The Trouble with Titles: On Perspective and Opinion

My op-ed was not intended —in a meager 800 words— to clearly render the entire landscape of UN peacekeeping. The goal was to illustrate how responsibility —and the empty rhetoric that follows its invocation— demands accounting.


On Friday afternoon, I published an op-ed highlighting *some* of the challenges associated with international peacekeeping. Specifically, the piece tackled the unequal troop contributions when comparing the members of the U.N. Security Council (US, UK, Russia, China and France) and countries such as India, Pakistan, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Philippines, Bangladesh and Fiji. Troops contributions from the former group now constitutes only four percent of all U.N. troops, while the latter provide nearly 40 percent of UN personnel. This imbalance comes at a moment where conflicts are both increasingly asymmetrical and involve actors who pledge no allegiance to compacts of international law.

After the story made its rounds on social media, I received a few comments and critiques. While perhaps unnecessary to tackle them directly, I believe the topic is important enough —and chronically under-discussed— to warrant a short follow up.

On the title: For those familiar with the journalism world, titles are far more important and infinitely more hazardous than they might appear. But they are often the choice of an editor, not the author. In fairness, compelling readers with clickable, cogent, and captivating story titles requires a little bit of dark magic. But sometimes, the compelling can be compromising. In this case, when I submitted my final text to TIME, the story was titled: Prisoners of Peace. An hour later, readers saw this:

This headline ruffled some feathers:

For what it is worth (and this is clear for those who read the story), you’ll notice that I never use “poor” as a descriptor in the piece. Instead, I opt for terms like “developing countries” or the “global south” to broker the difference between the groups of countries I compare. These terms are not perfect and will (no doubt) upset those who, parsing language instead of intention, take offense for their own reasons. But to respond to @sallyyui directly: I agree.

“Poor” does not best describe the countries listed in the article. Few would (or should) argue that the differences between India and Rwanda, for instance, aren’t as significant as those between the United States and India. In addition, “poor” suggests that finance is the only measure of importance. Economics are part of the argument: poorer countries will have relatively less money to invest in military training, leaving their troops relatively less prepared than their counterparts. But money isn’t everything. Insofar as we’ve endorsed peacekeeping as a collective action with “international responsibility”, the burden of peacekeeping ought to be more equitably shared. This is an argument from principle.

On the question of agency: A friend/colleague suggested the piece may have sidestepped the question of agency. I agree. Posited as an op-ed, the story was intended to condemn. In this case, the indictment looked something like this: The West/developed countries is/are sitting back on its/their laurels while the hard work of peace is foisted upon the less fortunate in conflicts that are only growing more dangerous. This narrative shrinks the voice of these “victim” countries: it suggests the current imbalance is one where the less fortunate are merely “put upon” by the powerful — the cattle led towards the slaughter. This isn’t accurate.

For one, contributing troops has clear financial benefits for member states. Writing in African Affairs this spring, Danielle Beswick found that Rwanda’s 2010 participation in peace operations earned “reimbursements from the U.N. worth more than two-thirds of its defense budget” that year. These financial motivations complicate any “argument from principle” and belay the unfortunate moral architecture of international peacekeeping: states, regardless of their status, often look out for their own interests first —and opt to pull the levers of power at their disposal. After all, while Rwanda might contribute a greater number of peacekeeping troops than the United States, the Rwandan government also armed and directed factions of the M23 rebels in neighboring DRC —a group that U.N. troops (Rwandans included) were specifically deployed to pacify.

More to the point, just because Rwanda chooses to contribute troops, does not explain why their contribution (and the contribution of similar countries) must outstrip that of the West.  Inequality does not negate agency, inequality shapes agency. In the case of the United Nations, the inequality is clear.

On the question of understanding: A few hours after the story was published, I received the following response:

When I asked for elaboration, @DarcyPenrhyn responded with the following:

In fairness, @DarcyPenrhyn’s assertions are credible. A UN commander, often the most thankless job, must navigate the physical minefields of combat, as well as the metaphorical minefields of politics. These commanders are bound to the UN-issued mandate —and they are present thanks only to the grace of the host government and international backing (troops, money, etc…). These commanders also oversee troops from myriad countries, and these various groups arrive with specific restrictions on how they are allowed to be used. Some troops might not be permitted to patrol at night, others restricted to specific tasks in particular regions. In short, the logistics of a multinational peacekeeping operation can be crushing.

But @DarcyPenrhyn’s critiques pertain to a separate charge: that peacekeeping is, itself, an ineffective tool.
This is the most vital debate of all, and it is not without baggage. More importantly, though, it isn’t the central argument in my article.

But on that count, I’ll share a single thought: From Suez in 1956 to Rwanda in 1994, from 1960 Katanga (Congo) to this month’s mission in the Central African Republic, peacekeeping has been (and will continue to be) a half-measure —an expensive and increasingly risky band-aid hastily applied to slow the flow of blood while the staff seeks desperately for a competent doctor. Peacekeeping isn’t pretty, and it isn’t getting prettier. But so long as it persists, we ought not overlook it.

My op-ed was not intended —in a meager 800 words— to clearly render the entire landscape of U.N. peacekeeping. The goal was to illustrate how responsibility —and the empty rhetoric that follows its invocation— demands accounting. For what it is worth, today’s balance sheet —on the measure of troop contributions (among others)— reveals an increasingly worrisome debt.

Prisoners of Peace

Today, peacekeepers are more apt to serve in regions where there is “no peace to keep”; where the potential belligerents are non-state actors (rebels, extremist groups, etc…) to whom the rules of international law —and the logic of deterrence— matter little; and where Western (or “developed”) countries are loathe to donate their own troops.

