In less than three years of its existence, the UN launched its first peacekeeping mission in the Middle East in May 1948 by deploying a small number of military observers to monitor the Armistice Agreement between Israel and neighbouring Arab countries.
After a few months, the UN sent a similar mission to Kashmir in January 1949. Since starting the first mission, 75 years have passed, and the UN has been engaged in 71 peacekeeping operations with mixed outcomes. Currently, the UN is engaged in 12 peacekeeping missions employing nearly 87,000 personnel.
The UN Peacekeeping, which received a Nobel Peace Prize in 1988, is expected to be governed by three basic principles: 1. Impartiality, 2. Consent of the Parties, 3. Use of Force Primarily in Self-Defense and Defence of the Mandate.
However, all these neutral and non-offensive roles have not stopped the death of nearly 4,300 peacekeeping personnel in all peace operations since 1948. In the 12 active operations, the death toll is more than 1600.
A few anomalies
The annual cost of the 12 ongoing peacekeeping operations is around $6.4 billion. It should be seen in the context that the world is spending more than $2.24 trillion annually on the military.
Despite the relatively lower costs, the West has become a reluctant contributor. While the US contributes nearly 27.9 per cent of the budget, China is catching up fast as its contributions are approximately 15.2 per cent. The Big Five of the UN Security Council contributes almost 60 per cent of the total peacekeeping budget.
While the rich and powerful countries are financing the UN’s peacekeeping operation, most peacekeepers are from developing countries. The top five UN peacekeepers contributors are Bangladesh, Nepal, India, Rwanda, and Pakistan.
The only veto-carrying country in the UN Security Council that sends a respectable number of peacekeepers is China, which is placed at the number ten position.
There are many allegations of peacekeepers’ involvement in illegal activity in the Central African Republic and Congo. Peacekeepers are also blamed for inadvertently bringing the cholera pandemic to Haiti and transporting AIDS between home and mission countries.
Moreover, critics of UN peacekeeping often refer to massacres in Rwanda and Srebrenica under its watch. However, the significant contributions of UN peacekeeping to peace and security worldwide can’t be overlooked with these few anomalies.
UN peacekeeping is, after all, a partnership framework that brings together the UN General Assembly, Security Council, Secretary General’s office, peacekeeper-contributing countries, and host governments to work to maintain international peace and security. Its unique strengths are legitimacy and burden sharing. The UN claims to achieve success in its 55 peacekeeping operations in the last 75 years.
In the early years, the UN peacekeepers had the straightforward task of monitoring a demilitarised zone between two armies for disputing parties to maintain the ceasefire. However, the scope of the peacekeeping mandate has even expanded with time.
It now aims to protect civilians, facilitate the political process and integration of former combatants, organise elections, protect human rights, empower women, and promote the rule of law. Too many ambitions have made measuring its success somewhat difficult for peacekeeping missions.
At the same time, there are not many wars the world is witnessing these days as it used to be when the UN came into existence. The characteristics of armed conflicts have changed, and they have become more complicated and internal, asking for peacekeeping to be multidimensional and, in some cases, to protect civilians and governments from violent extremism.
For this complex form of peacekeeping operations, the number of UN peacekeepers has increased almost eight times in the last three decades, from 11,000 in the early 1990s to 87,000 now.
Expanded mandate and strength
While primarily peacekeepers are serving military or police, a significant portion of them, around 12,000 are also now civilians who are contributing to the areas of political and civil affairs, human rights, elections, strategic communications, and more. The UN is also engaging an increasing number of women peacekeepers for its missions.
Despite expanded mandate and increasing strength, the challenges the UN peacekeeping missions face have become greater than ever. The rise of populism and growing disinformation and misinformation have made peacekeeping operations more dangerous.
The main challenge for the new age peacekeeping has been when there is no peace to keep; what the peacekeeping mission can do as its mandate is to use weapons only for self-defence.
Even if UN peacekeeping does everything right, it doesn’t control the outcome of its mission and can ensure that countries can navigate the path from conflict to peace. The political will and commitment of the parties to end the conflict and inculcate a culture of peace is the key, and the peacekeepers can’t substitute that.
Despite many impediments, UN peacekeeping has significantly contributed to the collective pursuit of global peace and security for the last 75 years. Thousands of peacekeepers have lost their lives and have been wounded under the UN flag to bring peace to someone else’s country.
Appropriately, the theme of the 75th anniversary is ‘Peace begins with me’ for the world to recognise the service and sacrifice of the UN peacekeepers.