Un Peace Keeping Operations: Between A Rock And A Hard Place

I. Introduction

Peace keeping is one of the most important works undertaken by the United Nations Organization, involving enormous financial burden and the use of military forces coming from different countries.  Peacekeeping has become one of the functions for which the United Nations has become well-known, with the blue helmets of its forces patrolling areas in different parts of the world, monitoring the observance of commitments made by conflicting sides to peace and stability. It is also a controversial issue, pitting errant governments and their supporters against those who favor intervention for political or humanitarian reasons. The case of Darfur is the most recent example of such conflicting positions in the face of massacres of genocidal proportions. We will return to this point.

Interestingly enough, the concept of peacekeeping is not mentioned in the Charter of the United Nations. It evolved as a pragmatic solution in response to challenges to peace. The gaps left in the Charter had to be filled in terms of fulfilling its obligations in the maintenance of peace and security. The first peacekeeping operation was the United Nations Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO) created in 1948 to supervise the truce in Palestine called for by the Security Council.  

The United Nations, which was conceived as a harmonizing center at its creation in 1945 had almost immediately become an ideological battle ground between the East dominated by the Soviet Union and the West led by the United States of American. By its very structure, the United Nations proved incapable of resolving the emerging ideological battle, a fact that led the two sides to create military pacts, respectively the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) for the West and the Warsaw Pact for the East. The United Nation was thus not only unable to be a harmonizing center in a divided world; each side suspected it as favoring the other at different times. Because of America’s dominant position, the Soviet Union, more often considered United Nations to act an agent of US strategic and geopolitical interests. The Korean war of 1950 became the litmus test for the organization’s ability to act as a neutral body not favoring one or the other side. Communist North Korea was backed by Communist China and the Soviet Union, while South Korea was backed by the United Sates and its allies. The intervention of the United States on behalf of South Korea proceeded on a controversial UN resolution that the Soviet Union disputed as being illegitimate. Inevitably, both the United Nations and the troops that America mobilized on South Korea’s side were characterized as tools of “US Imperialism.”   

This was how the Cold War began; and the role of the United Nations in peacekeeping was deeply affected by it, as demonstrated ten years later in the Congo crisis, beginning in 1960. The then Secretary General of the United Nations, Dag Hammarskjöld, who asserted the autonomy of the organization was killed in a plane crash in the Congo in mysterious circumstances. It was in the Congo that UN peacekeeping forces were involved more massively than ever before.

II. The Challenges of Peacekeeping in a Post-Cold War World


The UN Facing a “New World Order.”

The collapse of the Soviet Union was followed by democratic awakening and demands for self determination in many parts of the world, which created situations of conflict. In these circumstances, what President George Herbert Bush (Bush One) called “A New World Order” faced its first post-Cold War challenge in Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, which was a clear violation of international law. Bush lost no time in condemning the invasion and, invoking the UN Charter, mobilizing an international response led by the United States and sanctioned by UN Security Council Resolution. Thus “the first Gulf War” that displaced Iraqi forces from Kuwait but stopping short of overthrowing Saddam, was a legitimate international response to a clear breach of international law.

Other, more complicated challenges followed in quick succession—the fragmentation of former Yugoslavia and the collapse of the Somali State, for example. A combined NATO-US force intervened to stop “ethnic cleansing” in Bosnia and later Kosovo, with the legal backing of a UN Security Council Resolution. This intervention raised expectations that the international community represented at the United Nations would intervene in other conflict situations, particularly in those involving humanitarian disaster. The collapse of the Somali sate in 1991 created such disaster in which a defenseless civilian population became victim to warring sub-clans led by war lords. Again, President Bush took the initiative to secure UN Security Council Resolution in December 1992 to organize a multinational force (UNITAF) led by the United States to use “all necessary means” to establish an environment for humanitarian relief operations in Somalia.

Unfortunately, this massive humanitarian intervention by a super power—the first of its kind in history— foundered on the rock of local Somali politics, resulting in the death of American soldiers. The corpse of an American soldier being dragged by mobs on the streets of Mogadishu, which was viewed on TV and shocked the American public, sealed the fate of the intervention; newly elected President Clinton ordered the withdrawal of UNITAF.  

It is worth noting that the end of the Cold War did not mean the end of wrangling at the United Nations, as conflicts multiplied throughout the world. In the face of a humanitarian disaster of mass starvation in Somalia, as the conflict continued between the sub-clans, The United Nations did not act quickly to send peacekeeping troops to secure the distribution of relief. It was during that period of hesitation that UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros Ghali made his mordant remark about the world favoring “rich man’s wars,” a reference to the NATO-US intervention in former Yugoslavia. Partly in response to that comment, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 814(1993) of 26 March 1993, establishing UNOSOM II to take over from UNITAF.  

Structure of UN Intervention

As a rule, peacekeeping operations are established by the Security Council, the organ designated by the Charter as primarily responsible for the maintenance of peace and security; the financial aspects of peacekeeping, on the other hand, are the responsibility of the General Assembly. Security Council Resolutions establishing peacekeeping forces define the mandate of the force, including enforcement measures, and where humanitarian assistance is one of the objectives, to establish in the area of operation a secure environment for assistance.

Complications may arise, however, where the force is required to effect disarmament of local forces involved in the conflict. For example in the Somali case, UNISOM II was mandated to complete the task begun by UNITAF for the restoration of peace, stability, and law and order. The task also included disarmament and reconciliation of the warring militias, a more difficult task. As an example of a complicated conflict situation to which a UN peacekeeping force was dispatched, I will cite here UNISOM’s responsibilities. These included:

  1. Monitoring that all factions continued to respect the cessation of hostilities and other agreement to which they had consented;
  2. Preventing any resumption of violence and, if necessary, taking appropriate action;
  3. Maintaining control of the heavy weapons of the organized factions which would have been brought under international control;
  4. Seizing the small arms of all unauthorized elements;
  5. Securing all ports, airports and lines of communication required for the delivery of humanitarian assistance;
  6. Protecting the personnel, installations and equipment of the United Nations and its agencies, ICRC as well as NGOs;
  7. Continuing mine-clearing; and
  8. Assisting in repatriation of refugees and displaced persons in Somalia.  

The role of the UN Security Council in the Somali peace keeping operations, including notably its response to armed attacks by Somali militiamen against personnel of UNOSOM II, is exemplary. There was a general expectation that there would be a similar response in the Darfur situation. To begin with, in its original resolution [814(1993)], the Council requested the Secretary General, with assistance from all United nations entities, offices and specialized agencies, to provide humanitarian and other assistance to the people of Somalia in rehabilitating their political institutions and economy and promoting political settlement and national reconciliation. Then, in the wake of the attack of the militiamen, the Council reaffirmed that the Secretary General is authorized under resolution 814 (1993) to take all necessary measures against those responsible for the attacks, to establish effective UNOSOM authority throughout Somalia, including securing the investigation of the attacks and the arrest, detention and prosecution of the attackers.

It was soon realized, however, that there was a limit to what the UN peacekeeping forces could do to fulfill all their mandates. Seven months later, on February 4, 1994, the Security Council, by its resolution 897 (1994) revised UNOSOM II’s mandate to exclude the use of coercive force. The exclusion of the use of coercive force included the apprehension and prosecution of the militiamen. The new mandate concentrated on humanitarian efforts. The earlier more ambitious mandate was replaced by a more realistic one of “Assisting the political process in Somalia…”, and “assisting in the

reorganization of Somali police and judicial system.”   

III. Problems of Peacekeeping

Logistics and Terms and Conditions of Deployment

As a result of the experience of UNOSOM and UNITAF, the international community became reluctant to place “boots on the ground.” Regional peacekeeping forces have been used in substitution for or in support of international peacekeeping troops where these were available.  In Africa, for example, deployment of African peacekeeping troops increased in the 1990s as some parts of Africa became conflict areas. In West Africa, ECOMOG, the military force of the Economic Commission of Western African States (ECOWAS), played a large and important role when it intervened in Liberia and Sierra Leone. The African Union (the successor of the Organization of African Unity) has taken a more active role than it predecessor in assisting African interventions, its intervention in Somalia being one example.

Such share of responsibility by a regional organization is certainly welcome by the international community. It is welcome not merely for shouldering responsibility per se, but also on the ground that African peacekeeping units may enjoy obvious advantages over non-African forces. They enter with more political acceptance, and may have greater knowledge of, or sensitivity to, the political and social environment, and may show more commitment to remaining deployed during especially difficult periods. Nonetheless, ECOMOG’s ten-year experience in Liberia and then Sierra Leone demonstrated that these possible advantages do not always materialize. Moreover, African intervention forces need greater training and equipping. Some problems result from a lack of training in police, human rights, or counter-insurgency methods and tactics. Other problems include lack of relevant equipment (spotter planes, sufficient transport and attack helicopters, and interoperable radios).

A more serious problem is political, such as lack of clear mandates and rule of engagement or methods of reaching consensus within the force on appropriate methods and goals. The situation in Lebanon following the war between Israel and Hezbollah provides a good illustration. At the conclusion of hostilities between Israel and Hezbollah, the UN Security Council, the major Western powers and the government of Lebanon called for the disarmament of the Shiite militia known as Hezbollah; but the mandate did not specify how they were to be disarmed. Neither the Lebanese national army, nor the international force that joined it was given the mandate to disarm Hezbollah. Moreover, Hezbollah did not show any eagerness to lay down its arms, which leaves the situation on the horns of a dilemma, with Israel calling for disarmament and Hezbollah rejecting the call. The obvious conclusion is that in wars ending without a decisive victory, or in unending civil conflict as in Somalia, forcible disarmament has proved impossible, short of the fighting forces agreeing to disarm under a larger framework agreement.

Disarmament works under certain political conditions such as the situation of Sierra Leone in 2000. There UN peacekeeping troops equipped with heavy weapons were deployed in the countryside where the rebel forces that had terrorized the population had operated. The rebel forces known as the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) signed a peace agreement, after their leader was arrested by the peacekeeping forces. Within three years (by 2004) they were totally disarmed and demobilized. The UN peacekeeping force was able to leave and Sierra Leone is being patrolled by its own army and police.

Another example of successful disarmament is Kosovo where NATO forces had filled in the vacuum left by Serbian troops in 1999. The Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), a home-grown militia, saw itself as the legitimate successor to the departing Serbian forces and would not surrender its arms to the NATO forces. The NATO-backed peacekeeping forces then decided to recruit the KLA integrating it in the Kosovo Protection Corps. In contrast to the Somali situation, there were no warring factions in Kosovo. The only potential problem was the possibility that the KLA might turn into an oppressive military dictatorship; but so far this eventuality has not happened. NATO’s audacious decision seems to have worked in Kosovo.

IV. Peacekeeping, Human Rights and National Sovereignty.  

Darfur is and will remain a shameful reminder of mankind’s failure to learn the lesson of history and act in time to come to the rescue of innocent victims facing genocide. Half a century after the Nazi holocaust, humanity witnessed genocide, this time in the African continent. The twentieth century closed with the Rwandan genocide, which should be weighing in humanity’s collective conscience. Yet hardly a decade later at the start of the twenty-first century, genocide has been in the making in Darfur, Sudan’s western region. When the African Union sent its peacekeeping force of about 7,000 strong to Darfur, it was in the context of a situation that had gone out of control, and in which some two million people had been driven out of their land and fled to neighboring Chad, and hundreds of thousands who were not lucky enough to escape had been massacred, and women raped by marauding Sudanese militia, known as Janjaweed.

