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Crucial Technologies for the Protection of Civilians by UN Peace Operations

By Walter Dorn 

Originally published in Global Governance 29 (2023) 245–258.  © A. Walter Dorn, 2023  (Early links: (Brill) (pdf))

1   Introduction

When UN peace operations began after World War II, the field personnel were military observers deployed unarmed to monitor cease-fires in conflict zones.1 In 1956, the first peacekeeping force, which Canada’s Lester B. Pearson envisioned as a “truly international peace and police force,”2 was armed for self-defense only and interposed between conflicting armies. After the Cold War and in the face of the ugly internecine conflicts, the UN needed multidimensional operations to support multidimensional peace processes and agreements. But the United Nations had great difficulty adjusting the traditional rules and tools to the new realities—witnessing genocide, ethnic cleansing, and other mass atrocities. The Security Council began in 1999 to give UN peacekeeping missions explicit mandates to protect civilians within mission capabilities and areas of deployment. To fulfill these new mandates, peace operations required new tools and technologies as well as new policies, tactics, and procedures.

UN missions have wrestled with the challenge of acquiring and using the proper tools to accomplish protection of civilians (POC) mandates. Often protection was not possible but, in some cases, missions could take POC action, thanks in part to tools and technologies made available by troop- and police-contributing countries that are simultaneously technology-contributing countries. Case studies provide positive examples to illustrate how technologies were used effectively, and how valuable lessons can be learned for appropriate future usage.

2   Attack Helicopters for POC in Central Africa

In the twenty-first century, the UN turned to the attack helicopter (AH) as its most robust tool for protection of civilians. As one of the two main types of military helicopters—the other being utility helicopters (UH) used for transport— AHs are specifically designed for deterrence and combat, concepts not traditionally associated with peacekeeping. The first AHs provided to UN missions were Mi-24s from Ukraine. Seeing the need for robust force in the Balkans after the debacle in Bosnia, the United Nations obtained two Mi-24 units from Ukraine for the mission in Eastern Slavonia (UNTAES, 1996–1998).3 India provided the same type of helicopters to allow two operations to apply armed force: first in the UN Mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL) in 2000, where they proved useful during dramatic hostage rescue operations; then in the UN Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (known by its French acronym MONUC), for example, to save Goma from attack in 2007.4 In addition, the UN Operation in Côte d’Ivoire (UNOCI) used Ukrainian Mi-24 AHs to prevent attacks on civilians by the forces of illegitimate president Laurent Gbagbo and to secure his arrest. During peace operations, these versatile AHs were also used for observation and transporting troops in addition to the application of lethal force.

Before becoming a symbol of robust peacekeeping, the Mi-24 helicopter had a different history. During the Cold War, the Soviet Mi-24 was infamously known to NATO as “Hind” and viewed with great concern as a “tank buster.” In the same period, the helicopter was an instrument of oppression by African dictators supported by the Soviet Union. The deployment of the Mi-24 in peacekeeping signified a remarkable conversion from a fearsome war fighting aircraft, typically painted in camouflage colors, to a peacekeeping tool, painted white with UN lettering. The aircraft remained equipped with a Gatling gun and pylons on stub wings for missiles and rockets, but the purpose, rules of engagement, and mind-set governing its use were all very different.

Like the use of force in modern peace operations more generally, the story of AH use has rarely been told, particularly as it relates to POC. The following paragraphs summarize one case, offering an overview of the successful use of the Senegalese Mi-35 (export version of the Mi-24) in Central African Republic (CAR).

The UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA) was given POC responsibilities in its initial mandate of 2014. So when two armed groups threatened population centers, the UN felt compelled to act. The Unité pour la Paix en Centrafrique (UPC) and the Front Populaire pour la Renaissance de Centrafrique (FPRC) were at war. The UPC along with its leader, Ali Darassa, was based in Bambari, while FPRC and its leader Azor Kalite had a stronghold in Bria. In late 2016 and early 2017, after numerous clashes, the FPRC moved to attack Bambari and remove Darassa by force. To prevent such an attack, MINUSCA declared a redline around Bambari—that was not to be crossed by attackers—and set up a UN temporary operating base (TOB) in nearby Ippy, which is along the road between Bambari and Bria. The UN also sponsored high-level talks with the leaders of the two groups to stop human rights violations, enhance POC, and promote peace, while at the same time declaring its determination to use robust measures to prevent attacks against civilians.5


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