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A Short History of United Nations Peacekeeping

By Paul Lewis
8/18/2017 • MHQ Magazine

For more than four decades, the Blue Helmets have carved out an impressive, and often overlooked, role for themselves monitoring cease-fire agreements, disarming rebel groups, and preserving law and order in troubled lands.

The decrepit houses lining the narrow deserted street that cuts through the center of Nicosia have been transformed into miniature fortresses, with windows bricked up except for rifle slits and sandbags blocking doorways. This is the “Green Line,” a narrow band of no-man’s-land that divides the Mediterranean island of Cyprus into watertight Greek and Turkish sections. On one side the houses are full of armed Greek Cypriot soldiers, while on the other, just 10 feet away, they hold units of the Turkish army who keep bayonets on their rifles at all times and a bullet in the breech. The only pedestrians moving on the street are the young Canadian infantrymen who patrol every hour or so—sometimes on foot, sometimes in white jeeps—wearing the distinctive blue helmets of United Nations peacekeepers.

Time has been frozen here since Turkey invaded Cyprus 18 years ago, cutting the island in half, and a U.N. peacekeeping force moved in between the combatants to supervise the truce. In a deserted café, the overturned cups and plates are just as the customers left them in 1974 when they fled before the advancing troops. Dust and debris cover the unused cars in a dealer’s showroom, now transformed by the years into vintage collector’s items.

These days the street is usually quiet. But the U.N. patrols check constantly that neither side is improving its position by adding another sandbag, moving into an empty house, or even altering the size of a flag. When they do find infringements, the Canadian officers have only the power of friendly persuasion to get them reversed. Every now and again, tensions flare up, with the soldiers trading insults and baring their backsides at each other across the street. Then the peacekeepers put their lives on the line, marching in under both sides’ guns in an effort to calm the passions unleashed by centuries of hatred between Christian Greek and Muslim Turk.

 

THE UNITED NATIONS Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus—known by the acronym UNFICYP—is just one of 12 such peacekeeping operations currently under way in every part of the world involving over 25,000 soldiers at a cost that now promises to run into billions of dollars. From the high mountains of Kashmir to the deserts of the Persian Gulf and the steaming jungles of El Salvador and Angola, these blue-helmeted “soldiers without enemies” have carved out an impressive role for themselves monitoring cease-fire agreements, disarming rebel groups, and preserving law and order in troubled lands, often so that the local population can decide their own future through the ballot box.

It is taxing work for soldiers who, against all their tradition and training, find themselves conducting nonviolent operations beyond the orders of their government in politically sensitive situations that require reserves of calm, tact, impartiality, and good humor. Often unarmed, they may use force only when attacked. Some 812 peacekeepers from 43 countries have died on duty.

Today, with the end of the Cold War, the great powers are increasingly working through the Security Council to resolve civil wars and other conflicts around the globe, and the demand for U.N. peacekeeping operations is growing just as their nature is becoming more complex and challenging. Since 1988, when Blue Helmets past, present, and future were collectively awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their arduous and often dangerous work, the United Nations has taken on 13 new peacekeeping commitments, the same number as during the first 40 years of its existence. The number of U.N. soldiers and police deployed in the field jumped from 11,500 in January 1992 to 44,000 by the end of May. The world peacekeeping bill will jump from $421 million in 1991 to an anticipated $2.7 billion this year.

 

PEACEKEEPING is found nowhere in the United Nations Charter. Its invention is often credited to Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld, who jokingly called it “chapter six and a half” of the Charter—meaning that it fell between chapter six, which calls for the peaceful resolution of disputes, and chapter seven, which empowers the Security Council to reverse aggression by military might if negotiations fail—as it did to drive North Korean forces out of South Korea in 1950 and the Iraqis from Kuwait in 1991.

But some scholars trace the concept’s origins as far back as the fifth century B.C. when the Greek city-states of the Delian League jointly policed the Aegean Sea. Medieval popes sought to impose the “Truce of God.” And the 18th century produced a flurry of utopian schemes for preserving peace, which prompted Frederick the Great to remark sarcastically to Voltaire, “The thing is most practicable; for its success all that is lacking is the consent of Europe and a few similar trifles.”

The clearest precedent for present-day peacekeeping, however, probably lies in the arrangements the defunct League of Nations made to monitor the plebiscite that returned the Saar to Germany in 1935. Some 3,200 troops from Britain, Italy, Sweden, and the Netherlands, together with a police contingent, were sent in under the command of a British general—but wearing their normal uniforms—to preserve law and order while the citizens of the Saar determined their future.

Though the word peacekeeping was not yet in vogue, the force was described as “a peace force, not a fighting force,” and was ordered to exercise strict impartiality. As with modern-day peacekeeping operations, the soldiers sought to avoid force, cooperated closely with the civilian authorities, and relied on high-visibility patrolling to maintain order. A similar operation was planned in connection with a proposed referendum on the future of Vilnius, but in the end the referendum never took place.

