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UN Peacekeeping: In search of a 21st century mandate

War & Peace
UN Peacekeepers Day celebration in the DR Congo

UN Peacekeepers Day celebration in Kinshasa, DR Congo. MONUSCO/Myriam Asmani under a Creative Commons Licence

In 1994, the UN’s peacekeeping mandate looked bleak. As genocide gripped Rwanda, the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMR) became one of the most catastrophic failures of the UN since its inception.

Any supposed peace agreement was quickly overshadowed as over 800,000 innocent Rwandans were systematically slaughtered. One by one, peacekeeping contingents backed out, until only 270 personnel remained. From here on, skepticism about peacekeeping became palpably justified.

And over two decades later, as London hosted the annual UN Peacekeeping Defence Ministerial on 8 September, peacekeeping operations are still dogged by accusations of gross failure.

The map shows the 16 active peacekeeping missions of the UN, as of 30 August 2016. Click on a marker to know more about the mission.

In 2014, in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s South Kivu province, peacekeepers failed to prevent the massacre of 30 civilians in an apparent case of ethnic cleansing by local guerrillas. In 2015, a leaked Human Rights Watch Report notes, French Peacekeeping soldiers had been sexually abusing children in the Central African Republic.

Finally and most recently, in 2016 the United Nation Mission in the Republic of South Sudan has been accused of negligence after peacekeepers turned a blind eye to distress calls from humanitarian workers trapped in a Juba compound who were being raped, robbed and terrorized by pro-government forces.

Here lie some of the problems facing the UN as a trans-governmental department: the legal quagmire over jurisdiction, crime and punishment. The bureaucracy and poor oversight from the top, accusations of poor discipline and misconduct at the bottom.

The UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) needs reform. Indeed, in 2014 Ban Ki Moon ordered an independent review of all peacekeeping operations, to see where things have gone wrong, but on 8 September 2016, much has yet to be addressed.

Despite this, it must not be forgotten the good work peacekeepers do: Over 100,000 uniformed personnel from over 110 countries are currently deployed in 16 operations, spread across four continents. Some 3,300 more have been killed in the line of duty, and thousands put themselves in harm’s way. Overall, over one million have served in peacekeeping forces, their jobs have varied from monitoring ceasefires and observing elections, to aiding reconstruction and promoting reconciliation. They are guided by three principles: Consent of the parties, Impartiality, and the Non-use of force except in self-defence and defence of the mandate. All of these have negatives that are all too obvious, but their are also positives as well.

Peacekeepers do not dispose of a military force like NATO, they are not there for combat; rather they are their primarily to facilitate countries who are going through civil turbulence. There is a limit to what they can do, but where peacekeepers have been deployed they have been a great stabilizing factor for many countries.

An aerial view of the UN headquarters in Haiti shows the devastation caused by an earthquake measuring 7 plus on the Richter scale rocked Port au Prince Haiti just before 5 pm, 12 January 2010. UN Photo/Logan Abassi/UNDP Global

For example, the Republic of Haiti was in a state of collapse after the 2010 earthquake. Essential services like hospitals, communications systems and shelters were damaged or destroyed. Between 100,000 to 220,000 people were killed; more than million were displaced. Shortages of fuel, food and water, and a subsequent outbreak of cholera only exacerbated conditions. Peacekeepers were already established in the country, and in spite of the fact their own headquarters were obliterated, they aided recovery and reconstruction in the aftermath.

In Mali, peacekeepers are maintaining a fragile peace, as Islamist insurgents are encroaching on the country’s north. At the same time, they are stabilizing the state-led response and promoting democratic reform. The mandate has proved vital, and Mali has requested continual support, as it transitions into a reformed state with secure borders.

Finally, in Lebanon more than 11,000 peacekeepers are monitoring the ceasefire between the Israel Defense Forces and Hezbollah. They are also accompanying the Lebanese army, guarding security checkpoints, and aiding the humanitarian effort to help the local communities across the so called ‘blue line’ reconstruct their lives. A cross-state solution, brokered between Israel and Lebanon aims create a bilateral governance. This is one of the UN’s most successful peacekeeping operations to date.

However again, we come back to the central problem: How is peace maintained in an unstable and dangerous world? Peacekeepers flourished in the height of the Cold War, but the lines of battle have changed: Instead of interstate conflicts and espionage, we are seeing increasingly violent forms of extremism and insurgency drawn along sectarian divisions.

The UN DPKO is not an army; its mandate is to maintain peace, not attain it. As such, as well as structural reform and bearing in mind cross-party consensus and international co-operation, the United Nations must seriously look at its operations, and see where personnel are best utilized, for poor management, vague missions, and the volatile nature of modern warfare would hurt their chances of success.

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