The Dutch military is planning to deploy a team of dozens of military intelligence operatives in Mali in the coming weeks, part of a U.N. peacekeeping mission charged with stabilizing the terror-afflicted northern part of the country and preventing the resurgence of Islamist militants that only year ago held sway over much of the country, according to the Dutch military.
The Dutch contribution -- which will also include a team of special-forces troops and four Apache attack helicopters -- marks a rare return by a European power to a U.N. peacekeeping mission in Africa, where debacles from Somalia to Rwanda triggered a retreat in the late 1990s. But what is perhaps even more striking is that the U.N.'s top brass are privately acknowledging that the U.N.'s blue helmets will be engaging in the business of spying.
Since the birth of U.N. peacekeeping in Egypt's Sinai intelligence has been a dirty word in U.N. quarters, feeding suspicion among poor countries that Western spooks were secretly using the United Nations as a cover to spy on them, and giving fright to right wing Americans who fretted that U.N. storm troopers in black helicopters might swoop down to occupy the American prairie. In 1960, then U.N. Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold declined to establish a U.N. intelligence agency on the grounds that the U.N. "must have clean hands." In a sign of the enduring anxiety over big power espionage, Brazil and Germany this week pressed through a U.N. General Assembly resolution aimed at constraining massive data collection and digital eavesdropping, a move aimed at constraining the National Security Agency and other foreign intelligence outfits.
But in the U.N.'s far flung peacekeeping missions intelligence is no longer a dirty word. Herve Ladsous, the U.N.'s French chief of the U.N. peacekeeping department, will visit the Democratic Republic of Congo early next month to launch the flight of two U.N. surveillance drones -- the U.N. prefers to call them Unmanned Aerial Vehicles -- to keep track of potential threats from armed militias. If all goes well, these flying cameras could be introduced into peacekeeping missions in Mali, and possibly Ivory Coast and South Sudan.
The Dutch unit in Mali will operate electronic eavesdropping - or signals intelligence - operations targeting Islamic militants. But it will also engage in gathering human intelligence - low tech spying involving the cultivation of paid informants. "I would say this is precedent setting," Walter Dorn, a Canadian professor of Defense Studies at the Royal Military College of Canada (RMCC), who has written extensively on U.N. intelligence gathering, told Foreign Policy. "The United Nations has been hesitant to use the word intelligence and engage in intelligence activities. But the necessity of being informed in situations where you have the fog of war, or the fog of peacekeeping, means that you have to have an accurate and timely information gathering and analysis units."
The actual threat to U.N. peacekeepers is by no means greater today than it has been in the past. So far this year, 82 U.N. blue helmets died serving in U.N. missions, fewer than half of the 173 fatalities suffered in 2010, and only a fraction of the 252 who died in 1993, when the U.N. was running high risk missions in Bosnia and Somalia. But the U.N.'s key powers, Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States, agree on the need to confront the rising threat to U.N. personnel by Islamic extremists.
The Islamist militant group, Al Shabab, has been targeting U.N. personnel in Mogadishu, Somalia, mounting a bold terror attack against the U.N.'s humanitarian compound in June that left eight people employed by the U.N. dead.( In that case, a U.N. intelligence unit actually received a tip that the attack would occur, but it was still unable to stop it.)
For instance, in Mali, where the U.N. is facing a challenge by Islamist insurgents, suicide bombers last month attacked a U.N. peacekeeping unit in the town of Tessalit, Mali, killing two Chadian blue helmets and a civilian.
The Malian crisis began in the beginning of 2012 when a coalition of Tuareg separatists and foreign Islamist extremists linked to Al Qaeda, reinforced by arms from the fallen former Libyan leader Moammar Ghadafi's arsenals, seized control of key cities in northern Mali. Malian army officers, citing the governments' failure to adequately equip its troops in the battle against the insurgents, staged a military coup that sent the country into a state of chaos.
Fearing an Islamist offensive against the capital of Bamako, the French government launched a military offensive in January that routed the militants out of northern Mali. The French then helped organize a coalition of African countries that helped Mali drive the insurgents into retreat in the north. In July, the African troops were integrated into a new U.N. peacekeeping mission - the U.N. Multidimensional Integrated Stablization Mission in Mali(MINUSMA). The mission - which is headed by a Dutch politician, Bert Koenders- is serving along-side a separate French force of some 3,000 troops.
