Bankrupting Peace Spoilers: What Role for UN Peacekeepers?

Author:Philippe Le Billon
Position:Associate professor at the University of British Columbia, with the Department of Geography and the Liu Institute for Global Issues. His most recent book is Wars of Plunder: Conflict, Profits and the Politics of Resources (forthcoming Jan. 2012)
13FALL 2011
by Philippe Le Billon*
Curtailing belligerents’ access to weapons has been a
major focus of international security actors.1 Although
weapons embargoes and disarmament initiatives remain
important, they are difficult to implement and generally insuffi-
cient to secure long-term peace.2 Curtailing belligerents’ access
to revenues from high-value natural resources—such as timber,
minerals, and opium—provides a complementary approach to
attain security, particularly when combined with resource man-
agement reforms.3
This paper focuses on the methods that United Nations
(“UN”) peacekeepers employ and their capacity to help curtail
belligerents’ access to resource revenues.4 The first part of this
paper reviews the principal instruments used by the UNSC to
address “conflict resources.”5 The second part examines the
specific use of peacekeeping forces to secure resource produc-
tion areas and prevent the trafficking of conflict resources. Issues
associated with the deployment of peacekeepers in efforts to
curtail access to conflict resources are also discussed.
UN initiatives to address the links between high-value
natural resources and armed conflicts have included commodity
sanctions, expert panels, and specific measures undertaken6 as
part of the peacemaking, peacekeeping, or peacebuilding tasks.7
Among these methods, the main approach taken by the United
Nations Security Council (“UNSC” or “Security Council”) to
curtail belligerents’ access to resource revenues has been eco-
nomic sanctions.8 Commodity sanctions target rebel groups by
curtailing their access to resources in order to “bankrupt” peace
spoilers.9 Examples include the Khmer Rouge’s access to logs
in Cambodia;10 the National Union for the Total Independence
of Angola’s (“União Nacional para a Independência Total de
Angola” or “UNITA”) access to diamonds;11 the Revolutionary
United Front (“RUF”) access to diamonds in Sierra Leone;12
the Taliban’s access to opium production in Afghanistan;13 and
the New Forces’ (“Forces Nouvelles”) access to diamonds in
Côte d’Ivoire.14 Resource-focused sanctions have also targeted
the governments of Iraq15 and Liberia,16 for their training and
funding of insurgent groups in civil wars, and Libya,17 for its
involvement in the Lockerbie bombing.18
With the exceptions of Cambodia, Iraq, and Libya, all
these sanction regimes were associated with investigations by
UN expert panels—consultants hired by the UN Secretariat to
investigate war economies and “sanction-busting,” or “trading
with a country with which trade has been forbidden.”19 Because
the panels’ reports are made public, they have been instrumental
in successful “naming and shaming” campaigns.20 Even though
less than a handful of sanction busters were successfully pros-
ecuted by 2006, the public reports nonetheless had the desired
chilling effect.21
Although the UNSC holds the greatest potential and has so
far carried the most weight in efforts to address linkages between
high-value resources and armed conflicts, UN transitional
authorities and specialized UN agencies have also engaged in
activities related to managing conflict resources, by deploying
border monitors and troops, deploying UN troops as backup
for resource management officials, and providing supervision
and technical assistance for economic reforms and resource
management.22 Furthermore, these UN entities have partnered
with national authorities and international aid agencies to reform
resource sectors and build local institutional capacity to peace-
fully manage resources in post-conflict settings.23 For example,
the UN Transitional Authority in Timor-Leste renegotiated
the maritime boundary between Timor-Leste and Australia,
the results of which had implications for petroleum exploita-
tion.24 Additionally, the UN Mission in Liberia supported the
Governance and Economic Management Assistance Program
(“GEMAP”).25 An initiative led by the World Bank, GEMAP
is a quasi-trusteeship agreement that allows direct international
supervision of most of the financial operations of the Liberian
government—including monitoring the administration of
natural resources such as timber and mine products.26 Other UN
missions have had an indirect impact on resource sectors; for
example, effective disarmament, demobilization, and reintegra-
tion programs often lead to employment for former soldiers who
might otherwise turn to illegal resource exploitation.27
The UNSC decides whether to impose economic sanctions
and dispatch UN expert panels, as well as the size and mandate
of UN missions in conflict-affected countries.28 Since the end
of the cold war, the UNSC has theoretically had greater free-
dom to impose sanctions and similar measures because fewer
members of the Security Council were inclined to veto such
steps in order to support their allies.29 However, he UNSC
* Philippe Le Billon is an associate professor at the University of British Colum-
bia, with the Department of Geography and the Liu Institute for Global Issues.
