The United Nations was not even three years old when it launched its first peacekeeping mission in 1948. For the last 70 years, it has been continuously involved in such operations, often with mixed results.
Over that time, peacekeeping and the wars to which it has been applied have changed. The challenges peacekeepers face have evolved from ones that were relatively straightforward to assignments that were highly complex and, more recently, to ones that are impossible for them to overcome. This history also explains why, in each of the seven decades of UN peace operations, the number of peacekeepers who died on duty has increased. The total is now nearly 4,000 and rapidly growing. Most of the recent casualties have been occurring in Africa. (One peacekeeper was just killed in an attack on July 16 in Abyei, Sudan, for example.)
There are currently 14 peacekeeping missions employing nearly 100,000 soldiers, police and civilians at an annual cost now of $6.5 billion. These missions reflect the three stages of peacekeeping’s evolution. The oldest among them, launched in response to wars between countries over territory, can be described as classical peacekeeping, such as the effort in Kashmir, which has been underway for more than 70 years.
The second stage involved multidimensional operations, in which peacekeepers undertake a wide variety of tasks to help countries recover from civil wars: the mission in Mozambique in the mid-1990s was a successful example.
The most recently launched operations are the third stage, protection and stabilization missions, where peacekeepers have a mandate to protect civilians and aid governments that are threatened by violent extremism — Mali falls into this category.
The six classical peacekeeping operations have logged a combined total of more than three centuries of peacekeeping efforts. Yet none of the six is going to end in the foreseeable future, mainly because that doesn’t serve the interests of some of the permanent members of the UN Security Council: Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States.
John Bolton, the US national security adviser, wants to terminate the operation in the Western Sahara, which was begun in 1991. It is supposed to hold a referendum on independence for the region. Morocco, which claims the territory, will not permit a referendum that would result in independence. And the Polisario Front, which represents the freedom movement of the Sahrawi people in Western Sahara, will not agree to a referendum that does not grant independence. Because France protects Morocco’s interests, the mission will not end.
In Cyprus, the mission began in 1964 and is tasked with getting the Greek and Turkish Cypriots to live together in peace. Britain has military bases on Cyprus, so Britain’s interest is in preserving the status quo. The country has little to fear as the Turkish Cypriot leaders have no desire to be a minority in a united country. They declared their own independent state on the northern end of the island, even though Turkey is the only nation that recognizes it. The Turks also don’t want a united country dominated by Greek Cypriots. And the Russians are not likely to want this longstanding issue of Cyprus, a strategically located island in the Mediterranean, resolved. So that mission will never end either.
A small force has operated in Kashmir for more than 70 years. Since it is supposedly helping to avoid a war between India and Pakistan, two countries with nuclear weapons, no one is ready to terminate that mission, even though what it’s accomplishing is unclear.
The remaining three classical peacekeeping operations are located in and around Israel. They are the UN Truce Supervision Organization (Untso) in Jerusalem, the UN Disengagement Observer Force (Undof) in Syria and the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (Unifil). There is also a fourth operation, the Multilateral Force and Observers (MFO) in the Sinai, which was created as a result of the Camp David accords. It is not a UN effort because Russia would have vetoed its establishment, so it was set up independently.
Untso, the UN’s first peacekeeping operation, began in 1948. It continues to this day, but makes no visible contribution to peace. Undof was created in 1974 after the Yom Kippur War. Because the civil war in Syria has made it unsafe for the peacekeepers, Undof can’t carry out its functions. In addition, the Trump administration has proclaimed that “the United States recognizes that the Golan Heights are part of the State of Israel.” Since Israel is never going to withdraw from the Golan and Syria is never going to give up its demands to recover the area, the peacekeepers will apparently never be able to go home.
Unifil was established in 1978, after fighting between the Palestine Liberation Organization and Israeli military forces in southern Lebanon. While its 10,000 peacekeepers from 40 countries patrol dozens of times every day, it cannot do anything without the cooperation of the Lebanese government. That government now includes Hezbollah, which controls southern Lebanon. The US considers Hezbollah a terrorist organization, and the Israelis believe it is stockpiling tens of thousands of rockets in population centers and digging tunnels under the border, much as Hamas, another US-proclaimed terrorist group, has done in Gaza. Yet when the Israelis pointed out a brick factory that they believed was being used to hide one of the tunnels, the Lebanese government refused to let the UN investigate because the factory was private property.
