UN Peace Keeping – Theory and Practice



The United Nations, founded in 1945 during the final phases of World War II, is the second multi-purpose international organization established in the 20th century that is worldwide in scope and membership. The first such organization was the League of Nations, established by the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. The ultimate goals of the United Nations , according to its charter, are to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war,… to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights,… to establish conditions under which justice and respite for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained, and to promote social progress and better standards of life in large freedom.é1 Its primary purpose, therefore, is to maintain international peace and security. Cold War tension between the United States and the Soviet Union (until its dissolution in 1991-92) deeply affected the security functions of the United Nations during its first 45 years, while extensive post-World War II decolonization in Africa, Asia and Middle East increased the volume and nature of political, economic and social issues that confronted the Organization. Finally, the end of the Cold War in 1990 brought renewed attentions and appeals to the United Nations, posing challenges to established practices and functions, especially in the areas of conflict resolution and humanitarian assistance, in the midst of an increasingly volatile geopolitical climate.

Chapter 6 of the charter provides for the pacific settlement of disputes, through such means as negotiation, mediation, arbitration, and/or judicial decisions. When pacific settlement fails, the goal of collective security – whereby the security of each member is assumed by all, and aggression against one would be met by the resistance of all – underlies the provisions in Chapter 7 for coercive measures, including economic and military sanctions, against an aggressor.2 In practice, however, collective security was replaced by peace-keeping and preventive diplomacy. In the post-Cold War period, appeals to the United Nations for peacemaking purposes increased dramatically, renewing discussion about the feasibility of putting into practice the original UN provisions for collective security.

United Nations peace-keeping operations evolved essentially to stop hostilities and to control conflicts so that they would not develop into broader conflagrations. There was not, and still is not, any particular theory or doctrine behind them. They were born of necessity, largely improvised, a practical response to a problem requiring active action. The term “peace-keeping operation” gained currency much later.

As the United Nations practice has evolved over the years, a peace-keeping operation has come to be defined as an operation involving military personnel, but without enforcement powers, undertaken by the United Nations to help maintain or restore international peace and security in areas of conflict. These operations are voluntary and are based on consent and cooperation. While they involve the use of military personnel, they achieve their objectives not by force of arms, thus contrasting them with the “enforcement action” of the United Nations under Article 42. 3

Peace-keeping operations have been most commonly employed to supervise and help maintain ceasefires, to assist in troop withdrawals, and to provide a buffer between opposing forces. However, peace-keeping operations are flexible instruments of policy and have been adopted to a variety of uses, including helping to implement the final settlement of a conflict.

Peace-keeping operations are never purely military. The have always included civilian personnel to carry out essential political or administrative functions, sometimes on a very large scale, as, for instance, in the Congo operation or in the independence process in Namibia.4

Initially, questions were raised about the legality of the United Nationsé use of military personnel in a manner not specifically provided for in the charter. In recent years, however, something close to consensus has developed that these operations can be considered as having a basis, apart from the principle of consent, in the broad powers conferred by the charter upon the United Nations and especially the Security Council.

Basic Characteristics of Peace-keeping Operations

In practice, there has evolved a broad consensus on the essential characteristics of peace-keeping operations and on the conditions that must be met if they are to succeed.

The first of these essential characteristics is that peacekeeping operations are set up only with the consent of the parties to the conflict in question. Their consent is required not only for the operations establishment but also, in broad terms, for the way in which it will carry out its mandate. The parties are also consulted about the countries which will contribute troops to the operation. It is a key principle that the operation must not interfere in internal affairs of the host countries and must not in any way favor one party against another. The requirement of impartiality is fundamental, not only on grounds of principle but also to ensure that the operation is effective. For their part, the parties to the conflict are expected to provide continuing support to the operation by allowing it the

