Victor Hvozd: “Being Peacekeepers Is Not a Walk to the War”

The adoption of the UN resolution about celebrating the International Peacekeepers’ Day took place exactly at the time when you were working in the Constant Representation of Ukraine in the UN in New York. Could you kindly recollect how the events, concerning the establishment of that day, developed?

You know, many things in this life are made impromptu. Possibly this is not the exact word for using in the interview in your respected newspaper, but it does express the spirit and pace of those events. Believe me; it has been proved many times that each impromptu is a prepared by life and definitely gained through suffering event. The main point is to be in the right place in the right time.

Seriously speaking, everything happened thanks to the fact that in 2000 Ukraine became a member of the most authoritative body of the UN concerning the support of  security and peace, – UN Security Council. As to the development of the events themselves, they were as follows. In May 2001 the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine, Anatoliy Maksymovych Zlenko was conducting a council with the diplomatic staff of the Constant Representation of Ukraine in the UN in New York, in which I participated as the Representative of the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine at the Constant Representation in regard to possible initiatives which Ukraine could put forward for its more solid work in the UN Security Council. At that council among a number of other initiatives, an idea suddenly arose: why not to mark the peacekeepers’ activity by a special holiday? At that time there already existed more than a dozen of UN’s days. But none of them was celebrating such an important activity as that of the peacekeepers. Despite the fact that over the last 50 years of peacekeeping, more than 1750 peacekeepers lost their lives. 20 Ukrainians included.

Representatives of not all the countries supported this idea at once. I believe, it was not because the idea was not worth their attention, but because it was put forward by Ukraine, a young state, whose history of participation in the UN operation made hardly 10 years, and Ukraine was the first among the members of Security Council to come up with that idea. But we did have “aces” on our hands. By that time we had been among the ten greatest contributors of peace-keepers contingents to the UN operations. More so, in 2000 Ukraine actually rescued the UN mission in Sierra-Leone by having sent there a heavy subunit, many units of fighting and other military equipment, a helicopter subunit. By the way, in all their so called propaganda materials, the UN headquarters officials always present the UN mission in Sierra-Leone as an example of successful realization of peace-keeping programs (which in the history of peacekeeping does not happen too often). And I, as a direct participant of those events, must say that, despite the incredible difficulty of the tasks and brief time limits for preparation and re-disposition of the 60th independent battalion of material supply and the independent helicopter squadron to Sierra-Leone, Ukraine contributed an important part into the successive realization of the UN Security Council’s mandate.

This way we had all the morale right to put forward such an initiative. We were supported by India, Bangladesh, Nigeria, Pakistan and a number of other countries of Asia and Africa, which historically have always been sending the largest contingents for peace-keeping missions.

Apart from this, we suggested that all who wish could join this initiative, and this removed all the obstacles in the way of the realization of the idea. On the 12th of February the deputy Representative of Ukraine in UN Volodymyr Krokhmal’ during the session of the UN Special committee of peacekeeping operations (PCO) addressed the UN member-countries, “Ukraine suggests to proclaim the International UN Peace-Keepers Day in order to celebrate all those who took and keeps taking part in peacekeeping operations under the UN’s flag, and also to honor the memory of those who gave up their lives for the sake of peace”. And in December of 2002 at the 57th session of the UN General Assembly the resolution introduced by our delegation was unanimously approved. Since then the 29th of May has been proclaimed the International UN Peacekeepers’  Day (on this day in 1948 the UN Security Council approved the resolution 50 (III) about the deployment of the first peace-keeping operation- the UN control body to check the fulfillment of the terms of the armistice in Palestine).

What is your personal experience in peacekeeping?

A considerable part of my life is connected with the UN. I would divide it into three periods. The first period (1993-1995), when serving in the Ukrainian contingent I took part in the UN peacekeeping operation in former Yugoslavia. The second period (1996-1999) when I was appointed a military attaché in the Ukraine’s Embassy in Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina (combining the jobs). And the third period (2000-2003) includes my work in the Constant Representation of Ukraine in the UN in New York and taking part in the Ukraine’s delegation in the Security Council. Each period was not simple though interesting in its own way, and thanks to them I managed to have worked at all levels, to see the UN activity from making a decision about preparation and realization of a peace-keeping operation to participation in it.