His most recent book is Wars of Plunder: Conflict, Profits and the Politics of
Resources (forthcoming Jan. 2012). The analysis for this article draws on pri-
mary and secondary sources, personal communications with staff at the UN
Department of Peacekeeping Operations, and on direct observation of, or par-
ticipation in, peacekeeping operations in Angola, Cambodia, the Democratic
Republic of Congo, Sierra Leone, and the former Yugoslavia.
has been somewhat slow in adopting this potential in practice.
Meanwhile, the importance of resources to armed groups
has grown rapidly since the late 1980s, as belligerents turned
to natural resources to replace external political sponsorship.30
For most of the 1990s, the UNSC made increasing use of arms
sanctions, negotiated settlements, and regional or UN peace-
keeping missions, but rarely placed commodity sanctions.31
Although arms sanctions may be more effective than commodity
sanctions, and may therefore continue to be the principal sanc-
tion strategy, the two approaches can be combined to resolve
Although the UNSC began implementing commodity
sanctions in the late 1980s, it has only done so in approximately
one-third of the conflicts involving resources between 1989
and 2006.33 Furthermore, most of these sanctions have been
imposed after the late 1990s, nearly a decade after resources
came to play a major role in belligerents’ finances.34 When the
use of commodity sanctions finally increased, it was given a fur-
ther boost by a more proactive use of sanction committees and
expert panels.35 Because of broader engagement on the part of
nongovernmental organizations (“NGOs”), conflict analysts, and
resource industries, sanctions are now better targeted, monitored,
and enforced, and their humanitarian impact is more carefully
considered.36 The UNSC has even recently bolstered the author-
ity and capacity of UN peacekeeping missions to more directly
intervene in the control of resource sectors, most notably in the
case of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (“DRC”).37
UN peacekeeping operations have been established in at
least eight countries where conflict resources contributed to
prolonging hostilities. This section briefly reviews the mandates,
specific measures, and effectiveness in each case building on the
three main cases: Sierra Leone, Liberia and the DRC.
Despite UN hesitation, the UN Assistance Mission in Sierra
Leone (“UNAMSIL”) used peacekeeping forces to regulate the
diamond sector during the last stages of its 1999-2005 opera-
tion.38 Before that point, peacekeeping forces had intervened in
an ad hoc fashion to prevent the escalation of resource-related
conflicts.39 This ad hoc intervention was based on UNAMSIL’s
fear of overstepping its mandate,40 antagonizing local interest
groups, exposing UN troops to criminal violence, and reinforc-
ing rumors that peacekeeping forces were involved in diamond
deals.41 Although some of these concerns were legitimate,
reports from military observers about diamond-related armed
conflicts, as well as requests for assistance from the govern-
ment and from the donors who were funding diamond reforms,
eventually led UNAMSIL to take on a more proactive role.42 In
2003, two years after hostilities had ceased, UNAMSIL began
conducting aerial surveys, deploying foot patrols, and engaging
in targeted conflict-settlement interventions in the diamond sec-
tor.43 Most notably, UNAMSIL also worked to prevent clashes
between local youths with former RUF soldiers.44 These efforts
were often undertaken jointly with the Sierra Leone Ministry of
Mines, where UNAMSIL occasionally served in a supervisory
capacity for the ministry.45
The ongoing UN Mission in Liberia (“UNMIL”), estab-
lished in 2003, has illustrated potential complications of using
peacekeeping methods to address conflict resources. UNMILs
mandate is “to assist the transitional government in restoring
proper administration of natural resources” as part of the imple-
mentation of the peace process.46 Conflict resources—mostly
timber, but also rubber and diamonds—had played a major role
in the Liberian conflicts between 1989 and 2003.47
Because of the rapid cessation of hostilities and improving
security after 2003, UNMIL did not confront extensive problems
with conflict commodities.48 This was a positive factor consid-
ering that UNMILs full deployment took nine months, largely
because UN member countries failed to provide the pledged
troops.49 Nevertheless, UNMIL was subject to criticism for fail-
ing to do more to address the problem of conflict resources.50
