacekeeping operations are still adapted in some cases; 3) in complex contexts where there is no political solution and where UN forces are targeted, the Cruz recommendations should be implemented and mandates should be refocused on supporting a political solution and the protection of civilians. While the third option seems to bring a bit of the politics back, there is an inherent tension there.

The fact that the Cruz report discusses force and its use solely “to deter and repel attacks” against the UN itself indeed risks distracting from the primary purpose of a UN mission, which should be to create and support the condition of a political process, however imperfect.

That said, there are instances when military force can be leveraged at the tactical level to support a political process, provided peacekeepers have the means to prevent spoilers from derailing and/or to incentivize others to join the process. But to do this well requires much of the same things the Cruz report calls for, and TCCs should not get the impression that the “change in the way we are doing business” only applies to high-risk environments and for the sole purpose of improving the safety and security of their own troops. This change needs to happen in all missions in order to deliver on mandates, but frankly also to rebuild the credibility of UN peacekeepers.

But the Cruz report presents another risk by seemingly not distinguishing between very different types of “hostile forces” and contexts. While the UN may have been able to deter and repel the recent deadly attack against Tanzanian peacekeepers in the Congo—the subject of an ongoing special investigation led by Dmitry Titov—through proper camp protection and the suggested proactive posture, joint offensive operations with the Congolese armed forces have also tended to provoke reprisal attacks against innocent residents and UN peacekeepers. And such posture may not be sufficient in CAR where another special investigation led by General Amoussou concluded that in addition to greater operational readiness of TCCs, the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in CAR’s (MINUSCA) “operational response should [also] be better aligned to and supported by its political engagement.”

Because the reality is that while the use of force may help punctually, most of these armed groups are better dealt with politically in the medium run. But if the UN goes on the offensive, the space for talking to all parties to a conflict risks narrowing as it generally compromises the mission’s impartiality—as it is perceived as siding with often contested host governments—, and peacekeepers are no longer considered protected under the international law of armed conflict.

In a context like Mali, it is even more questionable whether the constant attacks on UN convoys and camps could effectively be deterred. The UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) has proven a certain ability to adapt to this environment through counter-IED training and donor-provided anti-mine vehicles provided by the UN Mine Action Service, as well as equipping of camps with bunkers and Ground Alerter 10 radar to detect departure of mortars. But so have the groups behind these attacks, making them more complex and increasingly aimed at softer targets. Logistics convoys and African TCCs bear the bulk of casualties when well-trained and equipped Western TCCs have not been the game changers some hoped they would be, contributing to the perception that MINUSMA has become a two-tier mission. The mission has not been able to get out of a situation it has been in for over two years now whereby 90% of its operational capacity has been dedicated to escorting convoys and self-protection, and has instead increasingly bunkerized, with civilian staff having limited freedom of movement.

At the recent Security Council debate on the situation in Mali, peacekeeping chief Jean-Pierre Lacroix stated: “we believe the time has come to reassess the assumptions that underpin MINUSMA’s presence, review its key mandated tasks against achievements on the ground and reexamine the Mission’s layout through a comprehensive strategic review.” The upcoming externally led strategic review should factor in the Cruz report’s recommendations, but this should certainly not preclude the necessary broader strategic questioning on how the organization can best adapt its footprint and approaches to the changing nature of conflicts.

Adapting to high-risk environments is about much more than military capabilities and posture. It is about recognizing the inherent limits of large stabilization missions, envisaging alternative nimbler models, investing in political engagement at all levels (local, national, regional), and implementing better non-security approaches. This is of course the shared responsibility of the UN Secretariat, the Security Council and TCCs, but the continued relevance of UN peace operations will not be judged by the ability of peacekeepers to secure themselves, but by that of missions to protect others and sustain peace by enabling political solutions through integrated responses.

Arthur Boutellis is a Non-resident Senior Adviser at the International Peace Institute (IPI), where he was Director of the Brian Urquhart Center for Peace Operations, responsible for developing and managing IPI’s programs and research agenda in the area of peace and security.

This article is part of a series being published in February by the Global Observatory on the report of Lieutenant General Carlos Alberto dos Santos Cruz on peacekeeping fatalities and injuries. The Cruz report comes amid a broader strategic review of peacekeeping missions, focused on how the UN can adapt to the changing nature of conflict.