Earlier this month, the Dutch Defense Minister Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert announced that some 380 Dutch military personnel would serve in the U.N. mission, aiding an increasingly well-armed mission - which includes a combat-ready Chinese guard force - to restore security and stability in northern Mali. They will be headquartered in Bamako and Gao, where their primary job will be gathering, processing and analyzing intelligence. "In addition to special forces, we will deploy our sensor capability, unmanned systems and 4 Apache attack helicopters," she said. "We will be the eyes and ears of the U.N., enabling them to operate more effectively.
Jean Marie Guehenno, a French national who headed the U.N. peacekeeping department from2000 to 2008, said that the move to formally integrate intelligence gathering activities into U.N. peacekeeping missions reflects a growing recognition of the dangers facing blue helmets, particularly from an array of terrorist organizations and non-state armed militias.
"Traditionally, [U.N.] member states have been a bit reluctant to permit intelligence gathering activities because of concerns over the potential violation of a country's sovereignty," Guehenno said, noting that revelations of NSA spying has in some way reinforced those concerns. "Spying makes people nervous."
"On the other hand, there is a mounting sense that the safety and protection of troops benefits a lot from effective intelligence," he said. "It's harder for the members' states to say it's horrible to collect intelligence if you have human lives lost. So, I think the U.N. is in a stronger position to say you put us in a dangerous environment we need to cope with it and the only way to cope is to have some kind of intelligence. I'm convinced there were a few situations where peacekeepers died and their lives might have been saved with better situational awareness intelligence."
Despite the political constraints, U.N. commanders, including those serving in Hammarskjold's day, have long recognized the importance of tactical intelligence gathering in complex missions, erecting make-shift intelligence units to spy on potential enemies. In early 1961 in the Congo, the U.N. set up its first serious intelligence unit -- known as Military Information Branch - the word intelligence was "banned from the U.N. lexicon," to oversee aerial surveillance, radio intercepts, and of informants, Dorn wrote in a history of the Congo operation. The practice was largely suspended in the ensuing Cold War decades, only to resurface after the Cold War ended, giving way to a major surge in U.N. peacekeeping operations.
Since the turn of the century, U.N. personnel in places like Sierra Leone and Somalia largely relied on foreign government spooks to supply them with tactical intelligence on enemy intentions. But more recently the U.N. has begun to formalize intelligence collection in missions in Haiti and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where units with names like the Joint Mission Analysis Centers and Joint Operations Centers - collect information the old fashion way: through the cultivation of spies. In Port au Prince, U.N. blue helmets paid Haitian informants to expose the hideaways of famously unpopular gang leaders' in the deepest slums. Even their lovers could be relied upon to reveal the location of where they were sleeping for arrest. Informants were sometimes dressed in U.N. uniforms but with their faces covered to avoid detection.
"The U.N. was able to tap into the wide-ranging disaffection with the gangs in order to procure plenty of actionable information," Dorn wrote in a study of the U.N. mission in Haiti."Intelligence-led operations helped the United Nations to take the initiative, to control the "battle-space' and minimize the risks to both its own personnel and innocent bystanders. The mission was successful in overcoming gang rule of entire districts, but not without initial opposition from within the emission, from Haitian officials and, of course, from the gangs themselves."
Patrick Cammaert, a retired Dutch general who served as the U.N. Secretary General's chief military advisor from 2002 to 2005, said it was a "un uphill battle" to convince the U.N. political leadership, and member states, to collect intelligence. In 2003, Cammaert urged the U.N. peacekeeping department to contract a private company to conduct aerial surveillance for a newly established mission in Liberia. Two years later, when he was reassigned as the U.N.'s eastern division commander in eastern Congo, Cammaert finally succeeded in securing funding, around $5 million, in the mission's budget to conduct aerial surveillance missions to track the movement of militias and human rights violators, including Bosco Ntganda and Laurent Nkunda. It never happened. "All the documents were cleared, but the proposal was firmly killed in DPKO[The U.N. Department of Peacekeeping Operations] because people didn't like it,"he said.
