The Evolution of UN Peacekeeping: Politics, Bureaucracies, & Competition

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One of the most fundamental necessities inspiring the creation of the United Nations as a multilateral body post the Second World War, was the need for coordinated action to maintain peace and stability throughout the world. From as early as 1948, the United Nations was thus organizing and sending peacekeeping missions, a practice that is still integral to its operations.1UN “What Is Peacekeeping? United Nations Peacekeeping.” UN News Center. However, after the jarring failures experienced in the mid-1990s, questions arose as to the methodology and execution of these peace-keeping missions. Furthermore, the developments in the past decade, including the War in Iraq and the failure of upholding peace in Afghanistan all raise important concerns about the future of the peacekeeping agenda.2Bruce Jones, “Evolving Models of Peacekeeping,” 5. In this article, I will trace the evolution of the UN Peacekeeping Agenda focusing largely from the 1990s onwards to present day, describing and analysing it in terms of a global policy process.

Evolution of Peacekeeping

The first UN peace-keeping missions came in the form of monitoring and observer groups in Israel-Palestine and the Kashmir region in India and Pakistan in 1948, with a small force of lightly-armed peacekeepers ensuring the belligerent countries uphold the ceasefire agreements.3These missions are known as UN Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO) and the UN Military Observer Group in India and Pakistan (UNMOGIP). The core tenets of peacekeeping operations branching out from these were dubbed as the “holy trinity of peacekeeping” include the notions of consent, impartiality and the non-use of force except in cases of self defense.4Weinlich, UN Secretariat’s Influence on Peacekeeping, 27.

During the Cold War, peace-keeping became synonymous with the implementation of peace treaties and establishing buffer zones in areas of conflict between states. However early on, conflicts in the Suez Crisis (1957) and Congo (1960) all established important geo-political realities that hindered a more ambitious peacekeeping agenda.5History of United Nations Peacekeeping – The Early Years. Initially, peacekeepers were largely deployed to oversee the peace process in inter-state conflicts – thereby respecting the sovereignty of countries involved, and usually on their request.6History of United Nations Peacekeeping – The Early Years. Moreover, the ideological struggle of the Cold War often came to define conflicts worldwide – hence the peacekeeping missions sent out were sparse during this time, with limited scope and tokenistic mandates.

However, following the end of the Cold War, the demand for peacekeepers grew, as did the context in which they were required. The dissolution of the Soviet Union resulted in many territories gaining independence – resulting in rising intra-state conflicts within various ethnic groups (such as the case in the former Yugoslavia). Moreover, countries in Africa further emulated these demands for conflicts in Angola and Mozambique to name a few.7“History of peacekeeping – Post Cold-War surge.” The activities expected to be undertaken by peacekeeping forces also evolved into “multidimensional enterprises” which included building sustainable political institutions, human rights monitoring and reforming the security sector in the host country.8Ibid.

Within this changing environment, then UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali presented the famous “Agenda for Peace” in 1992 – a UN document highlighting the growing importance of peace-keeping missions around the world, and the need to adapt to the changing demand of host countries. Ghali proposed an adoption of three elements that would generally make the UN peace-keeping a more robust exercise which included preventive diplomacy, holistic societal peace-building and the specific area of peacekeeping.9Boutros-Ghali, “Agenda for Peace”. UN: While these were an important step in laying down the basic foundations of peacekeeping activities, this Agenda was not detailed nor substantial enough to provide a holistic framework of achieving these elements.

When applied practically, the Agenda was met with some successes in Cambodia and East Timor. However, the shadow of genocides in Rwanda and Bosnia, arising from the mistakes in Somalia, marred this ambitious project. The brutal capture and slaughter of 17 US Soldiers in Somalia in 1992 was critical in the formation of the hyperbolic “Mogadishu Line” – an amplified limit on on-ground peacekeeping activities, lest it breached “impartiality.”10Walter Clarke, Jeffrey Herbst, “Somalia and the Future of Humanitarian Intervention”, Foreign Affairs. Because of this, the United Nations Security Council experienced an organizational paralysis, where the events of Somalia caused them to undermine the deteriorating situations in Bosnia and Rwanda. As a result, genocides targeting hundreds of thousands occurred in spite of the presence of UN Peacekeeping missions in Rwanda and Srebrenica.11Ibid. Tragedies like these brought the entire peacekeeping agenda into question, raising questions about the role of geopolitics in the Security Council, as well as the inappropriate nature of mandates issued.12Peou, Agenda to Brahimi, 55.

