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The United Nations faces a serious dilemma when carrying out peacekeeping operations.  It must weigh its responsibility to protect human rights against the practical need to act with local partners to conduct peacekeeping operations. While these are not mutually exclusive, this tension has given way to criticisms and concerns about both the efficacy of peacekeeping operations and the UN’s commitment to upholding human rights.

UN peacekeepers have been deployed throughout the world since 1948. In 2009, 90,200 uniformed personnel from 120 countries served in UN peacekeeping operations. The UN relies on its Member States to voluntarily provide personnel for peacekeeping operations, but it must also rely on local partners to provide support and guidance during an operation. This practical reality has sometimes made it difficult to uphold human rights while carrying out peacekeeping operations. UN peacekeepers have been accused of committing crimes such as sexual abuse, child abuse, and rape. Human rights groups have called for strict accountability and zero-tolerance in such instances, especially with regards to sexual abuse of children. In response, UN spokesman Nick Birnback said that personnel would be made aware that the UN is committed to “zero complacency when credible allegations are raised and zero impunity when we find that there has been malfeasance that’s occurred.” Even so, he deemed it impossible to ensure “zero incidents” within the UN organization of up to 200,000 members worldwide.

Further problems occur when the UN must choose with whom to partner and which side to support during peacekeeping and peace enforcement operations. As recent events in Congo have shown, supporting one side of a conflict, even the side the international community wants to prevail, can result in the UN tacitly supporting human rights abuses. The UN is supporting the Congolese army in its fight against Rwandan Hutu rebels in an effort to support stability in the region and to prevent the rebels from seizing mineral resources in Congo’s east. This peacekeeping operation, named MONUC, is the largest in the world.

According to a detailed report by Human Rights Watch, the UN supported Congolese military has killed at least 1,400 civilians and committed a number of rapes. As a result of these revelations and of pressure from within the UN and external rights groups, the UN has been conditioning its support of specific army units based on each unit’s commitment to preventing soldier on civilian violence. In November 2009, operational support for a brigade accused of killing at least 62 civilians was halted, and as of December 31, 2009, the UN has ceased military operations in Congo’s east. Especially troublesome are revelations from UN internal legal documents indicating that the UN knew its choice to support the Congolese army could lead to human rights abuses. Despite these problems, MONUC has been reauthorized several times and is currently authorized through May of 2010.

As the events in Congo illustrate, balancing the need to act as peacekeepers with the obligation to protect human rights can pull the UN in different directions. Human rights groups, local governments, and UN staff are all aware of this difficulty and all three parties have suggested various solutions. They include ceasing support for peacekeeping operations when presented with evidence of human rights abuses, conducting more careful training and oversight during peacekeeping operations, and dispatching experts to peacekeeping zones to ensure civilian protection. The goal of all three parties is for the UN to adopt these solutions as policy, enabling it to better protect human rights when carrying out peacekeeping operations.

For a more detailed discussion of this topic, see Ensuring Respect: United Nations Compliance with International Humanitarian Law in volume 17 issue 1 of the Human Rights Brief.