The constraints forced him to improvise, cultivating a team of informants. "You had to be creative; I sometimes had to pay informants from my own daily subsistence allowance because we didn't have funds for that," he said. "I managed to get a number of people trust worthy people -- don't ask I how I found them - but I'd put them on a Moped and tell them to drive somewhere and come back and tell me what you saw."
Cammaert said the recent change in attitude reflected a growing recognition that U.N. peacekeepers "are dealing with a threat that is asymmetric, much more sophisticated, and much more dangerous, not only to local population but to peacekeepers was well " As a result, he said, "the word intelligence is not such a dirty word anymore."
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Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who is indicted for war crimes, has cancelled his plans to address a high-level meeting of world leaders at the U.N. General Assembly's general debate, according to U.N. officials and diplomats.
"We understand he is not coming and we're glad he's not coming," said Christian Wenaweser, the U.N. ambassador of Liechtenstein and former president of the Assembly of States Parties to the International Criminal Court. "We think it would have been bad for the United Nations to hose someone who has been issued and international arrest warrant."
The move followed several days of diplomatic efforts by the United States to convince Bashir not to come to New York, warning that it could not guarantee he would not be subject to arrest, according to U.N.-based diplomats. And it saved the Obama administration the embarrassment of hosting a visit by the world's most prominent alleged war criminal.
Bashir, who was indicted in 2009 and 2010 by the International Criminal Court on charges of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide, announced plans to travel to the United Nations to address the annual gathering of presidents, prime ministers, and monarchs. He had even booked rooms at a hotel in midtown Manhattan.
The prospect of a visit by Bashir created a political dilemma for Washington, which is bound by a 1947 agreement with the global body to allow foreign diplomats safe passage to the United Nations, but has come under intensive pressure from lawmakers and human rights advocates to arrest the Sudanese leader.
Congressman Frank Wolf (R-VA), who has been active on Sudan matters for years, urged the Obama administration to arrest Bashir. "I recognize that the U.S. has host country obligations as it relates to the United Nations," Wolf wrote earlier today in a letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. "However, is there not a higher moral obligation to take concrete steps to bring an internationally indicted war criminal, with blood on his hands, to justice?"
The Hague-based court first issued an arrest warrant against Bashir in 2009, charging him with war crimes and crimes against humanity for his alleged role in orchestrating the mass killing of more than 300,000 people in Darfur. A second arrest warrant accusing him of genocide was issued in 2010.
Sudan, which is not a party to the Rome Statute that established the ICC, has refused to surrender Bashir to the Hague court. And Bashir has repeatedly defied the court's arrest warrant, traveling to at least a dozen countries, including China, Egypt, Kenya, and Nigeria. But it appears the United States won't be added to that list.
Ty McCormick contributed to this report.
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The long-awaited United Nations report on the deadly Aug. 21 attack in the suburbs of Damascus does not directly blame either the Syrian government or the Syrian opposition, but the scrupulous level of detail in the report provides new evidence pointing to a military-orchestrated assault rather than a rebel-executed chemical weapons attack. In particular, analysts speaking with Foreign Policy latched onto the report's conclusions regarding the quantities of toxic gas in the attack, the type of rockets used, and the trajectory of the missile vectors.
"This is consistent with an alleged use by Syrian government troops," Ralf Trapp, an independent consultant on chemical and biological weapons, told FP after reviewing the report.
The U.N. inspectors' report, which was presented this morning to the Security Council, found "clear and convincing evidence" that rockets containing the nerve agent sarin were used in the Ghouta suburbs of Damascus. The U.N. team compiled evidence from a broad range of sources, including several surface-to-surface rockets "capable of delivering significant chemical payloads" and statements from more than 50 victims, first responders, and medical specialists. Evidence of sarin was identified in the majority of environmental and biomedical samples, including blood, urine, and hair, collected by the U.N. team.[[LATEST]]
The lethally of the attack, the report noted, was exacerbated by the morning chill on Aug. 21, which contributed to pressing the air downward, where it poured into residential homes and basements, killing people in their sleep.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Friday that U.N. weapons inspectors have obtained "overwhelming" evidence that chemical weapons were used in an Aug. 21 attack that killed large numbers of civilians in the suburbs of Damascus, Syria. The inspection team, according to a U.N.-based diplomatic source, has uncovered traces of the nerve agent sarin, a key agent in the chemical weapons arsenal of President Bashar al-Assad's government.
