UN Peacekeeping Operations - Security Council Open VTC

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04-Jun-2020 03:05:08
Peace missions employing operational changes, strict quarantines to tackle Covid-19 challenges, Force Commanders in Mali, South Sudan, Golan tell Security Council.

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The COVID-19 pandemic is having a significant impact on United Nations peacekeeping missions worldwide, but they are rising to the challenge in ways that align with their respective mandates and the unique situations that they each face on the ground, three Force Commanders said during a 4 June videoconference meeting* of the Security Council.

The interactive dialogue — on the heels of the International Day of United Nations Peacekeepers on 29 May — is an annual fixture on the Council calendar, but it took on added significance this year after the traditional Head of Military Components Conference at Headquarters, which brings together the heads of the Organization’s 13 peacekeeping operations, was postponed due to the novel coronavirus outbreak.

Tage Dennis Gyllenspore, Force Commander of the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), expressed pride in the Mission’s accomplishments — including the recent deployment of a reconstituted and integrated national army and the fielding of its first echelon. In Gao and Timbuktu, MINUSMA handed over operational coordination mechanisms and the reconstituted units are engaged in patrolling and basic security operations. The disarmament, demobilization and reintegration process is scheduled to begin again on 5 June following a recent agreement, and on 17 May, a company-sized unit of the Malian Armed Forces redeployed to Labezanga. That move was a major milestone towards re-establishing State authority, he said, also outlining the Mission’s protection-of-civilians efforts. It responded to several attacks and warnings by sending ground forces and helicopters, and while not all casualties were prevented, further carnage likely was. Evidence shows that violence has dropped in areas where the Mission conducts at least bimonthly patrols. However, due to the long distance, difficult terrain and numbers of attacks, the current posture and configuration is not fit for purpose.

Turning to efforts to combat COVID-19 in Mali, he said MINUSMA has been coordinating with the Government to provide support and ensure conformity with national regulations. “We realize the importance of maintaining health and security during this pandemic, not only for the benefit of the Mission’s peacekeepers but also for MINUSMA’s reputation as an entity that assists and in no way harms the population,” he said. The Force has put in place a range of preventive measures to curb the spread of the virus, such as a strict quarantine policy, strict prioritizations of air operations and specific instructions for patrols to limit interactions with the population. “Notwithstanding these measures, I have made it clear that this is not the time for the force to take a step back,” he said, emphasizing that the Mission will continue to strive to fulfil its mandate while acting prudently and mitigating risks.

Describing adaptation to Mali’s evolving situation as crucial, he said efforts to adapt MINUSMA’s mandate and enhance performance have already begun. The focus is on striking a proper balance between ends, ways and means. Underlining the importance of the Mission’s proactive posture — characterized by mobility, flexibility and agility — he outlined several best practices that have helped troops build confidence, enhance security and protect populations. However, such operations require means, including additional utility and armed helicopter units and resources. Noting that the mindset of MINUSMA’s peacekeepers must also adapt, he stressed that the force is not, nor will it ever be, a counter-terrorism unit. However, it will take immediate and decisive action to protect civilians, regardless of who the perpetrator is. As such, the Mission will employ a mobile task force with a range of capacities and the ability to quickly assembly in an ad hoc manner. Outlining ongoing efforts to improve the peacekeepers’ safety, he noted that MINUSMA troops are continuously targeted by explosive devices and indirect fire. Six troops were lost in May, including two who succumbed to the effects of COVID-19, he said.

Shailesh Tinaikar, Force Commander of the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), said that COVID-19 presents the Mission with the challenge of maintaining an “infection free” profile while also implementing its mandate. Personal hygiene and distancing norms have prompted changes to administrative and operational procedures while also not causing undue alarm. He outlined the steps that UNMISS has taken, including the provision of handwashing facilities and personal protective equipment, regular disinfection of vehicles and premises, 14 days’ medical observation for troops returning from operations, restricting the number of personnel in Mission vehicles and helicopters, and stress management initiatives. Overall, he said, contingents are operating “exceedingly well in the COVID environment”.

