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What We Learned From… U.N. Peacekeepers in the Congo

By David T. Zabecki
4/17/2017 • Military History Magazine

Peacekeeping is a relatively recent concept in military operations. It emerged in the wake of World War II as an aspect of the nascent United Nations’ principle of “collective security.” The idea behind the “Blue Helmet” operations—named for the color of peacekeepers’ headgear—was that whenever and wherever armed conflict threatened, U.N. member nations would band together to stabilize the situation and then maintain the peace. It was a laudable concept, but like many other idealistic theories it soon ran up against ugly reality. One obstacle was the global polarization brought about by the Cold War and the resulting gridlock in the U.N. Security Council. Another was that military forces are equipped, trained and organized to fight wars, while peacekeeping operations require wholly different skills and operational procedures.

In 1960 the U.N. launched its first large-scale peacekeeping operation, addressing civil strife in the newly formed Republic of the Congo. Marked by costly trial and error, the mission served as an eye-opening object lesson and very nearly brought about the collapse of the international organization.

The Congo had gained its independence from Belgium that June with virtually no preparation or transition period. Still commanded by Belgian officers, the republic’s rank-and-file soldiers mutinied, while black nationalists fomented widespread rioting and racial violence against white civilians. At that point the Belgian government sent its own troops back in to protect the latter. The U.N. then intervened at the request of Moïse Tshombé, governor of mineral-rich Katanga province. A political rival of Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba, Tshombé sought U.N. recognition of an independent Katanga.

The U.N. deployed a multinational peacekeeping force—the Organisation des Nations Unies au Congo, or ONUC—that within a year totaled nearly 20,000 troops from more than 30 countries. Lacking training, common equipment and an operational doctrine, the peacekeepers soon found themselves embroiled in a violent civil war, each side bringing in large numbers of mercenaries from Western countries. ONUC ultimately had to resort to heavy-handed military force to prevent Katanga from seceding. Along the way, Lumumba was captured and executed, U.N. Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld died when his plane crashed en route to cease-fire negotiations, and the Congo became a proxy battleground between the United States and the Soviet Union.

By the time ONUC left the Congo in 1964, it had restored a fragile semblance of stability, but it was a Pyrrhic victory at best. One hundred twenty-six peacekeepers lost their lives, as did hundreds of Congolese, and the fighting resumed even as the Blue Helmets pulled out. The U.N. has since developed governing principles and guidelines for its peacekeeping operations, but its mission failures outnumber its successes.

Lesson:

Peace enforcement and peacekeeping are different. Peace enforcement more closely resembles traditional military operations, while peacekeeping, like civilian policing, must stress the use of minimum
necessary force.

Have a plan. The 30-plus nations
of the Congo operation lacked com-
mon gear, guidelines and goals.

Consent is mandatory. Peace-
keeping only works if all parties to
the dispute want it to work.

Neutrality is also essential. The opposing factions in the Congo each accused the U.N. of “choosing sides.”

Speed is not of the essence. Peacekeeping is most definitely not
a quick fix. It takes time—years or even decades—to bear fruit. 

First published in Military History Magazine’s May 2017 issue.

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