Challenges Faced by UN Peacekeepers

by Charani LCM Patabendige

Published on Modern Diplomacy on 27th January 2024.

Peace is a pivotal factor for any society to prosper and exist. Peace allows security, well-being, and stability. Peace is the bedrock of human rights which enables global cooperation. Peace facilitates justice, human rights, and sustainable development. Peace can be multifaceted, it can be positive or negative. Regardless of the nature of peace, societies attempt to accomplish peace for the benefit of the society. The United Nations (UN) was established in the year 1945 in aftermath of the World War II. One such primary mission of the United Nations is to maintain international peace as well as security. This mission is implemented by the United Nations through UN peacekeeping.

United Nations Peacekeepers are playing a crucial role in facilitating world peace. In an environment where the threat landscape is constantly changing, peacekeepers face inherent challenges as well as novel challenges when engaged with peacekeeping. It has therefore become essential to understand the challenges faced by peacekeepers. Afore it is crucial to look into what is UN peacekeeping, its history, successes, and failures. Consequentially, the challenges faced by UN peacekeepers will be explained and the opportunities of them as well.

According to (Tuvdendarjaa, 2019), “The United Nations does not have any permanent military or police force under its auspices. It conducts peacekeeping operations (PSOs) at a tactical level in support of its member states…When they serve under the United Nations they are united by a commitment to maintain or restore world peace and security.” According to United Nations Peacekeeping, “Peacekeepers are civilian, military, and police personnel all working together. The roles and responsibilities of peacekeepers are evolving as peacekeeping mandates become more complex and multidimensional. Peacekeeping operations have developed from simply monitoring ceasefires to protecting civilians, disarming ex-combatants, protecting human rights, promoting the rule of law, supporting free and fair elections, minimizing the risk of land mines, and much more”. UN Peacekeeping is guided by three basic principles, Consent of the parties, impartiality, and Non-use of force except in self-defense and defence of the mandate.

UN peacekeeping has been capable of facilitating peace, successful ceasefires, and armed conflicts. For example, according to (UNA-UK), “Sierra Leone, Côte d’Ivoire, Timor-Leste, and Liberia, among others, could have had a far bloodier past, and no future, had it not been for the timely and effective intervention of blue-helmeted troops”. Nonetheless, there are also setbacks such as “failures to deploy (as in Rwanda), failures to act once deployed (as at Srebrenica), failures to operate safely (a cause of the cholera outbreak in Haiti) and failures to prevent abuse (most notoriously when it comes to sexual exploitation and abuse).”

It should be noted that UN peacekeeping is multidimensional. As per the United Nations, “multidimensional peacekeeping operations are called upon not only to maintain peace and security but also to facilitate the political process, protect civilians, assist in the disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration of former combatants; support the organization of elections, protect and promote human rights and assist in restoring the rule of law”. This showcases the diversity of peacekeeping missions as it is not only about acting in times of violence but addressing or attempting to successfully address the root causes of conflicts. For example, conflicts in any society are not generated overnight with a sudden sense of discontent or displeasure, most of them have entrenched grievances and inequalities. There are also encounters between governments and rebels, terrorists, radicalized individuals, and others.

This brings us to the necessity of perusing the challenges incurred by UN peacekeepers when peacekeeping. One of the cardinal reasons is the changing of the threat landscape. Causes of conflict can be vivid, it can be due to political, social, economic, ethnic, religious, or a combination of many. However, at present wars have taken a different trend, wars can be due to exclusivism, extremism, terrorism, religious fundamentalism, and radicalization with the goal of out-grouping others and feeling superior to their kind. According to (UNA-UK), “Many modern conflicts are low-intensity and irregular, with a lack of formal armies and with various competing groups. It is unfeasible for peacekeepers to maintain the traditional no-man’s land between opposing forces; UN peacekeepers now have to take a more proactive role. With this comes increased risk for UN forces – while they remain impartial they do not remain neutral, and taking action to protect civilians has made them targets for attacks”. In addition, emerging threats such as terrorism and its physical effects of it have no ‘one fit model’. These cross-border threats coupled with Diaspora activities and funding by hostile nations will aggravate problems. Another hurdle peacekeepers should face is the sophisticated weapon usage by the conflicting parties.

