With so much focus on Islamic State and the conflict in Syria and Iraq, it is easy to forget the more than 100,000 peacekeepers serving in sixteen active United Nations peacekeeping operations. They play a vital role in stabilizing protracted conflicts on four different continents.
Peacekeeping operations encompass four types of activities: Peacemaking, Peacekeeping, Peace Enforcement, and Peacebuilding. The first UN peacekeeping operation took place in 1948, when the Security Council authorized military observers to monitor the Armistice Agreement between Israel and neighboring Arab states. It remains the longest standing peacekeeping mission, operating today as the UN Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO). 69 operations have since taken place, with a series of successful missions in the 1960s and 70s, including Congo, Cyprus, Lebanon, and the Dominican Republic. The success of these missions earned the UN Peacekeeping Force the Nobel Peace Prize in 1988.
In the post-Cold War era, the improved relations between Security Council Members made it easier to establish consensus for creating new missions, and 20 were created during the five-year period between 1989-1994, leading to the creation of the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) in 1992. The nature of these missions also began to change and became more “multidimensional” in their purpose, encompassing peace agreement implementation, enforcement, and stabilization. The authorizing language in Chapters VI and VII of the UN Charter was too vague to either expand or contract the scope of these missions and thus the increased number of missions did not always come with an increase in resources; in some cases, the scope of their mandates severely underestimated the level of violent conflict into which they were deploying peacekeepers. As a result, the history of peacekeeping operations includes both long-term successes and tragic failures.
The UN mission in Namibia (UNTAG) successfully oversaw the country’s transition to independence, from monitoring a ceasefire to ensuring a free and fair election process. ONUMOZ, the UN’s mission in Mozambique, was similarly successful in implementing the 1992 General Peace Agreement, and facilitating post-conflict elections in 1994. In Guatemala, the UN mission was credited with fostering a spirit of tolerance among political factions, and defusing volatile tensions before they escalated.
Other missions, however, struggled to achieve their aims. The UN Mission in Rwanda launched in 1993 with a mandate to monitor a cease-fire between the rebel Rwandese Patriotic Front and the Rwandan Hutu government. The insufficient mandate left the mission little authority beyond monitoring security and assisting aid workers, ultimately resulting in the United Nations’ failure to stop the genocide of 800,000 Tutsis. During the war in Bosnia in 1995, more than 8,000 Muslim Bosniaks were killed in Srebrenica when a “safe area,” patrolled and protected by ill-equipped UN peacekeepers, was not able to overtake armed Bosnian Serbs who had infiltrated the area. In Somalia, the UN peacekeeping mandate was to oversee humanitarian intervention, but they lacked meaningful cooperation with the warring parties, resulting in several fatalities among the peacekeepers.
As international, independent arbiters, UN peacekeepers could be uniquely qualified to address complex inter and intra state conflicts. Given the tragedy of missions past, the established principles of peacekeeping operations remain important for success: “Consent of the parties; Impartiality; Non-use of force except in self-defense and defense of the mandate.”
In response to both the surge in requests for UN peacekeeping missions and the failures of these missions in the 1990s, the Secretary-General appointed the Panel on United Nations Peace Operations to make “specific and realistic recommendations for change.” The result was the detailed Brahimi Report, named after Panel Chair Lakhdar Brahimi. The report called for institutional reforms and increased financial commitments, and further stressed the necessity of ensuring that peacekeeping operations are “properly resourced and equipped, and operate under clear, credible and achievable mandates.” Further reforms in the early 2000s laid out formal guidelines for deployed peacekeepers and in 2005, the World Summit established the Peacebuilding Commission. In 2007, the DPKO split into two separate departments — one focused on assisting states with maintaining peace and security, the other with supporting the actual peacekeeping missions. A series of allegations of sexual abuse perpetrated by UN peacekeepers further prompted the creation of a “zero tolerance” policy.
In 2014, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon established a High-level Independent Panel on UN Peace Operations, tasked with completing a comprehensive assessment of the state of peace operations today, and planning for emerging future needs. The review looked at all four aspects of peacekeeping operations and stressed the need to address drivers of conflict in addition to strengthening its role in post-conflict spaces.
The cost of peacekeeping is considerable. The 2016-2017 peacekeeping budget is $7.87 billion, up from $5 billion in 2006. Five Member States (United States, China, Japan, Germany, and France) pay more than 60 percent of the budget, and among these, the United States pays about one-half.
The complexity of conflicts requires holistic solutions, and peacekeeping operations today often go beyond just “maintaining peace.” They facilitate dialogue, promote and assist in disarmament and reintegration of former combatants, monitor and promote human rights, and foster multilateral partnerships. They emphasize prevention of future conflict, meaningful bilateral and multilateral partnerships, stronger security for UN personnel, and protection mechanisms for vulnerable groups such as women and children. These activities are vital to the success of peacekeeping missions but require participation across regional parties, civil society, government and other stakeholders, and solutions should, first and foremost, promote and empower local actors for local solutions.
The 2017 Special Committee on Peacekeeping Operations stressed the need to be “more flexible, nimble and pragmatic in creating and managing peacekeeping operations in order to better prevent conflict and protect civilians in an increasingly complex world.” And, as former Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon noted, “The world is changing and UN peace operations must change with it if they are to remain an indispensable and effective tool in promoting international peace and security.”