freedom of movement and the facilities which it needs to carry out its task. This cooperation is essential. The peace-keepers have no rights of enforcement and their use of force is limited to self-defence, as a last resort. This means that if a party chooses not to cooperate, it can effectively defy a peace-keeping operation. In line with the Security Councilés primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security, peace-keeping operations have mainly been established by the Council (though two were, exceptionally, authorized by the General Assembly). This means that no operation can be established without a broad consensus within the international community that it is the right thing to do. It is the Security Council’s responsibility to ensure that the operation is given a mandate which is clear, accepted by the parties concerned and practicable in the situation

existing on the ground. Also essential is the continuing support of the Security Council, which may be asked by the Secretary General to intervene if one or other of the parties fails to provide the necessary support and cooperation. If the mandate is unclear or ambiguous, the operation is likely to face recurrent difficulties and its activities may become controversial, with the consequent risk that it may lose the necessary support of the security council or the necessary agreement of one of the parties concerned.

The military personnel who serve in peace-keeping operations are provided by Member States on a voluntary basis. Once so provided, they pass under the command of the Secretary General in all operational matters, as the Secretary General is responsible for the direction of the operation and is required to report thereon at regular intervals to the Security Council.5 Those who serve in military observer missions are almost invariably unarmed. Those who serve in peace-keeping forces are equipped with light defensive weapons but are not authorized to use force except in self-defence.6 This right is exercised only sparingly because of the obvious danger that if a United Nations force uses its weapons, its impartiality is however unfairly called in question. This requirement sometimes demands exceptional restraint on the part of soldiers serving in United Nations peace-keeping forces.

Finally it is essential that the operation should have a sound financial basis. The financing of peace-keeping has been one of its most controversial and least satisfactory aspects. Almost all operations are now financed by obligatory contributions levied on Member States. If the Member States do not pay their contributions promptly and in full, the Secretary General lacks the financial resources needed to reimburse to the troop contributing governments the sums due to them. This means, in effect, that those governments have to pay an unfairly high share of the cost of the operation in question, in addition to sending their soldiers to serve in unpredictable and sometimes dangerous situations.

Peace-keeping and Peace-making

Peace-keeping operations are usually required when all the methods adopted by the UN for the peaceful settlement of disputes fail to bring permanent peace. These measures, generally called peace-making efforts, include multilateral diplomatic efforts within the framework of the Security Council, bilateral efforts of Member States, or the good offices of the Secretary General.

All the peace-keeping operations are only temporary measures. They can never alone resolve a conflict. Their tasks are essentially two: to stop or contain hostilities and thus help create conditions in which peace-keeping can prosper; or to supervise the implementation of an interim or final settlement which has been negotiated by the peace-makers. In two instances however, these operations went far beyond the constraints of peace-keeping i.e. in Korea in 1950 and in the Persian Gulf in 1990-91. Ideally, peace-keeping should move in step with peace-making in peaceful resolution of a conflict. But in practice this ideal cannot always be attained.

Peace-keeping operations can be divided into broad categories; observer missions, which consist largely of officers

who are almost invariably unarmed; and peace-keeping forces, which consist of lightly armed infantry units, with the necessary logistic support elements. These categories are not, however, watertight. Observer missions are sometimes reinforced by ine”> ry and/or logistic units, usually for a specific purpose and for a brief period of time. Peace-keeping forces are often assisted in their work by unarmed military observers.

UN peace-keeping troops also called “blue helmets” have served throughout the world. In addition to traditional peace-keeping, the functions of UN forces in the post cold war era have been expanded considerably. From 1990 they supervised elections in many parts of the world, including Nicaragua, Eritrea, and Cambodia; encouraged peace negotiations in El Salvador, Angola and Western Sahara; and distributed food in Somalia. Despite the inability of the United Nations to enact fully the collective security measures envisioned in the charter, the importance of UN peace-keeping forces was recognized in 1988, when they were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.7

Peace-keeping in Practice

After studying the theoretical frame-work of the UN peace-keeping operations we must analyze the way these have been practiced so far.

