Will South Sudan reshape Indian peacekeeping?

Having taken a central role in the UN’s efforts to save lives in South Sudan, India should encourage an open debate – domestically and internationally.

Two names currently dominate discussions of Indian diplomacy at the United Nations: Devyani Khobragade and Sangeeta Richard.  It might be better to talk about Dharmesh Sangwan and Kanwar Pal Singh.  Khobragade is, of course, the Indian deputy consul general in New York who was arrested on charges relating to her treatment of Richard, her housekeeper.  She was formally transferred to the Indian mission to the UN last week, gaining full diplomatic immunity.  While her case has received immense publicity, even experts on Indian foreign policy might struggle to identify Sangwan and Singh.

UN Peacekeeping

This should be a matter of regret: they were the two Indian peacekeepers killed alongside another UN official and over thirty civilians by a mob in South Sudan on 19 December.  Their murder came in the first days of a crisis that has since claimed thousands more lives and put the UN mission in the country, UNMISS, on the defensive.  The seven and a half thousand peacekeepers in South Sudan – two thousand of them Indian troops – are guarding over 60,000 civilians on their bases.  This is an act of considerable courage, and may have prevented an already horrific crisis from spiraling to a far more appalling level.

Yet the crisis has also highlighted the shortcomings of UNMISS, which lacked the personnel, military assets and political clout to deter the South Sudanese government and rebels from plunging into war.  The mission has not yet suffered a humiliation comparable to that the UN faced in Sierra Leone – where hundreds of peacekeepers including Indian personnel were taken hostage in 2000 – and the Security Council has authorised other UN missions in Africa to send reinforcements.  But UNMISS will need a longer-term reorganisation if it is to move beyond protecting its own compounds to providing broader security, monitoring any ceasefire the South Sudanese manage to agree and deterring future violence.

This could mean substantially expanding the force and its military assets, such as attack helicopters.  There are examples of UN missions, including that in Sierra Leone, enduring existential crises but regaining credibility on the basis of significant reinforcements.  But boosting UNMISS will present major challenges for a number of important powers.  The U.S. and its European allies are concerned by the growing costs of UN operations, which sailed past $8 billion with the launch of the new mission in Mali last year.  But the state of UNMISS also poses dilemmas for major troop contributors, not least India.

India is, after all, still navigating the fallout from a previous peacekeeping crisis: the capture of the Congolese city of Goma despite the presence of Indian UN forces in November 2011.  As I noted in Pragati last June, this sparked a major debate over the limits of peace operations in New York, as African governments lobbied the Security Council to mandate a new “Force Intervention Brigade” to neutralise the rebels in the eastern Congo.  India, supported by other notable contributors to blue helmet missions including Pakistan and Uruguay, argued that the UN risked stumbling towards all-out war-fighting.

But, at least to date, the brigade (made up of troops from Tanzania, South Africa and Malawi) has been a success, helping the Congolese army defeat the rebels who had previously seized Goma.  It is not clear that this success will last – there are reports that the rebels are recruiting again.  But for now, the countries that backed the concept feel vindicated and some of its critics have become more positive.

India, however, has not been so easily moved.  Its ambassador to the UN, Asoke K. Mukherjee has continued to argue that UN missions must maintain long-standing principles such as impartiality and warned that they may incur more fatalities if they do not.  While this debate was sparked by events in the Congo – and linked to attacks on peacekeepers in Mali – its focus may now shift onto South Sudan.

It is quite possible that, as the UN works out how to restore military credibility to UNMISS, options similar to the Force Intervention Brigade will be put on the table.  It may be hard to ensure that every peacekeeping contingent in South Sudan is fully robust.  But a heavily-armed rapid reaction force able to move rapidly to back up at-risk units – and with a mandate to get tough if necessary – could be an added deterrent.  African countries might once again support such a robust option. Uganda has already sent troops and warplanes to back up the South Sudanese government, and may argue that the UN should have the capacity to put down future rebellions.  But as the biggest personnel contributor to UNMISS (with twice as many troops as the next largest, Rwanda) India will have a voice on its strategic direction.

Will India accept the need to give UNMISS extra muscle?  When the Security Council mandated the Congo brigade, it insisted that this was a one-off that would not set a precedent for other missions.  Launching a second such force – or simply authorizing UNMISS as a whole to undertake more robust operations – would signal a much more general change of direction for UN operations.  If African governments push this option hard, India might even consider pulling its troops out of South Sudan, just as withdrew its personnel from Sierra Leone in 2000 after disputes with West African troop contributors.

Alternatively, this might be an opportunity for India to revise its own approach to peacekeeping and peace enforcement.  The Congolese and South Sudanese crises, coming so close together, suggest that strategic environment for peace operations is changing.  There are few easy missions any more.  If the UN can get South Sudan under control, the Security Council will have to turn to plans for an operation in the chaotic Central African Republic, another case where highly robust tactics may well prove necessary.  There is a clear strategic logic for the UN getting into the business of peace enforcement – although only if it can consistently mount operations that are well-led, properly resourced and politically sustainable.

India, having often claimed a leadership role on blue helmet operations in the past, should be an active contributor to reshaping their future.  Reflecting on the disagreements between African governments and New Delhi over the Force Intervention Brigade, I concluded that “India’s failure to table fresh ideas on peacekeeping has left it marginalised.”  Having taken such a central role in the UN’s efforts to save lives in South Sudan, India should encourage an open debate – domestically and internationally – about how to recalibrate peace operations to meet new threats, rather than simply stand by principles from another era.  This would, perhaps, be a fitting memorial to the sacrifices of Dharmesh Sangwan, Kanwar Pal Singh and many other Indian personnel in UN peace operations both in South Sudan and elsewhere.

Photo: United Nations Photo