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The Reality of Perceptions: How Neutral Are Peacekeeping Forces?

February 26, 2012

The empiricist tradition of modern philosophy has argued that the knowledge is the result of the reality impressing itself on the human being conscience. Sensation (the detection of the stimuli of the environment) and then perception (the creation of useful information of the surroundings on the basis of the external stimuli) are the only ways the reality can be experienced and therefore known. From this perspective there is no a priori idea or concept in our mind which allows to transcend the experience of the reality. Perceptions reveals to the human being the external reality: in this sense each perception is real insofar it is caused by the reality.

The case of peacekeeping forces and their claim of being “neutral broker” shows how this line of thought is often ignored and the reality of perception dismissed: the danger intrinsic in such attitude can be great. The case of Lebanon in 1982 is paradigmatic. US, France and Italy joint to create a peacekeeping Multinational Force which was deployed in Beirut. As Robert Fisk recalls in his book, their mandate was to secure that PLO militias would leave Beirut; when Palestinian were massacred in the refugees camps of Sabra and Chatila they were redeployed  in Beirut and their mission became to support the Gemayel’s government to reestablish peace. Their task being of neutral broker, they were not supposed to mingle with internal politics. Yet their only presence in the territory and the very essence of the mandate impressed a different perception of their mission: they were perceived to take side in the conflict. The Gemayel’s government had a very little base of consensus as it was widely perceived to be a puppet government put up by Israel to make its voice heard. Gemayel’s Christians militias, the Phalange, were furthermore rightly perceived by a considerable part of the population (in particular Muslim) as responsible for the massacre of the Palestinian refugees in the Sabra and Chatila camps. Lastly, the Gemayel’s government made clear their intention to make Lebanon America’s second ally in the Middle East after Israel: was not the MNF there to prop up such plan, many thought? When the US Marines and French paratroopers basis in Beirut were attacked by suicide bombers driving trucks full of dynamite many in the West were disconcerted: why a neutral force should have been attacked?

The very same questions was posed by many when Gbagbo forces attacked the UN peacekeeping mission in Ivory Coast (UNOCI): why Gbabgo forces would attack UNOCI if its mission chief had stated that “UNOCI military impartiality was the cornerstone of its presence in Cote d’Ivoire”? This claim of neutrality and impartiality is in fact a sine qua non for peacekeeping forces to be accepted on the ground. Yet it often proves to be in conflict with what people think. Alex de Waal explains why

Pre-empting the Ivorian legal mechanisms for adjudicating the numerous complaints over the election, which depending on how they were decided could have swung the result either in favour of the incumbent Laurent Gbagbo or his challenger Alassane Ouattara, the Special Representative of the Secretary General Y.J. Choi declared for Ouattara the day after the electoral commission (headed by a Ouattara supporter) announced a pro-Ouattara result. Choi stuck to his guns when challenged, asserting a few days later that “I remain absolutely certain that I have found the truth concerning the will of the Ivorian people as expressed on 28 November.”

The allegations  of being political actors rather than neutral broker were both in Lebanon and Ivory Coast dismissed as untrue because they were not in tune with the idea of the mandate: MNF and UNOCI were supposed to be neutral. The various perceptions of the peacekeeping forces as actors whose presence could tip the balance of power in favor of some part at the disadvantage of others are considered fallacious because do not square with the aprioristic idea of its neutrality. Yet to claim the fallacy of such perceptions is to ignore a fundamental fact: these perceptions are real and as such they can shape the  course of actions on the ground.

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