The Peacekeepers' Conundrum

UN Peacekeepers are currently engaged in 16 operations around the world ranging from MINURSO in the Western Sahara initiated in 1991 to UNMOGIP between India and Pakistan, which began in 1949. While each operation is authorized by the Security Council, management is left to the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations under the authority of the Secretary General. There is no single standard type of peacekeeping mission and in many cases the nature of the mission is evolving. If the original concept of peacekeeping as a force to oversee an already established peace was still the norm, this complexity would not be a problem. But that is not the kind of peacekeeping mission that the Security Council authorizes today.  Originally, a mission had to have the agreement and support of the country where peacekeepers were to be operational. All parties of a dispute had to agree and peacekeepers were neither responsible for nation building nor peace enforcement.

Since 1990, when the collapse of the Soviet Union freed up the Security Council to take a more active and direct role in regional disputes, the concept of peacekeeping has morphed from a passive position separating conflicting parties, with their express agreement, to a complex multifaceted operation that seeks to deal with the sources of conflict and rebuild collapsing nations.. “Since the 1990s, it has been increasingly proactive, feeling empowered and emboldened to undertake wider and more expansive operations. UN missions have, as a result, grown far more complex, evolving from merely observing or overseeing a ceasefire in an attempt to keep the peace, to complex peacekeeping operations (PKOs) encompassing intricate, multi-dimensional mandates, necessitating long-term efforts to maintain peace and security by reforming states, completing humanitarian missions, and building or strengthening failed or weak states.”

These are lofty goals but they are virtually unobtainable. The fundamental question is whether or not these operations abide by the doctor’s pledge to do no harm. It is hard to suggest that an operation that has been in place since 1949 or 1991 has been a success. If these operations at least prevented further open conflict, they could be serving an important role. But that has not been the case in most instances. The danger is that the peacekeepers actually enable the parties to sustain the conflict and thus stand in the way of its resolution. The UN seems to be undertaking fools’ errands. Not only does it lack institutional authority or the tools to carry out its overreaching mandates, the UN practically ensures its own failure when it engages in operations in scope and number so far beyond its capabilities. The UN is resource constrained, lacking in both funds and manpower to successfully complete many of its missions, as evidenced by a record surprisingly lacking in a high percentage of clear PKO successes.

If we take for example the case of UNIFIL, which has overseen the Lebanese ceasefire on the Israeli-Lebanese border. The UN observers are clearly no match for the IDF and if they stand in the way of an IDF objective they will be overrun. Nor can they match the forces of Hezbollah. So what their job appears to be is to keep their heads down, duck, and get out of the way whenever there is a violation of the ceasefire. Very obviously, UNIFIL has not stopped either side from attacking the other.

You have to ask the question, what would the situation look like without UNIFIL? Might the cost of open conflict increase the will on both sides for a more substantial ceasefire? This is the same question that can be asked in the case of MINURSO or half a dozen other missions.

Once the peacekeepers get on the ground it is very difficult for the Security Council to withdraw them for fear that an explosion would result and the UN and Security Council would be blamed.. We tried to put an end to the Western Sahara operation, when I was at the Security Council, but in the end we backed away from the precipice as our political masters in Washington, Moscow and London and Paris got cold feet.. The result of failed peacekeeping is to undercut the world’s confidence in the UN and in peacekeeping – so why bother? Have we destroyed what might have been an important tool in the UN’s backpack.

Amb. Walker