In the second of our series on peacekeeping, we look at Haiti and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) where the readiness of Blue Helmets to impose peace using lethal force marks a departure from the more passive missions of the 1990s - sometimes with worrying effect.
By Patrick Jackson
MSF treat men with gunshot wounds at St Catherine's Hospital
"Both sides were using very heavy machine-guns and a bullet can go through three houses, it can break through two or three walls for sure," says Fabio Pompetti, head of the international medical aid agency Medecins Sans Frontieres mission in Haiti.
"Last year we had a bullet hit the hospital and it went through two big walls, boom boom."
He is talking about fighting which raged when UN peacekeepers cracked down on armed gangs in the Port-au-Prince slum of Cite Soleil, home to nearly 250,000 people, where his team runs the St Catherine Hospital.
Between 22 December and 9 February, the hospital received 58 people injured by bullets and six who died after arrival. The bodies of an unknown number of other fatalities, at least some of them gunmen, were not brought in.
Two of the dead were women aged 18 and 20, and the wounded included six women and two children under the age of 12.
"I cannot say whose bullets hurt these people but what I can say is that all of these people were hit during fighting and clashes between the UN and the armed groups," Mr Pompetti told the BBC News website.
A former commander of the UN mission (Minustah), Gen Augusto Heleno Ribeiro, testified before the Brazilian parliament in December 2004 that he had been under "extreme pressure from the international community to use violence".
In January 2006, MSF denounced Minustah for referring to civilian casualties as "collateral damage", saying it was "inexcusable for so many lives to be torn apart every day in the crossfire".
Since then, and notwithstanding the civilian casualties received at St Catherine's, Minustah has been "much more careful to avoid killing civilians", says Mr Pompetti.
'Impartial, not neutral'
Maj Gen Patrick Cammaert knows more than most about the challenge of enforcing peace.
Gen Cammaert's career began with the Dutch Marine Corps in 1968
The Dutch marine has commanded UN peacekeepers in Cambodia (1992-93) and the Horn of Africa (2000-02), and has also served as military adviser to the UN's Department of Peacekeeping Operations in New York.
In early 2005, he took command of the 15,000-strong UN (Monuc) forces in eastern DRC, leading them back from what he calls the "very low point" of Bukavu in 2004, when rebel soldiers overran the town and committed atrocities.
"Monuc had threatened them... but did not live up to their threats," he recalls, speaking to the BBC News website after completing his DRC posting in February.
While neither Monuc's mission nor its rules of engagement changed substantially, Gen Cammaert set about enforcing the mandate on his principle that "UN forces are impartial and not neutral".
"Being neutral means that you stand there and you say 'Well, I have nothing to do with it', while being impartial means that you stand there, you judge the situation as it is and you take charge," he explains.
Equipped with attack helicopters and special forces, his Eastern Division took action in some of the region's most troubled areas. In the spring of 2005, for example, Monuc troops killed 50 militia fighters in a high-profile offensive in Ituri after losing nine of its own soldiers in an ambush.
But Monuc was, the general says, nonetheless "extremely careful in not applying too much force".
Monuc's tough enforcement policy was "reasonably successful", the general believes, helping safeguard elections in 2006 and strengthening security in the east.
But human rights campaigners, who initially lamented Monuc inaction and demanded robust enforcement of its mandate to protect civilians, are concerned about how the tougher approach may be evolving.
While not accusing Monuc troops themselves of harming civilians, Human Rights Watch (HRW) is investigating whether the UN's local ally, the new DRC army, may have committed war crimes during joint operations against rebels in the east.
HRW senior researcher Anneke van Woudenberg, who last year visited Ituri, told the BBC News website that the army is viewed by some as "the worst human rights abusers in the DRC".
Taking the long view of peacekeeping, Gen Cammaert believes the UN has "really come a long way" since the crises in Somalia, Bosnia and Rwanda in the 1990s.
He says Monuc's Eastern Division "can really match any peacekeeping operation of Nato or the EU".
Dr Paul Higate, politics lecturer at Bristol University, has studied peacekeeping in DR Congo and Sierra Leone and sees a "tension between peacekeeping as traditionally defined in terms of impartiality, neutrality etc, and more obviously pro-active, military action".
"Most peacekeeping troops are combat-trained and many do find peacekeeping somewhat frustrating, making little or no use of their military skills," he says
Hence there is a risk that more pro-active operations might be seen as having greater status.
At the same time, Dr Higate adds, the amount of risk peacekeepers are willing to take may be determined by a commander's fear that losing a soldier on a peacekeeping operation "might be seen to be something of a failure".
Have you served as a peacekeeper with the UN? Are you happy with a tougher attitude to peace enforcement?
I've served with the UN missions in Sierra Leone and The DRC. I am very optimistic the impartial approach of the UN missions works, slowly though. I believe impartiality is not a weakness. In addition, I agree with Gen Cammaert that impartiality is different from Neutrality. You can call them "Blue Bullets" or whatever, but one thing for sure remains, those boys and girls in blue helmets are heroes. Viva les casques.
Richard Musonda, Lusaka, Zambia
With the exception of the excellent Brazilian soldiers who actually challenge and defeat the tiny minority of armed gangs who murder, kidnap and terrorise the majority of good Haitian people, the UN soldiers are not widely seen as being effective in enforcing security. Partly due to the limited mandate and partly due to the countries the soldiers are supplied from. Minustah is not nicknamed Tourista for no reason! The US marines actually proved to be the most effective peace implementation force on several previous occasions.