In the past, peacekeepers have faced the grave threat of being targets. One such example as reported by (Goldberg,2016) is, “In Mali, it is UN peacekeepers and not the civilians they are meant to protect who have become the primary targets of a growing insurgency.” Another challenge is the amount of disinformation and misinformation. According to (Trithart, 2022), “Over the past few years, a growing barrage of disinformation has targeted UN peacekeeping operations, particularly the missions in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA), Mali (MINUSMA), and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO). This includes false allegations that UN peacekeepers are trafficking weapons to armed groups, supporting terrorists, and exploiting natural resources.” In addition, there are also severe budget constraints, since countries have cut budget allocations. Since UN peacekeeping forces are dependent on funding, this results in a grave issue in maintaining troops. Another challenge faced by UN troops despite their success stories due to their presence in war-tone areas is requests for withdrawal by parties. Such an example is, the withdrawal of the peacekeeping mission in Mali which was done after a request from its military government to withdraw the troops. As reported by Al Jazeera, “MINUSMA has also suffered more than 300 fatalities, making it the deadliest UN peacekeeping operation. With a budget of $1.2 bn, MINUSMA is also the UN’s most expensive mission. Despite this, Mali’s government has accused the mission of worsening the situation, leaving people distrustful of the UN in general”.

Another major challenge for UN peacekeeping is the lack of political will by parties. It is only if political will is given the peace process becomes a success. According to (United Nations SC/15404, 2023), “A peacekeeping operation cannot succeed when there is insufficient political will for peace among the main stakeholders, when the people are not involved and when the resources, including financial, are lacking.. “the success of the Mozambican peacemaking and peacekeeping processes were largely due to a combination of multiple factors, including the political will of the parties and the overwhelming support of the Mozambican people themselves; clearly defined goals; strong regional support and that of the UN Secretary-General, unity of the Security Council and the international community at large; and the financial resources made available.”. This finely depicts how the peace process involves all stakeholders and the necessity of including all parties. Where UN peacekeepers can do a commendable job, success of it and expected outcomes can only be accomplished if the local level and highly visible political atmosphere is stable.

A key challenge that exacerbates the already existing peacekeeping challenges is when we look from a gendered perspective. According to (Bridges, 2020), “Research has found that women on peacekeeping missions are often ill-prepared for the magnitude of their role in preventing sexual exploitation and violence, and training is an area in need of improvement if violence against women in peacekeeping is to be reduced, let alone eliminated.” It is also pivotal to mention that UN peacekeeping, its norms, and objectives are tarnished because of certain instances. For example, peacekeepers are alleged and detained for sexual abuses. According to (Hernandez,2020), The initial reports of peacekeeper involvement in sexual misconduct surfaced during the UN mission in Cambodia in 1992. Subsequent allegations emerged in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Haiti, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and East Timor. The frequency of these accusations has increased with the expansion of peacekeeping efforts. In 2006, 357 allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse involving UN peacekeepers were reported, with 252 considered serious enough to warrant investigation. According to the Child Rights International Network, “While the UN has taken several steps to address sexual exploitation and abuse in peacekeeping missions, including through its ‘zero tolerance policy’ in 2003, the problem nonetheless continues.”

Another challenge faced by UN peacekeepers is the language barrier. If peacekeepers are multilingual it will in fact help them to linguistically as well as culturally participate in the required state. It is challenging for them to learn the host nation’s language during pre deployment however if this is accomplished this will become a strength to the peace process. In addition, a challenge that exists is the competitiveness in among regional countries for the same matter since the demand for peacekeepers regionally.

With all the above being said, it is clear that peacekeepers face multiple challenges in the constantly changing threat landscape. These challenges have come into the necessity of addressing them to facilitate effective peacebuilding by peacekeepers. Peacekeepers should be trained to survive as well as engage in peacekeeping in the changing threat landscape. For that peacekeepers should be further trained. To battle disinformation, it is crucial to recognize early warning signs and involve local informants to know the ground realities. UN is now at a point where it is hard to completely rely on major donors, therefore, it is crucial to advocate for predictable funding meanwhile sustaining and encouraging community engagement. It is crucial to foster collaboration with regional partners, conduct regular evaluations to incorporate lessons learned and integrate human rights considerations explicitly into peacekeeping mandates. These measures will facilitate accountability as well as transparency.

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* Ms. Charani Patabendige is an Acting Research Analyst and a Research Assistant at the Institute of National Security Studies (INSS), the premier think tank on National Security established and functioning under the Ministry of Defence) The opinions expressed are her own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Institute or the Ministry of Defence.