Abidjan: the UN’s quagmire?

Peacekeeping-watchers are aflutter over the news that UN peacekeepers in Côte d’Ivoire have decided to take offensive actions against Laurent Gbagbo and his goons:

Helicopters from the United Nations mission in Ivory Coast have opened fire on strongman Laurent Gbagbo’s residence and presidential palace, the UN spokesman has told AFP. UN helicopters have also fired on the Akouedo military camp of troops loyal to Gbagbo, witnesses say.

Meanwhile, the French government says French and UN soldiers are engaged in operations in Abidjan to “neutralise” weapons used against civilians by fighters for Ivory Coast strongman Laurent Gbagbo. Under the auspices of UN Security Council resolution 1975, the troops “have engaged in actions aimed at neutralising heavy arms used against civilians and UN personnel in Abidjan”, France said in a statement on Monday.

This comes after a four-month standoff during which UN forces have frequently appeared scared of taking on Gbagbo’s forces.  Colum Lynch published an excellent piece on this just last Friday over on his blog “Turtle Bay”:

In recent months Gbagbo has provided the U.N. with a painful lesson in how to prevent a U.N. peacekeeping force from doing its job. Forces loyal to Gbagbo have unleashed a systematic campaign of harassment that has severely diminished the U.N. mission’s capacity to protect civilians in this West African country, according to internal U.N. documents obtained by Turtle Bay. An assortment of pro-Gbagbo regular army forces, youth militia, foreign mercenaries and special forces have blocked U.N. food and fuel deliveries, torched vehicles, heaved Molotov cocktails at U.N. installations, shot and kidnapped UN peacekeepers.

In private, UN officials and diplomats have been scathing about the peacekeepers’ performance in Côte d’Ivoire.  While their new-found willingness to get tough is welcome, it raises some uncomfortable questions.

  • Why were the UN and France not prepared to act more robustly early in the crisis, when decisive action might have prevented the predictably bloody events now playing out in Côte d’Ivoire? In retrospect, will the UN’s tough action now be written off as the outcome of earlier political failures?
  • Has the UN considered the potential implications of attacking Gbagbo’s forces after troops loyal to his rival, Alassane Ouattara, have been accused of carrying out a large-scale massacre in the west of the country? Will the UN end up being accused of complicity with human right violators and murderers, whatever its intentions?
  • What responsibility will the UN have if the battle for Abidjan proves prolonged and bloody, potentially involving further massacres by both Gbagbo and Ouattara supporters? It’s surely right to argue that Laurent Gbagbo has primary culpability for this awful mess, having consistently refused to stand aside, but could the UN be blamed for fueling violence?  Do Gbagbo’s supporters have the potential to turn Abidjan into the blue helmets’ quagmire?

We must hope that the UN’s use of force is well-calibrated and based on a clear assessment of its likely impact on the Ouattara-Gbagbo battle. Even if Gbagbo now falls, however, my first question stands: was there really no way for the UN, France and the African Union to avert this crisis before it escalated so far?  I am in favor of peacekeepers using force where necessary – although I’ve also written about the risks involved – but I think that this was an avoidable crisis.