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Experience April/May 2024

UN Peacekeeping: Expectations v. Reality

Mona Ali Khalil


  • Current deployments of UN peacekeepers involve greater sacrifice, less achievable mandates, more hostile environments, and greater risk of casualties.
  • The principle of “do no harm” requires that UN peacekeepers ensure they don’t become perpetrators of human rights violations.
  • The UN’s response to the outbreak of cholera in Haiti—including its likely role in the introduction and spread of the disease—has undermined its credibility and devastated its standing.
  • The Security Council must ensure that it adopts coherent and achievable mandates.
UN Peacekeeping: Expectations v. Reality
David Pollack via Getty Images

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UN Peacekeeping is premised on the noble idea that the troops of one country can be deployed consensually to the territory of another country to bring peace and justice and stability and security.

However, the reality isn’t meeting these noble goals.

Why, we should ask, would a soldier of one country be willing to risk being killed or maimed to fight for somebody else’s cause in somebody else’s country? Why, we should ask, would a country be willing to sacrifice its own men and women at the risk of reducing its own readiness to respond to threats to its national security or attacks at home?

So before I start critiquing the performance of UN peacekeepers, let’s first pay tribute to their willingness to undertake such a noble and often thankless mission. Let’s try to understand the motives, not only of the individual soldiers but also of the troop-contributing countries.

While they may earn a measure of prestige among the UN powers and receive a token of compensation for their contribution from UN coffers, none of it is worth returning home in crutches or coffins. Serving the cause of peace and justice may be the calling that moves men and women to leave their families to fight the good fight.

The challenge of force generation

It’s a miracle that the UN gets any troops at all. Far gone are the days of peacekeeping missions deployed to monitor ceasefires and oversee troop withdrawals. Far gone are the days when the UN flag signified an impartial mission appreciated by the people of the land, and a blue helmet accorded a protected status respected by the parties to the conflict.

It has been decades since UN peacekeepers were deployed in interstate conflicts where there was a peace to keep. Since the 1990s, with few exceptions, UN peacekeepers are, almost exclusively, being deployed into intrastate conflicts where there’s no peace to keep. Current deployments of UN peacekeepers involve a far greater sacrifice, to achieve a less achievable mandate, in a far more hostile environment, with far greater risk of casualties.

The willingness of troop-contributing countries to put their troops in harm’s way in the service of peace can’t be taken for granted where and when such peace is absent or elusive. The troops must be properly incentivized—both with a sense of pride of calling and a unity of noble purpose. They must be adequately compensated—during their service and for their families in the event of their death or permanent disability. They must be fully recognized—for their service and sacrifice to humanity.

The failure to protect civilians

The failure to implement the protection of civilians mandate is yet another major problem. Most of the current UN peacekeeping missions have a POC mandate and a Chapter VII authorization to use force beyond the inherent right of self-defense.

There’s too great a gap between the expectations of the UN Security Council and the actual performance of the troops on the ground. UN troops are expected to be constantly assessing threats of violence to civilians and proactively taking measures to prevent, preempt, or respond to those threats. The record shows that the majority of troops are failing to use force even to protect themselves—much less to protect others.

There are at least six contributing factors to the failure to implement the POC mandate. The first three fall within the Security Council itself—a lack of responsibility, a lack of unity, and a lack of enforcement. The Security Council has gradually become more interested in managing conflicts than in fulfilling its responsibility to prevent and resolve conflicts. It has grown increasingly content to adopt resolutions that it has no political will to enforce. It has become so divided that it strives to achieve consensual language rather than implementable mandates.

The other three factors rest with the UN Secretariat, troop-contributing countries, and the troops themselves, and those are a lack of leadership, a lack of awareness and a lack of readiness and preparedness. The POC mandate requires all actors from the UN leadership to the mission leadership to coordinate and fulfill their respective responsibilities.

It also requires UN troops to know and understand their mandate and their rules of engagement; they are often unaware of the extent of their authority—and some would say their duty—to use force to fulfill the POC mandate. The lack of readiness and preparedness is partly due to the large number of inadequate and untrained troops and partly due to legitimate fears.

