Dangers and Adventures in United Nations Peace Making


Robin Edward Poulton, Ph.D. – TRANSCEND Media Service

For TRANSCEND members to read and to encourage them to share their own experience of risk management.

On May 20th, 2017 an article appeared in the New York Times under the dramatic title “Seeking Justice, finding death.”  The authors Kimiko De Freitas-Tamura and Somini Sengupta described the killing last January in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) of Zaida Catalan (Sweden) and Michael Sharpe (USA), two UN human rights investigators. The two UN officials (contractors), who were investigating murders and the burning of villages in Kasai Province, were stopped by men wearing red bandanas, and shot. A video apparently shows them being forced barefoot into a forest grove, and then being executed. The NYT is sympathetic to this tragedy, but the authors miss a lot of context. They accuse the United Nations of using people who were “woefully unprepared” (that is the journalists’ judgment) for their task of investigating human rights abuses in DDRC.

People who work in dangerous places have to face danger and measure risk.

I think we all know about risk-management, and we know what it means. I do not know what Zaida Catalan and Michael Sharpe had done before they worked in DRC, but it is clear from the NYT article that they were perfectly well-aware of the risks they were taking.  Many people in TRANSCEND have practical experience of peace making, peace building as well as human rights investigations and enforcement. I thought it would be useful for us all to share some of these experiences and to explain the context which – naturally enough – a couple of well-meaning journalists might not be able to “feel” or understand. So here is my “context” and I look forward to reading the experiences of others.

I have reintegrated rebel fighters in Sierra Leone and Liberia, Mali, Congo and Afghanistan. I persuaded Khmer Rouge fighters in Cambodia to disarm.  I have sometimes used armed military escorts; but that imposes a formal and distant relationship with people, and I prefer to travel on the back of a motorbike. A lower profile can lower the danger level. I have also traveled with my wife Michelle (a humanitarian worker with Save the Children, and later with ChildFund International). The UN trains us to avoid land mines and to measure risk. We are not “woefully unprepared” – as the NYT authors suggest – for the “extraordinarily dangerous world” in which we work – but it is unpredictable. It is a high-risk business.  No one knows in advance when they may make a mistake.  It is misguided of the NYT authors to blame the UN for the deaths of these two UN investigators in Congo. Their loss is tragic for their families and their UN colleagues; and indeed for all of us in the peace-making community. These two courageous, dedicated people knew that the risks included even being killed.

We all try to avoid danger.
We measure risk, we make judgments.
Occasionally we get it wrong.

Lots of people do dangerous things: not just in war, but also for fun.  What could be more crazy than rowing across the Atlantic Ocean, or walking across Antarctica?  Mountaineers die attempting to climb high peaks, simply “because they are there.”  The Scotsman Mungo Park was the first European to reach the Niger River in 1795, crossing West Africa alone and on foot and then back again to the Gambia River and home. He was lauded. His book was a best seller. His second mission, leading a group of British soldiers this time, took him down-river in a boat past Timbuktu (where he was unable to land because of unfriendly locals) until he and his team were killed by gunshots from the river bank while negotiating river rapids what is now Nigeria. Soldiers did not guarantee Park’s safety.

If you look at peace making with the United Nations as a fabulous adventure, then the human rights mission undertaken by Sharpe and Catalan does not seem irresponsible. They were filled with excitement, protecting human rights in Africa. Their ambitions seemed more important to them (and to me) than climbing Everest.

Firearms are probably the biggest risk of living in America; but rebels are not necessarily the biggest risk in peace building.

In September 2008, I sent a condolence message to my daughter, Catherine Leila, after a UN plane in Congo crashed in the jungle. She was working there for the International Rescue Committee, and I knew that she must have lost colleagues (three, it turned out). I was also praying that she was not on the plane. Oof! Not this time, then.  The World Food Programme runs UN flights, and Catherine had taken that very same plane to Bukavu the previous week. I took it myself a few times, working in a British team trying to improve the Congolese police force. On the day of that fatal plane crash, by luck, our names were not on the passenger list. All 17 people on board that plane were killed; 32 out of 33 people died when another UN plane crashed in Kinshasa in 2011.