Screen Shot 2014-09-12 at 4.49.34 PMToday, I published a short op-ed on last month’s kidnapping of 45 Fijian peacekeepers in the Golan Heights by the Al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front. Thankfully, the Fijian peacekeepers were released yesterday, but their two week ordeal illustrates a worrying symptom of a broken system: today, peacekeepers are more apt to serve in regions where there is “no peace to keep”; where the potential belligerents are non-state actors (rebels, extremist groups, etc…) to whom the rules of international law —and the logic of deterrence— matter little; and where Western (or developed countries) loathe to donate their own troops.

As a result, these blue helmets in the world’s most vulnerable conditions are primarily culled from the developing world.

While you can read the full article here, I’ve included the compiled UN data below.

One additional note, of course, is China’s increased contribution to the UN ranks, particularly during the last decade. The UN missions in Mali and South Sudan, for instance, have seen the Chinese don blue helmets with increasing frequency. For some, this willingness to deploy troops signals a growing “militarization” of their role in Africa. For others, however, their contributions note a shift in political rhetoric: once a strict proponent of state sovereignty with an acute allergy towards principles of foreign intervention, China has become more dependent on their international connections. Measures to ensure stability, then, are in line with their own political interests. But we’ll leave that debate for another day.

Continued Erosion: The Central African Republic

Others are quick to note that all parties have avowed violence, and that using the genocide label (for political purposes or otherwise) isn’t as important as preventing it all together.

Hour-long drives through series of empty villages; an abandoned baby, left by parents who fled too quickly in fear of rebels: these are just two of the observations from the deteriorating Central African Republic. In a Foreign Policy article by Peter Bouckaert, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, CAR appears lost to violent rebel forces —known by their name, Séléka— since their overflow of the government last spring.

The photographs by Marcus Bleasdale, which accompany the FP article, deftly capture the country’s disintegration through the people shredded by it.

According to UN Dispatch, the violence has left 1.1 million struggling to meet basic needs (30 percent of the total population), 400,000 people waging the war of survival in the CAR’s dense forest, and have stewarded instances of “genocide talk” from a number of observers. The genocide tag, grows out of concern that Séléka —whose members are Muslim— has aggressively targeted civilians (Christian or otherwise). Others are quick to note that all parties have avowed violence, and that using the genocide label (for political purposes or otherwise) isn’t as important as preventing it all together.
Throughout the slow-burning conflict, many prominent talking heads have called for international response —Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, Former Sec. General Kofi Annan, French President François Hollande, and US Ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, have all expressed impatience with the continued instability in the country. Ambassador Power, speaking in September, discussed the potential consequence of inaction:
“My government views recent events in the Central Africa Republic with anguish at the horrific degree of suffering, and we are deeply angered by the atrocities perpetrated by Séléka rebels against innocent civilians, including many children. We are also deeply alarmed by the prospect of CAR becoming a safe haven for violent extremists.”
In light of the recent US Department of State designation of Boko Haram and Ansaru, Nigerian-based extremist groups, as “terrorist organizations,” the crisis in the CARis even more important. With Boko Haram inciting “states of emergency” in Nigeria’s north, bleeding instability over into Chad, which is currently being affected by continued conflict in The CAR and Sudan, as Mali appears to serve as “safe haven” for violent, non-state actors in West Africa, we might be watching the dominos fall.
The question that remains, is what the US/Western response will be, given an tentative rapprochement with Iran (which is sucking-up valuable diplomatic resources), and the stale human disaster of Syria (which continues to generate little more than Tweets from Ambassador Samantha Power).

Broken CAR: The slow erosion of a state

Things are getting worse. That’s the message on CAR in a piece deftly reported by Tristan McConnell for GlobalPost.

Refugees in CAR. Photo credit: Nicolas Rost
Refugees in CAR. Photo credit: Nicolas Rost

Things are getting worse. That’s the message on CAR in a piece reported by Tristan McConnell for GlobalPost. Presaging the story for War is Boringback in August, I wrote:

In a state where political leadership has been subject to cyclical coups, where power is expressed primarily through the financial means to arm, train and sustain violence, stability will only be found through tortured battle.

That battle, however, was quick to impact nearly all of the country’s 4.4 million people. When I asked the local U.N. representative, Babacar Gaye, about the current state of affairs, his response was dire:

We are in a situation of lawlessness. You have the appearance of power, you have the appearance of a country, but the government has no authority.

Soon, some international actors were calling for action. France, specifically, noted that the CAR was on the brink of “Somalization”, an ode to same condition of lawlessness McConnell alludes to with the title of his new piece. And yet, after the Syrian chemical weapons crisis of August and September, Hollande seemed to walk-back a previous claim that French troops were at the ready. McConnell writes today (my emphasis):

France, which has about 400 soldiers in CAR, is pushing most strongly for moves to stabilize its former colony. But France says it has no intention of deploying thousands of its own troops there, as it did in Mali at the start of the year when it was feared Al Qaeda aligned militant groups were poised to overrun the country.

Finally, McConnell’s notes that CAR’s disintegration has led to further instability, and perhaps a new safe haven, for extremist forces from Chad and Sudan to the east and Mali and northern Nigeria to the west.

Long-term, however, the fractured nature of the rebels should be a warning. In the closing moments of my interview with Mr. Gaye last month, I asked his opinion of Séléka, the coalition group now working to dethrone the CAR’s new government.

“There is always risk of implosion of a coalition,” Mr. Gaye said.  “A revolution always eats its own babies like that.”

The question now is how many lives will be eaten in the process.