Due to the demands of sustaining the consent and cooperation of the host government, UN troops are reluctant to use force against host-government forces, even when those forces are threatening or even attacking their own civilians. UN troops are also fearful of becoming a party to the conflict and losing their protected status. They’re increasingly aware that they can lose their protected status by the material support they’re mandated to provide to host government or parallel forces or by their own engagement in sustained armed hostilities against terrorists, militants, or other hostile forces.

Worse yet, the failure to prevent or respond to attacks on civilians leads to the very escalation and confrontation they wish to avoid. The less formidable they are, the weaker their deterrent posture becomes and the greater their vulnerability to attack by hostile forces and the greater their failure to protect civilians against attack.

Even where force commanders issue the necessary orders, the record shows that contingents are often not following those orders and facing little or no consequences for failing to do so. UN peacekeeping troops must be properly briefed on the nature and scope of their mission-specific POC mandate. They must be adequately trained to engage proactively when civilians are being killed or raped in their areas of deployment. They must be held accountable—for their failures to implement their mandates and to follow lawful orders.

The violation of “do no harm”

The tragedies borne out of the failures of implementation of the POC mandate are overshadowed by the scandals of sexual exploitation and abuse by UN peacekeepers in various missions and the travesty of the UN’s role in the cholera crisis in Haiti. The scandals involving sexual and other crimes by UN peacekeepers have plagued the United Nations.

To restore its credibility and effectiveness, the UN must restore confidence in the integrity and accountability of its peacekeepers in the hearts and minds of the peoples they are deployed to protect. The principle of “do no harm” requires that UN peacekeeping personnel—whether military, police or civilian—strive to ensure that they don’t become perpetrators of human rights violations and other abuses, especially when they’re entrusted with a POC mandate. It’s effectively a double failure when the protectors become the abuser; they not only fail their mandate but actually betray it.

UN peacekeepers aren’t above the law or immune from prosecution for crimes they’re credibly alleged to have committed. It’s imperative to dispel any notion that they are. It’s decidedly in the UN’s interest to pursue criminal accountability for UN personnel who commit crimes that betray the very purposes and principles for which they were deployed.

The UN must train troops and their commanders to abide by its own policies (including its zero-tolerance policy against sexual exploitation and abuse) and to adhere to international law, including international humanitarian law. It must also ensure accountability with timely and meaningful consequences for misconduct. And it must protect the victims and witnesses while referring alleged criminal offences for national investigation and prosecution—either by the host country or, as in the case of military contingents, by their own home country.

The UN’s failed response to the outbreak of cholera in Haiti in October 2010—including its likely role in the introduction and spread of the disease—continues to haunt UN peacekeeping. Its failure to live up to its legal and moral responsibility has undermined its credibility and devastated its standing in the hearts and minds of the people of Haiti and beyond.

Once upon a time, the UN upheld the dictum “justice should not only be done but also be seen to be done.” Justice has yet to visit Haiti. All that the people of Haiti have received is an incomplete and overdue apology, two unfunded trust funds, and a lot of aid and humanitarian assistance. The UN continues to treat the dead and living victims of cholera and their families as objects of charity rather than as rightful claimants of a legitimate demand for justice and compensation.

To restore its integrity and credibility before the people of Haiti, the UN and the Nepalese contingent must acknowledge their role in the introduction and outbreak of cholera in the country. Consistent with longstanding UN practice and policy, it must compensate the surviving victims and the families of the thousands of deceased. And its member states must put forth the necessary resources, from voluntary or assessed contributions, if necessary, to fill the two trust funds so that the UN can deliver the collective community measures long promised to the people of Haiti.

There is hope in the fact that the UN has all the necessary principles, policies, and rules in place. For the sake of all those who serve with integrity and honour, and for the sake of all civilians seeking the UN’s protection, the UN must uphold those principles, implement those policies, and enforce those rules.

The Security Council must ensure that the mandates it adopts are coherent and achievable. The UN Secretariat and the troop-contributing countries must train and prepare their peacekeeping troops to defend themselves and protect civilians proactively and robustly. The UN peacekeepers must fulfill their mandates and, if they don’t succeed, at least they must do no harm.