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Jan 28, 2018
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We'd like to turn now from strategic questions to examine the dangerous reality of peacekeeping on the ground. According to the United Nations, 56 U.N. peacekeepers died through violence last year. That's the highest number of fatalities since 1994 when the U.N. sent peacekeepers to Rwanda, Somalia, Cambodia and the Balkans. The U.N. report suggested that last year's figures are not an anomaly but rather an extended surge in violent deaths that began about five years ago.

To talk more about this, we called Conor Foley. He is a former member of the U.N. Department of Peacekeeping Operations, where he worked from 2010 to 2012. Now he teaches at the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. But we reached him in London via Skype. Conor Foley, thanks so much for speaking with us.

CONOR FOLEY: Thanks for inviting me onto the show.

MARTIN: Do we know why the number of fatalities is so high?

FOLEY: I think there's two reasons. The world is a more violent place than it's been in recent years. We're seeing increased numbers of conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and large parts of Africa, and the U.N. is more involved in conflicts. And one of the things we've been pushing is for them to be more assertive in protecting civilians to not allow massacres to take place. But of course, if they do that, that does put them in the firing line. And so one of the consequences of this new assertiveness is that more peacekeepers are dying, which is a tragedy.

MARTIN: The U.N. report states that peacekeeping missions in Mali, the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo account for an overwhelming number of fatalities in the past five years. For example, 15 peacekeepers were killed in eastern Congo just last month. So is there something about these missions in particular that is leading to this result?

FOLEY: There are two reasons. Firstly, they are more involved in protecting civilians there. They're doing their job better, and that's actually making it more dangerous for them. But secondly, they're being sent into places where there really isn't much peace to keep. And this is very controversial. Should peacekeeping soldiers who are not profiled, who are not trained, who are not equipped for war fighting be sent into what are essentially conflict zones?

And the Central African Republic, Mali, the DRC - there are ongoing conflicts in all three of those countries. And as the U.N. is deploying soldiers into those countries, the line between peacekeeping and war fighting is getting very blurred. And I think sometimes they're being sent into places where really they're not peacekeeping because there isn't any peace. There's a conflict going on.

MARTIN: President Trump has been critical of the United Nations and has stressed making American interests a priority. I'm wondering first of all if the president's perspective is influential in some way. And is there something that the you think the United Nations should be doing differently to minimize this loss of life, even as they try to fulfill their mission?

FOLEY: Well, the United States is the biggest single donor for peacekeeping operations. So President Trump's attitude matters a great deal. He's threatened to absolutely decimate the funding of peacekeeping operations. And if he does, that will result in conflicts flaring up and becoming a lot more violent. There will be more failed states, more training grounds for terrorists. So that's one negative. The other side of it is we have lots of internal debates - and some of the debates are quite technical - about the rules of engagement and the use of force, but that's constantly under review. Should we be more assertive? Should we be - have more people in the field? So these are kind of internal issues that the U.N. itself is thinking about a lot.

MARTIN: Well, I did want to ask you about that. For example, in eastern Congo, it's my understanding that the U.N. mission there has a mandate to pursue offensive operations against armed groups, which does make it a target of attacks. And so I understand that this is a technical issue, but if they are seen as combatants, do you think that's an appropriate identity for them, even if the purpose of that mission is to prevent a wider conflict?

FOLEY: It is quite technical. I was in eastern DRC in 2012 as rebel forces were advanced on the capital city, and there was a real, very live debate within the U.N. about the extent to which we could use force. And as it actually happened, the rebels took the capital, and the U.N. forces didn't use force. As a result of that, a new mandate was given, a Force Intervention Brigade was created and they were mandated to use offensive operations.

There is now a debate about whether or not maybe they went too far, that they actually became part of the conflict, and they became combatants and what that would do in terms of the legal protection that we have as peacekeepers and also the civilian components of the mission, the humanitarian components of the mission. I mean, I'm not a soldier. I'm a civilian. That means I go into the field without a gun and without much protection. If the U.N. becomes a part of the conflict, I'm immediately a target. I think that the issue is U.N. peacekeepers do a very difficult job in very difficult and dangerous circumstances and many have paid the ultimate price. But I think the overall balance of peacekeeping is it has been positive.

MARTIN: Conor Foley is a former member of the United Nations Department of Peacekeeping Operations. He's a professor at the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. We reached him in London. Conor Foley, thanks so much for speaking with us.

FOLEY: Thank you very much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF TYCHO'S "HOURS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.