Peacekeeping Reforms

Following these genocides, the UN published the Report of the Panel on UN Peace Operations in 2000 (also known as the Brahimi Report) which largely built upon the foundation laid by Ghali and contextualized the role of peace-keeping within a broader framework of peace-building as a venture. The distinction drawn here is critical to note – during the Cold War, peacekeepers would be mandated to implement a peace-treaty in a post-conflict situation. However, the contingencies of the Brahimi Report stressed that the need then was to “create” post-conflict situations in ways that address the root causes of the conflict, and aid in the reconstruction of a war-torn society in a way that it does not succumb to violence again.13The Brahimi Report – Executive Summary, United Nations. Thus, noting the shift in expectations from peacekeepers, it was emphasized that the UN undertake capacity-building measures to develop and practically implement comprehensive peace-building strategies, with specific recommendations pertaining to security sector reform and speedy, flexible funding.14Ibid.

Further building upon these ideas was the 2008 Capstone Report – which further expanded upon the role of peacekeepers within a wider strategy, enshrining conflict prevention into operational directives. Most importantly however, was the reframing of the aforementioned “holy trinity” – the three rules within which all activities were to be performed. While the concept of securing consent of countries remained paramount, the notions of impartiality and the issue of usage of force were updated to more practical and robust terms and correcting the fallacy of ‘impartiality’ as it practically impeded appropriate response in the 1990s. The Capstone Report delineates impartiality as different from “inactivity or neutrality”15“Capstone Doctrine.” United Nations, 33. [Also referred to as Capstone Report] – that is, while the peacekeepers were meant to remain impartial to the parties involved, they would carry out their duties and execute Chapter VII mandates without concern of how local parties would construe it (including penalizing infractions, likened in the literature to the role of a referee).16Weinlich, UN Secretariat’s Influence on Peacekeeping, 30-31.

Moreover, this response also shapes the question of the non-usage of force into “robust peacekeeping”. Far from the passive responses that endangered the lives of peacekeepers themselves, the Capstone Report expands upon the notions of using force and includes the protection of civilian populations by UN peacekeepers in case of targeted attacks. These tenets, dubbed as “robust peacekeeping” are expressly explained as separate from the more controversial aspect of ‘peace enforcement’, which is undertaken without the consent of the parties, usually within an interventionist paradigm.17Capstone Report 34-35. Thereby, robust peacekeeping is considered a means of “proactive defense of the mandate” which allows progress to be made in implementing long-term strategies.18Ibid.

Politicization of the UN Security Council

The United Nations Security Council primarily undertakes the ability to authorize peace-keeping mandates, including the scope of activities to be undertaken. Any member State can bring an issue to the Security Council for debate – as this body is considered to have “the primary responsibility… for the maintenance of international peace and security.”19“Role of the Security Council. United Nations Peacekeeping.” United Nations. The Security Council then determines after analyzing a number of factors, whether a peacekeeping mission should be deployed or not – including the terms of a ceasefire, whether the mandate in question can be formulated according to the crisis as well as the safety and security of the UN personnel involved.”20“Role of the Security Council. United Nations Peacekeeping.” United Nations.

Once a decision has been made, a Security Council Resolution is passed that creates a peacekeeping mission for the current crisis – with extensive monitoring sessions held afterwards to evaluate the performance of the peace-keeping missions as well as analyze the situation in the crisis. Furthermore, the Council can further decide on terminating, extending or amending a certain mandate so that it can adapt to changing ground situations.21Ibid.

These mandates provide a broader overview of the peacekeeping mission in question, whereas other, often neutral or third-party countries contribute in terms of troops, hardware and logistical support.22Weinlich, UN Secretariat’s Influence on Peacekeeping, 18. While the overarching theme of the peacekeeping missions is to ensure that international peace and stability are maintained, there are concerns that the mandates ascribed are politically motivated, designed to spur and impede action as per the interests of the Security Council.

