The Changing Face of Peacekeeping in the 21st Century

Dr Christian Henderson is Senior Lecturer in Law and Director of the Human Rights and International Law Unit at the University of Liverpool.

Professor Nigel D. White is Professor of Public International Law at the University of Nottingham and Co-Director of the Nottingham International Law and Security Centre.

 “May 29 2013 is the International Day of United Nations Peacekeepers. This day is used to honour the memory of those who have died in their role as UN peacekeepers as well as to pay tribute to those who have served, and who are currently serving, as peacekeepers across the globe. Since the first UN peacekeeping mission was established over 3000 peacekeepers have lost their lives in service. While such deaths appear to unfortunately be a constant factor in these operations that seek to bring about peace, the means by which this peace is sought is, by contrast, and as a result of new challenges, adaptable and constantly changing.

Classical UN peacekeeping operations and the principles of the UN Charter

‘Blue-helmeted’ peacekeeping was essentially a limited form of collective security that developed during the Cold War. Peacekeeping was not envisaged in the UN Charter but was vital in securing a minimal level of peace and security in danger spots around the world. Small unarmed UN observer forces of the late 1940s led to a lightly armed but several thousand-strong force (the UN Emergency Force – UNEF I), which was deployed in 1956 to secure the peace by acting as a buffer between formerly hostile nations in the Suez Canal area.

Although new in its day this now ‘classical’ type of peacekeeping embodied in UNEF I was a restricted military operation, dependent on host-country consent and restricted to using force in self-defence. This signified that the trinity of peacekeeping principles of consent, impartiality, and non-use of force very much reflected fundamental principles of the Charter “” of sovereignty, non-intervention and non-use of force.

The fact that it was the UN General Assembly (and not the deadlocked Security Council) that mandated UNEF I is not surprising in some ways, in that UNEF’s functions reflected the views of the Non-Aligned majority as well as principles of international law that gave such states protection from intervention. However, peacekeeping subsequently was seen as the prerogative of the UN Security Council as part of its primary responsibility for peace and security under the UN Charter. This has led to the possibility of a more coercive peacekeeping empowered in whole or in part under Chapter VII of the UN Charter.

The gradual ‘muscularisation’ of UN peacekeeping mandates

The tension between consensual peacekeeping and a more belligerent version was established as early as the second full peacekeeping force in the Congo in 1960–64, and was repeated, with less success, in the forces in Somalia in 1993–5 and Yugoslavia in 1992-5; and is currently back on the agenda as the UN struggles to implement its ‘responsibility to protect’, ‘protection of civilians in armed conflict’, and ‘human security’ agendas, through ‘protection’ mandates given to UN forces by the Security Council. The aim is to prevent another Rwanda (1994) or Srebrenica (1995), when UN peacekeepers were shown to be powerless in the face of genocidal violence.

While operations in the immediate post-Cold War era of the 1990s witnessed a noticeable increase in the use of more robust mandates through the invocation of Chapter VII of the UN Charter, the Brahimi Report of 2000 provided something of a turning point for UN peacekeeping missions. Following this notable report the Security Council now typically authorises UN peacekeeping operations under Chapter VII ‘to use all necessary means to carry out its mandate, within its capabilities and its areas of deployment’, including ‘to protect civilians under imminent threat of physical violence’. This has meant that since the turn of the 21st century peacekeepers have been under pressure to protect civilians and to protect the peace process.

The combination of more traditional methods of peacekeeping with more forcible Chapter VII-type mandates has recently been starkly illustrated in the new force that was approved in March this year for deployment in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Not only are there 20,000 peacekeeping troops in the country, but a 2,500 troop ‘Intervention Brigade’ to ‘neutralise and disarm’ the M23 rebels operating in the east of the country is to join them shortly as part of MONUSCO. This represents the most robust mandate ever given to UN peacekeepers themselves to end conflict.

The use of new technology and core the peacekeeping principles

Yet while perhaps the ‘muscularisation’ and increase in complexity of peacekeeping operations have been the most notable changes of the post-Cold War era, a further development that reflects the modernity of UN peacekeeping operations is their recent resort to the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), more popularly known as drones.

In March this year – in what was an unprecedented move – a decision was taken by the UN Security Council to deploy UAVs in the DRC to be used as part of the peacekeeping mission there in the monitoring of the border areas with Rwanda and Uganda. While UAVs have proved controversial in their use for ‘targeted killings’ and in the so called global ‘war on terror’, they are not simply a means of combat and have real utility as a means of surveillance, and it is here where they can make a real contribution to peacekeeping operations. However, and arguably in recognition of their controversial nature, members of the Council were keen to stress that there deployment in the DRC did not set a precedent. Nonetheless, the very next month the Ivory Coast requested the UN to deploy UAVs to monitor its border with Liberia. The UN Secretary-General, in a letter to the UN Security Council, supported the call for the use of UAVs in this context.

The potential widespread use of UAVs for peacekeeping  should not be seen as an alternative to peacekeepers, since  intervention to protect civilians and the peace process still requires troops on the ground. However, not only do UAVs permit a large area to be monitored for relatively long periods but also with a fraction of the personnel required for the traditional observer style of peacekeeping. Indeed, the call for their use in the Ivory Coast came in response to a reduction in the number of troops of UNOCI from 9,000 to 8,837. Furthermore, the original purpose of peacekeeping was not necessarily to be able to prevent two parties from re-engaging in conflict, but to ensure that their actions and relative responsibilities would be monitored and recorded. The use of UAVs permits this task to be undertaken. With an ever increasing need for peacekeeping missions, and the inflating associated costs, the use of UAVs is a potential way to reduce expenditure and the strain on the budget of the Department of Peacekeeping Operations.

In addition, their use in this context would seem to be in accord with the original principles of peacekeeping referred to above of consent, impartiality and non-use of force. More than simply being used with the consent of the state, in the two cases noted above where they have been deployed the states concerned have actually requested them, although it is unclear whether there has also been consent from the opposition forces. Yet, this should not be seen as impacting upon their impartiality. They are not used to specifically monitor the movements of a single party but whether either party has violated a ceasefire or peace agreement. Lastly, for the time being at least, they are only used for non-forcible surveillance purposes although, given the ‘muscularisation’ of peacekeeping mandates noted above, this may change. If and when it does the legal and ethical implications will need to be debated. However, as things stand their use for surveillance purposes would appear to make them  equally suited for  observer missions of the type deployed in the early UN era  as for the complex peace operations deployed in  the post-Cold War era.

Peacekeepers have been criticised (especially in Darfur and the Congo) for not being sufficiently pro-active in the face of violence when the mandates given to them by the Security Council clearly enable them, arguably require them, to use force against those who would undermine the peace or threaten civilians. The problem, however, is not simply one of military capability (though peacekeepers are often drawn from the under-equipped militaries of developing countries) but also one of the very soul of peacekeeping. Peacekeepers, at least in their original form, were not combatants; rather they were seen as acting, to use Finn Seyersted’s memorable phrase when describing UNEF I, like a ‘plate-glass window’ between formerly belligerent states or parties.

While the increase in the mandates provided to peacekeeping operations brings with it increased expectations as to what can and will be achieved, it is arguably fairer to judge their success on whether they have provided this most basic of peacekeeping aims. Ultimately, however, and if history has taught us anything, if this is to be achieved there must at first be some peace to keep, and this ultimately comes down to the will of the parties concerned rather than that of the UN.”

This article originally appeared on Edward Elgar’s Publishing blog, find it here

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