Among its critics was Global Witness, the leading NGO in
the realm of resources and armed conflicts.51 In 2005, Global
Witness wrote a letter to the UNSC, stating that UNMIL had
failed to implement its mandate because
they have not been given the legal authority to act
as independently and proactively as they need to
effectively seek out and stop illegal timber or diamond
operations. . . . UNMILs ability to fulfill its mandate
is further undermined by its lack of deployment
in diamond and timber-rich areas, particularly along
Liberia’s porous border regions with Côte d’Ivoire,
Guinea and Sierra Leone.52
While UNMIL did not undertake sufficient efforts to secure
conflict commodities, it did create an environment and natural
resources unit that worked with local and international organiza-
tions on protecting Liberia’s natural resources53 Arguably, other
UN agencies—such as the UN Environment Programme, the
Food and Agriculture Organization, and the UN Development
Programme—have a more general mandate to engage in envi-
ronmental protection and resource management, but the creation
of the environment and natural resources unit was in line with
UNMILs quasi-trusteeship functions during the transition period
from 2003 to 2005.54
UNMIL did carry out some aerial reconnaissance to monitor
mining, along with occasional, but rare, ground patrols.55 On
some occasions, UNMIL also deployed troops in resource-rich
areas—for example, to remove artisanal diamond miners oper-
ating illegally within an oil palm plantation;56 to close a large
artisanal diamond mining site that had been identified by an
expert panel but had not been shut down by the transitional gov-
ernment—allegedly, diamonds were being stockpiled at the site
while the owners waited for sanctions to be lifted;57 and to pro-
tect the interests of a U.S. diamond company and “restore calm
and order” after demonstrations at a Firestone rubber concession
in 2007.58 Some troop deployments have sparked controversy.
15FALL 2011
In particular, Liberian mining interests and company employ-
ees have accused UNMIL of protecting the interests of foreign
companies over those of local populations.59 Such accusations
demonstrate that UN peacekeeping activities in resource sectors
can generate new conflicts, and should therefore be considered
from a political perspective instead of being narrowly conceived
as a law-and-order measure.
The UNSC has implemented an array of peacekeeping
tools to address conflict resources during the UN mission in the
Democratic Republic of the Congo (“Mission de l’Organisation
des Nations Unies en République Démocratique du Congo,or
“MONUC”). Mineral resources have historically financed both
local and foreign-armed groups especially in the eastern part of
the country during the first civil war between 1996 to 1997, the
second war from 1998 to 2003, as well as during the aftermath of
the second war.60 Although the UN has used expert panel inves-
tigations and public reporting to address this issue, it did not
impose sanctions on conflict resources in the DRC until 2008.61
In December 2008, through Resolution 1856, the Security
Council gave MONUC a mandate to “coordinate operations with
the [Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo
(“FARDC”) to prevent] the provision of support to illegal armed
groups, including support derived from illicit economic activi-
ties.”62 Resolution 1856 also gave MONUC the authority to “use
its monitoring and inspection capacities to curtail the provision
of support to illegal armed groups derived from illicit trade in
natural resources.”63 In Resolution 1857, the UNSC extended
the list of individuals and companies subject to travel sanctions,
financial sanctions, or both, to “individuals or entities supporting
the illegal armed groups in the eastern part of the Democratic
Republic of the Congo through illicit trade of natural resources,”
sending a strong signal to companies involved in trading conflict
resources.64 Despite its broad authority, however, MONUC faced
challenges implementing Resolution 1856. These challenges
included the fact that MONUC troops’ lacked autonomous
authority to intervene without the FARDC, and accusations of
human rights abuses and resource trafficking by the FARDC.65
Table 1. Control of Conflict Resources by UN Peacekeeping Missions, 1988–200992
Mission General mandate and conflict
resources related measures
UNAMAh (2002–present)
Assistance. Counternarcotics
Policy coordination and technical cooperation; no military component.
