Sustainable UN Peacekeeping Offensive Operations: UXOs, ERW and IEDs

This essay explores the themes of United Nations (UN) peacekeeping offensive operations and Unexploded Ordinance (UXOs), Explosive Remnants of War (ERW) and Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). As the character of conflict changes, there is an increased international focus on IEDs. The traditional threat of ERW has been further complicated by the preponderance of IEDs in war-affected countries. The UN is thus adapting its conventional approach in dealing with mines and UXOs to the complexities of asymmetric warfare where IEDs have increasingly become the weapon of choice for non-state actors. Earlier this year, United Nations Mine Action Service (UNMAS) celebrated its 20th year anniversary as the lead UN agency addressing the scourge of mines, and UXOs.  The Security Council and UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) has also taken novel approaches in combating spoilers with the deployment of the Force Intervention Brigade (FIB) as the first strategically mandated offensive peacekeeping force. This essay discusses the interrelation between UN peacekeeping offensive action and the creation of UXOs and its potential effect on local populations and existing humanitarian crises and adds tactical and strategic analysis.

The evolution of modern United Nations (UN) peacekeeping has resulted in a variety of complex operational situations with differing intensities of conflict. The use of force or the threat thereof to counter rebel groups and spoilers remains a fundamental part of peacekeeping, peace enforcement and prevention. The UN has adapted to changes in the operational environment with a number of innovations of which the deployment of the first offensively mandated force, the FIB, indicated a firm strategic resolve from the Security Council. The robust stance of the UN peacekeeping missions in Mali and the Central African Republic are also indicative of such approaches as well as the support role, which the UN has taken in the African Union mission in Somalia. This piece links the effect of tactical offensive operations to the further creation of ERW which may increasingly contribute to humanitarian crises.

The use of force is not new to peacekeeping, especially not in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) where heavy tactical action was seen during the Congo Crisis in the 1960s as well as during the mid-2000s in Ituri and in and around Sake inter alia. The FIB’s tactical victory over the M23 was another notch on the belt for the militarists in the UN however the attempt at offensive action did not translate into any effective operation against the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR). Furthermore, the ineffective Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) of the M23 and FDLR failed to capitalize on the gains made and may have second and third knock-on effects, the extent of which remains to be seen.

The FIB operations made use of attack helicopters and ground forces, which in combination used artillery, rockets, mortars, grenades and small arms amongst other weaponry to attack and neutralize the M23. The ERW and UXOs, which resulted from the various operations, were never effectively cleared. Reports from FIB Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) operators indicate that some attempt was made at clearing UXOs. However the complete clearance of the battlefields/areas of combat remains in question. As a result, in subsequent years, munitions from the previous combat were still found in and around Munigi, Kubati hills and Rutshuru. Reports from non-FIB EOD teams which deployed with UNMAS in 2015 indicated a considerable number of UXOs which were unmarked in the general area. Such ERW were brought to the attention of UNMAS through the local population and were addressed on a case by case basis.

The question is thus posed, when a UN offensive force is deployed in battle, what are the UN’s responsibilities in terms of the post-combat clearance of UXOs?  Should a combined UN force and UNMAS EOD team declare a given battlefield free from explosives following such combat? This is perhaps something that the UN DPKO and Department of Field Support (DFS) in combination with UNMAS should consider. UNMAS provides humanitarian and peacekeeping support to the UN as required. The onus remains with the Force and the UN operational and strategic headquarters to incorporate UNMAS in the battle plan and Concept of Operations. The question of whether there is comprehensive doctrinal guidance for UXO clearance post-offensive operations remains unclear.  

There is a need for post combat doctrinal guidance, which should indicate the extent of the area to be cleared and declared free from ammunition and explosives as well as the timeframe for such clearance and the relevant monitoring and reporting channels, following a battle or skirmish.  In order to ensure proper checks and balances the question is posed as to whether UNMAS officers should declare battlefields/areas where skirmishes have occurred free of munitions after the engagement when the tactical situation allows (and map them)? This is an important consideration, especially with the advent of UN peacekeeping offensive operations and continued robust peacekeeping.

There appears to be a disconnect in understanding between UN military advisors and UNMAS staff in regards to what is happening in the field versus doctrinal and mandated requirements. Where the military advisors generally advocate for a more aggressive approach to operations and combatting IEDs, UNMAS tend to work within the scope indicated in the respective mandates and has a primary humanitarian focus. The military tends to view IEDs pragmatically, with a need for a comprehensive strategy and suitable Tactics, Techniques and Procedures (TTPs), where UNMAS who are also fully operational at the sharp end, has to consider the broader policy issues, standards and guidelines. In this regard a technical manual is in production and will be published later this year. While the operational situation is becoming more dangerous and complex it is worrying to think that the strategic level is under what appears to be a self imposed fog of war, which in all likelihood will take some time to lift.

