UN Peacekeeping: Changing Trends and Realities

Sharing an article of mine published in UN Journal “Blue Helmet Odyssey- Changing nature of Peacekeeping Operations in 21st Century”, published by Indian Army, Ministry of Defence. The book was released by Honourable Defence Minister of India, Minister of State for Defence of India, Chief of Defence Staff, India, Chief of Army Staff, Defence Secretary and Director General Staff Duties Integrated Headquarters of Defence (Army).

The text of the article is given below.

Trends in Peacekeeping Operations

The contours of global politics is changing and so is the nature of conflict the nature of peace operations. The traditional peacekeeping was suited to keep peace in  interstate conflict in last few decades, but the frequency of Interstate conflicts has been reducing and intrastate conflict has been increasing.  In traditional peacekeeping missions also, where peace operations were in vogue to keep peace in  interstate conflict, there is an unavoidable change in  the focus towards controlling the intrastate elements of conflict, because of increasing violence. The fact that the peacekeeping is now being referred as peace operations, and the primacy of peace building efforts in peacekeeping operation is increasing, indicates the changing trends and realities. Bulk of the peacekeeping missions today are stabilization missions having the role to protect civilians (POC) inbuilt in the mandate. There are non-state actors who do not follow any rule of law, therefore peacekeepers get involved in protection of civilians as a fate accompli, even if POC is not part of the mandate.

The trend suggests that there are conscious efforts to prevent conflict and if the conflict does take place then manage it, resolve it and subsequently ensure orderly post conflict management and trauma healing, so that the state becomes self-sustaining, capable of self-governing, and the mission could be steered to early exit. The trend also suggests that there’s a preference to political missions over large multi-dimensional peacekeeping missions.  The growing financial challenge can be cited as one of the main reasons for cutting down the cost and consequently the size and longevity of missions. From  2015 onwards,  four missions have been closed and MONUC is being downsized. Financially, there has been 24% reduction in number of peacekeepers and 23% reduction in expenditure on peacekeeping[i], which is a major component of UN budget  The primacy of peace building has become so relevant that the Department of Political Affairs (DPA) has been enlarged to become the Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs (DPPA). 

Are the Peacekeeping Principles Relevant in Todays Peace Operations?

The principles of peacekeeping, namely ‘Consent of Parties to the Conflict’, Impartiality, and  ‘Non use of Force except in case of self- defence or defence of Mandate’ were applicable to  traditional peacekeeping.  With involvement of a large number of non-state actors, the number of parties to the conflict  have increased. Non-state actors remain outside the preview of  consent or any law abiding preposition/agreement. With multifarious actors in operational environment, with some having conflicting interest, any action taken by  peacekeepers in good faith may not suit some actor; hence, even if it is as per mandate, peacekeepers may be accused of  partiality by that actor.  It is difficult to maintain impartiality, in real sense in such environment. South Sudan, Mali and many others are cases in point.  Bulk of the missions being stabilization missions involve POC, the need to disarm, demobilise and reintegrate(DDR), prevent human right (HR) violations and ensure socio economic recovery.  The peacekeepers when confronted with non-state actors, who are heavily armed and ready to inflict casualties on civilians as well as themselves, find it  necessary to use force for protection, in such circumstances  which may/may not be covered under the mandate. Unfortunately The UN Charter is silent on use of force against non-state actors.

Mandating Process and Implementation Realities

Hippo report highlighted the increasing need for POC against the non-state actors and the need for robust mandate to deal with such situations. It also highlighted that human right is as important as sovereignty of the member state, therefore, there is a need for empowering the missions with stronger mandate. The same issue was also highlighted in ‘Action for Peace’ (A4P[ii]). Hippo report also mentioned that a healthy balance must be exercised in people centric and state centric approaches like the case of South Sudan.

The mandate is formulated by United Nations Security Council (UNSC). The troop contributing countries (TCC) are consulted at a later stage. The politics inside UNSC and between permanent members (P5) plays an important part in formulation of mandate. It is often seen that there is hardly any conflict in which minimum one of the P5 country is not involved (directly or indirectly); hence there are global players, regional players and intrastate players in the mission areas, which constitute the operating environment for which the mandate has to be formulated. It is often seen that the P5 members have difference of opinion in passing resolution for mandate and therefore many times, the mandate gets compromised or diluted. This also brings to focus the need for expansion/reformation of UNSC[iii] to be more representative and responsive with additional permanent members. Unfortunately, the resistance of P5 to reform UNSC hasn’t changed. The Inter-Governmental Negotiations (IGN) for UNSC Reforms in July 2022, being rolled over to next session of UNGA[iv] indicates the reluctance to reforming UNSC, the apex body for peace operations, much to the frustration of G4 countries.  

Sometimes the UNSC itself is unaware of the operating environment of the mission; hence, formulates mandate which is unrealistic for implementation. It is therefore being endeavoured to have  two stage process in formulation of mandate. In first stage the UNSC staff, based on available inputs will draft a mandate and then in second stage the TCC will be consulted and based on the ground situation as indicated by various reconnaissance parties, the mandate can be revised. There is always a need to keep revising mandate as per ground situation, as it is often seen that in missions facing violent activities the ground, the situation changes much faster than the frequency of revision of the mandate.

Besides UNSC, even in mission areas, there is political powerplay between global, regional and intra state players, which at times have interests conflicting with each other. All of them try to influence the mandate by projecting various narratives of situation.  The final mandate which comes out as a compromised solution of all the political powerplay could be such, which the mission leaders may find it difficult to implement. There is, therefore, a need to involve the head of mission in mandating process, so that it is easy for him to implement. At times TCC’s find it difficult to implement a mandate formulated primarily by P5 countries, who do not contribute troops, except China, which recently started contributing troops to increase its global footprints.

