United Nations, New York – UN-backed peacekeepers have lost enough guns and ammunition in sub-Saharan Africa over the past two decades to arm an army, according to a study by the Small Arms Survey.
The research group’s director, Eric Berman, said peacekeepers have lost “at least thousands of weapons and millions of rounds of ammunition” this century, often handing them over to local fighters without putting up a fight.
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Losses range from pistols and bullets to heavy machine guns, mortars, recoilless guns and grenade launchers, which can be military game-changers on the battlefields of Somalia, Democratic republic of Congo, and Sudan, Berman told Al Jazeera.
“Peacekeepers are losing arms and ammunition that are going to be used against them and against civilians that they’re asked to protect, and prolonging conflicts that they’re asked to help resolve,” Berman said.
The 75-page study, called Making a Tough Job More Difficult, identifies 20 forces operating under the UN, the African Union or some other international coalition that have lost guns and ammunition from 1993-2017.
Haiti, Cambodia, the Israel-Syria border and the Balkans have also been affected.
Some losses were unavoidable, the report said.
Peacekeepers can be ambushed while patrolling the “wrong place at the wrong time” or be overwhelmed in a surprise attack from a superior force and have caches plundered, Berman said.
But incidents of “less-than-best practice and corruption” are also rife, Berman added.
There have been many hushed-up cases of peacekeepers handing over weapons to rebels rather than risk a shoot-out, of failing to guard caches properly, or uncovering rebel groups’ arsenals and selling them on the black market, said Berman.
Aditya Mehta, a UN peacekeeping spokesman, told Al Jazeera that it takes the issue “very seriously” but said the Small Arms Survey report overstated the impact of blue helmet arms losses on turbulent parts of Africa.
“The loss of weapons in peacekeeping operations are an exception, and the number of weapons lost are insignificant, far less than half of one per cent of the total amount of weapons and ammunition in circulation around conflict zones such as in Darfur and South Sudan,” he said.
Losses occur in “very challenging conditions”, and the UN already works hard to raise standards, he added.
Mehta did not fulfil Al Jazeera’s request to share the UN’s register of arms that had gone missing in recent years.
The Small Arms Survey report listed many examples of losses.
In May 2000, Zambian peacekeepers lost more than 500 assault rifles, machine guns, mortars and 45,000 rounds of ammunition when they surrendered to Sierra Leonean rebels rather than “fight their way out” Berman said.
A Nigerian peacekeeping convoy similarly succumbed to a “not overwhelming force” of rebels in in Darfur, Sudan, in March 2010, handing over 55 assault rifles, machine guns and some 14,000 rounds of ammunition, he added.
Details on such incidents are unclear, Berman said.
According to the report, “political sensitivities and opacity in reporting have resulted in misleading” reports of arms losses in official UN documents.
This report is just “the tip of the iceberg”, Berman added, saying that the true scale of the problem is much greater than the relatively small number of losses that have been documented in UN and newspaper reports in recent decades.
The scale of losses may even be increasing, the report suggested.
Kenyan troops with AMISOM, the AU force in Somalia, lost more than 150 assault rifles, 26 machine guns, five mortars and 140,000 rounds of ammunition when al-Shabab rebels raided their camp at El Adde in January 2016, it said.
The report also highlights how in June 2015, Burundian troops lost a comparable cache of more than 100 assault rifles, 20 machine guns, anti-tank weapons and mortars when the al-Qaeda aligned fighters attacked them in Leego, Somalia.
Peacekeeping has been rocked by scandals in recent years, over bringing a deadly strain of cholera to Haiti that claimed some 10,000 lives, as well as thousands of claims of sexual abuse by blue helmets in Congo and elsewhere.
More than 80 countries are set to address peacekeeping problems at a summit in Vancouver, Canada later this week.
Paul Williams, a scholar at George Washington University, said the report’s estimate of peacekeeping weapons losses was “conservative”, adding that deployment chiefs need better oversight, recovery and accountability mechanisms.
“This is a significant problem for peacekeepers, the organisations that mandate and pay for peace operations, and, ultimately for the local populations, which may see such arms and ammunition strengthen militant groups,” Williams told Al Jazeera.
Other analysts told Al Jazeera that peacekeepers are often torn between loyalties to their own country and serving the world body. Blue helmet troops may see themselves as answerable to their capitals rather than UN headquarters.
Norrie MacQueen, a University of St Andrews scholar, noted that soldiers are unwilling to “die for the UN” and prone to giving up without a fight. But Joachim Koops, of Vrije Universiteit Brussels, agreed with the UN that its weapons losses were not particularly significant.
Jean Krasno, a scholar and editor of Leveraging for Success in UN Peace Operations, said any arms losses should be seen in the context of the valuable contributions of peacekeepers. The UN has made Africa safer by destroying vast numbers of guns under various peace deals, she said.
But it is “desperate” to staff 15 missions with 110,000 peacekeepers and can be lax with contributors. “To get the numbers out there, they may just have to look the other way in terms of vetting, training and capability,” Krasno told Al Jazeera.
Berman, the report’s author, agreed that the UN and AU face mighty challenges, but that a few more “checks and balances” on internal oversight and monitoring of peacekeepers would keep better tabs on weapons, saving money and lives.
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