Which events of that time do you consider the most important for your formation as a peacekeeper officer?

Most unforgettable  was my work in the UN Security Council, councils of which could gather regardless of the day of the week or the time of the day; they could take place on  Sunday or at night, depending on how the situation was developing in this or that part of the world. Without a mandate of this important structure no operation could begin. The Security Council consisting of 15 members sanctions the development of this or that peace-keeping operation and defines its mandate. For making such decisions not fewer than 9 voices are needed, but any of the five constant Council members (China, France, the Russian Federation, Great Britain and the USA), can veto such a decision. And this means talks, official and unofficial meetings, consulting their capitals. It is very difficult to take into consideration all sides’ interests.

What good advice from your own experience would you give to the servicemen who are going to take part in peacekeeping activity?

What could I advise? It is hard to say. I would not like to talk about professional features. They go without saying. It is too late to learn when you are on a peace-keeping mission; there you need to work, and to work hard. Any mistake can cause your colleagues’ deaths or those of people, whom you are defending. An ill-considered word or support of this or that side can lead to a serious conflict between the confronted sides, an offence can do harm to the image of Ukraine.

I would like to accentuate at the psychological factor. The servicemen and civil people, who decided to take part in a peacekeeping mission, should realize that this is not a walk to the war and an easy way of earning money. This, first of all, is facing ruins, starvation and harassment of people, seeing the dead and wounded, using weapon without a right for a mistake, activity in complicated fighting situations where threat can emerge from anywhere, living in hard climatic and natural conditions, living far away from your families for a long time.

I remember an accident which happened in the 60th independent special battalion, dislocated in the towns of Glina, Petrinya in Croatia. One of the servicemen, on his return from another mission, where he had seen the “results” of the Croatia’s AF operation just  taken against the Serbian volunteer corps, having seen such a great number of the killed and wounded, he could not stand it psychologically, and as he was an emotional person, he committed suicide. Possibly, some personal circumstances also played their part in this. It is very tragic. That is why it is necessary to get prepared very seriously to the participation in peace-keeping operations.

You worked as a military attaché in Bosnia and Herzegovina at the time when the 240th special battalion was located there. Which events connected with the activity of this subunit do you remember best of all?

Indeed, when I was a military attaché, I had to execute the classical functions, placed upon the military representative of a foreign country. At the territory of the states to which I was accredited, there acted not only our 240th independent special battalion. There were also the 8th and 17th independent helicopter squadrons, the 70th independent tank company, and the 64th independent special mechanized company in the Eastern Slavonia (Croatia), military emissaries in the Prevlaka peninsula (Croatia) and in Bosnia and Herzegovina. In a word there were enough troops. As the operations of the government forces kept going on, despite the UN’s intercession role, my main tasks were as follows: ensuring the security of our peace-keeping contingents, using various diplomatic canals, the Embassy of Ukraine’s support to our peacekeepers, and all sorts of council’s questions. It is no wonder that Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary Anatoliy Mykolayovych Shostak and I often visited the Ukrainian contingents. I can’t help saying a few warm words about this man. An experienced diplomat, an authoritative Balkan- expert, a man with a kind heart, he was a perfect representative of Ukraine in complicated military-political situations.

I remember an episode when a military-transportation helicopter driven by a Ukrainian aircrew got crashed in the mountains of Bosnia, not far from Sarajevo. As a result, many foreign representatives died in the accident, among them- a German diplomat. Due to a tragic coincidence, the Ukrainian aircrew, despite a terrible air crash, survived. This case immediately was give wide publicity. Even before the official investigation, the local press accused the Ukrainians in non-professionalism, and accordingly, there was pressure on the commission members. You can imagine the state of the Ukrainian pilots and the aircrew commander – a really experienced fighting pilot, who had served two terms in Afghanistan. On hearing about the tragedy, Anatoliy Shostak immediately went from Zagreb (Croatia) to Sarajevo (Bosnia and Herzegovina). There he met the mission authorities, managed to get the aircrew to be discharged from under the arrest and to lodge them at a hotel, talked with the crew, supported them and stated that the investigation is under the control of the Embassy. The aircrew was really in a hard psychological state, but having realized that they had not been abandoned, that Ukraine was backing them, they managed to withstand in that complicated situation. Eventually the UN commission did draw the conclusion that the Ukrainian aircrew was not to blame for the tragedy. I think this case should enter the textbooks on the history of the Ukrainian diplomacy.

