|Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York|
Press Conference on International Day of United Nations Peacekeepers
Marking the International Day of United Nations Peacekeepers, the Organization’s top peacekeeping officials today paid tribute to the 112 blue helmets that had lost their lives in 2011 — as well as the 37 killed in the line of duty since the beginning of 2012 — and praised “blue helmets and blue berets” for effectively carrying out their duties in challenging security environments.
“This is a day of remembrance and fidelity to the memory of [our] brave colleagues,” said Hervé Ladsous, Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations, during a Headquarters press conference. Joined by Tony Banbury, Assistant Secretary-General in the Department of Field Support, Mr. Ladsous added that those who had paid the ultimate sacrifice, and those blue helmets that still worked under the most difficult circumstances, needed the international community’s support.
In that regard, he said that the theme of this year’s International Day — “Peacekeeping Is a Global Partnership” — was most fitting. Indeed, that partnership not only involved the United Nations governing organs, the Security Council and the General Assembly, it also involved troop-contributing countries, those that provided resources, as well as host countries.
He said it was also a partnership between the United Nations and other international and regional organizations, as in the cases of the African Union-United Nations Hybrid Operation in Darfur (UNAMID) and the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). He was also very keen on building on a wide array of regional partnerships with, among others, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the Intergovernmental Authority for Development (IGAD). In many instances, working with regional organizations, which had specific knowledge of local situations, provided an element of additional legitimacy to operations approved by the Security Council.
Turning to current issues, the most dramatic of which was the situation in Syria and the “appalling tragedy” that had occurred in El-Houleh, which had highlighted even more the absolute necessity for both sides — the Syrian Government and the opposition — “to stop the senseless killing”. He was also concerned that terrorist groups were now operating in Syria “with agendas of their own”, adding to the risks faced by the nearly 300 United Nations observers deployed in eight cities.
Recalling his recent visit to Syria, he said that while those observers were carrying out their duties in very difficult circumstances where they patrolled, they did help mitigate the level of violence. They continued to demand that heavy weapons be pulled back and such requests were generally complied with. Yet, the violence had not stopped completely, “so it is now incumbent on the Syrians to see where they want to go; whether they want to stop the bloodshed” and work solidly to implement the six-point plan proposed by Joint Special Envoy Kofi Annan.
He noted that Mr. Annan had been in Damascus for the past two days and the Peacekeeping Department was awaiting further details from his meetings with Syrian officials there. Meanwhile, the United Nations remained solidly behind the Envoy’s proposal, because it was the best option and because “there is simply no alternative, it’s the only game in town”.
Announcing some good news from Sudan, he said that the Sudanese Government had earlier announced that it would withdraw its troops from the disputed Abyei region, following the withdrawal by South Sudan of its forces some weeks ago. He hoped those moves together would help pave the way towards implementing the agreement reached between the two sides last year, including establishing an “Abyei administration” mechanism.
For his part, Mr. Banbury said today was an opportunity for sombre reflection on the fate of those that had given their lives in the cause of peace, in Darfur, in Haiti, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and elsewhere. Turning to the resources devoted to peacekeeping operations, he said that the cost currently hovered between $7 billion and $8 billion, “which is a lot of money, but a very small price for the international community to pay for all the good United Nations peacekeeping does around the world”, including stemming violence, keeping parties on a political track and building local capacities.
“This is money very well spent,” he continued, but added that the Secretary-General, cognizant of the very difficult external financial situation, had given clear guidance to all parts of the Organization, including the Department of Peacekeeping Operations, to “do more with less”. Therefore, peacekeeping officials were working to fulfil that objective and had, so fare this year, reduced the division’s financial requirements by more than $400 million, while at the same time improving the services being provided to United Nations peacekeeping missions.
An example of that had been the Organization’s rapid deployment in Libya, where the Logistics Base in Brindisi, Italy, had been used to ensure a smaller mission footprint in Tripoli. As for Syria, he said: “Quite frankly, we had already had far too many cases of our personnel getting shot at.” So, armoured vehicles had been deployed there ahead of the United Nations observers so that they were able to carry out their very challenging duties in quite dangerous locations. “We will not hesitate to invest very significant resources when required, but we will also look at every possible way to ensure that the resources we do expend are used as efficiently as possible,” he said, adding that United Nations peacekeepers deserved to be adequately supported wherever they were deployed.
Turning next to sexual exploitation and abuse by United Nations peacekeepers, Mr. Banbury said that nothing dishonoured peacekeepers more than such acts by individuals. “Sadly, we do have some of these incidents, but they cannot detract from the extremely valiant and brave work being carried out by the men and women in blue helmets and blue berets in 17 missions around the world,” he declared. The number of incidents had been steadily decreasing over the past three years and the Peacekeeping Department was working to increase the United Nations transparency in that area, and the United Nations remained committed to the Secretary-General’s “zero-tolerance” policy.
Responding to questions on the situation is Syria, Mr. Ladsous said that he had been in Homs a little more than a week ago. More than 1 million people lived in the city, and with only 28 observers deployed there, it was clear that they would have difficulty patrolling the entire city and its environs, which included El-Houleh. When they received information about serious incidents, the observers tried to move to the reported locations as quickly as possible, but in the case of El-Houleh, he believed the information had come in late at night and at a time when shelling was still going on. So the observes had not arrived in the town, some 25 kilometres away, until the next morning.
“[But] we still have to try to go where the trouble is and put a stop to it,” he said, lamenting that, in some instances, killings would still take place. Here, however, the observers had been able to prevent further violence and establish facts, including that some of the civilians had been killed by artillery shells, “which pointed ever so clearly to responsibility on the part of the Government”, which had access to Howitzers, tanks and other heavy weapons.
At the same time, there was also evidence that some of the people had been killed by smaller weapons such as knives, and while identifying the specific perpetrators would be more difficult in such cases, there was a probability that those killings had been carried out by local militia. He did not think that a full-scale investigation could be launched, because the observers did not have access to forensic equipment, but they could report on what they saw. The Syrian parties had the responsibility to end the violence.
As for the attacks against observers and who might be responsible, he said that while “there are no signatures on bullets being fired into an armoured car”, it was a fact that such attacks had been carried out by elements on both sides. He said that his message during meetings in Damascus last week with the Syrian Government, the opposition and some tribal chiefs had been: “Please, please spread the word that the safety of these unarmed observers depends on you.”
To those who believed that the incident at El-Houleh was yet more proof that Mr. Annan’s six-point plan was “dead”, he said he believed that the very presence of the observes saved lives. Nevertheless, progress must be made in all areas of that proposal, including access to detainees, allowing peaceful demonstrations and improving the access of journalists. Above all, progress must be achieved on elaborating a peace process, what he called “the very core” of the six-point plan. “It is an ongoing task, I will say a thankless task, but there is no plan B,” he said.
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