"I believe that the report will be an overwhelming report that chemical weapons were used, even though I cannot say it publicly at this time," Ban said. Ban -- who made the remarks in a speech before the Women's International Forum -- thought he was speaking in a closed-door meeting. But the session was being broadcast live on an internal U.N. television feed.
It's the first time the United Nations has officially declared that chemical weapons have been used in Syria. And the acknowledgment comes two days before the U.N.'s chief weapons inspector, the Swedish scientist Ake Sellstrom, is scheduled on Sunday to present the U.N. chief with a report on his team's findings in Syria. Ban will present a briefing on the team's finding to the U.N. Security Council on Monday morning at 11 a.m.
U.N. inspectors have collected a "wealth" of evidence on the use of nerve agents that points to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad using chemical weapons against his own people, according to a senior Western official.
The inspection team, which is expected on Monday to present U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon with a highly anticipated report on a suspected Aug. 21 nerve agent attack in the suburbs of Damascus, will not directly accuse the Syrian regime of gassing its own people, according to three U.N.-based diplomats familiar with the investigation. But it will provide a strong circumstantial case -- based on an examination of spent rocket casings, ammunition, and laboratory tests of soil, blood, and urine samples -- that points strongly in the direction of Syrian government culpability.
"I know they have gotten very rich samples -- biomedical and environmental -- and they have interviewed victims, doctors and nurses," said the Western official. "It seems they are very happy with the wealth of evidence they got." The official, who declined to speak on the record because of the secrecy surrounding the U.N. investigation, could not identify the specific agents detected by the inspector team, but said, "You can conclude from the type of evidence the [identity of the] author."
For nearly two years, the United States and its key allies have been challenging the Syrian government's claim to legitimacy. Some countries have recognized the Syrian opposition as the country's legitimate government. Others have offered the rebels arms, military training, and advice.
But in the real world, possession of territory counts for a lot.
The United Nations, for one, must rely on the Syrian government to gain access for humanitarian aid workers seeking to relieve hungry Syrian civilians, and cooperate with Syrian authorities to ensure the protection of U.N. chemical weapons inspectors in Damascus or U.N. peacekeepers in the Golan Heights.
And today, as the U.N. Security Council gets ready to debate the establishment of a new U.N.-authorized chemical weapons monitoring regime in Syria, it is counting on the Syrian government to form a new partnership to achieve that goal. "We have been delegitimizing the Syrian regime and suddenly by virtue of this initiative the Assad regime is now a partner of the international community," said a senior Arab diplomat. "Of course it's a good thing that these weapons and stockpiles be kept under safe control, but are we not inadvertently undoing what we have been trying to do for two years?"
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As President Obama struggles to secure congressional approval for air strikes in Syria, America's principal Persian Gulf ally, Saudi Arabia, has been quietly exploring the possibility of seeking a U.N. General Assembly vote that would provide some cover for military action.
The diplomatic initiative is part of a wider effort by Saudi Arabia to stake out a role as a central Middle East powerbroker as the forces of political turmoil sweep across the region. With the U.N. Security Council blocked by Russia from taking action to confront Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, Saudi Arabia is sounding out key U.N. powers about the prospect of seeking General Assembly approval of a resolution that would condemn the use of chemical weapons and open the door to possible military action to ensure those responsible are held accountable.
The Saudis have grown increasingly assertive on the regional stage, recently organizing a $12 billion financial aid package, including commitments from Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, for Egypt's military rulers, a move that undercut U.S. efforts to start political talks between Egypt's new government and the Muslim Brotherhood.
In testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Secretary of State John Kerry said that the Arab states have also offered to underwrite the full costs of a U.S.-led military operation against Syria. "With respect to Arab countries offering to bear costs and to assess, the answer is profoundly yes." Kerry didn't name Saudi Arabia as the country making the offer, but there are few other states outside the Persian Gulf with the money or the political interest in seeing the Americans unseating Syria's leader. "In fact, some of them have said that if the United States is prepared to go do the whole thing the way we've done it previously in other places, they'll carry that cost," he added. "That's how dedicated they are at this."
But Kerry made it clear that the initiative was "not in the cards, and nobody's talking about it." Despite U.S. plans to strike Syria, Kerry made it clear that the United States believes that the crisis in Syria can only be resolved through a political settlement.
