UNITED NATIONS. UNDOF TROUBLE - CATAPANG OR SINGH SINGHA?

 

15 SEPTEMBER 2014

UNDOF TROUBLE - CATAPANG OR SINGH SINGHA?

First the good news: U.N. Fijian troops held hostage on the Israeli-Syrian borders were finally freed. Local talk mentioned a ransom paid by an oil-rich Gulf government which was known to be in touch with armed "Jihadists" in Syria (and has excellent links to Ban Ki-moon who swiftly -- and rightly -- welcomed the release. A serious issue, however, remains for the U.N. itself, particularly its Peacekeeping role there.

Reports about an unprecedented predicament of U.N. observers on the Syrian Golan Heights early September raise a question about how the mission (UNDOF) is currently led, and what precisely is its modus operandi.

It was reported that members of the Fijian contingent were trapped by armed "Islamist" groups without resistance after giving up their arms. The Filipino brigade, however, refused to surrender and fought their way to freedom and safety. That was welcome news, except for the indication that they had received instructions from UNDOF commander General Iqbal Singh Singha to drop their arms and surrender, in the vain hope that it would also help to free their Fijian colleagues.

Anyone with alphabetical knowledge of the region would know that submissive surrender to such groups would turn them into vulnerable hostages. General Gregorio Catapang of the Filipino Armed Forces openly announced that the troops did indeed fight back, refusing the directive of UNDOF's commander to give in. By the way, Catapang in his native language means "the brave one". His decision saved his country's troops in their mandate that they should be allowed to move about freely in order to observe and report on the situation on the ground. Fijian soldiers are still held as hostages. Negotiations about their fate are still vague. Local reports about a possible ransom to be offered by a third country remain unconfirmed.

UNDOF new troubles are a matter of serious concern. As more of the same may be forthcoming, certain participating countries may consider withdrawing their troops, placing the whole mission (and wider peace prospects), in jeopardy. It is not just a matter of differing views between Generals Catapang and Singh Singha. There are bigger questions about the performance of U.N. peace-keeping troops under threat. Do they surrender, return fire, negotiate, sit still or stand down? Habitually, general instructions are that although they are not expected to attack, they are expected to use arms in self-defence. This used to be standard operational practice. Did General Singh Singha change the rules on his own, or did he receive guidelines from elsewhere, and if so, from whom?

Perhaps an independent clear investigation would help.