Beyond the Blue Helmets: Unraveling the Complex Realities of Peacekeeping

Bolivian "blue helmet" (Photo: Wikipedia)

Pax et Bellum IV

In this piece, I attempt to examine peacekeeping as we know it today, seeking to understand its role and impact in modern conflicts. This exploration takes us into the heart of international efforts to maintain peace in regions torn by war, where the reality is often more complex than the ideals that guide these missions. From the tragic lessons of Rwanda to the challenges faced in Bosnia, we’ll delve into the true nature of peacekeeping operations and their effectiveness in fostering lasting peace.

In the intricate world of Strategy, it is in fact quite difficult to find simple answers. This is especially true for questions like ‘Does peacekeeping work?’ It is a complex issue with no clear-cut yes or no. If we measure peacekeeping’s effectiveness by its ability to permanently resolve conflicts and maintain lasting peace, the evidence indicates significant limitations. Peacekeeping, in principle, is a commendable endeavor by the international community to mitigate conflicts and ensure stability in war-torn regions. However, when we delve deeper into its efficacy, we encounter complexities that challenge its effectiveness. In fact, I dare to say, the evidence largely points to more failures than successes. The core issue isn’t just the deployment of peacekeepers, but the intricacies of mandate, engagement, and support.

The case of Rwanda in 1994 is particularly close to my heart. Despite the presence of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR), peacekeepers were ill-equipped and under-mandated, failing to intervene as around 800,000 Tutsis were slaughtered within months. Their presence, rather than offering hope, symbolized international indifference and inaction. Restricted by a limited mandate and lacking international backing, the peacekeepers could not prevent the horror.

Similarly, the Bosnian town of Srebrenica, declared a UN “safe area” in the early 1990s, saw one of the darkest moments in peacekeeping history. Despite the presence of Dutch peacekeepers under the UN flag, Bosnian Serb forces, led by Ratko Mladić, overran the town, resulting in the massacre of over 8,000 Bosniak men and boys. The UN later acknowledged this failure, marking a grave instance where the essence of peacekeeping – protection of civilians – was compromised.

The political dynamics and vested interests deeply influence the effectiveness of peacekeeping missions. Often, these endeavors are swayed by the political motives of major global players, which can compromise their intended neutrality and impact. A notable example is seen in the Democratic Republic of Congo with the UN’s MONUSCO mission. Despite its prolonged presence, the mission faces challenges in addressing persistent violence. Key issues like systemic governance problems, regional political dynamics, and economic interests, especially in the region’s rich mineral resources, often go unresolved, hindering the achievement of sustainable peace.

Moreover, there’s a distinct difference between peace “keeping” and peace “making”. The former maintains the status quo without addressing conflict’s root causes. The latter, arguably more challenging, involves fostering lasting resolutions between warring parties. I’ve always viewed peace as a byproduct of justice, not merely the cessation of war or violence. This distinction highlights where many peacekeeping missions fall short. Merely deploying troops, without a broader political or diplomatic strategy, can only freeze conflicts, not resolve them.

In theory, peacekeeping is meant to bring stability, safety, and eventual peace to conflict zones. However, the reality can often diverge from this ideal. There are deeply unsettling issues of sexual exploitation and abuse associated with peacekeeping missions. The forces sent to safeguard civilians have, in places like Bosnia, Kosovo, Haiti, Liberia, and the Central African Republic, been implicated in acts from rape to transactional sex. This betrayal of the vulnerable populations they vow to protect damages the reputation and trust in these missions, as evident from studies like the one by Nordås and Rustad.

Passive acquiescence in human rights abuses can place peacekeepers on the wrong side of history, undermining their core principles, as noted in studies by Lise Howard. Furthermore, the significant influx of foreign personnel and resources can disrupt local societies. For instance, housing prices might soar due to demand, local businesses can face varied impacts, and the sudden mission conclusion can create economic imbalances.

On the health front, peacekeeping can sometimes introduce unintended disasters. The 2010 cholera outbreak in Haiti, causing around 10,000 deaths and linked to Nepalese peacekeepers, exemplifies how international interventions can inadvertently trigger public health crises.

Long-term peacekeeping can also create dependency. Local structures and governments might find themselves overshadowed by resource-rich peacekeeping operations. Once these international forces depart, local institutions could struggle to regain authority, having been marginalized for extended periods.

Although peacekeeping theoretically aspires to noble objectives, its practical results are riddled with challenges. Peacekeeping should be more than a symbolic gesture or political move; if done at all and in an ideal world, it should represent a genuine, well-resourced commitment to resolving underlying tensions and promoting lasting stability.

Determining the success or failure of peacekeeping is an intricate endeavor, deeply rooted in one’s perspective, metrics, and timeline of assessment. I believe, to truly understand the effectiveness of peacekeeping operations, we must navigate a maze of complexities, societal nuances, and historical contexts.

First and foremost, I think it’s paramount to look beyond the mere cessation of hostilities. The silence of guns might not necessarily translate to the establishment of long-lasting peace. For instance, the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) has been present since 1978, yet the underlying political tensions remain, and occasional skirmishes between Hezbollah and Israel still erupt. While the presence of peacekeepers might prevent larger-scale conflicts, we have to ask if they address the root causes of the problem.

Civilian protection and well-being, in my opinion, are critical indicators. However, it’s not just about immediate safety. Are the affected communities empowered to rebuild, govern themselves, and resolve future disputes without reverting to violence? The situation in Cyprus, despite the presence of the United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP) since the 1960s, remains a vivid example. The island remains divided, and while large scale hostilities have been prevented, the underlying issues haven’t been fully addressed.

Misconduct by peacekeepers can dramatically tilt the scales. The grave allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse in the Central African Republic are a testament to this. When the very forces meant to protect civilians are implicated in crimes, the ripple effects are deeply detrimental. Not only is the immediate mission compromised, but the reputation and efficacy of future operations might also be at stake.

Economic rejuvenation post-conflict can be a good metric too. Economic stability and growth, I think, are intertwined with peace. If local populations see tangible benefits in maintaining peace, they’re more likely to work towards it. In Kosovo, despite the challenges, the presence of the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) played a role in stabilizing the region post-conflict, leading to some degree of economic recovery.

But, as I mull over this, maybe the most crucial aspect to evaluate is local ownership and agency. Peace cannot be imposed; I think it always has to be nurtured from within. If interventions are perceived as foreign impositions, their long-term efficacy is dubious. The aforementioned situation in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake serves as a lesson in how peacekeeping and humanitarian efforts can be viewed with skepticism if they don’t align with local aspirations and sensibilities.

In wrapping up these thoughts, it is evident that the evaluation of peacekeeping like many things in strategy, as i mentioned in my opener, isn’t black and white. It’s a spectrum of many grays, requiring many approaches and a deep understanding of regional histories, cultures, and aspirations. And while the UN and other international bodies play pivotal roles, maybe the ultimate power and responsibility lie with the local populations and their chosen leaders.

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