A short essay on UN peacekeeping

How efficient is the United Nations in maintaining international peace?

The United Nations represents the ultimate determinant of peace for third image liberals; an international organisation ‘consciously devised’ to manage the anarchical system of global politics (Baylis, et al., 2008, pp. 111-113). Yet, despite the renewed relevancy of liberal internationalism since the end of the Cold War, there remains significant and justifiable criticisms of the UN and the role it plays in the maintenance of international peace. In order to judge the ‘efficiency’ of UN peacekeeping – a term engendering competency and effectiveness – this essay will examine the flaws of the process at three key stages: the dilemma of intervention, problems with the Security Council and the deficiencies of peacekeeping forces. Also, considering the success of UN peacekeeping is intrinsically linked to the global political context, it is logical to differentiate between the two main periods in UN history: the Cold War and post-Cold War eras (after 1989). This response will address only the post-Cold War years, and analyse UN failures in response to conflicts across Africa, the Middle East and Eastern Europe. 

The debate surrounding the Responsibility to Protect and the dilemma of intervention in state affairs is the first obstacle to success in the UN peacekeeping process. On the one hand, the international political system is upheld by the principle of non-intervention, and any relaxation of this principle could create a “slippery slope” towards unsanctioned military interventions (Baylis, et al., 2008). However, as Kofi Annan surmised in a 1999 speech to the General Assembly, there must be a clear boundary between non-intervention and the obligation of the international community to protect vulnerable populations (International Commision on Intervention and State Sovereignty, 2001). In the 1990s, the UN experienced a number of failures in the domain of maintaining international peace, due in part to an over-commitment to non-intervention. Of these, the 1994 Rwandan genocide was the worst. The prevailing theme across the academic spectrum with regard to Rwanda is the ‘failure of international will at the highest level’ (International Commision on Intervention and State Sovereignty, 2001, p. 1; Boutros-Ghali, 1999, p. 129; Shawcross, 2000, p. 124). This conclusion fuels Realist criticism of the United Nations; Dallaire (1998, p. 72), the former Major-General of the UNAMIR Force, concedes that the problem of self-interest is an ‘unfortunate rule of international relations.’ Boutros-Ghali, another UN official implicated in the Rwandan failure, develops this idea by placing the blame for the lacklustre intervention on the United States and its Western allies (Boutros-Ghali, 1999; Shawcross, 2000). He documents his persistent efforts to coerce the Security Council into expanding the size and mandate of the UNAMIR force, which he claims were met with ‘varying degrees of indignation’ (p. 132) by the Western permanent members. Ultimately, Rwanda was not a strategic interest to any nation, and herein lies a key issue of international peacekeeping – the powerful states that control the UN are only inclined to intervene when it is in their interest to do so, and are therefore unlikely to commit resources towards complex Third World conflicts such as Rwanda.

Despite internal recognition of the catastrophic failure in Rwanda, there is widespread evidence that the UN remains fundamentally undermined by a reluctance to decisively intervene in international conflicts. Weiss (2012) explores the indifference of the organisation to war and atrocities in Africa to bolster his criticism of UN intervention policy, an approach mirrored by Boutros-Ghali (1999), who condemns the Security Council’s disregard for the ‘horrors of the Horn of Africa’. The conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), a country equivalent to Western Europe in size, has claimed an estimated 5.4 million lives since 1998, yet the UN mission in the nation consists of just 20,000 uniformed personnel (Weiss, 2012, pp. 56-57). UNPROFOR, the force sent to the small Eastern European nation of Bosnia, was double this size, a statistic which highlights the inaction of the UN in the DRC. The language of criticism with regard to the DRC has parallels with the Rwandan crisis – the phrase ‘lack of political will’ frequently appears in academic writing (Weiss, 2012; Malone & Wermester, 2000). The crisis in Darfur is another situation which UN critics point to as a failure of intervention on the part of the Security Council. Some analysts have argued that UN reluctance to send peacekeepers to Sudan is a genuine effort to uphold the principle of non-intervention; others have been more critical, claiming that “the Security Council remains unable to act robustly”, neglecting its ‘responsibility to protect’ and ignoring the ongoing threat to international peace and security (Baylis, et al., 2008; Weiss, 2012). Overall though, the four-year delay between a crisis being identified in 2003 and the establishment of UNAMID in 2007 is particularly telling in this debate, again indicating a lack of efficiency in the peacekeeping process.

Political divisions within the Security Council and the veto power of the P-5 members present a further hindrance to the UN aim of maintaining global peace. Deadlock in the Security Council tends to promote two outcomes: either inaction, or action performed outside of UN diplomatic channels. In March 2003, the announcement by France, Russia and China that they would veto any Resolution authorising the use of force in Iraq led the US to launch a forceful invasion of the country without explicit UN consent (Baylis, et al., 2008, p. 323). This was a disaster for UN credibility; the very first article of the UN Charter details the organisation’s aim of ensuring peaceful settlements to international disputes (United Nations, 1945). Instead, the Iraq War saw, in the words of Secretary-General Annan, an ‘illegal’ breach of the UN Charter by arguably its most powerful member (MacAskill & Borger, 2004). Normally, such an invasion would warrant a Security Council reaction (as was seen in the wake of the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait), but the power of veto given to permanent Council members left the UN powerless to stop the action. This example highlights a crucial flaw in the ability of the Security Council to preserve international peace – P-5 members and their close allies can always act in defiance of the UN and it is very difficult for the Security Council to respond effectively. This problem recurred in 2014 when Russia vetoed a US motion to declare the referendum on Crimean annexation illegal (Sengupta, 2014). The continued politicisation and subsequent paralysis of the Security Council severely undermines its legitimacy, presenting an explicit threat to the stability of global politics – it encourages state actors to bypass the UN framework in their efforts to resolve international conflicts (Borger & Inzaurralde, 2015; Glennon, 2003, p. 26).

