In harm’s way

The abduction last Wednesday of 21 Filipino peacekeepers in the Golan Heights, in Syria, has belatedly focused national attention on the risks that Filipino soldiers and police officers face when they serve in UN peacekeeping operations. The hostages’ release over the weekend—they were transported to Jordan, unharmed—was welcome news indeed. Their experience, however, should prompt a national discussion about the true costs involved when we send Filipinos into harm’s way.

The Philippines is an active contributor to the United Nations’ Department of Peacekeeping Operations, or DPKO. Of the 14 operations and one political mission the department currently directs, the Philippines is present in eight.

The abducted peacekeepers were part of Undof, the UN Disengagement Observer Force that helps to keep the uneasy peace between Israel and Syria in the Golan Heights. According to official UN data, there are 342 Filipinos serving in Undof—almost 30 percent of the total force, and by far the biggest single Philippine contingent. Two other peacekeeping operations have sizable Philippine participation: the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti (Minustah), with 184 Filipino members, and the UN Mission in Liberia, with 152.

All told, there are 730 Filipinos serving in UN peacekeeping operations, including 12 “military experts on mission” (classified as neither soldier nor police officer) and even two policewomen in Afghanistan. This is only a small part of the total UN peacekeeping force, less than 1 percent of the DPKO’s 92,968 “blue helmets” as of the end of January 2013—but the Filipinos are as vulnerable to outbreaks of violence or force majeure as any other nationality.

The release of the 21 peacekeepers abducted in Syria was met by a great sense of relief; if the abduction had ended in injury or death, the episode would have gone down in Philippine history as the worst single incident for Filipino UN peacekeepers. We certainly dodged the bullet there.

The blackest day in Philippine participation in UN peacekeeping operations occurred on Jan. 12, 2010, when four Filipinos died in the massive Haiti earthquake, after the Minustah headquarters collapsed.

Before that, a staff sergeant was killed when gunmen attacked UN peacekeepers in 2005, also in Haiti, and a captain died in Iraq in 1996. Two Filipinos were among the six peacekeepers kidnapped in Cambodia in 1992; all six were released three days after.

If Filipinos ever talk about their countrymen serving as UN peacekeepers, perhaps the emphasis falls on the valuable experience they get or the even more valuable allowance they receive, presumably in US dollars. The Golan Heights misadventure should remind us that Filipino peacekeepers face real risks, and that even the country’s best-trained soldiers and police officers can find themselves staring at the wrong end of an automatic rifle.

If the situation is serious for armed peacekeepers, consider the stakes for civilian personnel. One of the four who died in the Haiti earthquake was UN staff member Jerome Yap. According to a 2010 news release of the Department of Foreign Affairs, four other Filipino civilians working with the United Nations or UN-affiliated programs perished in the line of duty: Ranillo Buenaventura died in Baghdad in 2003; Gene Luna in Algiers in 2008; Jossie Esto in Kabul in 2009; and Perseveranda So in Peshawar, also in 2009. All four died in terrorist attacks.

None of this should be taken to mean that the Philippines must cease to contribute personnel and resources to the UN’s peacekeeping operations, or that there should be a government ban on the deployment of Filipinos, even civilians, to conflict areas. As one of the original members of the United Nations, the Philippines cannot shirk the responsibility of helping create the conditions for lasting peace in conflict-torn countries.

But we must review the parameters under which we send our soldiers and police officers into harm’s way. The Undof mission, for instance, is under severe pressure; as the civil war in Syria worsens, the international community—through the UN Security Council—may decide that full-scale military support for the rebels is the only way to prevent even greater bloodshed. That may in fact be the only real option left, but if that happens, the UN peacekeepers in Syria, almost a third of whom are Filipinos, will become targets for reprisal from the Assad government. What do we do then?

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Tags: kidnapping , Overseas Filipino Workers , Peacekeeping , Syria , UN

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