The mandates in question are defined under the terms of two specific chapters of the United Nations Charter that have varying scopes of action – Chapter VI and VII. Chapter VI pertains largely to the pacific dissolution of disputes with a greater scope for facilitation of dialogue and negotiations to maintain peace (Article 33).23Chapter VI – Charter of the United Nations. There is little room for any meaningful military involvement within the Chapter VI provisions, as it focuses primarily on dispute resolution via arbitration or negotiations. In practical context, while these notions are important, they form merely one aspect of what is usually a multi-pronged approach to crisis diffusion and peace-building in the longer-term.

Chapter VII on the other hand, allows for a more robust undertaking of peacekeeping missions, with contingencies in place to allow for armed action conducted in a multitude of ways to ensure peace.24Chapter VII – Charter of the United Nations. Articles 41 and 42 from Chapter VII explicitly illustrate the scope of action available to peacekeepers once authorized.

Following the end of the Cold War, and with the increased re-focus on peace missions by the international community, the very authorization of these mandates as either Chapter VI or VII became a source of tensions, as well as an illustration of power-politics at play within the United Nations Security Council.

According to Roland Paris, peace missions are broadly reflections of “international politics writ large.”25Roland Paris, The Geopolitics of Peace Operations, 501. That is, they are mirror reflections of power-dynamics within the Security Council, and as such all decisions, resolutions and plans of action correspond to the interests and strategic objectives of particular member States – including the prospect of competition and securing regional geopolitical goals.

Complex Interdependence or Political Powerplay?

As mentioned before, the failure of the US-led Somalian peace mission and the hyperbolic “Mogadishu Line” exacerbated responses to Rwanda and Bosnia – resulting in genocides, and lasting humanitarian disasters. Following the end of the Cold War, the US wished to set an example of the newly arising unipolar world by undertaking ambitious peace projects, as was in Somalia.26Sorenson and Wood, Politics of Peacekeeping in the Post-Cold War Era, 116-117. However, once the overly-interventionist plan backfired (justified under Chapter VII), they retracted efforts and funding to such projects entirely – and further stalled matters in the Security Council in taking timely action.27Ibid. In deteriorating situations during peacekeeping missions in Rwanda, for example, the Security Council did not only rigidly enforce a grossly inappropriate Chapter VI mandate, but once the Tutsi-targeting genocide was underway, it further slashed resources to the body, jeopardizing the lives of the peacekeepers while allowing the situation to spiral out of control.28Jared Cohen, One-hundred days of silence: America and the Rwanda genocide, 31.

These concerns are mainly said to be motivated by the P5 member’s own state interests, which when translated internationally, impeded action and stalled policy response. In Rwanda specifically, the French government had ties with the minority-targeting Hutu government and therefore, was unwilling to allow a resolution that would enable peacekeepers to take action against the French-backed genocidaires.29Cohen, One-hundred days of silence, 32-33. Whereas once the killings were underway, the United States deliberately did not classify the acts as “genocide” initially, as doing so would compel the P5 to take definitive action as per international legal rules30Ibid, 175. – and with an election impending, becoming involved in Rwanda was simply not a priority for the United States.

The lack of peacekeeping responses in the 1990s interestingly shaped a new policy from the West – one that resulted in humanitarian interventionist responses outside the purview of the United Nations.31Sorenson and Wood, Politics of Peacekeeping in the Post-Cold War Era, 119. Peacekeeping as a concept is separate from the notions of humanitarian intervention, which has seen monumental progress in the past two decades, spurred by the Western countries in the Security Council. The development of the International Criminal Court as well as the international norms of Responsibility to Protect (R2P) all have an interesting bearing on the situation of peace missions – as they are usually undertaken outside the constraints of the United Nations32Clarke, Walter, and Jeffrey Herbst. “Somalia and the Future of Humanitarian Intervention.” Foreign Affairs. 2009..