What difficulties did the Ukrainian military met when placing the 240th special battalion from under the authority of UN under that of NATO?

As a result of the Daton agreements and the UN Security Council’s December 1995 resolution, the NATO troops replaced the UN troops in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The reasons for this could be a subject of a long story, but that was the beginning of a new UN strategy as a universal organization – to involve local organizations.

Due to the numerous breaking of the terms by the sides of the conflict, the conflict in the South of Europe was dragging on, and more strict measures had to be taken. Taking into consideration the positive experience of the Ukrainian contingent in this operation, Ukraine was asked to leave the 240th special battalion  at the IFOR troops disposal, and later – at the disposal of the SFOR at the territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

While working at the UN bodies, you could watch the sequence of peacekeeping operations in the whole world. Which phenomena, tendencies of the peacekeeping process, you think, are worth the attention of the leaders of our state, Ministry of Extreme Situations, Ministry of Defense of Ukraine?

To begin with, when in April 2000 I arrived at the UN headquarters, I was unpleasantly impressed that Ukraine decreased its participation in peacekeeping operations practically to zero. Despite its membership in the SC, our state’s participation in peacekeeping operations did not match the country’s potential. Out of the 16 peace-keeping operations deployed at that moment, Ukraine was taking part only in 6 (the Minister of Defense – in 5(not a single subunit, 6 military observers), Ministry of Inner Affairs – in 3 (74 civil policemen). The analysis of the reasons for Ukraine’s low activity in the participation in peacekeeping operations, made on my arrival in New York, let me define the main problems and determine the ways of their solution. I realize that to many commanders of the Defense Office it is a “headache”. But the positive from the participation is higher. Here we have to give justice to the Minister of Defense Oleksandr Ivanovych Kuz’muk and the first deputy chief of the General Staff Mykola Mykolayovych Pal’chuk;  they both managed to bring to the President the need and advantages of such an activity.

Ministry of Defense and Ministry of Inner Affairs considerably enlivened their participation in the UN peacekeeping operations in 2000- 2001. Ukraine increased the number of its peacekeeping personnel in the UN Peacekeeping Operations by 25 times compared with 1999. By this index Ukraine is the largest contributor among the European countries.

As affairs stood on the 30th June of 2002, 1599 servicemen from the AF and MIA of Ukraine were taking part in 9 out of the 15 UN’s peacekeeping operations and missions. Sadly, this tendency has changed since, and now, to my personal opinion, participation in peacekeeping operations is not a prior task of the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine.

To tell the truth, the attitude to peace-keeping operations has been changing in the UN headquarters itself. The critics which had sounded for the last a few years regarding the effectiveness of the UN peacekeeping operations and great expenses on them, has done its part. In March of 2000 the UN General Secretary asked a group of international experts, headed by the ex – Minister of Foreign Affairs of Algeria, who for years had been his counselor, Lakhdar Brahimi, to analyze the peace-keeping operations of UN and to find out where and when such operations could be the most effective and how they could be improved. The Group on the UN peacekeeping operations’ report, known also as “Brahimi’s Report”, contains clear recommendations concerning minimal demands which should be considered for the UN peacekeeping missions to be successful.

More so, on the 20th of December of 2005 General Assembly and Security Council at their parallel meetings approved the resolution on the formation of the UN Commission in peacekeeping problems. This new intergovernmental consulting body was called to deal with giving assistance in the matters of restoring the countries after the conflicts and mobilizing resources for this purpose.

So this gap was also filled in. According to the statistics, half of the countries which signed the agreements after serious conflicts get back to those conflicts again. For example, this very moment UN is carrying out its fifth peacekeeping operation in Haiti, where peace and security decreased every time after the international assistance had stopped being given. After the peacekeeping operations of 1992-1993 Cambodia needed a long period of time to achieve stability. Despite the great peace-keeping missions in Liberia and Somali, carried out in the 1990s, in both the countries, after the attention of the international community had been drawn to other events, the whole system of state government fell apart. This only shows that the evolutional processes continue, nobody gives up peacekeeping operations. As I have already mentioned, there increases the tendency of involving regional organizations as such that are better aware of the situation, people’s mentality, political and military leaders. Operations in Africa, Afghanistan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, at the former soviet territories can serve as examples.

