Seventy Years of Peacekeeping: Are The Blue Helmets Still Going Strong?

70 years ago, the United Nations laid the foundation for what would become its central tool to fulfil its self-declared mission to “save succeeding generations from the scourge of war”. Peacekeeping was born when the UN Security Council passed its 50th resolution on May 29, 2018.

Days later, in June 1948, the UN sent some 120 military observers in rag-tag uniforms to take up positions in the rugged hills of Palestine to monitor a cease-fire during the First Arab-Israeli War. The truce asked for a “cessation of all acts of armed force for a period of four weeks.”

The fighting between Israeli soldiers and Arab troops continued shortly after. The UN mission did not stop the violence. More wars were fought between Israel and its neighbours: most prominently during the Suez Crisis (1956), the Six-Day War (1967), and the Yom Kippur War (1973).

The first ever mission called United Nations Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO) is still operating. And its personnel is doing what it was supposed to do all along, monitor the situation. UNTSO was never mandated to bring about peace itself.

Cold War Wasn’t Cool

After the Second World War, during the Cold War, the main UN decision making body was in deadlock. The Security Council was obstructed by tensions between the two super powers, the United States and the Soviet Union.

When the standoff phased out in the late 1980s everybody was hopeful that peacekeeping would really take off. And indeed, there was a flurry of activity and the missions took on more tasks.

Two missions underscored how peacekeeping turned into what the well-respected Egyptian Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali dubbed “post-conflict peace-building” in his 1992 report “An Agenda for Peace.”

The United Nations would not just monitor a truce or peace treaty, it would help countries in transition to become functioning states.

In 1989, the UN sent peacekeepers to Namibia to help the country during its cessation from South Africa, and it did a similar job in 1992 in Cambodia, where it took over the administration of the Southeast Asian country for a short time.

Both missions are considerded success stories.

The Lid Comes Off

However, the end of the Cold War also blew off the lid on conflicts that had been simmering for a long time. Those conflicts were not between states but within states – often pitching ethnicities against each other in vicious civil wars.

Three missions that followed were to dampen the United Nations’ new found confidence.

The UN ventured into Somalia. This expedition had a new quality: an armed conflict was still raging on between various parties while the UN was trying to get food to a starving population.

Battle of Mogadishu

Because the food couldn’t be delivered to the needy the UN decided to take a more robust military stance. It ended its first mission, authorised a military taskforce headed by the United States and then went back in with a second mission.

Durnig the second mission the US got embroiled in a fierce battle while trying to break the ongoing deadlock in October 1993. The soldiers were bogged down in fire-fights with men loyal to the Somali war lord Aidid.

This episode went down in history as the Battle of Mogadishu.

Gruesome photos of the naked bodies of US soldiers dragged through the streets of the capital Mogadishu by a mob also contributed to the US pulling its troops. This harder stance came at a dear price with many soldiers killed in two Somalia mission and special task forces.

The United Nations in Somalia had moved on to what is dubbed peace-enforcement. And it was starting to lose its nimbus as an impartial guardian of the peace.

Horrors of Genocide

Two other incidents in the mid-1990s showed the serious limitations of UN peacekeepers who lacked mandates firm enough to react to situations spiralling out of control and becoming ultra-violent:

Though UN peacekeepers had been on the ground in Ruanda in 1994, they did not stop the worst genocide since World War II, when Hutus killed up to a million of their Tutsi compatriots – of which many were slain with machetes on the streets.

Dutch soldiers deployed as peacekeepers to Bosnia in 1995 had to look on while up to 8,000 Muslim refugees were butchered by Bosnian-Serb fighters in Srebrenica – the worst mass killing of civilians in Europe since World War II. They didn’t have the proper mandate to protect a ‘safe zone’ they had been ordered to set up.

The 1990s were a formative phase holding a lot a promise but also providing for very hard lessons. In an unusually frank report the Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi took stock in 2000 and concluded that the United Nations fundamentally lacked intelligence to operate in such conflicts.

New And Old Issues

Today, more than 100.000 personell from 124 countries are involved in 14 ongoing peacekeeping operations, new issues have arisen, while old issues seem to be re-emerging:

A 2017 report by the veteran Brazilian ex general Carlos Alberto dos Santos Cruz raises the alarm on more UN personnel being directly targeted and killed. He concludes that, “The blue helmet and the United Nations flag no longer offer ‘natural’ protection.”

In some of the hotspots, peacekeepers are seen to be standing in the way of local stakeholders who aren’t interested in peace. “There are those who increasingly view United Nations peacekeeping as being a threat to them,” the chief of public affairs of UN peacekeeping, Nick Birnback, points out.

There have also been cases of sexual assault and exploitation of women and children by peacekeeping staff in places like Haiti and the Central African Republic, which have severely damaged the peacekeepers’ reputation as benign guardians of the peace.

But the most serious impairment comes from within: Some observers argue that the level of division in the all-decisive Security Council is today even worse than during the Cold War. This means that the United Nations cannot properly help in places where it would be most needed, such as Syria or Yemen.