UN Peacekeepers : The Limits and Opportunities


UN Peacekeepers : The Limits and Opportunities for Creative Action
by Rene Wadlow
2017-05-29 10:09:58

29 May has been set by the U.N. General Assembly as U.N. Peacekeepers day to pay tribute to all the men and women who have served and continue to serve in U.N. peacekeeping operations for their high level of professionalism, dedication and courage. Currently, there are some 113,000 military, police, and civilian personnel in 16 peacekeeping operations. They serve under the U.N. flag, but, in fact, they are units of national armies and often are not trained in advance for the type of mission they will undertake for the U.N. A realistic aim has been given to one of the most recent creations: U.N. Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali. One hopes they understand what multidimensional and integrated means in practice.

peace01_400_02In order to deal with the deeper sources of instability, there have always been those who recognized that not all conflict-resolution agreements could be reached by diplomats in conference halls but that there also had to be people working “on the ground” in the conflict area.  The League of Nations champion David Davis in his The Problem of the Twentieth Century (1930) urged the creation of an international police force to protect and defend the universal common interest in peace.  As early as 1943, the young Harold Stassen, later a signatory of the UN Charter and a pioneer in promoting a UN force, suggested the creation of a ‘Keep the Peace Force’ to be directly recruited on a quota basis.  The international force would not have supplemented military forces of individual states, at least initially, but the importance of national forces would gradually decrease as confidence in the UN to enforce the code of justice grew. (Harold Stassen ‘Blueprint for a World Government’ New York Times Magazine 23 May 1943)

Despite these early proposals, there is still no permanent UN Peacekeeping Force.  The UN is still learning by trial and error how to employ the tools of preventive diplomacy.  The establishment of peacekeeping operations require a delicate balancing act among the members of the UN Security Council to achieve a mandate for each operation.  However, political compromises have produced mandates rich in ambiguity and open to multiple interpretations, leaving field officers with instructions that are vague at best, and at their worst, impossible to implement.

UN Peacekeeping missions have become far more complex and ambitious: from supervising the disarming of armed factions and establishing protected areas, to monitoring elections and repatriating refugees.  To be effective, peacekeeping operations should be planned to complement other initiatives such as mediation, promotion of reconciliation, border demarcation, humanitarian assistance and economic reconstruction.

UN peacekeeping efforts must be given access to a larger number of adequately trained and equipped troops.  Training for UN peacekeeping is different from the military skills taught national armies for war fighting. While war fighting requires the use of as much force as is considered necessary, which may on occasion be a great deal, the aim of peacekeeping is to inflict as little damage as possible so as to enhance recovery in the post-conflict phase.  In traditional UN peacekeeping operations, the task is on the monitoring, supervision and verification of ceasefires and peace agreements with an emphasis on consent, neutrality, and the non-use of force.

There should be clear legal accountability for those who abuse the helplessness of the people they are sent to protect.  There have been realistically-based charges of sexual abuse of women and girls both in eastern Congo, Haiti, the Central African Republic and elsewhere.

UN Peacekeepers should have an ethical code that would provide them with clear guidelines when confronted with situations in which their decision can determine life or death for the weak and defenceless. The situation in Srebrenica when the Dutch peacekeepers under UN authority decided that resisting the Bosnian Serb soldiers’ attack was not a viable option, followed by the killing of Muslim men has raised questions of Peacekeepers’ moral responsibility.  Likewise, the role of UN Peacekeepers during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda raises complex moral and political questions. (See the book by the Canadian General who was commander of the UN forces in Rwanda Romeo Dallaire Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda, 2004)

wc00Today, there are many discussions at the UN and in many countries on when and how to use UN forces, how to constitute them, how to pay for them and how UN operations can be related to regional organization efforts such as the African Union-UN efforts in Darfur, Sudan  Mali., and South Sudan. There is renewed interest in a standing, rapid-reaction, directly-recruited UN volunteer force.  There are hopes that the very existence and willingness to use such a force rapidly would serve as a deterrent and thus diminish the possibility of armed violence erupting in the first place.

There are also discussions concerning the possible use of non-violent peace teams that could be deployed to conflict areas at the invitation of local organizations, on the model of Peace Brigades International,Christian Peacemaker Team and a few others.    Most are small scale designed to be an active presence to lower current levels of violence and support local conflict resolution efforts.

World Citizens have been active participants in these discussions, building on their conflict resolution and human rights efforts.  They have proposed confidence-building measures and the need to reduce the root causes of conflicts while helping to support a long-term peace-building process.


Rene Wadlow, President, Association of World Citizens.

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