U.N. peacekeeper General Patrick Cammaert

General Patrick Cammaert (© YouTube)

Retired Major-General Patrick Cammaert of the Royal Dutch Marines is one of the world’s most experienced and distinguished professional peacekeepers. He was appointed In December 2018 to monitor the ceasefire in Yemen and the withdrawal of the warring parties from the besieged port city of Hodeidah. Less than two months later, it was announced that he would be stepping down.

General Cammaert arrived in Yemen with numerous years of experience with United Nations peace-keeping operations, including Cambodia, the former Yugoslavia, Ethiopia, Eritrea and South Sudan. In 2002, General Cammaert became U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan’s chief adviser on military affairs. This interview was made shortly after his mission with MONUC in the war-torn eastern provinces of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Producer: Marijke van der Meer

Broadcast: September 10, 2007


Hello, this is Marijke van der Meer, and welcome to Flatlanders, a programme in which we speak with people in or from the Netherlands who have made a significant contribution to our society through their work and ideas.

You have nations and the international community has learned from the dramas in Srebrenica, Somalia, Rwanda, and I am happy to say that the operational command of the United Nations is in much better shape than ever before. And we can certainly be in competition with NATO or the European Union. 

Today’s guest is retired Major-General Patrick Cammaert, described as the most operational officer among the Dutch military. General Cammaert has commanded UN peacekeeping forces in Cambodia, in the former Yugoslavia and in Ethiopia and Eritrea. He served as the UN secretary general’s chief adviser on Military Affairs and most recently as the Commander of the 15.000 UN troops of Division East of MONUC, the UN’s mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Now that part of the world has been in the news again: shocking images were published of a  large male silverback mountain gorilla and 3 female companions of this rare species ritually executed by rebels, once again active in this treacherous almost lawless region. Yet even here the United Nations has managed to bring about some change under very difficult circumstances. General Cammaert

PC: One day you are winning the hearts and minds of the local population, the next day you have to use force in order to keep the peace with very difficult rules of engagement many times, where you have to restrain yourself from using force. You don’t know many times, who is foe, who is friend. So it is a difficult soldier’s job, so to speak. Difficult. The fact that you can switch mentally from one moment winning the hearts and minds of the local population and the next moment, you have to use your weapon and use force to keep the peace and then the next day back to winning the hearts and minds of the local population. That mental switch is sometimes very difficult. And second, the use of force and the restrictions coinciding with that, is something that you have to learn and to train for, so those two parts are in my view very important in peacekeeping. MvdM: It’s very easy to make a mistake. PC: Yes, of course, it’s very easy to make a mistake and then I mean the fact that you have to avoid collateral damage is something that has to be in the forefront of your mind all the time.

MvdM: Yes, while you were the head of the United Nations Forces in the Eastern Zone of Congo, there was a noteworthy incident in which I believe as many as 50 rebels were killed by U.N. forces. Could you describe what happened in that particular incident? It came quite as a surprise for many people who perceive you in peacekeeping as standing by and watching it all happen and doing nothing. PC: Well, that particular incident happened in the beginning of 2005 in February, when we had just inaugurated the division of the United Nations in the eastern part of Congo, and we had implemented our mandate and we were truthful and honoured to our mandate which was to protect civilians under imminent threat of physical violence and that’s exactly what we did. And maybe before that it was more difficult, because the United Nations had not enough troops in the area, but certainly when I arrived there to go for or established the command of the division, because it was the first time, we decided to call a spade a spade and to take action when there was a need to take action and that resulted sometimes in losses at the opponent side, and unfortunately we lost a few guys as well, but it brought also peace and stability in the area and approximately 18.000 rebels handed in their weapons and gave up their struggle and chose for the disarmament, demobilisation, reassertion process. MvdM: How was it to make that decision and to order your men to shoot? Did you have to consult governments or UN officials? PC: No, no, no, I mean we have a mandate, we have rules of engagement, and we use those rules of engagement and mandate to carry out the operations as said. So there is no need to consult anybody. Brigade commanders under my command don’t have to consult me. They know the rules of engagement and so they act within those rules of engagement.

