The sense of chaos surrounding the EU Force in Chad grows by the day. After rebel groups praised an Irish contingent’s refusal to get involved in fighting and the government condemned their passivity, Javier Solana intervened yesterday to say that the peacekeepers are doing a “fantastic job” and can’t be blamed for anything. Right on cue, the spokesperson for the UN Refugees agency (UNHCR) in Chad blamed the EU Force (Eufor) for failing to protect its staff – which coincides with the government version of events. Here’s the UNHCR account of what happened:
Irish troops were fired at on Saturday while observing clashes between the Chadian army and 800 heavily-armed rebels just outside the eastern Chad town of Goz Beida, about three miles from where 430 Irish troops are based. The Irish fired warning shots. They then took up a defensive position around the refugee camps and internally displaced persons (IDPs) camps they are responsible for protecting.
The rebels advanced into Goz Beida and looted a UNHCR compound and house. Items were stolen including satellite telephones and fuel. Some of the staff were threatened at gunpoint and shots were discharged, destroying computers. UNHCR spokesperson Annette Rehrl said the UNHCR staff were left traumatised.
“The Irish troops in Goz Beida were not able to protect [UN staff] or prevent the looting because they simply were not there. They are here to protect us but they didn’t protect anything. There was shooting going on and they did not appear. Their mandate is to protect refugees, displaced persons and humanitarian staff, including the UN.” The UNHCR has now suspended its activities in eastern Chad due to the deteriorating security situation.
Well, that was yesterday. But here’s news just in from Irish broadcaster RTE:
Speaking on RTÉ Radio’s Morning Ireland, Irish Defence Minister Willie O’Dea said the Defence Forces had acted when they were informed of the incident and moved more than 200 humanitarian staff to their base, Camp Ciara. He said he had received thanks from UN staff on the ground and, this morning, also received an apology for the criticism that had been levelled at the Defence Forces from the UNHCR spokeswoman.
So that’s all good, although Mr. O’Dea has had to cancel a tour of the refugee camps due to the security situation. Whatever the truth of this episode, it demonstrates the gaps that still exist between peacekeepers and humanitarians in crisis-spots – gaps that the UN has tried to address through its “integrated missions” concept, but are bound to be exacerbated when you add other organizations like the EU to the mix. But as trenchant Africa expert Alex de Waal points out to the BBC, this isn’t a situation that can be resolved through better doctrine. With Chad accusing Sudan of assisting the rebels, he’s calling this an “international war”:
“The European Union force in Chad has been caught in a bit of a trap – most of the troop contributing countries do not want to get involved in a shooting war; they don’t want to be partisan. Trying to keep the peace when there’s no peace to keep is actually an impossible mandate, so the European Union troops have essentially decided to keep their heads down and stay out of the war as it begins to unfold.”
The troops may be keeping their heads down, but many European politicians – caught up with the “crisis” of the Lisbon Treaty – will want to bury their heads in the sand on this one. The EU is in a war and it doesn’t even know it yet.