Global Policy Forum

Global Rules Now Apply to Peacekeepers,


By Barbara Crossette

New York Times
August 12, 1999

Overriding objections from a number of countries that contribute peacekeeping troops to the United Nations, Secretary-General Kofi Annan has ordered that all forces operating under U.N. command abide by international laws protecting civilians and governing the conduct of soldiers in war.

Until now, U.N. peacekeepers have operated in a gray area of international law, not strictly accountable to the Geneva Conventions established 50 years ago this week, which set standards of behavior for combatants. Only representatives of countries, not of international organizations, signed those documents. Individual commanders in peacekeeping operations, drawn from many countries, have been expected to enforce good behavior, and troops were supposed to be tried for infractions by their home governments. This system more or less worked in traditional operations after cease-fires were reached. But in this decade, peacekeeping troops, which are supposed to be neutral, began to be entangled in vicious civil wars that turned even peacekeeping into a violent free-for-all at times. Annan, who directed the U.N. Department of Peacekeeping Operations before becoming secretary-general in 1997, has been concerned about this trend since the mid-1990s, his aides said.

The secretary-general's directive, issued Tuesday in effect as an executive order to all member nations, responds to reports of serious human rights violations by peacekeepers in the Balkans, Africa, Cambodia and elsewhere. Some of the most publicized cases, involved Belgian, Canadian and Italian troops in Somalia from 1993 to 1995. But many U.N. operations have drawn accusations of theft, rape, torture and other abuses against citizens who may have already suffered at the hands of local combatants. Under the new rules, vandalism, including at archaeological sites and places of worship is forbidden, along with pilfering food or drinking water from local populations. Women are afforded special protection and the right to be separated from men and supervised by other women if they are detained. The dead and wounded left on battlefields are to be identified and the wounded assisted. "It is forbidden to order that there will be no survivors," the directive says. Land mines, booby traps and other weapons of indiscriminate destruction are prohibited. "Cruel treatment such as torture, mutilation or any form of corporal punishment, collective punishment" are outlawed.

The secretary-general's directive does not try to give the United Nations the power to deal with infractions, which are to be handled by national courts. A senior official said that the organization would make adherence to the laws part of the agreement drawn up with troop contributors, and would also ask governments to report on how they have dealt with offending soldiers. There has been a mixed record so far on punishment.

Belgium tried and convicted soldiers for torturing Somalis, in one incident by making young men eat pork -- which is taboo for Muslims -- and drink vomit and eat worms. In Italy several high-ranking officers resigned after a magazine printed pictures of Italian troops torturing a Somali and raping a girl. Canada disbanded a unit whose soldiers were responsible for the beating death of a teen-age thief and the shooting of other civilians. But Pakistani peacekeepers accused of abuses in Somalia were not tried. Troops from several African and European countries got away with forced prostitution and theft in Mozambique and Cambodia, and Rwandans accused West African peacekeepers serving in their country of sexual abuses and acts of vandalism that were never punished.

Some human rights advocates say that relying on the countries involved to mete out punishment may be a vain hope. Some nations are already threatening to withhold troops from U.N. operations. "I think it is an important statement for the U.N. to acknowledge on the 50th anniversary of the Geneva Conventions that its forces will be bound by the basic principles of humanitarian law, that they will observe the basic rules designed to protect soldiers and civilians alike from the excesses of war," said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. But he said that the provision giving national courts jurisdiction "falls short of current humanitarian law." "It doesn't require that offenders be prosecuted," he said. "Second, it limits prosecution to the courts of the offender's nationality, whereas the Geneva Conventions explicitly empower state parties to prosecute offenders whether or not the accused is a member of that state. Third, it utterly ignores the International Criminal Court, which is the obvious forum to prosecute peacekeepers if the national courts refuse to prosecute. Within two or three years, this court will exist."

The new rules were drawn up with the International Committee of the Red Cross, an independent international organization that works extensively in war zones and among prisoners. The wording follows the rules of war set out in the four Geneva Conventions, and Annan timed his directive to go into effect Thursday to mark Aug. 12, 1949, the day the conventions were signed. The secretary-general will be in Geneva to commemorate the anniversary.

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