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Tuning in online to a Brown Bag Lecture being held at St. Paul’s College, University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, are members of the Peruvian Military Engineering Company in the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA), deployed in the Western Sector, Bouar, Central African Republic. Photo by Lt. Cdr. Gabriel Velarde.

Tuning in online to a Brown Bag Lecture being held at St. Paul’s College, University of Manitoba, are members of the Peruvian Military Engineering Company in the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA). Photo by Lt. Cdr. Gabriel Velarde.

Dr. Nathan Derejko and the Attack of the Peacekeepers

Research of Mauro Chair in Human Rights and Social Justice impacts frontline United Nations’ forces

March 31, 2023 — 

Unexpected guests tuned in to a hybrid online/in-person public lecture given as one of St. Paul’s College Brown Bag lectures on March 3, 2023. Dr. Nathan Derejko, Mauro Chair in Human Rights and Social Justice, and Assistant Professor at the University of Manitoba’s Faculty of Law was presenting his research on the use of force and right to life during so-called ‘robust’ peacekeeping missions, when somewhat unexpectedly, current members of the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA), tuned in online from their mission headquarters in the city of Bouar, in the Central African Republic.

In the talk titled “The Attack of the Peacekeepers,” Dr. Derejko specifically examined the legal implications of robust mandates in terms when UN peacekeepers can use lethal force, as well as, when lethal force may be used against UN peacekeepers, from the perspective of international human rights and humanitarian law.

This topic attracted a diverse audience comprised of students and faculty from the Mauro Institute for Peace and Justice’s Peace and Conflict Studies program, the Faculty of Law, the Master of Human Rights program, the Departments of Philosophy, Political Studies, and History, as well as former UN Peacekeepers in addition to the CAR-based MINUSCA mission members.

Former UN Peacekeeper and Marine Officer from the Peruvian Navy, Omar Tejada, was also present at the talk and introduced Dr. Derejko. Tejada moved to Canada six months ago and is currently a Master’s student in Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Manitoba. He is also a UN Peacekeeping Operations Consultant for the Conflict and Resilience Research Institute Canada (CRRIC). He previously served on multiple UN Peacekeeping Missions and worked in the UN Department of Peace Operations in New York.

Both Dr. Nathan Derejko and Omar Tejada kindly answered some questions about research being done on this topic, and how the UN Peacekeepers came to ‘attend’ the hybrid presentation live from Bouar.

How did the peacekeepers hear about your presentation?

Dr. Nathan Derejko: I am not sure to be honest, Omar simply showed me the picture after the lecture and said ‘hey look who tuned in.’

Omar Tejada: I was contacted by Lieutenant Commander Gabriel Velarde telling me that he was watching the event together with some of the members of his unit. He is a good friend of mine and is serving at MINUSCA. Besides knowing each other from the Peruvian Navy, we served together in the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) back in 2014 when I was the Commander of the Peruvian Infantry Company.

Did you know they were going to tune in? How did you feel?

ND: No, I did not. But I am very pleased that they did. These issues are currently at the forefront of international debate and concern at the United Nations, but it is not always clear how much of that debate makes it to the local level where these complex international mandates are being implemented by Peacekeepers on the ground.

OT: I didn’t but it was no surprise for me. Gabriel is always following the events from Mauro’s Institute. He is always trying to educate himself and his troops in Peacekeeping.

Did they ask questions or offer insights?

ND: I wish they had, and even more so, I wish I had the opportunity to ask them questions. I have a long list of questions I would love to ask UN Peacekeepers who are currently deployed on so-called Robust Missions. Perhaps this is a sign that a more collaborative and participatory event is necessary, one that creates a space to hear the first-hand experiences, insights and opinions from UN Peacekeepers on the ground. I am always interested in collaborations with practitioners to link research and practice, especially from the bottom up. 

OT: Actually, they did, but due to lack of time, I couldn’t pass it to Nathan. It may be a good opportunity to mention something about it. Gabriel wanted to ask:

 “At MINUSCA, the Quick Reaction Force (QRF) neutralized the rebel groups, Seleka or Antibalaka. Afterward, the RCA government changed its view and started working with private military companies (PMC) against these rebel groups, rather than keep working with UN Forces. The UN peacekeepers are now placed between the rebels and the Central African Armed Forces (FACA) supported by the PMCs.

What should be the position of the MINUSCA regarding the use of Private Military Companies (PMC) supporting RCA combat operations in scenarios where Peacekeeping Forces are also working?”

ND: Indeed, there is no simple or straightforward answer to this question, which requires a similar analysis to that undertaken with respect to the UN Peacekeepers to determine the legal status of members of another group to see if/when they can use lethal force and if/when lethal force can be used against them.  It certainly further complicates the facts on the ground and application of law to those facts, and creates further operational challenges for UN Peacekeepers on the ground. 

Did you know them previously from your work?

OT: I’ve been involved in Peacekeeping Operations for several years. I served as Military Observer in UNMIS (Sudan), Contingent Commander in MINUSTAH (Haiti), and Peacekeeping Affairs Officer in the UNHQ in New York. These experiences, together with my fieldwork in Peru doing counterinsurgency and counternarcotics, allowed me to teach in different institutions, including the Peruvian Peacekeeping Centre. I taught military and police members in Peru in their pre-deployment courses back in 2016 and 2019. As mentioned, I know Gabriel from past missions as a Peacekeeper and Navy Officer as well.

To what extent does your work impact these Peacekeepers as they carry out their mission?

ND: Fundamentally – literally in a life and death way. My research focuses on the legal aspects on the use of lethal force both by and against UN peacekeepers. With increasing frequency, the UN Security Council is authorising peacekeeping forces to launch ‘offensive military operations’ against armed groups in order to demobilise them and maintain territorial stability. At the same time however, the Security Council is also condemning attacks by armed groups against peacekeepers as ‘war crimes’. The validity of such accusations hinges on the legal status of the peacekeeping forces under International Humanitarian Law (IHL). To this end, my lecture investigated the conditions under which peacekeeping forces operating during situations of armed conflict should be considered as a ‘Party’ to the armed conflict and therefore bound by and subject to IHL. If peacekeeping forces are considered as a Party to an armed conflict, they are no longer entitled to protection from direct attack under IHL. As a result, their battlefield deaths, as long as they conform to the rules of IHL, will not constitute a war crime.

OT: In my case, I’ve always focused my research on the evolution of conflict related to Peacekeeping Operations and the lack of adaptability to new challenges of the entire organization. I also research Peacekeeping Operations Leadership and its effects on force protection, the protection of civilians, and mission success. Due to my background and experience, I have an operational approach rather than a legal one. Thanks to Nathan’s intervention, I have broadened my understanding of the complexity of PKO challenges. It has given me a new insight that was not on my radar beforehand. Thanks, Nathan, for that!

Omar, what project or thesis are you working on?

OT: Believe it or not, my thesis will not be focused on PKO but on the War on Drugs. We may think it has nothing to do with PKO but it actually has a lot to do with it, especially in the most dangerous mission located in Africa. Unfortunately, I am not planning to reach that far and will focus on Latin America instead. However, I am writing some essays related to PKO as part of my studies and also a book chapter that [hopefully] will be published by the end of this year. I am also in touch with PKO organizations such as the Latin American Association of Peacekeeping Training Centers (ALCOPAZ) and the International Association of Peacekeeping Training Centers (IAPTC), among others. 

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