An Overview of UN Peacekeeping Operations
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 30 May , 2023

29th May is observed every year as International Day of UN Peacekeepers.

The United Nations was established in the aftermath of the World War II to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war. Towards this end, the Security Council was vested with the primary responsibility for maintenance of international peace and security, and it may adopt a range of measures, including peacekeeping operations, to fulfil this core UN objective.

The UN Peace Keeping Operations started with the formation of Israel in 1948 when the Arab states who did not accept the creation of a Jewish State invaded the Palestine mandate territory. The UN deployed its first ever mission, the “United Nations Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO)”in May 1948 to maintain ceasefire, supervise the Armistice Agreements, prevent isolated incidents from escalating and assist other UN peacekeeping operations in the Middle East.

Over the past 70 years, more than 1 million men and women have served under the UN flag in more than 70 UN peacekeeping operations, and about 3925 have made the supreme sacrifice for world peace. As of today, there are 13 ongoing operations with over 87314 personnel deployed spread across Asia, Middle East, Europe and Africa under the aegis of the United Nations Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) and the Department of Field Support (DFS).

Three Principles of UN Peacekeeping Operations (UNPKOs)

Consent of the parties: For deployment of any UNPKO, parties to the conflict must give their consent for such a mission in their territories or areas of operations.

Impartiality: UN peacekeepers must implement their mandate without favour or prejudice to any of parties involved.

Non-use of force: The UN peacekeepers cannot afford to become party to the conflict it is trying to resolve.

The Different Phases of UNPKOs

Chapter VI of the UN Charter deals with the “Pacific Settlement of Disputes” while Chapter VII deals with provisions related to “Action with Respect to the Peace, Breaches of the Peace and Acts of Aggression.’

The UN Missions in the early years, operating under the shadow of the Cold War, were mainly un-armed military observers and lightly armed troops primarily engaged in maintaining ceasefires and stabilizing situations on the ground. In 1956, the first armed PKO named UNEF-I was successfully deployed to address the Suez Crisis while the first large-scale mission having nearly 20,000 military personnel at its peak was deployed in 1960 in Congo (ONUC). In the 1960s and 1970s, various short-term and longer-term Missions were launched and in 1988, UN Peacekeepers were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

By 1991, with the end of the Cold War, the strategic context for UN Peacekeeping changed dramatically. The “traditional” role of observation and monitoring gave way to complex multidimensional enterprises designed to ensure the implementation of comprehensive peace agreements and assist in laying the foundations for sustainable peace. Although the military remained the backbone of most of the operations, there were now many new faces in peacekeeping operations such as police officers, administrators, economists, electoral observers and humanitarian workers including medical and engineering professionals. Between 1989-1994, the world saw a period of political instability and there was a rapid increase in the number of PKOs as well – at least 20 new missions within this period that led to an increase of personnel deployed from 11,000 to 75,000.

However, by the mid-90s, it was increasingly becoming clearer that perhaps the UN was ill-equipped and ill-prepared to take on so many PKOs without “sufficiently robust mandates or adequate resources.”Three high-profile PKOs were established in situations where the guns had not yet fallen silent, viz the former Yugoslavia (UNPROFOR), Rwanda  (UNAMIR) and Somalia – (UNOSOM II), “where there was no peace to keep.”The reputation of UN Peacekeeping suffered as warring parties failed to adhere to peace agreements, civilian casualties rose, hostilities continued, and the peacekeepers could not do much as they were not provided adequate resources or political support.

Turning Point: The Rwanda Genocide (1994)

UN Assistance Mission in Rwanda (UNAMIR), with an authorised strength of 2548, was established in 1993 to help implement the Arusha Peace Agreement signed between the Armed Forces of the mainly Hutu Government of Rwanda and the Tutsi-led Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF). However, the assassination of President Juvénal Habyarimana in the evening of April 6, 1994 followed by assassination of Prime Minister Agathe Uwilingiyimana the next day, resulted in one of the darkest chapters of UN peacekeeping and perhaps the history of the world.

UNAMIR troops, instead of intervening and preventing the brutal massacre of hapless civilians, chose to evacuate altogether for lack of a mandate that authorizes use of force, and paved the way for armed Hutu militias to run amok in a murderous frenzy, resulting in the murder of approximately 800,000 Tutsis and a smaller number of moderate Hutus.

It is often said that the genocide could have been stopped at the very outset by the 2500 troops if only the mandate and rules of engagement were adequate to respond to the unfolding situations. There were other nearby Western troops at the time too, including American soldiers in Burundi, 200 KMs south of Kigali, and larger groups of Western troops who were only a few hours from Rwanda by plane. Soldiers agree that these troops had the power to retake control of Kigali and to decisively support UNAMIR, which had a lamentable lack of equipment.

Period of Introspection and Re-Assessment (2000 onwards)

The setbacks and experiences from some of the above missions led the Security Council to limit the number of new peacekeeping missions and begin a process of self-reflection to prevent such failures from happening again. Detailed inquiries were conducted into the actions of the UN during the 1994 Rwanda genocide, the massacre in Srebrenica in the former Yugoslavia during 1993-95 and in the circumstances that led to the withdrawal from Somalia. This was followed by several studies into the reasons responsible for failures, and recommendations to revitalize the UNPKOs

The Brahimi Report gave the clarion call for change and opined that “the key conditions for the success of future complex operations are political support, rapid deployment with a robust force posture and a sound peace-building strategy.” The Report contained 57 explicit recommendations and focused attention on strategic, political and basic operational matters.

