No. 9 : September-December 2013

Ronald Hatto

UN Peacekeeping Operations

Academic Foresights

How do you analyze the present situation of the UN peacekeeping operations?

Before answering this question, it is necessary to remind the readers that United Nations Peacekeeping Operations (UNPK) as we know it today is a relatively recent phenomenon in international relations. If we exclude observation missions like the United Nations Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO) established in Palestine in 1948 and the United Nations Military Observer Group in India and Pakistan (UNMOGIP) deployed in the Kashmir in 1949, UNPK dates from the Suez crisis in November 1956 with the creation of the United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF). The setting up of this first peacekeeping mission was a pure improvisation (1). It was designed to replace collective security as envisaged in the Charter of the United Nations (Chapter VII). Cold war’s tensions between the Soviet Union and the United States blocked the Security Council preventing the use of the UN to solve international crisis. To address the Suez crisis, then Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld, acting on a proposal from the Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Lester B. Pearson, had recourse to the General Assembly to launch the new operation. Facing the threat of a British and French veto, Hammarskjöld had to adopt another strategy to deploy the first UN contingent. He did it through the use of the “Uniting for Peace” resolution that was dating from the war in Korea. This highly controversial method allows the UN to authorize the deployment of troops without the approval of the Security Council. After difficult negotiations at the Secretariat, UNEF was finally authorized to be deployed in Egypt with its soldiers wearing for the first time the blue helmet.

Since UNEF in 1956, United Nations Peacekeeping is defined as “Field operations established by the United Nations, with the consent of the parties concerned, to help control and resolve conflicts between them, under United Nations command and control, at the expense collectively of the member states, and with military and other personnel and equipment provided voluntarily by them, acting impartially between the parties and using force to the minimum extent necessary.” (Goulding 1993: 455). The three basic principles on which UNPK rest are 1) Consent of the parties, 2) Impartiality and 3) Minimum use of force. This doctrinal basis, established by Dag Hammarskjöld in 1958 (UN General Assembly 1958), proved to be highly difficult to respect in some operations. It was already the case with the Opération des Nations Unies au Congo (ONUC) between 1960 and 1964 and during numerous post-Cold War missions. In fact, the use of force by UN troops in the Congo to stop the secession of the province of Katanga created a malaise and put the UN in a very difficult financial situation. That explains why the UN mounted so few operations after 1964.

This lack of ambition started to dissipate towards the end of the Cold War. In 1988, the UN sent a batch of observers between Iran and Iraq and the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the Blue Helmets who served between 1948 and 1988. In April 1989, the United Nations Transition Group in Namibia (UNTAG) was deployed and it brought this African nation to independence in less than a year. UNTAG still represents the only complete success of a UN Peacekeeping mission. What UNTAG marked in the history of UNPK was the rise of complex multifunctional operations requiring the presence of several soldiers but also civilian staff and police officers. This created a trend by which the UN became involved in more and more difficult operations without the proper preparation for its contingents. This in turn led to the “fiascoes” of the 1990’s in Bosnia, Rwanda and Somalia.

The fact that the UN was involved in fiascoes is hardly surprising given that it launched 36 operations between 1988 and 1998. Compared to the 13 operations of the Cold War, the number of new missions was impressive. The debacles of the early 1990’s pushed the UN and its Member States to slow down the creation of new missions between 1995 and 1999. The number of peacekeepers in the field also dropped dramatically during that short period. The situation came back to its post-Cold War “normalcy” during early 2000. The number of personnel in uniform deployed in the field started to gradually rise again to reach record numbers in March 2010 (101 000 uniformed personnel).

The present situation stems from the direction taken by UN Peacekeeping missions at the end of the Cold War. Blue helmets and civilian staff and police continue to be deployed in complex and sometimes dangerous operations mostly in Africa. Often they replace a mission established by other international actors (European Union in Chad for example or France in Mali). They can also work side by side with other actors (with France in Rwanda in 1994 and in Côte d’Ivoire in 2011 or with the African Union in Darfur). One thing is certain the trend is to deploy UN personnel in large numbers (compared to the standards of Cold War missions ONUC excluded) and to accomplish complex mandates. The size of the new operations contributes (by law of averages) to the rise of misconducts and improper behavior by some uniformed and civilian personnel. Sexual abuse scandals and trafficking are some of the problems that arose during the 2000’s. People at the Department of Peacekeeping Operation (DPKO) at the Secretariat in New York are trying to address this problem by producing documents supposed to give future peacekeepers a better training and make them aware of these potential problems in the field.

