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The Evolution of UN Peacekeeping

Contribution by Finn Reske-Nielsen, former Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations

Whereas it has to be acknowledged that the United Nations has failed in its ambition to ‘save succeeding generations from the scourge of war’, as it is stated in the preamble of the UN Charter, it is nevertheless true to say that the Organization has made significant contributions to world peace since its foundation in 1945.

One such key contribution has been through peacekeeping operations, which have been an important instrument to help stop, or contain, violent conflict across the globe. Since the first peacekeeping mission in the Middle East in 1948, a total of 70 missions have been fielded.

Today, there are 16 active missions with a total personnel of some 120,000 and an annual budget of well over US$ 8.0 billion, mainly in Africa and the Middle East. Peacekeeping continues to be founded on three basic principles: the warring parties must consent to the UN peace mission; the UN must be impartial; and UN will only use force in self-defense. In recent years, a fourth principle, the responsibility to protect civilians (R2P), is usually added.

For a long time, peacekeeping was, in an sense, rather simple in that it involved deploying a UN military force in-between warring parties after a ceasefire or peace agreement had been signed. The UN force was there to monitor the implementation of the agreement and prevent new hostilities from breaking. Current missions in Kashmir, West Sahara, Lebanon and Cyprus are good examples of this kind of peacekeeping.

With the end of the Cold War, armed conflicts tended to move from being inter-state to being intra-state in that they typically erupted within a given country. Intra-state conflicts necessitated broader mandates for UN peacekeeping mission because often the conflict had disrupted or undermined national institutions that subsequently required outside assistance.

Government offices might have to be rebuilt or strengthened, security sector institutions might have to be reconstructed, former combatants needed to be disarmed, demobilized and reintegrated into civilian life, the legal system might have to be reconstructed and democratic elections held. Often there was a need to support ‘transitional justice’ capacity or the strengthen human rights.

All this made new and much more complex demands on the peacekeeping mission, which in addition to soldiers and police was required to deploy an array of civilian experts in security sector reform, public administration, judicial systems, etc.

All these challenges were new to the United Nations, and it took a number of years for the Organization to build up the human and institutional capacity needed. Over the years, such multidimensional missions have been successfully fielded in, e.g., Namibia, Cambodia, Nepal and East Timor.

The responsibility to protect civilians (R2P) to prevent war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity has also been a key element of modern peacekeeping mandates and is an area where the United Nations so far has had a poor track-record. All too often the UN forces are outnumbered and outgunned, or the UN soldiers are otherwise unable or unwilling to perform this task.

In the more recent past, the nature of conflict has changed yet again. Increasingly, peacekeeping missions have been fielded where there is no peace to keep, where non-traditional actors, such as terrorist groups, play a major role, and where the conflict extends beyond national borders. Good examples are South Sudan, the Central African Republic and most recently Mali. This once again necessitates a rethink of UN peacekeeping.

If there is no peace to keep, how do you secure the consent of all the parties to the conflict? How should the UN deal with terrorists? Will the traditional light armament suffice if violence is still the order of the day, and is it still viable for the UN to only use force in self-defense? Do missions need more sophisticated equipment, such as drones, to be better able to gather military and other intelligence? Should regional organizations, such as the African Union (AU), be called upon to play a greater role in helping to resolve regional conflicts and if so, in what kind of partnership with the United Nations?

These are some of the questions that the United Nations is grappling with as new forms of conflict have surfaced that increasingly put into question the original basic principles of peacekeeping, consent, impartiality, non-use of force except in self-defense and R2P.

New responses are called for and new policies must be developed if the Organization is to continue to be relevant in today’s world. At the request of the UN Secretary-General, a so-called ‘High-level, Independent Panel’, led by the former President of East Timor, submitted a report on the above and related issues in June 2015.

It remains to be seen how the member states and the new Secretary-General, António Guterres, will deal with the many recommendations contained in the report, but one thing is clear: The face of UN peacekeeping has changed and new approaches will be needed if the international community wants the United Nations to continue to play a key role in helping to resolve today’s armed conflicts.