Unifil facilitates communications between the two sides since they don’t talk to each other, but that does not require thousands of peacekeepers. Perhaps to calm tensions in the region, Unifil does have one accomplishment. It has organized yoga lessons.
The MFO came into being in 1981, when Israel withdrew from the Sinai Peninsula. Because of terrorism in the northern Sinai, the peacekeepers have now largely withdrawn to the south, far from the border. Meanwhile, the Egyptian and Israeli armies, which the MFO was set up to keep apart, are conducting joint combat operations together against the extremists.
In other words, these operations in the Middle East have no exit strategy. And, like Jared Kushner’s peace plan, none of them is doing anything to encourage a political process that might resolve the conflicts that caused them. They do allow Israel to blame the UN when things go wrong. And, like the Iron Dome missile defense system, they provide the Israelis some relief from thinking about the longer-term implications of their defense strategy and foreign policy.
Since there seems to be nothing that the current American administration will not do to please Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (and Sheldon Adelson, the casino billionaire), the US will ensure these missions will also never end.
The second type of peacekeeping, multidimensional operations, began as a result of civil wars over political power. Once a cease-fire was established in these conflicts, peacekeepers could be sent in. They were given a long list of goals to help the peace become permanent. The list could include demobilizing most of the former combatants and reintegrating them into civilian life, forming a new national army that was not loyal to only one side, aiding refugees to return to their homes, providing humanitarian aid and development assistance to restart the economy and holding elections in a country with little-to-no democratic experience.
Given the cost of such operations — thousands of peacekeepers were required for such tasks — there was pressure to achieve all the objectives on a tight schedule. If the elections produced a government with some legitimacy, the peacekeepers could declare success and depart.
While the UN has achieved mixed results in its multidimensional missions, they are, at least for the moment, largely a thing of the past. Of the current missions, only two are multidimensional. Actually, it would be more accurate to call them unidimensional because their objectives have been drastically reduced over the years. Today they are small operations limited to attempting to professionalize the police in Kosovo and in Haiti (as well as carry out judicial reforms there). Yet Russia won’t let the UN close the mission in Kosovo.
The remaining six operations are all in sub-Saharan Africa. They represent the third stage of the evolution of peacekeeping — the protection and stabilization missions. They are the most dangerous and difficult operations and where peacekeeping will inevitably fail.
At the risk of being tautological, peacekeepers are bound to fail if there is no peace to keep. When a cease-fire is negotiated, peacekeepers can potentially do their work. Without one, they are either ineffective or they have to take on a combat role. That requires the international community — the Security Council — to let peacekeepers inflict and take casualties.
To make matters much worse, the five countries where these protection and stabilization missions are taking place — Mali, South Sudan, Sudan, the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of the Congo — have governments that are among the most corrupt, repressive and incompetent in the world. These countries are therefore not particularly interested in protecting their own citizens. Their armies and police exist mainly to protect the regime in power.
Since the wealthy nations with the most capable armies — the West — are unwilling to provide a significant number of troops for this type of peacekeeping, it is left largely to poorly equipped and inadequately trained soldiers from developing nations who are not going to defeat violent extremism in these African regions. If the US cannot prevail against violent extremists in Afghanistan after 18 years of trying, there is no chance that the peacekeepers can do so in Africa.
This third category of missions has become a way for rich countries to send the soldiers of poor countries off to deal with conflicts that the rich countries do not care all that much about. The fundamental problem is that there is no peace to keep, and UN forces are incapable of imposing one because peacekeepers are not warfighters.
Peacekeeping is a bandage and not a cure. At best, it stanches the bleeding, but it cannot heal the wound. To use it any other way is to ensure its failure.
This is an opinion essay.
We welcome your comments on this article. What are your thoughts?
Dennis Jett, a former career diplomat, is a professor in the School of International Affairs at Penn State. The second edition of his book “Why Peacekeeping Fails” has just been published by Palgrave Macmillan (https://www.palgrave.com/us/book/9783030114275).