MvdM: Following the abysmal failure of the international community in Rwanda and Srebenica, guidelines for the reform of UN peacekeeping were drawn up in the so-called Brahimi report in 2000. Its recommendations included a plea for more realistic mandates, for more rapid deployment capacities, for stand-by and on-call arrangements for supplies, experts and police, for more transparent procurement schemes, for appointments based on meritocracy and for an independent UN intelligence gathering and analysis capacity. Needless to say not all of the Brahimi panel’s recommendations have been implemented yet. PC; Things like that do not change overnight. It takes time and in the meantime the international community might have been overtaken by events. It happened in Darfur and also in the Congo and that means that you have all the time, to adjust the Brahimi report so to speak and maybe we need a second briefing report to adjust it for what is required anno 2007. MvdM: And what in your opinion needs to be done? PC: The advice that I would give is that the training of the forces that are required at home before the troops sent should be increased and also the issue of sexual exploitation and abuse should be addressed properly at home, the whole issue of commander control, the fact that commanders need to command the troops and be very much acquainted with rules of engagement and the mandate what can be done and what should not be done. All those things should be dealt with at home and that is something that also was mentioned by Mr. Brahimi, but maybe that was not completely carried out. MvdM: But even if they are dealt with at home, you’re out in the field in Congo, for example, difficult terrain, a huge area, how can you keep discipline and control in such a huge area involving troops from so many different countries and different military cultures? PC: Indeed the terrain was immense. The area of operations of the Eastern Division between my troops in the north and in the south was nearly 2000 kilometres. Of course, every commander always wants to have more troops, but we had to do it with the 15.000 that we got, and that means that we had to achieve as much mobility as possible, using helicopters, using the flexibility of the United Nations administration or to increase the flexibility of the United Nations administration, learn the way the rules of engagement of the United Nations had to be changed, get wavers to get them changed in order to make sure that you could carry out the operations that were required. And that is certainly not easy, and you cannot avoid atrocities happening, But we could very much see an enormous decrease of atrocities and human rights abuses since the division was established.

An internal UN review conducted in 2004 inspired a policy of zero tolerance towards sexual abuse and in 2006 conduct and discipline units were dispatched to the eight biggest peace missions. Yet allegations of wrongdoing by UN peacekeepers are repeatedly voiced. Sexual abuse of children in Sierra Leone and Haiti, for example, and gun running in Congo. International peacekeepers often have to collaborate with government armies that have dubious human rights records or which have incorporated demobilised rebels with a history of gruesome atrocities.