A brief overview of numbers helps to draw the point home. In 2002, the US provided merely 704 peacekeepers to UN missions – merely one percent of the total UN peacekeepers, overshadowed entirely by contributions from developing countries like Bangladesh (5000) and Pakistan (4000).33Sorenson and Wood, Politics of Peacekeeping in the Post-Cold War Era, 114, 120. Yet when involved with NATO in Bosnia and Kosovo, US troop contributions exceeded more than 4000 per mission34Ibid. – illustrating a commitment to pursue interests outside multilateral organizations.

Thereby, it can be seen that countries on the Security Council cooperate on matters defined by political and strategic interests.

Rise of Regional Powers in Peace Missions

Given the West’s withdrawal from peacekeeping operations worldwide, developing countries have continuously stepped up to fill the vacuum. As active members of the UN General Assembly, developing countries have a critical say in peacekeeping operations, signifying a change in North-South affairs within the United Nations as the global South makes its importance felt in peace operations.35Weinlich, UN Secretariat’s Influence on Peacekeeping, 88. Countries such as Pakistan, Nigeria, India and Brazil as regional stalwarts form some of the largest contributors of troops to peacekeeping operations worldwide, particularly proliferating after the Cold War. The reasons for their contributions are manifold, ranging from vetting for a seat in the UN Security Council (as the case is with India),36Sorenson and Wood, Politics of Peacekeeping in the Post-Cold War Era, 196-197. to solidifying their role as a regional leader with initiatives like the Economic Community of West African States’ Monitoring Group (Nigeria)37Ibid, 180-182., to provide specialized services, such as increased community-based interactions to enhance and instill support for foreign peace-building operations (Pakistan).38Kabilan Krishnasamy. “Pakistan’s Peacekeeping Experiences,” 10

Combined with the need for more integrated and diverse approaches to peacebuilding, such inputs from developing countries remain valuable, while the lack of politicized overbearing by the Security Council provided maneuverability space to developing nations, who have had an increasing impact in implementation of various diverse mandates within the UN Peacekeeping operations. Often enough, such peacebuilding enterprises are implemented in coordination with regional organizations to make use of specialized knowledge of local areas and problems in a bid to best resolve them, as was evident in initiatives led by ECOMOG in Sierra Leone and Liberia.39Sorenson and Wood, Politics of Peacekeeping in the Post-Cold War Era, 179-180.

Given the rise of regional responses and initiatives from the global South, it can be concluded that a different kind of complex interdependence is emerging within the field of peace operations. Policy convergence is being achieved, with the UN Secretariat now increasingly gaining support from developing countries in peacekeeping affairs. International cooperation, even if not led by leading Western nations, is strengthened when costs are spread roughly equally across developing countries.40Keohane and Nye. Power and Interdependence, 35-36.

Although, it is interesting to note that countries traditionally associated with peacekeeping such as Canada, along with rising powers like Russia and China have also enhanced their peacekeeping commitments over the past few years41Brewster, Murray. “China, Russia aim for key UN peacekeeping positions as Canada prepares deployment.” CBC News. – illustrating that becoming involved in such operations enhances credibility, and helps countries to become recalibrated into a new peacekeeping regime, one that is defined by cooperative member states of the global south, in lieu of Western-led unilateral security-based responses.

Back to Square One? A Conclusion

Thus, the politicization of the Security Council remains an outstanding concern, one that resembles an outgrowth of Cold War-era competition of interests. However, it must be reiterated that the strides made by the global south in setting an agenda, as well as exercising some degree of control over the policy process are monumental developments within this field. In time, it can be stated that certain countries, perhaps India or China may even play a critical role in taking reigns over peacekeeping operations as a principal country – until then, though, it is imperative to treat the success of complex interdependence perforating through the global south, making tackling regional crises much easier, and more coordinated; which, when compounded with willful action from the top, would definitively result in overall better policy execution, and sustainable, peaceable outcomes.


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Noor Fatima

Noor Fatima is a Senior Research Associate at the Research Society of International Law, Pakistan (RSIL). She completed her BA Honours in Political Science and International Relations with a High Distinction from the University of Toronto in Canada and has a Masters in Global Affairs from the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy from the same.