Thousands of United Nations and regional peacekeepers in South Sudan may be the only thing now standing between the current disorder and all-out civil war, but it is far from certain that they will be able to contain the situation.
On Friday, the warring sides met for the first time in neighboring Ethi o pia to discuss resolving matters peacefully, but optimism was not running high. This led to the U.S. State Department’s decision to evacuate more embassy staff from the South Sudanese capital, Juba.
Meanwhile, the fighting goes on, some 200,000 civilians have been made homeless, and people are asking how it came to this. Why was the international community unable to anticipate the turn to violence? And now that violence has come, why can’t the record numbers of “blue helmets” — at a cost of over $1 billion — put a stop to it?
No doubt, there is validity to criticism of the U.N. for not responding with more alacrity to defuse emerging hostilities over the past year. The provision of shelter for the displaced population has also been pitifully makeshift, merely an administrative afterthought.
It may be, too, that the mandate for the troops should be more robust to allow for effective intervention. Forbidding the use of arms except in self-defense often renders the peacekeepers little more than over-equipped bystanders. On the eve of genocide in Rwanda in 1994, for example, U.N. forces were unable to seize an illegal shipment of weapons to a Hutu militia because it exceeded their mandate.
People also tend to overestimate the capabilities of an interventionary force. Ten thousand peacekeepers sounds like a lot, a whole army. But even such numbers can easily be swallowed up in large countries. Congo, for instance, where peacekeepers have for years failed to control terrible violence, is bigger than the combined areas of Spain, France, Germany, Sweden, and Norway, with a population of 75,000,000.
As usual, wisdom and efficiency may be in short supply, but blame is not. Yet, for all the shortcomings of the U.N. — maybe the Security Council would have focused better on the problems of South Sudan had they not been obsessed with Israel and the Palestinians —there is a limit to what outsiders can do.
Peacekeepers are not peacemakers. If there is peace in the first place, they can help to maintain it, keeping hostile groups apart, protecting innocent civilians. But they can’t keep a peace where there is no peace. They can’t prevent civil war or genocide when tribal or ethnic factions are bent on annihilating one another.
No doubt the international community can do more and better. But if blame is to be apportioned, no small part should go to the local belligerents themselves. Peacekeeping — indeed, peacemaking — begins at home.