In New York, Saudi diplomats last week circulated a draft General Assembly resolution that would authorize states to "take all necessary measures" -- diplomatic short hand for military force -- to end impunity and hold perpetrators of massive human rights abuses accountable for their crimes. On Friday, representatives from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, and Morocco briefed Britain, France and the United States on the draft.
The three Western powers urged Saudi Arabia to delay its plan to press for a vote. One diplomat familiar with the discussion said that the United States and its European allies were concerned that a contentious U.N. debate over the use of force could complicate military plans. But others cited concern that it made no sense to push for a resolution dealing with chemical weapons before the U.N. had even completed its assessment of its field visit. The U.N. secretary general is expected to present the U.N. Security Council with a report on the team's findings within the next 10 days.
For the moment, the Saudis are holding the draft in a "drawer" to see whether President Obama presses ahead with plans to strike Syria in response to its use of chemical weapons, according to one diplomat briefed on the plans. But they expect the Saudis to resume their push whether the Americans go ahead with the strike or not. "The Saudis must be very concerned that the United States is going to blink and avoid using force," said Richard Gowan, a U.N. specialist at New York University's Center on International Cooperation, citing Washington and Moscow's ongoing push to initiate political talks between the warring factions in Geneva. "The Saudis are trying to signal they are trying to push for the United States to go all the way."
While London recently sought support for a Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force against Syria, Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, told reporters that Russia has made it clear it will block any action by the Security Council on Syria. "Even in the wake of the flagrant shattering of the international norm against chemical weapons use, Russia continues to hold the Council hostage and shirk its international responsibilities," Power said. "Our considered view, after months of efforts on chemical weapons and after two and a half years on Geneva, on the humanitarian situation, is that there is no viable path forward in this Security Council."
There are precedents for the U.N. General Assembly in authorizing the use of force in the face of Security Council paralysis. In November 1950, the United States, fearing Russian diplomatic obstruction during the Korean War, obtained a mandate from the U.N. General Assembly that granted the U.N. body a role in bypassing the U.N. Security Council. That measure, known at the Uniting for Peace resolution, states that "if the Security Council, because of lack of unanimity of the permanent members, fails to exercise its primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security in any case where there appears to be a threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression, the General Assembly shall consider the matter immediately with a view to making appropriate recommendations to members for collective measures, including in the case of a breach of the peace or act of aggression the use of armed force when necessary, to maintain or restore international peace and security." The General Assembly would later invoke the Uniting for Peace resolution to send a U.N. peacekeeping mission to the Sinai.
More recently, the United States, Britain, and France have grown reluctant to support a similar role for the U.N. General Assembly, preferring that all decisions on the use of force remain subject to Security Council approval.
Edward Luck, the dean of the University of San Diego's School of Peace Studies, said he wouldn't rule out eventual U.S. support for a General Assembly resolution. "My assumption would be that the United States at this point would welcome any strong show of international support for its position," he said. But the risk is that a low vote count would expose deep international misgiving about military action. "The United States doesn't want the same thing to happen in the General Assembly as happened in the British Parliament," where British Prime Minister David Cameron's push for military action in Syria met a devastating defeat, said Luck.
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The British government asserted today that it has the legal authority to strike Syria because of the controversial doctrine of "humanitarian intervention." One small problem: That legal norm has never been accepted by the United States, the United Nations, and other key Western allies.
The government of British Prime Minister David Cameron argued in a short written report that the British government and other governments are legally permitted to launch a military attack against Syrian government targets in order to deter the Syrian government from using chemical weapons in the future. London is effectively arguing that such strikes could be undertaken without the approval of the United Nations Security Council, where Russia and China are almost certain to veto new proposals authorizing the use of force against the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The British legal opinion comes as Barack Obama's administration prepares to brief lawmakers today on a U.S. intelligence report that blames the Syrian government for a chemical weapons attack near Damascus this month that killed hundreds of civilians. The White House will use that report to make its own argument for the justification of striking Syria without U.N. backing. The United States has shifted a fifth Navy destroyer to the Mediterranean, and administration officials and lawmakers have said that missile strikes against Syria could begin within days.
Longtime Washington Post correspondent Colum Lynch reports on all things United Nations for Turtle Bay.