Ideas: Fixing the World July/August 2009

Unleash the Dogs of Peace

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In November 1999, the United Nations Security Council authorized sending peacekeepers to the Democratic Republic of Congo. Since then, despite the growth of the UN force to more than 18,000 personnel, at a cost of more than $1 billion a year, violence and turmoil have killed millions more Congolese. Of course, some things haven’t helped, like the Pakistani peacekeepers who rearmed, in return for gold, the militia they were supposed to be disarming; or the Indian troops who reportedly traded arms for ivory from the rebels and bought dope from them in the bargain; or the contingent of UN troops who failed to stop a massacre of 150 people taking place less than a mile away. Even before that tragedy last December, Congolese had rioted outside one UN compound over the mission’s ineffectiveness, and the Spanish general newly appointed to command the UN force had resigned in a huff over weak political support and feeble military resources. And so it goes with all but the most routine UN peacekeeping missions, which are effective only to the extent that their host combatants allow.

There is a different, more robust approach to making peace in nasty places: deploy private military companies like Executive Outcomes, whose small, highly trained force defeated insurgencies in Sierra Leone and Angola during the 1990s. Executive Outcomes is now out of business. But as researchers like Peter Singer have documented, the private-military-company marketplace now fields scores of firms (including the U.S. giants Xe—formerly Blackwater—and DynCorp) that take in billions in revenue. Put them on retainer, and they’ll go where they’re paid to go—unlike every one of the 19 countries that had pledged troops on a standby basis for UN peacekeeping and then refused, in 1994, to send them to Rwanda.

We don’t condone “mercenaries,” sniffs the UN. But a system where the top 10 payers of peacekeeping dues (rich countries like the United States, Japan, Germany, the United Kingdom, etc.) rely on the top 10 troop contributors (poor countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh, India, Jordan, Nepal, Ghana, etc.) to do their dirty work sounds pretty mercenary to me. Countries that provide troops get roughly $1,100 a month per soldier, many times the salary of a Bangladeshi private at home—not that he’d see much of it. Critics worry about accountability of private military companies, since they operate in a murky legal environment. But their forces seem no less accountable than, say, the miscreant UN contingents serving in Congo, and they would certainly be more effective. Some UN relief agencies already rely on military contractors for security. Why not extend that protection to the populations they’re trying to keep alive?

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James Gibney is a features editor at The Atlantic. He was a political officer in the U.S. Foreign Service, where he wrote speeches for Warren Christopher, Anthony Lake, and Bill Clinton.

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