Last month I attended a memorial service for Valerie Stetson, a former colleague of my wife’s who died last February in a car crash in Cameroon. She is not the first friend we have lost that way. Africa is not the only continent where traffic accidents are one of the two or three most common causes of death. If you work there and drive there, you take a risk.

Life has become increasingly dangerous for humanitarian and peace workers. On the night of December 16th 1996 in Chechnya, staff of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) were murdered in their beds inside a clearly marked Red Cross center at Novy Attagi, 11 miles from the capital Grozny. A taboo was broken. Hospitals and the Red Cross were no longer protected. On March 30, 2015 in North Mali, six armed men ambushed a marked Red Cross vehicle killing Hamadoun, the driver and father of four, and wounding a colleague. Jihadist spokesman Abou Walid Sahraoui said that they had killed people working for “the enemy” and for “crusaders.”

So humanitarian workers and peace makers are now “enemies”?

NATO has made humanitarian work more dangerous, by blurring the roles of soldiers and aid workers. Military Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRT) in Afghanistan and Iraq claim to be “rebuilding” schools and health services about which soldiers have no knowledge, for which they have no training. Why don’t they ask teachers and nurses to run the army?

NATO’s PRT strategy has been a disaster. It allows politicians to make feel-good speeches and it flatters the colonels who are spending NATO or US money into thinking they are “doing good” – which they are not!  PRTs have done nothing for peace building and the PRT strategy has undermined sustainable development. PRTs mostly fund local warlords. They pay the warlords too much to build schools (for example) but actually the PRTs simply increase the power of the warlords. Where are the teachers to staff the NATO-funded schools?  The PRT development impact is puny, but the army has made life more dangerous for peace builders, because it is no longer obvious to the local population which foreigners are soldiers, and which are professional humanitarian workers.

My daughter Catherine Leila is the family’s third generation to work in Congo. Her grandfather Teddie, a World Health Organisation (WHO) doctor, flew into Congo in 1962 to help with a terrible famine.  He reached Bakwanga, South Kasai province, aboard a cargo aircraft loaded with dried fish. It must have been a smelly flight. He treated refugees suffering from acute malnutrition, including kwashiorkor and protein deficiency, running an overcrowded hospital and 15 rural health centers.  His grand daughter has faced similar refugee crises in Chad and Darfur and Congo (and later she has worked in Iraq, Syria and Jordan). How poorly our political leaders wage peace!  There is one huge difference, however: Dr Poulton in 1962 was fighting a smallpox epidemic in Kasai. WHO has now declared smallpox to be eradicated. Those are just two of the UN’s many successes: ending the Kasai famine, and eradicating smallpox.

Very few people know what people like us actually do; we are invisible to the Western media. Americans and Europeans only read about UN humanitarian relief when a Swedish woman and an American man – heroes both – are killed by rebels in a corner of the Congo jungle.

Were they unwary? Were they unlucky? Were they betrayed by the warlord whose crimes they were investigating? Maybe they did not realize how ruthless he was. The New York Times article describes Mr Clement Kanku as a minister for development, but mainly he is a warlord. Warlords, by definition, are dangerous. But they are the people we have to deal with, when we are trying to build peace. I have been hugged and fêted by men I know are murderers. Does it make me feel good? Not at all. But if I want to contribute to peace, I have to negotiate with people like that. And if I get it wrong, I could be the next victim of a bullet or a car crash. Of course I could. We all could. We measure risk, and we hope we get it right.

The Michael Sharpe – Zaida Catalan adventure ended in tragedy. We present our deepest condolences to their families and to all their Congolese friends and MONUSCO colleagues. Perhaps they misjudged their level of risk; in fact they obviously did. Yet NYT journalists should not second-guess decisions made by United Nations officials working in the field.  If there is a lesson to be drawn from this sad story, it is that UN peace operations need more resources, in order that their staff shall be safer and better equipped.


Robin Edward Poulton, Ph.D. is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace, Development and Environment and has been a consultant-advisor to the UN, EU and numerous governments. He is a sometime faculty member of the European Peace University (Austria) and Virginia Commonwealth University (USA), and Senior Fellow of UNIDIR Geneva (United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research). He is Managing Partner of EPES Mandala Consulting. repoulton@epesmandala.com


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 12 Jun 2017.

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