Another central topic in UNPK at this time is the controversy surrounding the use of force by peacekeepers. Robust peacekeeping is debated since the Brahimi Report (United Nations 2000). Proponents of a more robust peacekeeping argue that the Blue Helmets should use force to protect civilian populations in danger and to defend the mandate. Opponents for their part argue that UN troops are not equipped to deal forcefully with peace spoilers (Tardy 2011). The debate is not closed and proponents and opponents continue to discuss about the best solution to face the threats of peace spoilers and warlords in peacekeeping operations.   

Another less salient topic concerns the lasting disengagement of Traditional Contributing Countries like Canada, Denmark or Sweden from UNPK. Canada for example, for many years the model contributor, is nowadays (30 June 2013) providing 92 police officers, 12 UN Military Experts and 56 troops for a total of 160 personnel putting it at the 54th place in the list of contributors. By comparison, in May 1995, Canada had 3,033 troops serving under the UN flag and it was at the 7th place in the list of contributors. Denmark and Sweden had 1,300 troops in 1995 and respectively 31 and 54 today. This situation reflects a paradox: the most capable countries in military terms are also those contributing less to the UN efforts. At the same time, poor countries like Bangladesh (8,000 troops), Ethiopia (6,500 troops) or Rwanda (4,700 troops) are supplying an important part of the Blue Helmets deployed around the world. As far as this problem is concerned, nothing indicates that the situation is about to change.

In your opinion, how will the situation likely evolve over the next five years?

It is always very difficult to predict how world politics will evolve. The trend initiated by the end of the Cold War will probably last for the next five years. The UN and its Member States, after the four year break of 1995-1999, seemed ready to embark upon more ambitious and larger missions mostly in Africa. Since July 2000, the UN launched, modified or took over 15 operations among which 11 are/were in Africa. Almost all of them involve a complex multifunctional mandate with the deployment of large contingents. It is highly probable that the UN will try to avoid initiating new operations as it is already overburdened with the existing missions. With more than 100, 000 personnel deployed on four continents, the Organization is probably facing its limits. We nevertheless cannot exclude an extension of its capacities. In 1995, everybody thought it had reached its limits with 75,000 troops deployed. Only the Member States may allow the UN to take on more responsibilities. It is them that pay for it and contribute in manpower.

As far as the problem of sexual abuses and other misconducts is concerned, it is clearly on the DPKO’s agenda. But as long as the UN cannot trial the personnel lent by the Member States, things will hardly change. The use of force and the enforcement of the mandates by peacekeepers will probably remain the same. It would be surprising to see UN troops use force against armed militias. At the same time, what is happening in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where an “intervention brigade” has been set up by Resolution 2098 of 28 March 2013, may signify a change in the approach to peace spoilers. The UN seems ready to allow the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) to use force against all those attacking civilians or peacekeeping troops (Gorur & Ker 2013; The Economist 2013). This new “robust” stance in the DRC does not indicate that the UN is about to generalize this model. Members States are always reluctant to let the UN put the lives of their soldiers at risk. This is one of the most enduring problems facing peacekeeping operations and it is not about to be settle soon.

Finally, the recent tendency to mix UN troops with other military personnel will probably continue. “Hybridation” seems to be a pragmatic solution to face the demands of ambitious multifunctional operations. In Mali for example, the UN is now in charge of the country through the presence of the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) but with French unit ready to intervene forcefully in case of emergency. The presence of UN troops legitimizes the presence of foreign soldiers in Mali but France maintains a highly capable contingent to defend UN troops if need be. This model is probably here to stay for the near future given the legitimacy that a UN operation brings to military interventions. It is interesting to note that as soon as 1966 political scientist Inis Claude underlined the legitimizing role of the UN as one of its functions in world politics (Claude 1966).

What are the structural long-term perspectives?

Given that UN Peacekeeping was born as an improvisation and that it was selected among other – maybe more effective – solutions, it developed and evolved slowly and with very minor changes. In fact, UNPK evolved following the very well-known pattern of path-dependence (Hatto 2012). Specialists of Public Policies are quite familiar with this pattern as it affects most complex policies. Path-dependence is the process by which a policy or a practice becomes entrenched and very hard to modify (Bennett & Elman 2006; Mahoney 2000; Pierson 2000). UNPK took its form in 1956 following the advice of Lester B. Pearson. At first, Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld was skeptical about Pearson’s idea of a multinational ad hoc UN force. Other proposals were to use the British and French forces – already there – to serve as a police force between Egypt and Israel. This was unacceptable by Egypt given that these two countries were the aggressors. Some Americans wanted to create a permanent UN force able to respond rapidly to international crises. The least ambitious - and for this reason – the most acceptable solution was Pearson’s model of troops provided by middle powers. Once launched this type of force became the model for all the other operations. ONUC proved that this model was not adapted to all types of conflict. UNEF in Suez was deployed between two countries with disciplined armies. The situation in the Congo in 1960 was quite different. It was a civil war involving a secessionist movement in the province of Katanga. The UN nonetheless kept the same approach as in Suez with dramatic consequences.