He underscored the Mission’s commitment to protecting civilians at camps in Juba, Bentiu, Bor, Wau and other locations, saying that troop levels have been adjusted to make it possible to dispatch “blue helmets” to respond to threats in other areas as required. The sustained presence of peacekeepers outside established bases, and in areas of conflict and violence, is key to resolving disputes, saving lives, building peace and encouraging the return of internally displaced persons. In that regard, troops are deployed with civil affairs and human rights personnel to temporary “hub” bases for up to three months, from where they carry out day and night patrols into outlying areas — or “spokes” — to build confidence, deter violence and encourage returnees. He also noted the role that UNMISS peacekeepers play in forging negotiated settlements at the community level, recording human rights violations, supporting humanitarian efforts and educating the population on COVID-19 prevention measures.

He catalogued several impediments to UNMISS executing its protection mandate, including the inability to know when and where the next act of violence will occur. For example, the Mission knew that a clash between Murles and Nuers in Jonglei was likely, and troops were deployed, but the incident happened earlier than expected, at multiple locations on 16 May, well away from where the blue helmets were positioned. He also stressed the need to balance the safety and security of troops with the probability of success of a particular mission; the complex nature of conflicts involving tribal loyalties, land and grazing rights, and food insecurity; and the way in which poor weather in May through November considerably restricts helicopter operations. Nevertheless, he said, “every military contingent is faring well considering the challenges of a very demanding operational environment”.

Maureen O’Brien, Force Commander of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF), said the mission has been implementing a detailed COVID-19 Action Plan designed to maintain operational capability and limit the spread of the virus. It includes screening upon entry to all of UNDOF’s 14 positions and restrictions on movement between positions, with most national and international staff working from home. A COVID-19 Crisis Management Team comprising the mission leadership and special staff officers meets weekly to discuss new measures based on United Nations and World Health Organization advice. As restrictions are lifted in Syria and Israel, risk analysis is being conducted on projects which require national civilians to enter camps and mitigating protective measures are being put in place. Describing those approaches as highly collaborative, she said dedicated quarantine and isolation facilities have been identified and specialized medical equipment has been sourced.

Noting that no cases of COVID-19 have been recorded in UNDOF to date — due to those proactive measures — she said the mission’s hospital will be capable of dealing with mild cases if necessary. However, more serious cases will require medevac elsewhere. While mitigating the virus has been a challenge, it has had little impact on UNDOF’s ability to fulfil its mandate. In Syria, curfew and inter-governorate travel restrictions have now been lifted, allowing for the resumption of night patrols. There are positive signs that inspections of Syrian military positions in the Area of Limitation on the B side, which had been stopped for security reasons, may resume on a phased basis. In the Israeli Occupied Golan (A side), most COVID-19 restrictions have also been lifted and inspections are expected to resume soon. Both parties have been supportive of the mission, allowing specialized personnel and medical equipment to cross. Noting that rotations of contingents and personnel have been postponed until 30 June per the Secretary-General’s directive, she said plans are under way for their resumption.

Outlining interactions between UNDOF and the parties, she said meetings with the senior Syrian Arab Army delegate have continued, and a meeting was facilitated by the Chief of Israel’s International Cooperation Unit. UNDOF has conducted virtual meetings with troop-contributing countries, providing updates on issues and challenges including the implications of COVID-19. The mission continues to make progress on plans towards full mandate implementation on the B side, following the partial troop withdrawal in 2014 due to security concerns. Spotlighting efforts to increase UNDOF’s operational footprint, she said it now has access to over 95 per cent of the Area of Separation for patrolling purposes. The mission continues to operate in a complex and sensitive environment, with ongoing violations of the Disengagement of Forces Agreement and Israeli attacks on positions within the Area of Separation and Limitation. While there is no sign that UNDOF is being targeted, security incidents have moved closer to its area of operations. The situation in Dar’aa governorate is deteriorating, with Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh) claiming responsibility for attacks there, she added.

Jean-Pierre Lacroix, Under-Secretary-General for Peace Operations, delivered opening remarks, saying that over the past few months, peacekeeping operations have demonstrated their capacity to adapt to the new context imposed by the pandemic. “Our response has been guided by four main objectives: first, protecting our personnel and their capacity to continue critical operations; second, containing and mitigating the spread of COVID-19; third, supporting national authorities in their response; and fourth, protecting vulnerable communities while delivering on mandate implementation.” Each peacekeeping mission has responded in its own way, taking local conditions into account, but they share a commitment to stopping the spread of COVID-19 while also working to fulfil their mandates. The Action for Peacekeeping initiative still guides efforts to strengthen United Nations peacekeeping, but in light of the pandemic, priorities have been adjusted to ensure a focus on specific objectives that should be met in the next few months, he added.

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