We can observe that the purpose for which the UN was created has at best been partially achieved. Over the years the UN has become a prestigious debating society in which excellent speeches are made and resolutions are passed but not without a selective approach. The veto right gives too much authority to the too few. The Big Five approve only those measures in the Security Council which are not in conflict with their national interests. The UN image is persistently declining because of its poor performance in Somalia, Bosnia, Afghanistan, Rwanda and Yemen. On the other hand it has acted too aggressively against Iraq.

The military burden has, usually not been shared out equally. Although some Western governments – Britain and France, in particular – have blameless records, especially when there is a call from Washington, richest and most powerful nations make very insignificant contribution on the ground. Take for instance the case of Bosnia, US had about 650 troops attached to the force in Bosnia and a handful of military observers in Angola and the Western Sahara; Japan had 50 troops in Mozambique; Germany just five civilian policemen in Western Sahara and a brace of military observers in Georgia. The record of the Middle Eastern states is also not impressive. Kuwait and Saudi Arabia helped to pay for Operation Desert Storm in 1991, but they currently fail to contribute a single UN soldier between them.8 By contrast, the record of some of the poorer nations is impressive. The three nations of the South Asian subcontinent – India, Pakistan and Bangladesh – together account for 20 percent of the UN forces stationed around the world, while Zambia puts more troops at the UN’s disposal than the US, Germany and Japan combined.9

This is not entirely based on altruism. One look at the economies of the developing world shows that many of them are desperate for hard currency, and the $ 998 a month paid – at least in theory – by the UN for each soldier has been attractive.10 This fact has ruthlessly been exploited by some of the richer nations. The West has been under pressure from public opinion to intervene in parts of the world where it has no strategic interest, and has effectively hired mercenaries to do the fighting on its behalf.

Peace-keeping operations most of the times are faced with the problems of insufficient funds. It happens because a majority of the 182 UN members do not pay their dues. The largest defaulter has been the United States. Pointing towards this fact Mr. Boutros Ghali, former Secretary-General UN, stated in 1992, It is precisely the failure of member states to meet their obligations that has caused the debilitating financial crisis the United Nations faces today.11

In 1980, the United Nations owed $ 95.6 million in back dues to its regular budget, the day-to-day operating expenses of the Organization. In 1990, the debt had grown to $ 461.2 million.12 In 1997 United States alone owed $1 billion to the United Nations.13

As indicated above, the developed world takes no interest in the UN-conducted peace-keeping operations particularly in the areas where its own interests are not perceived to be directly involved. This is of course a deviation from the fundamental principles of the United Nations. All UN operations, humanitarians or otherwise, may always be participated with human and material resources by nations belonging to different columns, races and culture groups. Those blessed with the task of guiding the destiny of the world ought to lead from the front.

The arrogance of power must give way to the power of reasoning. The world needs an order in which the UN is tailored to undertake peace-keeping operations to serve the cause of peace and not that of individual states. United Nations has still to find a solution to some perennial problems, the leading among them are the problems of Palestine and Kashmir. Newer ones are emerging too, the fresh example is that of Kosovo. These problems are demanding a real role played by the UN for the establishment of an enhanced peace in the areas. UN undoubtedly need more power and a firm determination. It is only that the problems spread in front of her could be redressed on permanent basis. Every nation-state of the world whether small or big, rich or poor need to cooperate with UN in her efforts in maintaining peace and tranquility.

No matter how much the UN is criticized for its so far performance, no sane person can fully deny the great services of this Organization for the betterment of humankind. This can well be judged by the people of Africa whom were helped by the UN when they were starving under the open sky with no hope of life. In numerous other natural disasters UN remained as the only hope.

In its more than fifty years old history, UN has at least communicated well the message of peace and tranquility to every corner of the world. There are some problems in the system but this can be corrected through a determined approach. Perhaps this is the biggest characteristic of a human being that he achieves success over the difficulty.


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