Peace-building being mandated as a task for UN peacekeepers

It is often debated that  peace building, which is seen as a political task be part of peacekeeping or otherwise. Considering the fact that bulk of the missions are stabilization missions, where the state does not has the capacity to govern or maintain peace, there is a need for peacekeepers to take on a large number of tasks which fall in peace building domain. This is a reality and the peacekeepers do come out successful in handling such situations in most cases by innovative means as has been seen in many missions like UNMISS, MONUC etc.  The policing activities, conduct of election process in Liberia involving women peacekeepers including first all women Indian Contingent are some successful examples of which UN and India can be proud of. It also indicates the welcomed trend of increased proportion of women in Peacekeeping (WPS), road to gender equity leading to gender equality.

It is seen that some of the traditional peacekeeping missions, which started with the mandate of separation of forces and keeping peace, have acquitted themselves successfully in handling many activities and challenges, for which they were not designed. In UNIFIL, the peacekeepers helped the authorities in the aftermath of devastating explosion in Beirut, which left many dead and thousands injured, was applauded by the country including non-state actors. It was also seen that in most missions, peacekeepers were in the forefront to help people in combating COVID-19 pandemic, because of their reach in various corners of the country. In most traditional peacekeeping missions it is seen that many challenges accrued due to changing operating environment, which were not covered/conceived in the mandate, and good leadership could find innovative methods to overcome such challenges, steered the mission successfully towards the mandate, besides protecting civilians.  The mission leaders and the peacekeepers in such situations, at times, had to take some calculated risks, but normally UN has backed such actions taken in good faith.

Issues Related to Use of Force

For missions requiring POC, the  UNSC needs to ensure that there is robust mandate and requisite political support for use of force, based on the operating environment and the risk involved. The peacekeepers should follow peacekeeping principles of impartiality, minimum use of force adequate to tide over the crisis and the rules of engagement, to the extent possible, even in dealing with unforeseen situations . Under the circumstances where the life of people or peacekeepers is gravely threatened, they should be prepared, trained and equipped to use force to protect civilians, as well as themselves. Recommendations of the Santos Cruz Report[v] on security of peacekeepers needs implementation by all concerned. In situations like South Sudan which is a new country, it was seen that the state did not have requisite capacity to protect its population and there was also suspicion of state’s support to some groups, who were causing casualties. Under such circumstances a balance between state and humanitarian needs must be made by the peacekeepers.

A practical problem which is often felt by peacekeepers while using force for POC is lack of actionable intelligence in dealing with non-state actors. Acquiring  intelligence in peacekeeping missions becomes a challenge due to issues of neutrality, impartiality and privacy of host country and legal issues. UN therefore needs to have a clear policy for making actionable intelligence needed for POC available to peacekeepers through all the modern means/systems available. It is therefore necessary that the peacekeepers must be equipped with necessary wherewithal for gathering intelligence in terms of technology, equipment and well considered policies.  

It is also seen that there has been hesitancy in use of force by certain continents due to fear of human rights activists, media and allegations for criminal act, which sometimes leads to complacency. It is however seen that most actions taken by peacekeepers in good faith have been commended, and therefore the apprehension of hiding behind the mandate and not protecting civilians is misplaced  and has been criticised, wherever it has occurred.  

Counter Insurgency(COIN)/Counter Terrorism (CT) Operations

It is understandable that COIN/CT operation are not the designated roles for peacekeepers, but when confronted with armed non state actors equipped with modern weaponry, ready to cause casualties, then peacekeepers have to undertake such role for their own safety and POC. It is therefore necessary that all contingents going for stabilization mission should be attuned, trained, equipped and mentally prepared to take on COIN/CT operations, even if not mandated, because any failure by peacekeepers in confrontation with non-state actors shows professionalism of that contingent, country and UN in poor light. The capacity building should continue to be undertaken to face such challenges.

Major General S B Asthana, SM, VSM (Veteran)

(The author is a global strategic analyst, with multiple tenures with United Nations, and is part of various councils, Expert groups in many UN related Organisations authored over 450 publications. The views expressed are personal. The author can be reached at Facebook and LinkedIn as Shashi Asthana, @asthana_shashi on twitter and website https://asthanawrites.org/ Profile www.linkedin.com/in/shashi-asthana-4b3801a6)

[i]    Coleman Katharina P. and Williams Paul D. (2021), Despite Challenges, UN Peace Operations Will Evolve, Not Disappear, International Peace Institute, February 19, 2021.  [Online: Web] Accessed 17 April 2022, URL:


[ii]   Action for Peacekeeping (A4P), United Nations Peacekeeping, UN Website, [Online: Web] Accessed on February 25, 2021, URL: https://peacekeeping.un.org/en/action-for-peacekeeping-a4p.

[iii]    Asthana S B (2020), UNSC Reforms: Are G4 Countries Chasing a Mirage! Indian Defence Review, December 30, 2020.  [Online: Web] Accessed on February 25, 2021, URL: http://www.indiandefencereview.com/spotlights/unsc-reforms-are-g4-countries-chasing-a-mirage/.

[iv]     India hits out at UNGA as it defers UNSC reform talks, The Economic Times, July 14,2022, [Online: Web] Accessed on July 18, 2022, URL: https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/india/india-hits-out-at-unga-as-it-defers-unsc-reform-talks/articleshow/92860955.cms.

[v]   Cruz Santos (2017), Improving Security of United Nations Peacekeepers: We need to change the way we are doing business, UN Website, [Online: Web] Accessed on February 25, 2021.

Photo Credit UN Christopher Herwig

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