Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's visit today to Goma, a city in the heart of the war ravaging the Democratic Republic of the Congo, is meant to draw attention to renewed U.S. support for U.N. peacekeeping and to press thinly stretched troops deployed there to do more to protect innocent civilians.
But how much more can overburdened peacekeepers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and elsewhere be expected to do? Increasingly -- and controversially -- they find themselves busy doing environmental cleanups, climate change mitigation projects and providing relief from natural disasters on top of their security duties.
For example, troops with MONUC -- the French acronym assigned to the U.N. Organization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo -- have spent time planting trees in their area of operation, a scene repeated at other peacekeeping operations in Africa, East Timor, Lebanon and elsewhere.
"MONUC was one of the biggest missions involved in planting the trees, but we have this 1 billion tree campaign, and most of the missions were involved in this reforestation effort," explained Edmond Mulet, assistant secretary general for peacekeeping operations at U.N. headquarters. "On the issue of environment, we are also very much involved in that."
Most famously, troops flying the blue flag spearheaded a mission last year to help Haiti recover after devastating hurricanes swept that country. The effort is largely ongoing as forces work to protect flood-prone areas and put in place stronger infrastructure.
U.N. forces have helped dig water wells to supply communities and refugee camps in Darfur, Sudan, partly to make up for their own use of water. Peacekeepers have also organized agricultural projects. And the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) has recently designated full-time staff at headquarters and in the field to look at ways to lighten the environmental burden inherent to hosting large military bases.
"This is an emerging trend, but one that is still at an early stage," said Richard Gowan, an associate director at the Center on International Cooperation, a think tank at New York University that often advises U.N. officials on peacekeeping. "It's combining hearts and minds and humanitarian outreach with, shall we say, the new vogue of environmental priorities."
Critics out to discredit the U.N. system often point to instances in which peacekeepers seemed incapable of defending civilians in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Darfur, the Central African Republic and elsewhere from marauding rebels or lawless government forces.
The recent tree-planting endeavor, which the U.N. Environment Programme touted as part of the fight against global warming, only fueled criticism, and some worry that the growing trend toward using peacekeepers to do things other than keeping the peace could lead to real problems down the road.
But U.N. officials insist that such activities, much of it done by off-duty troops in their free time and sometimes on their own initiative, are critical to the U.N. mission and a key part of a peacekeeping force's exit strategy.
By enhancing water supplies and water quality and protecting farmland from storms, officials say they are trying to leave behind a population that is less disaster-prone or poverty-stricken, so that DPKO won't find itself having to return to squelch another resource-related conflict later on.
Debate on peacekeeping
The United Nations does not keep hard statistics on how frequently peacekeepers are used for disaster relief, water engineering, ecological rehabilitation and other projects. But officials at DPKO acknowledge that such work is becoming very common, and in some cases, nations are even pulling their own committed forces aside temporarily for community-outreach programs that include environmental and health components.