Politics, Social Justice, Social Studies

Guardians of Global Peace: Is Peacekeeping Still Relevant?

Guardians of Global Peace: Is Peacekeeping Still Relevant?

Originally published in TEACH Magazine, 75 Years of the United Nations Special Issue, 2020

By Lynn Greiner

Given the United Nations mandate to maintain international peace and security, the question of the relevance of peacekeeping missions seems ironic. That is, after all, what the UN and its members are all about, according to the organization’s charter. Chapters VI and VII (articles 33-51) speak in detail about resolution of disputes and reactions to threats to the peace, breaches of the peace, and acts of aggression. Chapter VIII talks about regional arrangements or agencies that may also do peacekeeping. Yet the function has changed somewhat over the years.

Since the beginning, three basic principles govern UN peacekeeping operations:

  1. Consent of the parties. The main parties in the conflict must agree to the deployment of operations, and consent to a political process for resolution of the dispute. The UN notes on its website, “In the absence of such consent, a peacekeeping operation risks becoming a party to the conflict; and being drawn towards enforcement action, and away from its fundamental role of keeping the peace.” However, even if consent has been given at high levels, there’s no guarantee that local participants or other armed groups will be in agreement.
  2. Impartiality. Peacekeepers, says the site, should be “impartial in their dealings with the parties to the conflict, but not neutral in the execution of their mandate.” In other words, actions by any of the parties that violate the undertakings of the peace process or international norms and principles must not be condoned, lest the operation’s credibility and legitimacy be compromised.
  3. Non-use of force except in self-defence and defence of the mandate. While UN peacekeeping forces are not an enforcement tool, they are allowed to use force at the tactical level in self-defence and in defence of their mandate, but only with the approval of the Security Council. The principles emphasize that use of force should be a last resort, and peacekeepers should employ the minimum required to address the situation without losing the parties’ consent for the mission. In some circumstances, “robust” peacekeeping is authorized, allowing use of all necessary force to prevent violent attempts to disrupt the political process, to protect citizens, or to assist authorities in maintaining law and order.

The first two of more than 70 UN peacekeeping missions were deployed in 1948, and are, unhappily, still active today: the UN Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO) in the Middle East and the UN Military Observer Group in India and Pakistan (UNMOGIP).

However, says Martin Shadwick, York University faculty member and expert in Canadian defence policy and the military, the operations can be roughly split into two eras. “If you’re looking for a key pivot point with peacekeeping, one of the ones that you could cite would be the end of the Cold War,” he says. “So there was sort of the Cold War era of peacekeeping, and then there was the post-Cold War era of peacekeeping. So we’re talking early 1990s, roughly.”

Post-Cold War peacekeeping, he says, is quite different to peacekeeping in the 1950s and ’60s when Canada’s external affairs minister (and later Prime Minister) Lester B. Pearson proposed a United Nations police force to help resolve the 1956 Suez Crisis. (Pearson received the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts.)

A 1995 article by historian Norman Hillmer in the Proceedings of the XXIst Colloquium of the International Commission of Military History, page 539, explains.

“Not so long ago, peacekeeping was a well-understood concept. It was a contradiction: non-threatening military activity, involving the use of unarmed or lightly armed personnel for the purposes of truce observation or interposition between parties to a cease-fire. The powers of peacekeepers were few. They were on the line in Cyprus or between Arab and Israeli in the Sinai to react, monitor, pacify, deter even, but not to take the offensive, except in extremis. A prerequisite of peacekeeping was the consent of the former belligerents. Another was the impartiality of the peacekeeping force.

“Peacekeeping did not ensure peace, or carry with it any sure mechanism for a negotiated settlement, and it was frequently criticized on that score. Lester B. Pearson, the Canadian diplomat who was instrumental in the establishment of the United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF I) in the wake of the 1956 Suez Crisis, thought that there must be a direct and rapid link between peacekeeping and peacemaking. But the two functions are quite separate. Peacekeeping is simply an expedient, meant to ease the transition from hostility to stability, to diffuse tension and contain aggression.”

