The Future of UN Peacekeeping May Lie in the Past

Vanessa Newby



Putin’s recent attempted annexation of Crimea brings back sharp memories of the Cold War for those of us old enough to remember it.  The media reports that the US is now conducting ‘training exercises’ in Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia.  Is the Crimea crisis the actions of a powerful president gone ‘rogue’ or a signal of a slow slide back to a new Cold War?  This question becomes pertinent when considering the implications for UN peacekeeping missions.  The literature on peacekeeping in the past twenty years has focused heavily on the new missions that have involved ‘wider’ peacekeeping or peacebuilding remits – such as the holding of elections, building institutions, and liberalising the economy.  There is very little scholarship to be found that looks at older style peacekeeping – termed classic or traditional missions.  There is an assumption that these missions have little to offer in terms of informing the trajectory of future missions.  Most are dismissed as being limited in the introduction section of books detailing missions launched after the break up of the Soviet Union.

But if indeed the balance of power is shifting back towards a traditional ‘balance of power’ scenario, then what are the prospects for peacekeeping missions in the future?  From 1948 until 1989, only 15 peacekeeping missions were launched by UN Security Council because the US and Russia (predominantly) were opposed to the idea of each other exerting their influence in any given part of the world; particularly in areas considered to be of strategic importance. The ONUC mission in the Congo (1960-64), which took a form more similar to that of the more modern missions, was shut down as a result of the perception by great powers that either side wielded too much influence in the internal workings of the state.  As a result, peacekeeping missions launched during the Cold War were necessarily kept simple and did not involve interference in the workings of the receptor state.  Their duties were generally limited to monitoring simply observing borders and conflict zones.

Whilst the literature on peacebuilding is full of critiques of modern peacebuilding missions, there has always been the assumption that their form will remain complex or become more so.  It is possible in light of Syria and now the Crimea, that we may be seeing a return to proxy wars within states that will fester and be long-drawn out owing to the tacit support of external interested powers.  In these scenarios, it is possible that civilian deaths will trigger calls from the international community to do something to stem the bloodshed.  If so, in my opinion it will be likely that the only missions that will be able to be launched in the current political environment will be ones that carry what is termed a ‘light footprint’.

What exact form this ‘light footprint’ will take is a question this blog cannot answer, but it could well resemble the older missions that currently exist in Lebanon and Cyprus.  Despite often being dismissed as a failure, the UNIFIL mission in South Lebanon has thus far maintained peace and security in its area of operation since Resolution 1701 in 2006 and it does engage in some peacebuilding activities whilst remaining distant from national politics.

The mission has achieved this by working quietly at the sub-national level with the use of Political Officers (PAOs), Civil Affairs Officers (CAOs) and Civil Military Cooperation Officers (CIMIC), whilst engaging at the international, national and local levels.  It is possible that this model may suit future missions whereby UNSC members are keen to ensure that the balance of power within a state is not unduly influenced by the presence of a peacekeeping mission.  

The UNIFIL mission has been running since 1978, but UNIFIL II as it is known has been operational since 2006 after the Israel/Hezbollah conflict of that year.  Unlike the earlier form of the mission it comprises elements of peacebuilding at the national level by working to increase the capacity of the national army – the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) and to bolster the legitimacy of the municipal government in the area of operations.  At the international level, UNIFIL has brought together the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) and the LAF into a tripartite mechanism that enables both sides to air their grievances, and work on building mutual trust through the creation of micro-security arrangements.  The security this engendered has filtered down to the local level where the region is now witnessing the growth of local tourism and new business start-ups.  At the local level UNIFIL uses CAOs and CIMIC to work closely with the local population, funding Quick Impact Projects (QIPs) but also in strategies to help civilians develop local business and agriculture initiatives.  Whilst the larger political dispute that engulfs the region continues to be at a stalemate, UNIFIL has managed to maintain peace and security to the point where the south is now considered by many to be the safest part of the country.

The UNIFIL mission has demonstrated the important role subnational actors can play in assisting an area within a state which suffers the fallout of intractable political struggles at the international level.  The light footprint approach has managed to keep UNIFIL out of the national vicissitudes and ensure civilian protection. In sum, the peacekeeping literature has failed to take into account the possibility that international relations may come full circle, rather than continuing on a linear path.  This neglect in understanding the workings of older missions may prove to have been an oversight when new peacekeeping missions are launched (which inevitably they will be).

Author: protectiongateway

Human Protection Hub

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