“Yes, we have the right to ask about the effectiveness of such a force in Chad…”

One thing that ought to give EU leaders some pause for thought in their dealing with the recalcitrant Irish electorate, is the current position of 500 Irish troops in an EU frontline peace keeping force in Chad. They are stationed just outside the small town of Goz Beida under UN resolution 1778, with a specific mandate to protect refugees. On Saturday last, a rebel column attacked the town and injured 24 people. Reuters reports that they also attacked Irish troops with RPGs.According to APF, “there are nearly 80,000 displaced Chadians and some 36,000 refugees from neighbouring Sudan’s war-battered Darfur region” living in camps around Goz Beida. Until the Irish moved in they were vulnerable to attack from rebel forces. This particular attack is part of an rebel offensive aimed ultimately at the Chadian capital Ndjamena, and part of an ongoing see-sawing battle of wits between Sudan (which accuses Chad of supporting recent Sudanese Darfuri attacks on Khartoum in May) Chad. It will end when the rainy season comes in and closes down any possibility of further military engagement.

The rebels themselves are thought to be generally poorly armed, and Goz Beida was not considered to be a primary target on this occasion at least. Indeed the objective of Saturday’s raids may simply have been the acquisition of vehicles (they claim to have captured twenty) to facilitate the planned advance on Ndjamena.

Nevertheless, this is potentially the Republic’s toughest overseas military assignment in recent years. Not simply because of the climate (temperatures rarely fall below 50 degrees) and the inhospitable terrain, but because the current instability across the border in Sudan, where an estimated 250,000 have died and a further 2 million have become refugees, holds the potential to tip the whole region into chaos, despite the signing of a Comprehensive Peace Agreement in January 2005.

One of the fall outs from Saturday’s attack began when Chadian President Idriss Deby accused Eufor of “closing its eyes” to the actions of advancing anti-government rebels. The Irish Times reported on Monday (subs needed):

In a broadcast to the nation, the Chadian leader said his government had been happy to receive this EU military contingent when it deployed earlier this year.

“But we’ve been surprised to see that, in its first hostile test, this force has rather co-operated with the invaders, allowing humanitarian workers’ vehicles to be stolen and their food and fuel stocks burned and closing its eyes before the systematic massacre of civilians and refugees.”

He added: “Yes, we have the right to ask ourselves about the effectiveness of such a force, of the usefulness of its presence in Chad.”

That was compounded when a UNHCR spokeswoman criticised the Irish troops for failing to step in when around 800 heavily armed rebels looted a UN compound:

“If a humanitarian base is attacked, and we were, logic tells you they should have protected us,” said Annette Rehrl via telephone from Abeche in eastern Chad. “Maybe they have a different understanding of the mandate.”

Defence Minister Willie O’Dea yesterday claimed he had an ‘apology’ from Jose Fischel de Andrade, a representative from the UN in Goz Beida. Setting aside for one moment at that that’s not the same organisation, the controversy does highlight a differential reading of the precise nature of the mandate. Minister O’Dea again:

“The fact of the matter is that Eufor troops can’t act as police, or judges, juries etc, they have a very specific mandate and are acting under that UN mandate to come out here and protect internally displaced people and refugees from Dafur and they are performing that mandate marvelouslly.

“There are only 3,700 Eufor troops in a country which is about three times the size of France and which has some 10 million people. Our assets are spread very thinly… we have a very specific mandate, which is to protect a specific category of people. The Irish government didn’t draw up the mandate, I didn’t draw up the mandate…the UN did and we have to behave strictly in accordance to the terms thereof.”

Though from the information available, and a close reading of the mandate, it is not entirely clear what excludes the protection of a civilian UN base. Irish troops under EUFor command are empowered by the UN Security Council, acting under Chapter VII of the Charter of the United Nations:

* (i) To contribute to protecting civilians in danger, particularly refugees and displaced persons;

* (ii) To facilitate the delivery of humanitarian aid and the free movement of humanitarian personnel by helping to improve security in the area of operations;

* (iii) To contribute to protecting United Nations personnel, facilities, installations and equipment and to ensuring the security and freedom of movement of its staff and United Nations and associated personnel.

There would seem to be a gap between the Minister’s thinking and the actual mandate itself.

Saturday was little more than a skirmish, and despite the Chadian President’s accusation on Sunday, there doesn’t appear to have been any fatalities. But there is no knowing how this situation will pan out. The minister surely owes it to the troops in Goz Beida, to get it straight before anything more serious happens. Never mind the civilians they have been sent there to protect.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty