Commemorating the International Day of UN peacekeepers: beyond the pessimism

May 29th, the United Nations celebrated the International Day of UN peacekeepers under the theme of “Peacekeeping: Adapting to New Challenges.” The theme was well chosen. Peacekeeping missions have evolved dramatically since they first came into operations, especially with the end of the Cold War and the proliferation of intra-state conflicts. In its early days, peacekeeping was limited to maintaining ceasefires, implementing peace agreements, bringing stability, and contributing to political efforts to resolve conflict. But peacekeeping operations now vary in type and include a very wide range of activities that will prevent, mitigate or manage violent conflict. Prevention, for example, is designed to resolve or contain disputes before they become violent while conflict management means the containment of conflict. Because the role of peacekeepers has grown dramatically over the years, the Blue Berets’ tasks now include military and humanitarian action, diplomacy, and civil administration (assisting transition by organizing elections, building institutions, etc). In today’s conflicts a multilateral approach to prevention and peacekeeping is an imperative that still needs to be worked on.

Many books and articles have been written on the UN’s peacekeeping record. In general, there is a lot of cynicism and negativism. You rarely hear about successful missions (Namibia, Timor-Leste, Mozambique, El Salvador can be considered as successes). True, the 1990s was a decade of blunders in terms of conflict prevention. Think about Somalia, Rwanda and Yugoslavia. These major failures have greatly affected the credibility of the UN. In Rwanda, Bosnia and Sudan, the UN failed to prevent genocide from taking place even though there were plenty of warning signs. Those at the top ignored or mishandled the information. Again we have a proof that on of the main difficulties is for a third party to take action before tensions erupt into large-scale violence. As we know the UN system is daft, frustrating and highly bureaucratic. Many people also question the effectiveness of several missions as well. This is the case of Monusco in the DRC. As the largest peacekeeping mission in the world, how come it is unable to protect civilians from violence? How come Monusco does not have a mandate to respond to attacks (though this is now set to change with the Intervention Brigade)? The UN says it is learning lessons from missed opportunities and failed missions. To tell you the truth, often I am still waiting to see these lessons and policy recommendations being applied.

Nevertheless, does this mean that we should be pessimistic about the state and future of peacekeeping? Last week Lt-General Dallaire wrote an interesting piece in which he commemorates those “who have served the most vulnerable persons around the globe during their time of greatest need.” As the former head of UNMIR he is very much aware of the failures of the UN: “We have stumbled and, indeed, we have fallen; but when the objective is great—and there can be no greater objective than to secure peace for this and future generations—we must pick ourselves back up and continue forward.” Similarly, Hilde Johnson, the Special Representative of the U.N. Secretary-General in South Sudan, wrote that “following the inspiring example of the people that it serves, the United Nations Mission in South Sudan, UNMISS, has also remained resilient in the face of adversity.” Despite existing problems and setbacks, both Dallaire and Johnson praise the Blue Berets’ efforts to protect civilians and to consolidate fragile peace or institutions.

Like Lt-General Dallaire and Hilde Johnson, I still believe in peacekeeping missions. Conflicts are complex and forever changing, and in many at-risk or post-conflict countries, peacekeepers are making a difference. But as Johnson states “There is no single recipe to achieve these milestones.” This perhaps one of the biggest lessons we should learn from each mission: there is not one-size-fits-all solution.

However, I remain sceptical about those who are supposed to take the decisions about whether or not to intervene or about the terms of a mission’s mandate. Sometimes I think that those at the top have given up or forgotten the UN’s values. Western nations such as US, China and Canada finance missions in a significant way but no longer commit a lot of peacekeepers (Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Ethiopia, and Nigeria are now the main contributors). In terms of military personnel, Canada now ranks 53, most likely because the Harper government does not see peacekeeping as enhancing Canada’s importance on the world stage. Peacekeeping used to be part of Canada’s identity. Bringing the much-needed resources and financing operations is crucial, but without the necessary expertise, it will be a waste of money. Johnson adds something that must be remembered: all actors should be transparent and accountable, including international organizations such as the UN and its missions. For example, peacekeepers must be held accountable for committing crimes and thereby affecting the credibility of the UN. Meanwhile, those at the top must to be accountable for ignoring warning or their inaction. All of them must be aware of their responsibility to “think beyond their purse.” I therefore support Dallaire’s call for renewed Canadian leadership “both in terms of values and expertise.” There is a need to believe in peacekeepers. Doing otherwise is detrimental to them and especially to those they are supposed to protect.

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