Angola: UNAVEMa (1988–1997);
MONUAb (1997–1999)
Observation. Ban on
noncertified diamond exports
The mission had very limited effectiveness, but the ban was effective—partly
because of military pressure on UNITA from the Angolan government, and
partly because the governments in Kinshasa and Brazzaville, which had pro-
vided conduits for UNITAs diamond smuggling, were toppled; peacekeepers
provided some assistance to UN expert panels.
Cambodia: UNTACc (1992–
Transitional authority. Ban on
logging exports (sawn timber
Limited effectiveness because the ban was not implemented for long enough,
and there was no UN enforcement of the ban in Khmer Rouge areas along the
Thai border; the UN mission provided some assistance as a transitional author-
ity in the area of environmental and resource management.
Côte d’Ivoire: MINUCIj (2003–
2004), UNOCIk (2004–present)
Assistance. Ban on all
diamond exports
Embargo-monitoring unit; no mandate to address key resource sectors (e.g.,
cocoa) from which rebels obtain financing.
Croatia: UNTAESd (1996–1998) Transitional authority.
Border monitoring
Limited support for local police forces.
DRC: MONUCf (1999–2010),
MONUSCOg (2010-present)
Assistance. Curtailing
financing of illegal groups
Monitoring, border control at airports, some military assistance to Congolese
army to curtail armed groups’ access to natural resources.
Liberia: UNMILi (2003–present) Assistance. Ban on timber and
all diamond exports
Limited assistance in key areas; UNMIL also maintains an
Environment and Natural Resources Unit, which assists UN expert panels.
Sierra Leone: UNAMSILe
Assistance. Ban on noncertified
diamond exports
Peacekeepers provided some assistance with monitoring and conflict resolu-
tion in the diamond sector.
a. UN Angola Verification Missions; b. UN Observer Mission in Angola; c. UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia; d. UN Transitional Administra-
tion in Eastern Slavonia, Baranja, and Western Sirmium; e. UN Assistance Mission in Sierra Leone; f. UN Mission in the Democratic Republic of
the Congo (Mission de l’Organisation des Nations Unies en République Démocratique du Congo); g. UN Stabilization Mission in the Democratic
Republic of the Congo (Mission de l’Organisation des Nations Unies pour la stabilisation en République Démocratique du Congo); h. UN Assistance
Mission in Afghanistan; i. UN Mission in Liberia ; j. UN Mission in Côte d’Ivoire ; k. UN Operation in Côte d’Ivoire.
As an international military force deployed to “keep the
peace,” UN peacekeeping operations—and, more broadly,
non-UN peacekeeping forces, such as regional peacekeeping
forces—have a unique ability to help sever links between resources
and peace spoilers. Although peacekeepers could theoretically be
deployed to control diamond mining, logging, or drug trafficking
operations that finance armed groups, the governments that are
mandating peacekeeping operations—through the UNSC, for
example—are often reluctant to assign peacekeepers such roles.66
When deciding whether to deploy UN troops for combat
operations intended to curtail rebel access to resources a number
of considerations must be addressed, including the direct inter-
vention’s legality, the intervention’s affect on relations between
the UN mission, the host government, and local populations, and
the peacekeeping missions capacity to intervene successfully. 67
Legally, local authorities have the right to prohibit unilat-
eral UN troop deployment, unless the country is under a UN
trusteeship mandate whereby sovereign authority is vested in a
UN administrative body.68 Moreover, because many missions
are carried out under Chapter VI of the UN Charter, which
addresses pacific settlement of disputes, rather than Chapter
VII, which addresses forceful settlement of disputes, peacekeep-
ing missions are prevented from engaging in any “offensive”
combat role, such as taking control of resource production
areas.69 Out of the half-dozen peacekeeping missions estab-
lished since 1989 in response to commodity-financed conflicts,
only one—MONUC—has been specifically mandated to address
the financing of illegal groups by illicit economic activities.70
That lone example included military support to DRC govern-
ment troops.71 In recent years, the UN Head of Mission and the
UN Mission Chief of Staff, as well as individual UN-mandated
military contingents have used their “room for maneuver”
to investigate, report on, or stop illegal resource trade and
management practices.72 Despite this trend, decision makers
within UN missions have generally been wary of overstepping
their mandate, overextending or diverting resources, alienating
economic or political stakeholders, or putting both peacekeepers
and civilians at risk by interfering with the economic interests of
criminals and armed groups.73
Sovereignty issues, including sovereignty over resources,
have also discouraged those governments sending and receiving
resources from assigning UN peacekeepers an active role in
preventing conflict resources from funding peace spoilers.74 The
economic interests of governments and companies may conflict
either because a company and a host government are competing
producers, or because a sending government also happens to be
the home government of investors.75 Therefore, if peacekeepers
are directly involved in conflict resources issue, there may be
allegations that the peacekeepers are serving the interests of
their home countries—specifically by protecting those countries’
access to resources.76 Although the U.S. invasion of Iraq was not
a “peacekeeping” mission, the non-UN mandated and U.S.-led
“coalition of the willing” was the subject of such allegations.77
On the other hand, shared economic interests could create an
incentive for granting peacekeeping missions broader mandates
and thereby increasing their effectiveness.