PC: You will always have rotten apples in the basket and you must make sure that the leadership of missions and leadership of contingents deal with that kind of situation and show leadership and when there is a rotten apple found, it will have to be taken out. It will happen and it will continue to happen, but you have to deal with that situation. and that means that you have to show leadership and contingent commanders and the company commanders have to deal with their soldiers and also civilians should be instructed and guided and directed how to deal with situations that they might be tempted to exploit people who are vulnerable. MvdM: But quite a few United Nations Missions are also in combination with other forces. For example now in Darfur, it’s going to be UN African Union. In Afghanistan, we have a situation, where we’re going to be combining NATO Force with operation Enduring Freedom plus United Nations and in Congo you have worked with the government forces as well. You don’t have much control over that situation, do you? PC: Well you’re comparing a lot of things that I think should not be compared, because it’s comparing apples and pears, I mean, the situation of Afghanistan where you have two operations running at the same time with separate command of control is a totally different situation than we have, for instance, in Sudan or Darfur or now in the Congo, where the United Nations mission is coordinating and cooperating with the local government and with the forces of the government in good and in bad times. And the United Nations is impartial, so they will call a spade a spade and Darfur will be an African Union-United Nation combined operation, so-called hybrid operation, which is more or less unique, with its own specific requirements and problems and the leadership of the mission has to deal with those problems. MvdM: Could you comment in on the fact that it will be an all African Force? Is that good? PC: The African Union has a desire to have the 20.000 troops totally filled by the African Union, which is fine. But I am not quite sure if that is possible and where it is not possible, then other UN troop contributors should chip in. And that is something that has been agreed on as far as I know. So I think that many troop contributing countries will look forward in operating together with the African Union in order to keep the peace in Darfur and to protect civilians under an imminent threat. MvdM: How harmful has it been for the image of UN peacekeeping that it has taken so long to act on Darfur? PC: No, I think the question is wrong, because it is not the United Nations. It is the international community, who has taken so long to decide on what has to be done by the United Nations in Darfur. It is not that the secretariat can be blamed for not acting or reacting. No, because I remember that Secretary Kofi Annan in 2004, the beginning of 2004, already pleaded and begged for the international community to do something in Darfur. It took till 2007 indeed to do something and it looks now that something will be don. But it is, you know, the will of the international community to do so, it has nothing to do with the United Nations as such. MvdM: We’re reading that one of the Rwandan officers who has been put forward as perhaps the Deputy Commander of the UN Forces in Darfur has been accused of being involved in killing civilians after the genocide in Rwanda. Are UN officers and troops screened properly? PC: I know the force commander of the AU-UN force, General Agwai very well. He is an outstanding officer with huge of experience. We worked together in the military adviser’s office, we worked together when I was one of the military advisers in New York some years ago. They cannot find a better man to command the troops. In principal, the force commanders, the deputy force commanders are selected carefully by the department of peacekeeping operations and after the selection procedure, we hope that we have the best candidate in the job. MvdM: But on the level of the various contingents that contribute to peacekeeping missions, there are enormous military cultural differences, aren’t there? PC: Yes, there are many differences in religion, in training, in doctrine, but we have to do it. I mean the United Nations is a multinational organisation, and in many missions in the world the United Nations have to work like this. In many cases it goes well, but it depends very much on the will of the troop contributors and the capacity and the skills of the leadership of a mission to make it a success.

MvdM: And in Congo I believe the mission included contingents from both India and Pakistan. PC: Yeah, and they work together very well. My successor is from India, We have no problems. We have Indian helicopter pilots carrying Pakistani troops, Indian attack helicopter pilots supporting underground Pakistani forces who are in combat, I had many Pakistani and Indian officers in my staff, and we worked very well together as a team. The Indian Pakistani’s belong to the best peacekeepers in the world in my view, and I am very proud that I had both contingent and both staff officers under my command. MvdM: I understand you also had a Pakistani bodyguard. PC: I had a number of Pakistani bodyguards in the beginning of 2005 – outstanding soldiers, very, very good soldiers, so I was very happy, very reassured by having them around. They were very professional and they were very available. MvdM: You chose them? PC: Yes. MvdM: How dangerous was it for you at times? PC: Well, I mean, we should not exaggerate that situation. It is sometimes more dangerous when you fly in a helicopter low over the bush than to drive around with a number of very fierce looking professional-looking Pakistani bodyguards.

You’re listening to Flatlanders, a Radio Netherlands’ presentation, in which we look at the work and ideas of people in and from the Netherlands making a significant contribution to our society. Our guest today is retired Major-General Patrick Cammaert, one of Europe’s most experienced peacekeeping officers whose field of operations has extended from the jungles of Cambodia and Congo to the offices of the U.N.’s department of peacekeeping operations in Manhattan. General Cammaert is known to inspire deep respect among his men, and he is also noted for his diplomatic skills. After all, peacekeeping often involves deciding between tough action and tactfully convincing reformed killers that peace is in their interest.