At the end of the Cold War, however, everything changed. Missions increasingly became between warring factions within a country, not between two countries, and their scope expanded to include more complex functions such as building sustainable governance, monitoring human rights, reforming security sectors, and even the disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration of former combatants. And along with the military members of the missions came administrators, economists, police officers, legal experts, electoral observers, human rights monitors, civil affairs and governance specialists, humanitarian workers, communications and public information experts, and more.


Between 1989 and 1994, the Security Council authorized 20 new peacekeeping operations, which increased the number of peacekeepers from 11,000 to 75,000 to not only help implement complex peace agreements, but to re-organize military and police and elect new governments and build democratic institutions in affected countries.

The program was a victim of its own success. In the mid-1990s, the Security Council was unable to provide sufficient resources, and in some cases, sent peacekeepers into areas where there was still active combat, where peace agreements were ignored by the parties involved, and where political support was lacking. Three high-profile, disastrous missions in particular—in the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, and Somalia—led to criticism, a cutback in the number of new peacekeeping missions, and a re-examination of the mandate to prevent additional such failures even while long-term operations in Cyprus, Asia, and the Middle East continued.

The world did not stop having crises requiring peacekeepers, however. In the latter half of the 1990s, six more peacekeeping missions were authorized, in Angola, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, North Macedonia, Guatemala, and Haiti.

At the turn of the 21st century, the UN again examined peacekeeping efforts with the goal of improving its processes for implementing and managing missions, as well as seeking a renewal of their commitment from member states. This led to several initiatives by successive Secretaries-General: the appointment in October 2014 of the High-level Independent Panel on Peace Operations (HIPPO) to assess issues facing operations in the current world and in the future by Ban Ki-moon, and the March 2018 launch by his successor, current Secretary-General António Guterres, of Action for Peacekeeping (A4P), whose goal was to reach a formal agreement by the end of 2018 on principles and commitments that created a model for peacekeeping operations of the future.

In June 2015, the HIPPO Report was released and in September, the Secretary-General issued a summary and action plan entitled The future of United Nations peace operations: implementation of the recommendations of the High-level Independent Panel on Peace Operations. In it, Guterres bemoaned the diminishment of peace operations, noting, “Over six decades, they have shown a remarkable capacity to adjust to evolving situations and new demands, guided by well-established principles. However, missions are struggling to cope with the spread and intensity of conflicts today, and the lack of unity among Member States over their scope and application is thwarting their adaptation. Within peace operations, the shameful actions of some individuals are tarnishing the efforts of tens of thousands. I am convinced that we can and must do more to tackle such profound challenges.”

“However,” he concludes, “United Nations peace operations are only one of the tools that we urgently need. Without focused commitment on the part of Member States, the whole United Nations system, regional partners and other organizations to advancing and consolidating peace, today’s conflicts will rage into tomorrow, and yesterday’s conflicts will violently return. Peace operations are a collective tool. They are a vital part of a global commitment to preventing and resolving conflict, protecting civilians and sustaining peace. Adapting them requires a system-wide effort and the active engagement and support of the entire membership. I urge Member States to join me in this endeavour.”

The result of Guterres’ A4P was the A4P Declaration of Shared Commitments, now endorsed by more than 150 countries that expanded on Ban’s action plan. It focuses on eight key areas:

  • Politics
  • Women, peace, and security
  • Protection
  • Safety and security
  • Performance and accountability
  • Peacebuilding and sustaining peace
  • Partnerships
  • Conduct of peacekeepers and peacekeeping operations

It’s working. A survey conducted in August 2019 revealed that all involved parties (the Secretariat, member states, and society at large) felt that progress towards A4P implementation had been made to some extent in all eight areas.

So, to return to our original question: is peacekeeping still relevant? Yes, the United Nations is working to make it so. And, said Shadwick, “People just like to peacekeep. They may not have ever fully understood it or understood the risk or maybe not been fully cognitive of the switch between traditional peacekeeping and the more contemporary kind, but there was always that basic reservoir of goodwill. And I think that’s still out there.”

Lynn Greiner is a freelance writer who has covered technology, history, business, and many other areas for more than 20 years.