Bitter as it is, but such is the reality – from time to time some Ukrainian peacekeepers become “heroes” of smuggle, fuel profiteering and other scandals. Do you think it is the matter of a chance or a certain system?

To begin with, I must say that peacekeepers are humans, with all human weak and strong sides, regardless of their country or nationality. And such cases happen everywhere. We, as army people, do realize that a guard cannot be put next to each serviceman. There is one “But” here. Each such case gets publicity, and not the person is discussed, but the country in general.  To fight this evil, all subjective and objective aspects should be taken into consideration- from a decent salary on the state’s side( the 0-500 should not be taken away from a private, as it is his and refunded to the country by the UN) , extra payment to the officers (like in civilized countries) to the thorough selection of the candidates. I will not give new advice, while preventive work on the part of commanders and certain structures is common knowledge.

How to prevent such situations?

It is necessary to stop considering the participation in peacekeeping operations only as earning money. That money cannot buy a flat nowadays, unlike 15 years ago. It is clear, that the hard work of servicemen should be valued high, but in their turn, the peace-keeping operations should be looked at as an extraordinary mission of honor , the way to get fighting and other experience, and accordingly it has to be a considerable plus  for the career promotion and it should make the peacekeepers feel that they do good, rescuing  people’s lives and that they belong to the elite circle of their peacekeeper-mates.

I would like to dwell upon a different phenomenon – corruption, and the case which took place in our Libyan battalion. It is a terrible tragedy for Ukraine. It is hard to even imagine that from the officially highest tribune in the world the words addressed to our country, express the demand to take out from the mission the Ukrainian battalion, the commanders of which were involved in corruption and financial scheming. This issue would not be enough to tell how much effort was taken to introduce this battalion into the mission, about the heroic work of our soldiers and officers on deactivating mines and other explosive substances, about the words of gratefulness from the local people and authorities of UN. So the actions of some commanders did considerable harm to our Ukrainian interests and the very image of Ukraine as a reliable peace-keeping contributor, for which more than one peacekeeper paid with his own life. Let it remain on the conscience of those who did it. As the saying goes, you can’t read in everybody’s soul.

I will put the question in a different way. Why did it happen? Where were all those officials of all levels who were supposed not to allow this to happen; where were their preventative measures and in force-major cases – minimization and localization of the harm for Ukraine?

This is an example which confirms that for a successive activity of our peacekeeping contingents a close cooperation at all levels and realizing that the result of it can be either a high reputation of Ukraine as an active player at the international stage or…

What, in your opinion, is the gradual decrease of the scale of Ukraine’s participation in peacekeeping operations connected with?

First of all, it is a political will. We put a lot into these words – from the leaders of the country, central state bodies, to the political elite. If there is a true will, believe me, Ukraine does have the potential. If the Ministry of Inner Affairs is taking constant active part, realizing all the pluses from participation in the peacekeeping operations, they do find needed arguments for the certain support. Taking out the engineer- pioneer battalion from Lebanon, no doubt, influenced the attitude to us, which became guarded. This remains a lesson for other countries, contingents. Sadly, we had been chosen as an example. This also has to go into the textbooks, but into different ones. That is why our authorities are too careful, trying to be, as a saying goes, as far from a sin as possible.

As for me, I still believe that Ukraine should remain an active player at the international arena, and that participation in peacekeeping operations should be its important tool. Believe me, this perfectly well understood by everybody both, at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and at the Ministry of Defense. No regional bodies can give the abilities equal to those of UN. No matter how hard the attempts to discredit UN are being made, there is no other body, no other stage where the representatives of all countries can gather together. Even the USA applied to UN, asking for help, as it is necessary to do something about Iraq and Afghanistan.

Thank you for the opportunity to express my thoughts. I would like to finish our meeting with the words of the UN ex- General Secretary Dug Hamarshkold, who died in an air-crash and left behind a trace of the reformer of the peace-keeping activity of UN and the whole Organization in general, “The questions of peacekeeping activity were not characteristic of the military, but they turned out to be the only ones who can solve them.”

“Camouflage” Magazine, № 5/2007

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