In 2008, the UN DPKO and the DFS embarked on a major reform effort, Peace Operations 2010; a key objective was to ensure that the peacekeeping personnel deployed in the field, as well as those serving at Headquarters, have access to clear, authoritative guidance on the multitude of tasks they are required to perform. The resulting publication, known as the Capstone Doctrine, is built around the premise that whilst UN peacekeeping operations are meant to support a peace process, it cannot deliver peace on its own. The UNPKOs should be part of a larger peace process and its core function is to create an environment for a lasting settlement by delivering on the various tasks assigned in its mandate.

The HIPPO Report advocated the primacy of politics over force to achieve lasting solutions, called for flexibility in UN’s response to changing needs on the ground, emphasized the need for global-regional strategic partnerships with local ownership and suggested that the UN must become more field-focused and people-centered.

Enter the FIB (2013)

The UN peacekeepers were once again found to be ineffective in “keeping the peace” and protecting civilians in the Democratic Republic of Congo in the 2000s. Several violent rebel groups with conflicting interests were operating with impunity, resorting to serious human rights violations against civilian population including killings, sexual violence, and looting. By late 2012one of the better organized groups called the M23 Rebels marched into Goma despite the presence of 1500 troops of MONUSCO (because the mandate did not allow them to confront the rebels) and around 7000 Congolese army personnel in the city.

Fortunately, the UN sprang into action this time and in collaboration with regional partnerships like the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC), the Force Intervention Brigade comprising of troops from South Africa, Malawi and Tanzania was deployed to carry out targeted offensive operations, including the use of deadly force, against “hostile forces” or armed groups in the eastern DRC which pose a threat to civilian populations or challenge the authority of the Congolese state.

The mandate and military capabilities given to the Intervention Brigade is unprecedented; it consists of 3,000 troops, which include three infantry battalions, one artillery company, and one special forces and reconnaissance company. Its offensive arsenal includes mortars, snipers, heavy artillery, attack helicopters and drones for reconnaissance. The FIB’s command and control fall under MONUSCO broadly; however, it does retain some level of autonomy in implementing its mandate, with freedom to carry out offensive operations as it deems necessary to end the “cycle of violence” in the eastern DRC.

The FIB carried out operations in tandem with the Congolese Army and within a month, the M23 rebel group was pressing for a ceasefire. The next target was the ADF, followed by other smaller groups such as the FNL and the FPRI, and were mostly successful campaigns. The success of the FIB operations had a positive effect beyond the direct elimination of the targeted groups; for example, after the defeat of the M23 in November of 2013, about 1,000 members of armed groups sought to abandon their respective groups to be integrated into the Congolese Army. Further, commanders and fighters from more than 20 armed groups which had not yet been directly targeted by IB forces, surrendered to government forces and entered demobilization camps.

India’s Contribution

India stands firmly committed to UN’s peacekeeping operations and has been the largest Troop Contributor since the 1950s; about 2 Lakh troops in 49 missions with 168 casualties and 72 gallantry awards, including 1 PVC. India has also provided about 15 Force Commanders, 2 Divisional Commanders, 7 Dy. Force Commanders and one Military Advisor and 2 Dy. Military Advisors to the Secretary General of the United Nations. The first all women contingent in peacekeeping mission, a Formed Police Unit from India, was deployed in 2007 to the UN Operation in Liberia (UNMIL).  At present, about 6000 Indian troops are deployed in 4 of the 13 existing UN Missions, viz. UNMISS (South Sudan), MONUSCO (Congo), UNDOF (Golan Heights), and UNIFIL (Lebanon).


Out of 70-odd PKOs conducted so far, only 13 PKOs are active at present, which indicates that these UNPKOs have more or less met their objectives and wound up. However, in the absence of a conceptual framework to measure the success or failure of a PKO, it is hard to quantify how much success rate has been achieved. That no two PKOs are alike makes it even harder to frame an all-encompassing measuring yardstick. Nevertheless, the relevance and utility of a UNPKO cannot be undermined at any cost. The failures of the mid-1990s led to introspection and re-assessment of the PKOs, and with the adoption of new policies and practices like “robust peacekeeping”, “peace enforcement” and “multi-dimensional peacekeeping,” these PKOs have made a real difference on the ground.

As recommended by several studies, the way forward must be built upon the primacy of political process and peaceful dialogue, as guns alone cannot bring about lasting peace. Enhanced global-regional strategic partnerships with local ownership will enhance the success ratio of the PKOs as well. Multi-dimensional PKOs, involving not only the military but the police and other multi-lateral humanitarian agencies, are the need of the hour to implement comprehensive peace packages. Protection of civilians, wherever they are at risk, must be at the core of the Mission mandate. As long as UNPKOs are backed by a robust mandate, coupled with a clear interpretation and effective implementation of the mandate on the ground, UNPKOs will remain relevant in maintaining international peace and security and upholding the lofty ideals of human rights, humanitarian law and social and economic justice to all.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Michael K Touthang

Michael K Touthang, IDAS (UN Mission in South Sudan, 2020-21)

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