Military capacity must also be considered when deciding
whether to deploy UN troops to protect resources from peace
spoilers. Most governments provide troops to UN missions on the
assumption that the risk of casualties is very low.78 In addition,
the military capacity of most UN contingents is usually limited,
especially for offensive combat operations.79 Many governments
that send troops to UN peacekeeping missions view resource
control not only as a high-risk option, but as a distraction from
or counterproductive to peacekeepers’ principal political and
humanitarian mandates.80 “Robust” peacekeeping—entailing
combat operations in mining or logging areas, for example—is
thus unlikely, in part because of the risk of casualties among
both civilians and UN troops.81 Nevertheless, in some cases, the
deployment of UN troops in resource areas has been viewed as a
necessity.82 Where such efforts have been undertaken, however,
they have occasionally met with determined resistance from
armed groups, and the resource-rich areas have often been the
last ones to come under UN control.83
At the mission level, operational staffs, both at headquar-
ters and on the ground, recognize the importance of curtailing
peace spoilers’ access to high-value resources, but they are also
aware of the difficulties associated with intervention. Mission
staff often report on the role of resources in local skirmishes,
not only between armed groups, but also between rival govern-
ment security agencies, private militias, and criminal gangs.84
This low-level violence rarely receives political attention,
but political affairs officers in UN missions have nevertheless
warned of the potential for escalation.85 They have also noted the
broader implications of resource revenues for relations within
and between armed groups.86 Such issues have also received
greater consideration because UN intelligence efforts have been
boosted by Joint Mission Analysis Cells, which are charged
with assessing the overall political and security situations of UN
missions and reporting to the Special Representatives of the UN
Secretary General that head the missions.87
After addressing these considerations, the UN intervention
would proceed if it will likely make a substantial contribution to
a speedier end to the conflict, without creating harmful conse-
quences in the future, for example loss of livelihood or abuse by
rebel groups. When armed groups’ access to conflict resources
is curtailed, they sometimes turn on the local populations, either
to obtain funding or simply for revenge—events for which the
UN would bear some responsibility.88 Furthermore, analysis
reveals that rebel groups operating in resource-rich environ-
ments tend to commit worse abuses against civilians.89 This
behavior appears to be associated with a membership pool of
“consumers” rather than “investors”—that is, combatants who
are drawn to the rebellion by short-term, opportunistic economic
objectives rather than by long-term political objectives.90 In the
short term, UN military interventions in resource sectors may
risk exacerbating abuses by rebels against civilian populations.
But in the long term, such interventions may not only reduce the
funding and operating capacity of rebel groups, but may also
17FALL 2011
help focus rebel movements on political objectives, and there-
fore on negotiations, rather than on survival and profiteering.91
Peacekeeping forces can play a role in curtailing peace
spoilers’ access to resource revenues. Yet, the evidence reviewed
for this paper suggests that peacekeeping missions have so
far gained limited direct experience in seeking to achieve this
goal. Such interventions must be carefully considered from
legal, humanitarian, political and economic standpoints before
being carried out, preceded by careful operational planning, and
conducted by adequately trained, equipped, and disciplined
international forces so that the risks of human rights abuses,
military failure and corruption are minimized. Additionally, any
collaboration between peacekeepers with local forces should be
come under stringent guidelines and monitoring. Short of engag-
ing in interdiction, peacekeepers do have the potential to help
collect information on resource sectors, remove peace spoilers
from important resource extraction areas, and back up police
efforts to arrest illicit traders.