The response of the Security Council to the Syrian civil war has been characterised by inaction, as a result of the opposing views held by the US and Russia on which side to support (Weiss, 2012, pp. 34-35). This has led to harsh and widespread criticism of the Council; Adams (2015, p. 21) calls it ‘a catastrophic historic failure on behalf of the Security Council’, whilst the British ambassador to the UN considers the inaction on Syria to be a ‘stain on the conscience of the Security Council’ (Borger & Inzaurralde, 2015). Exploring the Security Council paralysis on Syria, it quickly becomes apparent how the veto power that the P-5 members possess can be an impediment to progress. By July 2011, just four months after the protests that marked the start of the Syrian crisis, China and Russia had already threatened to veto a resolution condemning government human rights abuses and disregard for international humanitarian law (Gifkins, 2012). Between October 2011 and July 2012, the two nations went on to jointly veto three resolutions which were responding to government mass atrocity crimes. Adams (2015) contests that the Security Council vetoes and consequent lack of action acted as a catalyst for violence in the civil war: death rates rose and government forces deployed increasingly extreme force in the knowledge that there would no unified international response. Overall, the case study of Syria demonstrates the problems of Security Council infighting and the power of veto, and the negative impact they have on the legitimacy of the institution and its capacity for maintaining international peace.

The third stage of the UN peacekeeping process is the creation of peacekeeping operations (PKOs). These missions frequently encounter issues which inhibit their effectiveness with regard to safeguarding global stability. Firstly, a key principle of classical peacekeeping dictates that a UN force can only maintain a previously negotiated ceasefire (Baylis, et al., 2008). This restraint made bringing peace to Somalia, which by 1992 had collapsed into an anarchical “war of all against all” (Boutros-Ghali, 1999), one of the UN’s greatest challenges. UNOSOM I, established in April 1992, was mandated to monitor a virtually non-existent peace between the warring parties in Somalia, but was not authorised to use force (Shawcross, 2000, pp. 68-69). The mission was therefore fatally limited, and, in December 1992, was replaced by the American led UNITAF, authorised to use ‘all necessary means’ to facilitate the delivery of humanitarian aid. Bratt (1996, p. 76), in a study which creates a set of criterion for a successful PKO, notes that the replacement of UNOSOM I with UNITAF represented an ironic failure for UN peacekeeping. In an attempt to impose international peace, the UN upgraded its operation from unarmed observers to an intervention force of 40,000 troops, including 28,000 American soldiers. This development was significant; rather than containing the conflict, it marked an escalation involving outside forces, which Bratt suggests is a feature of failed peacekeeping operations.

Another factor which has contributed to the failure of UN peacekeeping missions is the emergence of ‘peace enforcement’ operations, which are authorised to use force against any party preventing the mission from accomplishing its mandate (Armstrong, et al., 2004; Baylis, et al., 2008). However, Roberts (1994, p. 103) and Shawcross (2000, p. 100) note that any use of force in a peace mission undermines the impartiality principle of peacekeeping. This can be dangerous for the progress of peace-making, and Somalia once again provides an example of this. The adoption of Security Council Resolution 837, following an attack on UN troops in June 1993, authorised the Secretary-General to take “all necessary precautions against all those responsible for the armed attacks” (Boutros-Ghali, 1999). UNOSOM II therefore commenced military operations against a stated enemy, Mohammed Aideed, which Shawcross (2000) considers a landmark moment in UN peacekeeping history. Bratt (1996, p. 72) builds on this idea, arguing that, in making the pursuit of Aideed the number one priority, UNOSOM II diverted from its humanitarian based mandate. The peace enforcement mission thus became detrimental to international peace, inciting reactionary violence from Somali warlords, and the 21st century has seen development of the trend towards force-authorised, multidimensional peacekeeping operations (Bellamy & Hunt, 2015, pp. 1278-79).

In conclusion, there is clear evidence of weaknesses at every level of the UN peacekeeping process. The Security Council has regularly been accused of inaction over matters of international peace and security, due to either a reluctance to intervene or a difference of opinion between the key powers. This continued political division also threatens the legitimacy and usefulness of the Security Council as an international peacekeeping institution, sparking fears that states will soon choose to bypass the mechanisms of the UN when settling disputes. The peacekeeping forces of the UN have also suffered regular failures in the post-Cold War era, most notably in Somalia, where the size and mandate of the UN force grew until the mission lost its directive focus and thus became inefficient as a ‘peacekeeping operation’. The United Nations has undoubtedly been plagued with difficulties in its efforts to fulfil the Liberalist demand for an international moderator of peace and security. It has been inefficient and incompetent in dealing with numerous conflicts in the post-Cold War era, and reform of the Security Council remains necessary for the UN to create peace within the anarchical system of international politics.


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