THE PEOPLE OF the dusty eastern Congolese town of Mubambiro put little faith in the protection promised by the UN’s blue helmets in their midst. Fabrice Zahiga, a government functionary in the town, talks of a climate of “total insecurity” as rebels and a myriad of armed groups, often backed by outsiders, torment civilians. The South African and Guatemalan troops at the base may be among the UN’s best. But residents complain that they respond to attacks only after the fact, if at all. They avoid night patrols. Espoir Nyangi, who sells phone credit, laments that the peacekeepers do nothing. “They just impregnate our women.”

The problem is not new. In 2017 government soldiers killed 38 Burundian asylum-seekers within 150 metres of a UN base in Kamanyola, another town in the east. Some of the injured bled to death as they pounded for help at the gate of the base, their pleas unheeded. Had the peacekeepers simply made their presence known, people would not have been cut down “like dogs”, says a doctor who was wounded in the attack. Instead the Pakistani unit at the base, serving under MONUSCO, as the UN mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is known, emerged only after the attackers were long gone.

Such events cast a troubling light on UN peacekeeping. Many countries that contribute blue helmets impose tight restrictions—known as national caveats—on how their troops can be used by UN commanders. They dictate operational decisions such as the types of terrain the forces may enter, how far they may roam from specific hospitals, and when, why and in what weather certain vehicles and weapons may be used. The caveat system, and the broader aversion to risk from which it has arisen, leads to tragic inaction or, at the least, sluggish responses.

Rather than dispatch peacekeepers during the Kamanyola slaughter, for example, the base’s acting commander opted for “extensive consultations with his hierarchy”, MONUSCO later reported. Despite such horrors, the caveat system appears entrenched. In a shocking report on peacekeeping, published in 2014, the UN’s Office of Internal Oversight Services concluded that “force is almost never used to protect civilians under attack”. This was despite the Security Council’s authorisation of the use of force to protect civilians in the nine UN peacekeeping missions then under way, mostly in Africa.

In the four years prior to that report, the UN failed to respond to about 400 of the roughly 500 attacks reported to peacekeepers. In the ten bloodiest attacks, resulting in the deaths of at least 2,272 people, the blue helmets did not respond once. The report blames, in part, “de facto” lines of command between contingents and their national capitals, rather than to UN commanders. Ameerah Haq, a former senior UN official from Bangladesh, says that by about 2015 failures to protect civilians had become so blatant that the organisation’s blue flag essentially “meant nothing”. She says the consequences have been especially grim in the Central African Republic (CAR) and Mali.

It does not help that some caveats are secret, at least until revealed by an ignored order, says Jean Baillaud, a French former major-general and MONUSCO deputy commander. This secrecy is partly by design, explains Richard Gowan, of the International Crisis Group, a think-tank based in Brussels. Were a caveat database to exist, he says, it would probably add humiliating precision to the accusations of dereliction of duty traded between different national contingents in the same operation.

Secrecy aggravates a related headache. Officers who lack the courage to carry out an order to repel attackers sometimes invent a caveat on the spot, says Patrick Cammaert, a former major-general in the Royal Netherlands Marine Corps who commanded blue helmets in the DRC, Eritrea and Ethiopia. Consulting UN headquarters to confirm such caveats wastes precious time. Then there is the matter of fuzzy mission mandates. As Mr Gowan notes, ambiguity supports periodic assertions of a right to disregard an order.

Hope, though but a glimmer
Some change is afoot. The UN’s peacekeeping department began to reform the caveat system around 2015. That was the year a UN expert panel, of which Ms Haq was vice-chair, wrote that undeclared caveats “should be treated as disobedience of lawful command”. High-profile failures to protect have continued in CAR, DRC, South Sudan and elsewhere, concedes Oliver Ulich, a senior UN peacekeeping official. But, he adds, there has been more oomph for reform, including changes in tactics, policy and “mindset issues”.

Blue helmets from China, India, Nepal and Pakistan are among the most notoriously passive. But the UN is now much less likely to accept contingents that insist on big caveats, Mr Ulich says. Also, the UN is more willing to send home units that underperform. India’s contingent in the DRC, to cite one example, has been halved since 2017. This greater selectivity, Mr Ulich says, builds “competitive pressure” among contributors. Countries are paid, all told, about $2,100 per soldier per month. So, as a former MONUSCO official notes, some countries see peacekeeping gigs as “a business model”. Fiji, a small island-state, has contributed more soldiers per capita to the UN than any other country since 1970. Its peacekeeper salaries at times amount to nearly $10m US dollars a year, a fifth of its defence budget.

Caveats impede military response less today than they did half a decade ago, says Adam Day of the UN’s Centre for Policy Research. Jokes about contingents unwilling to patrol at night—they are “afraid of the dark”—are losing some of their punch, he says. Even so, insiders caution that caveats will never disappear. Miguel Cruz Pañero, who oversees more than 600 Spanish peacekeepers on a UN mission in Lebanon from a base near Madrid, notes that no country will let the UN “do whatever it wants” with its soldiers. Caveats afflict even robust war-fighting alliances such as NATO. In Afghanistan, American soldiers used to mock their less martial allies in ISAF, saying the mission’s name stood for “I Saw Americans Fight”. Among Western democracies, the caveat problem is most acute in countries with proportional-representation systems, which favour compromise among many parties, and in governments that lean left, says Olivier Schmitt of the IHEDN, a military college in Paris.

Peacekeeping will therefore remain a balancing-act between military effectiveness and the desire to have partners to share the burden and lend legitimacy to an operation. Mr Cammaert, who is now a UN adviser in Mali, notes that if peacekeepers die in an operation to stop the rape and murder of civilians, tough questions will inevitably follow from politicians at home asking: why were you not “more poco poco and wait-and-see?” On the eve of a deployment on one UN mission, he recalls, politicians in The Hague gave him “strict orders” to avoid a single Dutch casualty. He set aside the advice, reckoning that such a mindset would have led to many more civilian deaths.

Despite recent reforms, however, the longer-term prospects for effective UN peacekeeping seem dim. Robert Gordon, a former major-general in the British army who led blue helmets and now advises the UN and World Bank, thinks that growing antagonism between the West and China and Russia is reducing co-operation within the Security Council. This, he fears, presages fewer peacekeeping missions, weaker mandates—and more of the caveats that have contributed to “sloppy, bad soldiering”.