Ian Jones, Port au Prince, Haiti
As the wife of someone who served in Somalia, I want to thank you for covering this and thank those who are speaking out about the frustration soldiers face in the role of a peacekeeper.
Heather, Houston, USA
I have worked closely with Monuc forces whilst managing humanitarian work in DRC's Ituri district and appreciate the extraordinary difficulties in getting the balance right between peacekeeping and peace enforcement. Unfortunately, it seems inevitable that any kind of enforcement entails civilian casualties, if only because going after vicious militia personnel - whose lives are characterised by unimaginable brutality - always has uncontrollable repercussions. Unless UN action completely wipes out militia forces - unlikely in the kind of terrain where they normally operate - survivors disperse and parasitize in terrifying style on local populations. Much as I respect the work of the human rights campaigners, they often seem unable to grasp the implications of a more proactive defense of the very rights they champion.
Nicholas Doyle, Kinshasa, DR Congo
Gen Cammaert and the mainly Indian and Pakistani UN troops can rightly be proud of having built up a security environment that allowed the elections to take place in DRC. The security situation I saw in Bukavu and Goma in 2006 as a long-term election observer was tough. Monuc needed "elbowroom" and respect from residents and the countless armed groups. Atrocities especially in outlying villages were still committed, the police and "national" army were not paid appropriately.
Ole Wagner Smitt, Copenhagen Denmark
I served with the Canadian Forces, in Unprofor, in Croatia in 1993. With the exception of the British Army, most of the other contingents were unprofessional and poorly equipped. It was hard to participate in peacekeeping, or peacemaking operations when those around you couldn't work in the cold, were there only for the money, or had chosen to back a particular side. I was in Bosnia with S-For in 2000 and the difference was like night and day. All contingents were very professional and there was a proper balance of dialogue and firepower to make things work. UN peacekeeping looks great on TV, but it never works. Like the Cold War, it's a thing of the past.
As an ex-serviceman who served on UN peacekeeping ops, I have to say that the UN's more robust attitude is welcomed, since during my UN ops, enforcement of the peace was required, and the UN's rules of engagement prohibited this. Your assessment that combat troops do not necessarily make good peacekeepers was totally correct, and my own experience of UN command (Op Grapple 2, Bosnia 1993-94) was that we were reduced to merely counting the bodies as atrocities were committed around us, when we would have been happy to intervene, despite the potential risk to ourselves. If the UN is to be taken seriously as a peacekeeper, it needs teeth to enforce the peace by all means necessary, and if that means "fighting for peace" then so be it. Had we been allowed to act in a more aggressive manner in Bosnia, for example, then the outcome would have been quite different, and in my opinion, many lives would have been saved.
I have never served as a peacekeeper, but I am convinced that a neutral peacekeeping force... misleads the victims that they are protected hence exposing them to the danger, instead of finding their own ways of escaping. Once they hear that a UN force is around, they tend to seek refuge in their camps, only to be exposed to the danger. This has happened in our country and other countries where so-called neutral forces have been deployed. I therefore support impartial UN force, although impartiality should be treated with extra care to avoid siding with one party, thus leading to a wrong decision.
Kazoora Naphtal, Kigali, Rwanda
We judge these men and women when they do nothing yet when they do something and engage the threat to civilians we go against them. Maybe the people who judge them negatively should spend a day in their boots?
Alex Maisey, London/England
I have served as a peacekeeper with the UN. I was also a desk officer of the Military Planning Service, the Military Division, the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations when Gen Cammaert was the Military Advisor. I was deployed to Haiti with the UN assessment mission before the establishment of Minustah... The key to stabilise Haiti still rests with the control of violence in several shantytowns of the capital, especially Cite Soleil... UN forces are allowed to use force sufficient to silence a source of deadly fire that is directed at UN troops... while the Security Council also authorises the use of force beyond self-defense to execute mandate of the missions. Should the UN troops hesitate to use force, the armed groups play down the UN troops and the security situation will get worse in most of the failed states. In addition, the lack of proactiveness damages the credibility of the Member State that deployed its troops. The protection of soft targets including innocent civilians is another issue the modern UN operations now face with. The armed groups sometimes uses innocent civilians as human shield or intentionally shoot them to announce they got shot at by the UN troops... The issue is more complex than just asking whether you are happy with a tougher attitude to peace enforcement or not.
Michio Suda, Tokyo, Japan
The idea that well-armed UN troops just stand about when people are being murdered in front of them is appalling. Of course they should go in and kill every last one of the people doing the killing but at the other end we should admit that these rebels or freedom fighters or whatever they are can only fight if they can get weapons. We should turn the really big political guns on those who manufacture weapons and that sadly tends to be exactly the same UN countries who are most upset about murdering militias running about the world. We have to pull the babies from the river but we also have to stop them being chucked in upstream, and only we can do the latter.
John, Dundee, UK
I served in Bosnia under the Eufor mandate which is similar. The frustrations combat-trained soldiers face mentioned in your article is very real and has a negative effect on both morale and effectiveness... How do these NGOs and human rights groups expect peacekeepers to confront violent, well-armed paramilitary groups? A floppy hat, soft posture and nice words will get you very little in the way of law enforcement and peace keeping especially in places like the DRC.
Jerome Byron, Gaborone, Botswana