May 29th marks the International Day of United Nations Peacekeepers, during which the world pays tribute to those who are serving, those who have served, and those who have lost their lives in the service of peace. Although peacekeeping was not envisaged in the UN Charter, it has become the flagship activity of the Organisation and perhaps the most innovative evolution within the UN collective security system. It is a truly collective effort of UN Member States. Mandated by the Security Council, peacekeeping operations comprise troops, police, and civilians who are under the command and management of the UN. It is dependent upon military and police personnel voluntarily contributed by Member States, who are reimbursed for their activities through the UN budget, met by assessed contributions of all UN members.
Since the first operation was established in 1948, the UN has deployed 69 operations across the world, including to the Middle East, Africa, Europe, South America, and Asia. Peacekeeping has undergone a remarkable evolution, from interpositional ceasefire monitoring missions deployed in response to interstate conflicts, to robust, multidimensional operations deployed to protect civilians in internal wars. This dynamism and flexibility has allowed UN peacekeeping to respond effectively to the changing international security environment, and enabled it to maintain continued relevance as a key instrument for the maintenance of international peace and security.
The development of peacekeeping has been characterised by six key trends:
- Deployment of operations into internal, as well as interstate conflict situations;
- Deployment of operations to respond to humanitarian crisis and gross violations of human rights;
- Deployment of operations in partnership with other security actors, such as regional organisations;
- Inclusion of early peacebuilding activities in mission mandates;
- Inclusion of robust peace enforcement activities in mission mandates; and
- Inclusion of civilian protection activities in mission mandates.
The evolution of UN peacekeeping has not been without challenge and controversy. But the thing that most threatened the credibility of the instrument, and of the Organisation as a whole, was the failure to protect civilians during the 1994 Rwandan genocide and the 1995 Screbenicia massacre. While following these events the international community grappled with the humanitarian intervention concept and the Responsibility to Protect doctrine, from 1999, UN peacekeeping missions began to be mandated to use force to protect civilians under imminent threat of physical violence. The protection of civilians peacekeeping mandate differs from the other concepts in that peacekeeping missions are deployed with the consent of the host State, and therefore such missions don’t represent a coercive use of force against a State.
Since the UN Mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL) was provided with a civilian protection mandate, almost every subsequent peacekeeping operation has been mandated to protect. Currently, 97% of UN peacekeepers serve in missions with protection of civilians mandates, and the Security Council has made clear that civilian protection is the primary function of the UN’s largest missions, currently deployed to the Central African Republic (MINUSCA), Darfur (UNAMID), the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) (MONUSCO), Mali (MINUSMA), and South Sudan (UNMISS).
The protection of civilians by UN peacekeepers raises many challenging issues. Practically, it raises the expectations of local populations, which UN peacekeepers are often unable to meet, including due to a lack of resources and capabilities–most notably force enablers, such as helicopters. The use of force to protect civilians potentially puts peacekeepers at higher risk of injury or fatality, risks that troop contributing countries may not be willing to take. The mandate also carries with it certain political challenges. Missions are often mandated to assist the forces of the host government to execute their civilian protection responsibilities. Where the government forces are a party to the conflict, this may compromise the impartiality of the UN force supporting them. It may also have flow-on effects for the political engagement of the mission with the host government. Conversely, protection of civilians by UN forces against violence perpetrated by host government, or government-backed, forces may result in the withdrawal of host State consent for the mission to remain in the country.
In addition to the practical and political issues, the protection of civilians presents a number of legal challenges. In the pursuit of the protection of civilians, a mission may be mandated to offensively target a particular party to the conflict. In MONUSCO, both the UN’s support for military operations of national Congolese forces, as well as the mission’s Force Intervention Brigade being mandated to ‘neutralise’ specific armed groups in Eastern DRC, reinforced the International Committee of the Red Cross view that the UN military forces had lost the protection of international humanitarian law (IHL). The consequence of which is that the UN military forces in the DRC are now understood as a ‘legitimate target’, having become a ‘party to the conflict’. This is the case for the entire UN military presence, whether Force Intervention Brigade or regular MONUSCO contingent.
Despite the numerous challenges associated with the protection of civilians by UN peacekeeping forces, it remains an important aspect of the peacekeeping tool. Beyond that, it is reflective of a remarkable evolution in the UN collective security system. A system that, over the course of 70 years, has transformed from a regime concerned with classical interstate warfare to one focussed on the security of the human population within States. Unfortunately, the system remains selective and uneven in its application, as the lack of Security Council action on the situation in Syria highlights. Yet, as the international community pays homage to UN peacekeepers past and present, it is appropriate to reflect on the remarkable impact that UN peacekeeping has had on the maintenance of international peace and security.
Featured image: United Nations peacekeepers from Sri Lanka by SMCC Spike Call, US military. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.