Did United Nations Peacekeeping achieve what it set out to do?

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By Nayana Das

With the United Nations (UN) having recently celebrated seventy years of the historic UN Charter which was signed on 26 June 1945, an opportune moment has risen for us as an international community to celebrate the many enduring milestones achieved by the organisation since its establishment.

At the very outset, peace and security shaped the foundation upon which the entire structure of the United Nations was built and since its formative years, conflict prevention has been cited as one of the main reasons for the very existence of the UN. As such, ‘traditional peacekeeping’ presents itself as one of the most important operational parameters by which to judge the effectiveness of the organisation as a whole.

An essential component within this category of ‘traditional peacekeeping’ is long-standing peacekeeping operations (PKOs). In very simple terms, long-standing PKOs are those Missions which have been in place for more than three decades since their initial deployment and which were basically deployed to play mediatory roles for the purpose of conflict prevention. Given the very longevity of their existence, such PKOs serve as important cases in point for an overall analysis of the success of UN peacekeeping. Currently, the UN has five such operations in place: UNTSO in the Middle East and headquartered in Jerusalem (1948), UNMOGIP in the Kashmir region of the India-Pakistan border (1949), UNFICYP in Cyprus (1964), UNDOF in the Golan Heights which borders Israel, Lebanon and Jordan (1974) and UNIFIL in Lebanon (1978).

The very concept of UN peacekeeping had its operational onset with the establishment of the United Nations Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO) in June 1948. UNTSO was established to provide immediate assistance in supervising the observance of the truce in Palestine. The expanse of this mandate goes beyond the Israel-Palestine binary and includes the maintenance of peace in the overall Arab-Israeli conflict. As such, UNTSO has also been entrusted by the Security Council to supervise the General Armistice Agreements which was signed between Israel and its Arab neighbours in 1949, observe the ceasefire in the Suez Canal and Golan Heights area since the end of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, and assist the UN Interim Force in Lebanon to carry out its mandate.

Photo credit: UN Photo/Yutaka Nagata

Along with UNTSO, the United Nations Military Observer Group in India and Pakistan (UNMOGIP) is also one of the longest standing UN PKOs and both have been in place for over six decades now. UNMOGIP was first deployed in January 1949 to supervise the ceasefire agreement over Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) between the newly independent states of India and Pakistan.

Both UNTSO and UNMOGIP are clear examples of traditional peacekeeping whose main purpose is not peace enforcement but the mediation between conflict parties so that violence can be averted and a diplomatic solution to the dispute developed. Therefore, they are neutralizing Missions with a larger purpose of ‘preventive peacekeeping’ albeit without the mandate to actually make use of force to achieve this. Instead, they rely on monitoring and confidence-building mechanisms to address distrust so as to ensure an implementation of peace accords.

Because of this, such missions serve as important examples through which to evaluate the effectiveness of the UN’s preventive peacekeeping efforts through the 70 years of its existence. Needless to say, by providing a means of contact between states which otherwise do not share any diplomatic relations with each other, UNTSO operations have become a crucial mechanism for moderation of an otherwise complex conflict and for the establishment of regional stability. However, with the passing of time and its inability to conclude a peace settlement for the continuingly volatile Arab-Israeli conflict, the Mission has come under widespread criticism for being ‘pitifully inadequate’. Israeli commentators have gone a step further to describe UNTSO mechanisms as ‘useless instruments’.

One of the biggest factors impeding the effectiveness of UNTSO is the fact that its mandate covers a vast geographic area which involves not the supervision of armistice agreements between two states but the supervision of armistice agreements between multiple state actors. Although independent Missions were eventually established to deal with supervision on a more inter-state level, even these Missions are dealing with an increasingly complex setting which along with multiple state actors also involves a multiplicity of causes and other intra-state actors. Moreover, the very existence of UNTSO continues to be based on the presumption that control of violence in the Middle East would be achieved without any resort to the use of force. While political peacekeeping conducted by unarmed military observers is important, in light of the escalation of violence in the Arab-Israeli conflict, some degree of a military element is necessary to ensure effectiveness for UNTSO.

Photo credit: UN Photo/VA

On the other hand, UNMOGIP’s main achievement in the recent past has been its ability to reassure each side that the other was not preparing for war and, in the process, reduce tension to deter potential ceasefire violations and subsequent escalation of hostilities. However, similar to the example of UNTSO and given repeated ceasefire violations along the military control line (LoC) between India and Pakistan, UNMOGIP has been accused of having had limited success in the execution of its mandate. UN officials defend this limited success with the counter-argument that UNMOGIP’s mandate was never to prevent war but only to monitor and report on cease-fire violations along the LoC. Nevertheless, in light of the outbreak of three Indo-Pak wars since the establishment of UNMOGIP, the operational failures of the Mission become self-evident.

Unfortunately, with questions being raised about the operational ineffectiveness of two of the UN’s longest standing PKOs, other concerns inevitably rise about the reality of an existing and future crisis in UN peacekeeping as a whole. The latter half of the 1990s saw a rapid manifestation of these concerns given the simultaneous failures of PKOs in Rwanda and Bosnia-Herzegovina. These failures began to raise concerns about the future of UN peacekeeping while bringing the entire existence of PKOs into world-wide speculations.

At the same time, such speculations are crucial given their relevance for future policy implications. Moreover, they highlight the importance of cooperation, or its lack thereof, from key parties to the conflict. It is true that effectiveness of PKOs depends greatly on the ‘permissiveness of the environment’ in which they operate. For instance, UNMOGIP’s ineffectiveness post 1972 can be attributed to a large degree to the withdrawal of India’s operational cooperation at the same time. Similarly, for UNTSO a key determinant for operational effectiveness is the unenthusiastic attitude towards UN involvement harboured by key actors.

In this light, we can easily identify factors which have become responsible for the overall operational ineffectiveness of preventive peacekeeping over the past few decades. A key issue is that such operations are dealing with intense, prolonged conflicts whose causal factors are complex. The problem further intensifies if stakeholders of the conflict multiply because needless to say, if there is an increase in the number of disputants, it becomes all the more difficult for a particular agreement to be acceptable to all parties. Moreover, there is also the problem posed by an absence of robust mandates. ‘Well-crafted mandates matched to political strategy’ are critical determinants for peacekeeping success, and ironically, are also found missing in most operations.

Finally, the biggest challenge for traditional peacekeeping Missions today seems to be the increasingly intractable nature of the conflicts which they are meant to supervise. Most PKOs with a ‘traditional’ agenda were or are deployed where ‘conflict had not resulted in victory for any side, where a military stalemate or international pressure or both had brought fighting to a halt but at least some of the parties to the conflict were not seriously committed to ending the confrontation’. Given this stalemate status, development of armistice agreements with long-lasting and thorough security guarantees which are acceptable for all parties is almost impossible.

All of this makes it not only difficult but also time-consuming for PKOs to effectively carry out their assigned roles. For instance, because of the lack of sustainable exit strategies, commitments of PKOs become open-ended in a sense which, in turn, can prove to be extremely expensive for the UN. In 1997, for example, the eight long-standing operations active at the time accounted for $6 billion i.e. 35% of the total costs ($17 billion) incurred by UN PKOs since 1948. However, despite this questionable cost-effectiveness and alleged operational underperformance, sustenance of operations with traditional peacekeeping agendas remains necessary for the sake of international security. More than anything else, they stabilize and neutralize, to whatever degree possible, conflicts which otherwise harbour potential for extreme volatility in the near future.

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