So, once on its institutional path, UNPK became a well-established practice with which Member States and personnel at the Secretariat in New York were familiar. It then became difficult to change it to adapt to new situations. The strongest effort came at the end of the Cold War when Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali published An Agenda for Peace in June 1992. His ambitious vision for the new UN Peace Operations was rapidly put in check in the Former Yugoslavia, in Somalia and in Rwanda. He had to come back to a much more modest approach in the Second Edition of the Agenda for Peace in 1995 (Boutros-Ghali 1995). This episode demonstrated that the UN is structurally limited. It cannot do against the will of its Member States. This is why we should not anticipate important changes in the future. Peacekeeping will stay an ad hoc practice; Blue Helmets will be deployed when the UN Security Council (UNSC) will accept to create new missions (the Chinese and Russian veto over Syria in 2012 serves as a reminder that the UNSC may sometimes disagree); and force will be used only sparingly. UNPK is on a path that makes it rather stable. It would be surprising to see important change in its practice or in its situation as an institution of international relations. Member States will still rely on it to address violent conflicts and criticisms will still abound to denounce its lack of effectiveness. As long as the members of the international society do not proposed more effective solution, UNPK will remain the favorite mean of intervention.


(1) The League of Nations mounted a few operations involving the deployment of soldiers but they were serving under their own national flag. The best example being the deployment of British and French troops in Silesia between Germany and Poland in 1921. 


Bennett, Andrew & Elman, Colin (2006) “Complex Causal Relations and Case Study Methods: The Example of Path Dependence”, Political Analysis, Vol. 14, Pp. 250-267.

Boutros-Ghali, Boutros (1995) An Agenda for Peace 1995, 2nd Edition, New York, United Nations Publications.

Claude, Inis L Jr. (1966) “Collective Legitimization as a Political Function of the United Nations”, International Organization, Vol. 20, No. 3, Pp. 371-372.

Gorur, Aditi & Ker, Michelle (2013) “New U.N. Force May Increase Risks for Civilians”, Stimson’s Spotlight, 11 July 2013.

Goulding, Marrack (1993) “The Evolution of United Nations Peacekeeping”, International Affairs, Vol. 69, No. 3, Pp. 451-464.

Hatto, Ronald (2012) “Puissance, institutions et ordre international”, Mémoire pour le Diplôme d’Habilitation à Diriger des Recherches (HDR), Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris, Chapter 4.

Mahoney, James (2000) “Path Dependence in Historical Sociology”, Theory and Society, Vol. 29, No. 4, Pp. 507-548.

Pierson, Paul (2000) “Increasing Returns, Path Dependence, and the Study of Politics”, The American Political Science Review, Vol. 94, No. 2, Pp. 251-267.

Tardy, Thierry (2011) “A Critique of Robust Peacekeeping in Contemporary Peace Operations”, International Peacekeeping, Vol.18, No. 2, Pp. 152-167.

The Economist (2013) “Democratic Republic of Congo. Bigger guns are on their way: A new UN intervention force in eastern Congo has the most robust of mandates”, 15 June 2013.

United Nations General Assembly (1958) Summary study of the experience derived from the establishment and the operation of the force: report of the Secretary-General, Document A/3943, 9 October 1958.

United Nations (2000) The Report of the Panel on United Nations Peace Operations (A/55/305-S/2000/809), 21 August 2000.

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Ronald Hatto is Senior Lecturer in International Relations and Strategic Studies at Sciences-Po Paris. He has been involved in a peacekeeping operations with the United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP). He is the author of Les relations franco-américaines à l'épreuve de la guerre en ex-Yougoslavie (1991-1995) and ONU et maintien de la paix : propositions de réformes de l’Agenda pour la paix au rapport Brahimi (2006) and with Odette Tomescu, Les Etats-Unis et la “nouvelle Europe”. La Stratégie américaine en Europe centrale et orientale (CERI-Autrement, 2007). He can be reached at: 

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