Endnotes: Bankrupting Peace Spoilers: What Role for UN
1 Tracing Small Arms is Key to Reducing Violence, Says the UN General
Secretary, UNITED NATIONS OFFICE ON DRUGS AND CRIME (2011), http://www.
4 In resource-rich areas, a higher incidence of abuses against civilians may
also be linked to low dependence on local populations for sustenance; this is in
contrast to rebellions that operate in resource-poor areas or that lack access to
5 Conflict resources are defined as “natural resources whose systematic
exploitation and trade in a context of conflict contribute to, benefit from
or result in the commission of serious violations of human rights, violations
of international humanitarian law or violations amounting to crimes under
international law.See Conflict, Global Witness,
campaigns/conflict (last visited Nov. 2 2011).
6 See Update Report No. 2 Natural Resources and Conflict, SEC. COUN-
CIL REPORT (June 20, 2007),
7 The UN has also supported other initiatives to address the links between
high-value natural resources and armed conflicts, through resolutions; for
example, the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme, passed in the UNSC and
General Assembly, which is designed to stem the trade in conflict diamonds, is
seeking strengthened standards of corporate practices among extractive compa-
nies operating in conflict zones through the work of UN Special Representative
John Ruggie and the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. See
Rep. of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on the Issue of
Human Rights and Transnational Corporations and Other Business Enterprises,
Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights: Implementing the United
Nations “Protect, Respect and Remedy” Framework, U.N. Doc. A/HRC/17/31
(Mar. 21, 2011),
8 See Update Report No. 2 Natural Resources and Conflict, SEC. COUN-
CIL REPORT (June 20, 2007),
9 Philippe Le Billon & Eric Nicholas, Ending ‘Resource Wars’: Revenue
Sharing, Economic Sanction or Military Intervention?, 14 INTL PEACEKEEPING
613, 617 (2007),
10 Id. at 621.
11 Id.
12 Id.
13 Id.
14 Id. at 624.
15 S.C. Res. 661, § 3(c), U.N. Doc. S/RES/661 (Aug. 6, 1990) (sanctioning all
commodities from Iraq).
16 S.C. Res. 1478, § 17(a), U.N. Doc. S/RES/1478 (2003) (sanctioning timber
products originating in Liberia)
17 S.C. Res. 883, § 17(a), U.N. Doc. S/RES/883 (1993) (freezing funds and
financial resources that contribute to Libya’s publicly owned oil).
19 Id. at 2. See Sanction-Busting Definition, Merriam-Webster Dictionary, (last visited
Dec. 15, 2011).
20 Id. at 2.
21 Id.
22 Id.
UNITED NATIONS (2011), (last
visited Dec. 2, 2011) (stating that the Food and Agriculture Organization, the
UN Environment Programme, and the UN Development Programme are among
the UN agencies involved in efforts to reform resource sectors and build local
institutional capacity in post-conflict settings).
24 See Clive Schofield, A “Fair Go” for East Timor? Sharing the Resources of
the Timor Sea, 27 CONTEMPORARY SE. ASIA 255, 269 (2005).
26 Id. at 8, 16-18.
27 Second International Conference on DDR and Stability in Africa Kinshasa,
Democratic Republic of Congo, June 12-14, 2007, DDR and Transitional
28 Role of the Security Council, UNITED NATIONS PEACEKEEPING, http://www. (last visited Nov. 21, 2011).
30 See generally Phillip Le Billon, The political ecology of war: natural
resources and armed conflicts, 20 POLITICAL GEOGRAPHY, 561 (2001).
31 STREMLAU, supra note 29, at 9.
33 Le Billon, supra note18, at 2.
34 Id. at 5.
35 Id.
36 Id. at 2-3.
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