Peacekeeping Essay

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Peacekeeping is the intervention by a third party (a neutral actor) in armed conflict, a practice utilized in both conflict management and conflict resolution. Primarily, military components, such as regular troops and military observers, intervene between warring parties and oversee truces or the implementation of peace agreements. However, as peacekeeping operations have become increasingly complex in the post-cold war era, police and other civilian components often complement the military.

The UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations identifies four categories of peacekeeping: preventive missions, traditional peacekeeping, multidimensional peacekeeping, and transitional authority missions. The latter two categories differ from the first two in that they not only seek to establish a “negative” peace—that is, the abatement of military violence— but also attempt to contribute to the establishment of a sustainable peace through peace building. The latter operations thus handle a wider range of social problems considered to increase the risk of a resurgence of violence.

Since the end of the cold war, the increased debate about peacekeeping deals both with peacekeeping operations as a solution to war and a range of problems in the context of conflict and with how to manage social problems to which operations themselves contribute.

Peacekeeping as a Solution?

Interpositioning of neutral forces occurred prior to the establishment of the United Nations, whose embryonic peacekeeping role, using military observers, was in the Middle East in 1948. However, “peacekeeping” as a concept, commonly ascribed to former Canadian Foreign Minister Lester B. Pearson, began as a practice with UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold. Although peacekeeping is not specifically mentioned in the UN Charter, Hammarskjold drew upon the principles enshrined therein to handle the Suez crisis in 1956. Although the United Nations set the precedent, the number of peacekeeping operations deployed by non-UN actors exceeds the number of UN operations between 1948 and 2007. Moreover, not all operations mandated through the United Nations have been under UN command. Large international organizations, such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), have at times acted on UN mandates as peacekeeping forces.

With few exceptions, operations prior to 1988 were by third-party military contingents, with the majority of interventions handling interstate conflicts by deploying troops to oversee a ceasefire or truce. With the end of the cold war and the increased focus on war-affected populations, peacekeeping operations in new conflict regions entailed additional mandates to handle the social problems created by conflict. Humanitarian emergencies, human rights abuses— including those of women’s rights and children’s rights—and civilian protection increasingly became questions of international peace and security. Ironically, with the widening of the mandate, more unintended consequences of the operation followed, and the media increasingly brought attention to the problems that peacekeeping in itself can create for the local population.

In the United Nations, the debate on reforming peacekeeping began in the early 1990s, driven foremost by the changing context of peacekeeping operations. Events that spurred the evolution of peacekeeping were operations in Srebrenica (Bosnia-Herzegovina), Somalia, and Rwanda, where deployment into these internal conflicts did not include changing the structure of the missions or securing sufficient resources to implement assignments successfully. Lessons learned involve both the nature of the mandate and rules of engagement, particularly allowing peacekeepers more latitude in the use of force beyond just self-defense. Apart from affecting the efficiency of the mission directly, weaknesses in the operation structure can have an effect on the peacekeeping staff’s behavior toward the local population. In addition, a need exists for more integrated missions.

The debate on peacekeeping practices also rages in academia, originating in its policy-oriented discipline and contesting the use of peacekeeping in conflict management and resolution. The issue is what possible benefits peacekeeping operations can have for establishing security and, in turn, if peacekeeping thereby influences the success of a conflict resolution process. Results are contradictory; some statistical studies display a positive relationship between establishment of peacekeeping operations and successful conflict resolution, while others find no such connection.

The complexity of the conflict into which a peacekeeping operation is deployed appears to be connected to the outcome in terms of success, as peacekeeping tends to be used in conflicts that are notoriously difficult to solve. Of central concern, then, are under what conditions peacekeeping operations are established and the role of the peacekeeping mission in relation to local parties in the conflict resolution process. On the one hand, critics contend that peacekeeping is completely irrelevant, since peace primarily depends upon the behavior of the warring parties; moreover, a peacekeeping operation may even have a negative effect by prolonging conflict through its conflict management and thus preventing conflict resolution. On the other hand, advocates call peacekeeping vital for ensuring resolution as well as sustainable peace, and, equally important, decreasing the suffering of the affected populations.

Peacekeeping as a Cause of Social Problems?

Besides the debate over peacekeeping’s effectiveness in conflict resolution, the implementation of peacekeeping is another growing issue. Critics attack the “quick fix” introduction of democracy and economic transformation by external parties through peacekeeping operations. Critique centers on the rapid building of new political and economic structures without sufficient local involvement or knowledge of the local context, sufficient resources, and adequate local building capacity. Such flawed operations risk creating additional local problems and increasing existing ones.

Critics also argue that democracy and economic reform require a higher degree of internal ownership and more time to develop successfully than those few years and limited resources usually granted peacekeeping operations. Furthermore, democratization and economic reform can be conflict-creating processes by themselves, particularly in an unstable post-conflict situation. The “light footprint” approach used in Afghanistan, where the international staff mainly supports local parties, is partly in response to this critique.

Initial research findings indicate that the implementation process of peacekeeping operations has contributed to a range of social problems. Sharp increases in inflation—”bubble” economies resulting from operations with budgets substantially larger than that of the host country—resulting in higher prices for food and housing; trafficking in women and children for prostitution from surrounding countries; sharp increases in prostitution and child prostitution in the host country and surrounding countries; and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases such as HIV/AIDS are all serious social problems observed following peacekeeping operations. These social problems all place a high cost on the host countries— the majority of which are poor developing countries— particularly when an operation withdraws. A large number of “UN babies”—children with a local mother and a (former) peacekeeper as an absent father—is another result of many missions. The last aspect relates specifically to the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Based on the mentioned effects, some researchers question the normative underpinnings of operations and the perceptions that peacekeepers hold about the local society.

The UN system has responded to the growing critique forwarded in both policy and research. For example, critique contributed to passage of UN Security Council resolution 1325 (2000), dealing with women, peace, and security, and General Assembly resolution 57/306 on investigating sexual misconduct of peacekeeping staff. Policies, codes of conducts, and training manuals have also been developed to improve interaction with the local population, although these policies remain far from sufficiently implemented.

Taken together, peacekeeping operations increasingly attempt to handle local phenomena identified by international law as social problems, such as violence against civilians and humanitarian emergencies. However, for a number of local social problems— ranging from economic and political side effects; human rights abuses and insecurity for vulnerable groups in the host country; and social traumas for children growing up without fathers—peacekeeping is part of the cause. The jury is still out on whether peacekeeping facilitates resolution of the social problem of armed conflict and war.


  1. Chandler, David. 2001. “The People-Centered Approach to Peace Operations: The New UN Agenda.” International Peacekeeping 8(1):1-19.
  2. Cockburn, Cynthia and Dubravka Zarkov, eds. 2002. The Postwar Moment: Militaries, Masculinities and International Peacekeeping: Bosnia and the Netherlands. London: Lawrence & Wishart.
  3. Durch, William J., ed. 1994. The Evolution of UN Peacekeeping. Houndmills, England, and London: Macmillan.
  4. Heldt, Birger and Peter Wallensteen. 2005. Peacekeeping Operations: Global Patterns of Intervention and Success, 1948-2004. Sandoverken, Vasternorrland, Sweden: Folke Bernadotte Academy.
  5. Paris, Roland. 2004. At War’s End: Building Peace after Civil Conflict. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

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