While considering the role of the armed groups (and opponents of UN peacekeepers), which directly contribute to the creation of an unsafe environment, we should also consider how the UN indirectly adds to such issues. Various armed groups and non-state actors are increasingly using non-conventional tactics and terrorist methods in the execution of operations. The threat of such actors directly destabilizes the security of missions. IED attacks are increasingly being applied in peacekeeping operations, posing a considerable threat to the local population and UN peacekeepers.

There is perhaps nothing which strikes more fear into the hearts of TCCs than the threat of IEDs. For a nation at war, the threat of IEDs are a regular occurrence and the death and injury caused by such weapons are part of the damage associated with the ultimate sacrifice of war.  Peacekeeping in its many forms, is different to war fighting, and there is a much lower national will and appetite for losses in peace operations. While IEDs are used as a means to achieve military and other ends there are also more neutral explosive threats in mission areas. ERW, mines and UXOs which often exist as the legacy of high-intensity operations, still pose the greatest non-prejudiced threat to local populations. In this regard, UXOs pose a particular risk to children who often come into contact with them, do not understand their danger, and play with them mistaking them for toys.

With the evolution of peace missions UN forces have come into contact with more sophisticated armed actors and we have seen the manipulation of UXOs which are subsequently developed into IEDs. The DRC has had an increase in IED attacks over the last few years and one such device was detonated in Goma in 2016; there has been a considerable number of IED attacks in Mali and Somalia to only mention a few missions. This is a clear indication of the growing threat of such devices to peacekeeping operations. This threat is magnified by the availability of UXOs which can be modified into IEDs and should be seen as a growing potential security challenge.  In this regard the UN is obligated to ensure that following conventional operations, all battlefields are cleared of munitions. This will prevent the knock on effect of ERW modification into IEDs.  In the grand scheme this can be regarded as a minor point however it is important in creating a culture of sustainable peacekeeping operations.

One final point to be considered is the way in which the UN selects its Troop Contributing Countries (TCCs), especially those who should form part of its peacekeeping offensive force. A key requirement should be the consideration of whether a given country is signatory to the various international laws and conventions on weapons and munitions. In this regard, the UN should have certain standards for example, state X should be signatory to the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW); Convention on the Prohibition of Land-Mines etc. The FIB comprises Malawi, Tanzania and South Africa as TCCs. Where South Africa is party to the CCW, Malawi and Tanzania are not. CCW Protocol V specifically addresses the scourge of ERW and the humanitarian problems, which it causes and exacerbates. In this regard, some serious legal questions could be posed as to the requirements or specification of the UN when selecting TCCs, especially in an offensive role. The norms of a state dictates its organizational and doctrinal tendencies, and if a TCC does not consider that being part to the CCW is important how does that influence its approach to offensive peace operations? With regards to Protocol V, are ERW just left behind? Is it solely the responsibility of UNMAS to deal with the threat of UXOs?

The strategic issue of signing international conventions may be outside the direct control of the UN, however the mission has leverage over the FIB and other robustly applied forces, in terms of their application. The South African, Tanzanian and Malawian battalions which comprise the FIB are all deployed with a combat engineer platoon each with limited EOD capabilities. These engineers can be used in conjunction with UNMAS to clear previous battlefields and areas where munitions were discharged. By doing this they will ensure that the FIB does not worsen an already appalling humanitarian situation. Furthermore, the FIB combat engineers could become a force multiplier to UNMAS. In considering such an option it would be similar to the use of military construction engineers, which fulfill a development role, in the building of infrastructure and a tactical role in the provision of force mobility. A similar function could be undertaken by the FIB EOD teams where they could assist UNMAS in the clearance of UXOs. This would need to be mandated and the correct organizational infrastructure, documentation and postings would need to be in place (Status of Force Agreements, Concept of Operations, Mission Strategy, FIB Military Engineer Staff Officer, liaison with UNMAS amongst other factors).

The essay discussed tactical as well as strategic elements in terms of offensive operations and UXOs. The international legal standards must provide the necessary guidance where field operations deal with the practical implications of IEDs. When viewing conflict through the lens of IEDs, the normative framework includes international conventions, policies, mandates and TTPs. On a practical level, without sufficient decontamination of battlefields through UNMAS, contractors or military engineers – the battle may achieve tactical aims but also creates a humanitarian hazard to the local population. In conclusion, the ultimate aim of the UN peacekeeping offensive action should be to promote security, safety and trust and thus the clearing of self-created UXOs should be compulsory. Furthermore, the clearing of UXOs will help win the hearts and minds of the local population. In relation to mine action and IEDs, the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said that a peace without mine action was an incomplete peace and people should not have to live in fear of dying after the of conflict.

This article was originally published by Small Wars Journal on August 8, 2017

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Aug 09, 2017
Antonio Garcia
United Nations
South Africa