PC: One moment you have to sit with the rebel leaders and tell them what you want or what you expect from them, and the next moment in another province you have to encourage your brigade-commanders to be more active or more aggressive or whatever. As long as you are honest to your mandate and very clear to the various opponents what is expected and that under no circumstances atrocities against the local population is tolerated or accepted and that you will act, and when you say that you will act, then you should do so because if you don’t act, then you’ve lost your credibility completely. So there’s not a strict formula when you have to use the soft approach or the more forceful approach. MvdM: And it’s important isn’t it to distinguish between opposition of neutrality and one of impartiality. PC: Well the United Nations are not neutral. The United Nations are impartial. That’s very clear to me, which means that you cannot stand by and sit idle and let things happen. You have to make sure that your mandate is implemented, and that means that you can be tough to either side or any of the stakeholders in a conflict or in a mission. It’s not a matter of saying well I have nothing to do with this. No. You are there, you have a mandate and you have to implement the mandate. And you have to make it clear to all the stakeholders, that that is your mandate.You have to be honest to your mandate, otherwise you lose your credibility. People must have confidence and believe in the United Nations, and you only can do that when you are very clear and honest to your mandate. MvdM: That must be terribly difficult to do sometimes, if you consider that could involve shooting at a child, a child soldier. PC: Yes, sometimes people ask me that question. But people with a gun who are threatening you or who are threatening the local population are people who have to be dealt with and if they are 10 or if they are 80, it doesn’t make any difference. You cannot ask a child, who is sometimes drugged and brainwashed to be treated as a child. No, they have to be treated as a person with a gun, who is willing to use the gun. No, you have to deal with it.

In recent years there has been an enormous increase in the number of UN peacekeeping operations, the UN now has roughly 70.000 uniformed personnel and by far most of the troops come from the developing world. India, Pakistan and Bangladesh alone contribute almost half. There are now some 18 missions in operation with some still going strong after several decades, while others are drawn down after only a couple of years.

PC: I think it is different in every single case. When you talk about Cambodia, I think, that the mission in Cambodia was a little bit too quickly drawn down and come to an end very quickly, after elections, whilst after the elections, the most important part of where the mission starts. Nevertheless, I still think that Cambodia was a successful mission. Cambodia is doing very well, and maybe it is not the best example of democracy or whatever. It might take another generation before you have overcome all the traumas of this age, and when the Security Secretary reformed the restructure of the police and the army is done, then there’s stability in the country you can start thinking of drawing down a mission, but you have to be very careful not to do it too quickly. We’ve seen it in Liberia, we’ve seen it in Haiti, we’ve seen it now, recently in Timor Leste, East Timor, where the United Nations was forced by the international community to end the mission too quickly, before it really was back on its feet. MvdM: We should stay longer in some places. But we’re also hearing that there’s more and more demand for UN peacekeeping missions, and we’re hearing for example from the deputy secretary for peacekeeping of the United Nations that the troops are overstretched. PC: It’s not so that the troops are overstretched, I think that the department of peacekeeping operations is overstretched because with the amount of staff that is working in New York, they have to run so many missions – they’re running 18 missions and number 19 coming up. And second, the United Nations have to find the troops to man all those missions, and yes there might be a situation when there is a lack of troops and there is a danger that troops will be sucked away from one mission to fill the requirements of another mission. But again it did the international community who has to supply the troops for the United Nations, and if the international community is willing to provide the troops then DPKO can handle it, certainly, now that there is a reorganisation of the department of peacekeeping operations with more staff coming in to run all those missions. And yes it’s not easy, but I think that the department has done an outstanding job in running over the last couple of years so many missions, starting up so many missions on the short notice with a limited amount of staff, but I think that we have seen now a number of reasonable successes in the last couple of years.

