Opinion: Irish soldiers on the latest UNIFIL tour of duty will face a more complex regional situation than was the case in 1978

The latest batch of Irish troops embarking on their tour of duty with the UN peacekeeping force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) confront a more complex regional situation than when first deployed in 1978. The early years of Irish involvement in Lebanon led to significant tensions between Ireland and Israel. There were a number of serious clashes between Israeli backed forces and Irish UNIFIL troops on the ground. 

A major challenge today remains how to implement the mandate, including the protection of civilians, while avoiding becoming a party to the conflict. The US in particular has pushed for a more robust response from UNIFIL to the perceived threat from armed groups such as the Iranian-backed Hezbollah. This raises important questions for UN peacekeeping in general.

From RTÉ Archives, Tom McCaughren reports for RTÉ News on the work of the 48th Irish Battalion in Lebanon in 1981

In 2017, 61 peacekeepers were killed as a result of hostile acts, the highest number since 1994. Some commentators have suggested that peacekeeping is in crisis and this has led to calls for a fundamental review of how the UN conducts its operations. 

A recent UN commissioned report advocated a more proactive UN posture in order to increase the effectiveness and ability to protect civilians and UN peacekeepers themselves. The Cruz report claimed that, even though the era of traditional consensus based peacekeeping is over, the UN and troop contributors are stuck in a mindset that is risk averse and unwilling to face new challenges presented by the changed environment. It recommended that UN forces not shy away from tactical offensive operations to pre-empt hostile acts, instead of becoming "sitting ducks" who lose the respect of the local population and increase risk to themselves.

The lack of aviation, engineers and intelligence reflect a weakness in many UN missions

At the same time, the Security Council has reaffirmed the basic principles of peacekeeping, including consent of the parties, impartiality and non-use of force, except in self-defence and defence of the mandate. This is important and consistent with Irish policy to date.

The former Under-Secretary General of the UN for peacekeeping, Jean-Marie Guehenno, has also called for a new peacekeeping framework. He cited the Cruz report and stressed that the UN was not going to become a war machine, as most troop contributors did not want this and it did not have the capacity to conduct a war. He also warned against the so-called peacekeeping trap, when the presence of peacekeepers can relieve national actors of their responsibility to the local population.

From RTÉ Radio One's News At One. a report on President Michael D Higgins addressing the UN on Ireland's commitment to peacekeeping

The UN Secretary-General has also warned about mandate inflation and the impossibility of implementing multi-dimensional tasks. This is consistent with previous reports that advocated a prioritisation and sequencing of mandates.

A major weakness in many current peacekeeping operations is combat support service. The lack of enablers such as aviation, engineers and intelligence reflect a weakness in many UN missions. After decades of discussion about the appropriateness and best use of intelligence entities, UN missions still develop intelligence approaches on an ad hoc basis. The Security Council also supported the development of a comprehensive performance policy framework, something that has been a weakness in all UN activities to date. 

The current situation in Lebanon is stable, but the region remains volatile and a future round of fighting involving Hizbollah and Israel is likely

The Murphy report on the deaths of two Irish UNIFIL soldiers in 1981 highlighted a range of problems at the time. While these have been addressed, a fundamental question of how command over Irish forces is exercised in a crisis has yet to be tested. On paper, the Irish contingent comes under operational control of the UN Force Commander. The Murphy report recommended that UN headquarters not be allowed to override the Irish commander’s view on what action was appropriate. These are incompatible positions.

Irish troops are better equipped than in the past. Although UNIFIL is not adopting a combat role such as being undertaken by UN forces elsewhere, Irish forces have the capacity to intervene in most situations that may arise. However, in 2014 the then Minister for Defence Simon Coveney reiterated that Ireland would not move into the territory of peace enforcement in the Golan Heights or elsewhere.

READ: What are Irish soldiers achieving in the Golan Heights?

From RTÉ Nine News, a report on Irish soldiers preparing for a peacekeeping mission in Golan Heights

While robustness may enhance the ability to control the area of operations where a crisis is taking place and provide protection in the short term, it will always be required to take account of the need for political processes rather than relying on coercion. The current situation in Lebanon is stable, but the region remains volatile and a future round of fighting involving Hizbollah and Israel is likely. 

UNIFIL adopted a strategy for protection of civilians in 2015. This allows for UNIFIL’s intervention up to and including the use of deadly force in order to provide physical protection to the local population. Under the then Irish Force Commander General Beary, UNIFIL put a protection of civilians implementation plan in place that attempts to translate this strategy into meaningful action.

Why should UNIFIL become an instrument of US foreign policy?

Today, UNIFIL remains a mission straddling the line somewhere between traditional peacekeeping and more robust peace enforcement. This is likely to remain the situation in the foreseeable future.

While the Council continues to support the mission, the US has publicly criticised UNIFIL and advocated for a more assertive role in confronting armed groups. This criticism is unfair. Why should UNIFIL become an instrument of US foreign policy?  France and others have been cautious about adopting a more proactive approach, afraid that this could threaten the fragile calm in southern Lebanon that has been maintained for more than ten years.

From RTÉ Archives, a RTÉ News report from 1980 on the return of the 46th Battalion from Lebanon 

The importance of maintaining a clear distinction between traditional peacekeeping and operations involving some degree of enforcement or stabilisation is not just important for the UN, but also contributing states like Ireland. A total of 47 Defence Forces personnel lost their lives on this mission.

READ: what has 60 years of nvolvement in UN peacekeeping missions meant for Irish troops?

The major challenge remains the lack of progress towards implementing a permanent ceasefire and disarmament of non-state actors. Hezbollah is reported to have over 100,000 missiles and has recently acquired precision guided missiles. This poses a serious threat to governance in Lebanon and regional peace, and contravenes UN Security Council resolutions 1559 and 1701. UNIFIL’s continued presence helps maintain a fragile peace and facilitates finding a political resolution to these issues.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