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UN peace force scandal: the India angle

Richard Gowan | Updated on: 20 June 2015, 18:23 IST

The charge

  • UN peacekeepers, including some Indians, stand accused of exchanging food for sex.
  • Indian troops used to have a reputation of being tough, but are now risk-averse.

The bid

  • India wants to become a permanent member of the Security Council, but is unlikely to succeed.
  • China, a Security Council member, is using back channels to stop India.
  • China is also giving more troops, as are Vietnam, Indonesia and NATO countries.
  • Since the \'50s and \'60s, India has been one of the largest contributors to UN troops.

The options

  • India could cut back on UN deployments or pull out completely.
  • At one time, it would have affected UN missions, but African troops have now filled the gap.
  • India could also use the political advantage it got from previous peacekeeping contributions to bid for more power.
  • India should therefore reverse the narrative about its declining interest in UN missions.
  • It should also tackle the sexual abuse issues seriously.

United Nations' officials are currently grappling with a new report cataloguing widespread sexual abuse by peacekeepers. The accusations, which include cases involving international personnel bartering sex for food, are foul.

But for New Delhi, the problems with UN operations include not only sex, but also violence and politics.

Peacekeepers have recently faced serious attacks in several conflict zones, from Mali to the Golan Heights, and Indian troops have faced particular danger in South Sudan.

The majority of the 100,000 uniformed peacekeepers on active service now operate in countries with active conflicts. In places such as the Golan Heights, Islamist extremists now treat UN peacekeepers as a legitimate target.

A prudent India

UN officials grumble that, despite their long experience in peacekeeping, Indian soldiers have become dreadfully risk averse. Many have flatly refused to leave their bases in South Sudan.

New Delhi has declined to send troops to the organisation's two newest missions, in Mali and the Central African Republic, seemingly to avoid getting caught up in sectarian violence.

Indian troops once had a reputation as some of the toughest available to the UN, but are now rated among the most cautious.

For New Delhi, the problems with UN operations include not only sex, but also violence and politics

Indian officials counter that the Security Council has become ever more cavalier with peacekeepers' lives, and that the Council is giving UN forces increasingly expansive mandates to use force without fully grasping operational and legal implications.

This criticism links to an even deeper Indian complaint at the UN: the continued imbalance in power of the Security Council that allows the UK, France and the US in particular to boss peacekeepers about without committing their own militaries to UN operations.

The power gamble

New Delhi has launched an all-out push to secure a permanent seat on the Security Council this year, the 70th anniversary of the UN's founding. Although it has gained some momentum, it is unlikely to succeed for a few reasons.

China, which is happy to be the one full-time Asian member of the Council, has been working hard to kill the initiative behind the scenes. This means India could emerge even more frustrated than before.

So perhaps it is time for India to call time on its commitment to UN missions. New Delhi has threatened to do this in the past, like when it yanked its troops from Sierra Leone in 2000 when they fell out with African contingents.

With over 8,000 troops and police , India remains one of the largest UN contributors, but it is not one of the happiest

A decade ago, UN officials cited the possibility of an Indian pullout as the single biggest threat to the UN peacekeeping system.

Today, they are less worried. African militaries are deploying a growing number of soldiers on the continent, and are much more willing to take risks and use force than their Indian counterparts.

Even NATO countries, looking for new missions after Afghanistan, have offered to send troops to the UN.

Some Asian neighbours seem willing to take India's place. Indonesia has declared an ambition to be among the top 10 UN contributors. Vietnam is getting involved. China has sent its first full infantry battalion to South Sudan, even if its main interest is to defend its oil interests there.

What are India's options?

New Delhi could probably now cut back its UN deployments without endangering the entire peacekeeping enterprise and so extricate itself from diplomatic debates over its attitude to risks and the use of force.

But then again, why leave a party just as it's getting going? Would it really be wise for India to quit peacekeeping just as China and other Asian powers are upping their involvement?

What message would it send to African governments who would like to see the UN sort out problems in Mali and the Congo?

A decade ago, UN said the chance of India pulling out was the single biggest threat to its peacekeeping system

The Barack Obama administration has also made peacekeeping a priority in its twilight years. The President will personally convene a summit on boosting UN forces in New York this September.

On top of all these tactical arguments is a moral one. Peacekeepers may get in the news when they commit sexual abuse. But it must be remembered that they also save lives.

India has enjoyed an unusually close association with UN operations since it first sent troops to Suez and the Congo in the 1950s and 1960s. That may sound like Nehruvian nostalgia. But it also gives New Delhi a unique stock of political capital in the UN.

India can use that capital if it wishes. This would mean reversing the narrative about its declining interest in UN missions and even grasping the moment to launch an initiative to tackle the gross crime of sexual abuse by peacekeepers.

It would also mean compromising on some of its doubts about peacekeeping in dangerous places.

But if New Delhi made proposals to address the hardest questions facing blue-helmet forces - such as how to counter Islamist extremists - it could assert political leadership at the UN and show why it deserves a permanent Security Council seat.

First published: 18 June 2015, 2:24 IST
Richard Gowan @RichardGowan1

The Research Director at the Center on International Cooperation, New York University, he's a member of the editorial team for the new Global Peace Operations Review website which will launch on 22 June.