What has the international community, including the African Union done in the face of this on-going tragedy? The official international response was sluggish at best, and when it came it was cluttered with conditions, prevarications and endless controversy. The 7,000 strong peacekeeping troops sent by the African Union fall far short of the troop strength that the situation demands. The United Nations Security Council passed a resolution to send some 20,000 UN peacekeeping troops, and there is the diplomatic rub—the government of Sudan adamantly refused to allow UN peacekeeping troops to enter its territory. Instead, it proposed an expanded African force funded by Arab money! The Araba factor in African history and politics is indeed an intriguing matter!  

The Normative Framework of Peacekeeping

Peacekeeping operations do not occur in a legal and political vacuum. There are international principles applicable to cover situations of conflicts arising out of different historical conditions. In other words, there is a normative framework that provides the legal and moral grounding for peaceful intervention, whether such intervention is to stop the killing of innocent civilians as in Darfur, or to establish a buffer zone between warring parties as in Eritrea ad Ethiopia.

The United Nations is the organized institutional expression of the international legal order. Its Charter lays down the general principles underlying the normative framework of the international system in terms of maintaining peace and stability, regulating behavior of member nations, their relations and resolution of disputes and conflicts between any of them. Three years later, came the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, which provides for fundamental human rights, in detail. This was followed by the 1966 Covenants on Civil and Political as well as social, economic and cultural rights. These Covenants, as well as the Charter and the Universal Declaration, have the status of international treaties and are part of international law.

Between them, the UN Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the 1966 Covenants cover every conceivable right (as well as the corresponding duty of states to observe them)—rights of individuals and groups within the entire human community organized in states and internal organizations existing within states. Any breach of their provisions is, therefore, subject to sanctions, at least in theory. It is part of the problem of international law that legal sanctions are not available directly in the way that legal sanctions are available in domestic or national jurisdictions for any breach of law. International sanctions, when available, are indirect and take time to take effect. The resolution of the UN Security Council to sanction an errant government , as we all know is subject to dispute and to the veto of any one of its five permanent members—China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States.  

The General Assembly of the United Nations has also passed many resolutions in support of specific aspects of fundamental human rights. An example is the prohibition of discrimination against women. Another one, mentioned in all of the above-mentioned international legal instruments, is the right of people to self determination. This fundamental right is often pitted against another cardinal principle of international law, namely the sovereignty and territorial integrity of a state. The United Nations General Assembly has provided formulas for resolving the tension arising between these two principles. According to one formula, a state is required to promote and protect the equal rights and self determination of its citizens. The implication is that where a state does not promote or protect the equal rights and self determination of any community within its jurisdiction, such a community has the right to seek redress, the ultimate redress being taking up arms to protect its rights. This is obviously a thorny issue, and any aggrieved community within a state is expected to seek redress through peaceful means; only upon failure of all peaceful means is it permissible for any aggrieved party to take up arms.

Examples abound in which national groups, be they ethnic communities or oppressed classes within a state, take up arms following the failure of peaceful attempts to redress their wrongs. Where the state concerned commits egregious violation of human rights, the international community invariably issues statements invoking international law and calling on the errant government to cease and desist from further commission of the violation. Such is the case of Darfur. Sending peacekeeping troops is in the nature of a last resort. Meanwhile the United Nations and some member governments may offer moral and material support to communities suffering privation as a result of the actions of the government concerned.    

The usual response of governments to calls by the international community to abide by rule of international law is the defense of national sovereignty. This is what the government of Sudan has been doing in response to UN Security Council passed a resolution to send a 20,000 UN peacekeeping force to Darfur to stop the massacres and rapes being committed by government-supported militias known as the Janjaweed.

In the context of the coming separation of the southern part of Sudan to become a new nation, may one expect the Sudanese government ot respond positively to calls to resolve the Darfur crisis? Time will tell.


This is a talk given by Dr. Bereket Habte Selassie to the United Nations Association of the United Sates, Chapel Hill and Durham chapter, 25 October, 2006. Bereket Habte Selassie is a Professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill


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