MvdM: It’s striking that by far the majority of the troops, actual troops, are coming from Third World Countries. PC: Well I’ve said many times before, unfortunately these Western countries deciding on the road map for those missions, by the time that they are asked to provide troops, then they say that they are very busy in Afghanistan and Iraq, etc. And then countries like India and Pakistan with quite sizable armies are then providing the troops, outstanding troops fortunately, but I think that the Western countries should also put in their chip because we have to share the burden of peacekeeping by everybody and not only that Western countries can send money and blankets, but you know you should share the burden and the risk on the ground. And it doesn’t mean that the Western countries which are very tied down in, for instance, Afghanistan or in Iraq have to send brigades or battalions, but at least they should show their willingness to send some troops, maybe specialised troops or technical advanced groups, etc., to make sure that they shoulder by shoulder by other countries that are already there or who already contributed troops to carry out those operations.

MvdM: Many more missions have got off the ground in recent years, is this a good sign, do you think, or is the world falling apart, is it a negative sign? PC: I think it’s a good sign that peace agreements and ceasefires are signed and then the international community is helping those countries to get back on their feet and the new elected governments can do their own business and continue to build on the foundation that has been laid down by the United Nations and the sometimes transitional government to see that those ceasefires and peace agreements are worth the paper that they’re written on. MvdM: But a great deal of work, careful work has to be done in advance to prepare and set up a mission. What’s worse in your opinion: going in ill-prepared or not as well-prepared as one would like to be, but getting, going, doing something, for example in Darfur, or is it better to wait and not to do anything, while more people are killed? PC: No, of course, one has to stop the killing, but the government must be on board as well, and we have seen it in Darfur, it took quite a long time before politically it was acceptable by the government of Sudan and Khartoum to allow a UN mission to be established in Sudan. But yes, the mandate of protection of civilians under imminent threat is something that should be carried out as soon as possible, and we need troops, who are trained and who can deploy very quickly on a short notice and there are enough troops who can be prepared on a stand-by basis. There are all sorts of methods and concepts developed overtime for this kind of quick reaction forces to deploy to a place in the world where there is an immediate need for a peacekeeping force. MvdM: Should the United Nations have a standing army? PC: Well, that’s an old question and it probably will never happen because there’s no country available who will give up their sovereignty of their troops and give it to the United Nations. So you know, don’t dream dreams because it probably will never happen, but it is important to develop concepts that a number of countries have troops available on an immediate basis, on a stand-by basis so that they can be flown in. But it’s a matter of money and that is something that I know is studied in the department of peacekeeping operations at the moment. MvdM: Now we’re seeing in Irak that the United States is relying more and more on private forces, mercenaries are paid, private soldiers. Is this something that the United Nations could look into? PC: I hope not because I think it is wrong, if peacekeeping is carried out by contractors who have their own agenda and their own policies, etc. Yes, we use contractors, logistical contractors to provide you with food and build camps, etc., which is fine. But as soon as armed forces are required, then it should not be done by mercenaries or contractors or whatever.

Patrick Cammaert decided on a career in the military in 1968. He has spent his career wearing a Dutch uniform and a blue beret. The role of the military has changed enormously in this period, which has witnessed the end of the Cold War, 9/11 and the increasing importance of international humanitarian intervention.

PC: It has been an enormous pleasure to work for the United Nations with all the ups and downs. It is not always an easy organisation, but I love the United Nations as an organisation, I think they’re doing a smashing job. It is not always easy, but I think that, it is the only body in the world, where everybody can put his problem and the problem will be discussed by all the nations in the world. And when the international community decides to do something in a country to keep the peace or to help the people, then the United Nations is the organisation to do so. And I am very proud that I had so many opportunities to serve the United Nations and I hope in the future to serve for the United Nations again. And, I hope that in the future the United Nations peacekeeping forces are less needed than today because that means that there is no conflict anymore. But then I’m doubtful, that will happen, but if the United Nations continue to develop the way they’re doing it now, then they’re doing a fine job.

You’ve been listening to Flatlanders. Our guest today was Major-General Patrick Cammaert. This is Marijke van der Meer. Thank you for joining us for this presentation from Radio Netherlands Worldwide.