The ink was barely dry on the San Francisco Charter and its new doctrine of collective security when the whole Indian subcontinent erupted into bloody chaos as the Muslim north split away from independent India to form Pakistan. Meanwhile the United Nations stood by, paralyzed by the failure of political will that was to characterize so much of its next 40 years.

 

THIS NOVEMBER, as the heat fades on the plains around Rawalpindi, Pakistan, Brigadier General Jeremiah Enright of the Irish army will move down to his winter headquarters there from a cool summer retreat high up in the mountain peaks at Srinagar, India. Making the same journey that generations of British proconsuls made before him when they returned from the hill stations to the administrative centers of the Raj at the end of each summer. But as current commander of the small United Nations military observer force on the India-Pakistan border, General Enright is also making an important symbolic statement about the political evenhandedness that is central to the peacekeeper’s role as he tries to maintain the truce between these two long-standing Asian rivals.

The ink was barely dry on the San Francisco Charter and its new doctrine of collective security when the whole indian subcontinent erupted into bloody chaos as the Muslim north split away from Independent India to form Pakistan. Meanwhile the united Nations stood by, paralyzed by the failure of political will that was to characterize so much of its next 40 years.

Left free to decide whether to join a new Pakistan or a diminished India, Kashmir’s traditional Hindu rulers opted for the latter, despite their subjects’ Muslim majority. Subsequently, unrest broke out there. After a truce was eventually negotiated, the United Nations in 1949 sent a small force of military observers to monitor that high cease-fire line. It was an operation that, like similar previous missions in Greece, Palestine, and Indonesia, became a model for the many such truce-monitoring exercises the U.N. would undertake in the decades ahead.

The United Nations quickly learned that its credibility as peacekeeper depends on treating both sides with strictest equality. So if General Enright keeps cool during the hot summer months in the mountains of Kashmir on the Indian side of the border, he must spend his winters on the Pakistani side.

Curiously, the League of Nations’ experiment with peacekeeping in the Saar found no echo in the San Francisco Charter. Instead the founding fathers concentrated on devising a mechanism that would enable them to put their armed forces at the disposal of the Security Council to enforce peace and reverse future aggressions if countries refused to settle their disputes peacefully. Cold War rivalries quickly ensured that their plan for a team of world policemen, as Franklin Roosevelt called them, would be stillborn. But this did not stop the United Nations from being drawn almost immediately into a series of local disputes, which laid the foundations for its future peacekeeping role.

The fact that peacekeeping was not found in the Charter proved useful because it gave the secretary-general and the Security Council flexibility in designing operations to suit the particular circumstances of each crisis. On the other hand, it also allowed the Soviet Union to questions the legitimacy of operations  that it thought favored Western interests and to refuse to pay for them. In 1947 the United Nations assigned military officers to the Special Committee on the Balkans (UNSCOB), sent to investigate Communist infiltrations of Greece from neighboring Balkan states—an operation that planted the first seeds of Soviet opposition to the organization’s peacekeeping role. After the Soviet Union vetoed such an overly anti-Communist action in the Security Council, the United States created a precedent it was to follow several times in the future, most notably during the Korean War, by seeking authorization instead from the General Assembly, which the West then controlled.

In August 1947 the Security Council set up a good-offices committee, assisted by a team of military observers, to end the fighting that began after Indonesia sought to break free from the Netherlands and claim its independence. The committee was disbanded in 1951 when the Dutch finally withdrew.

The largest of these early observer missions—and the first true U.N. peacekeeping operation, unambiguously under the control of the secretary-general—was the United Nations Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO). This force of over 500 military observers was sent to Jerusalem in 1948 to supervise a truce called for by the U.N. Security Council after the first Arab-Israeli war broke out. Israel had been attacked by its neighbors, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria, within hours of its creation. UNTSO was given a flexible mandate that has allowed it to remain in existence to the present, with its members often redeployed to help with other peacekeeping activities in the region, although its strength is now down to about 300. Thus, within four or five years of its creation, the United Nations established a clear precedent for deploying military observer forces in trouble spots around the world, sometimes in a fact finding role but increasingly to monitor truces while efforts were made to find a permanent political solution. Its early operations already showed other trends found in later peacekeeping missions. The U.N. observers gradually built up a reputation for impartiality, and the secretary-general slowly established a solid measure of operational control.

Although the observers in Greece had been told to show “strict impartiality,” U.S. State Department officials were still telling Congress in 1949 that the American representatives on all four of these early missions were under the “administrative” authority of the United Nations but American “operational” command. But member states increasingly came to accept the secretary-general’s argument that such forces must be independent and impartial to win moral influence with the parties to a dispute, and this required them to take their day-to-day orders from him, with a broad mandate defined by the Security Council. In 1948 the General Assembly even agreed to give the secretary-general a worldwide communications system of his own.

The United States also emerged as a strong supporter of such operations during these early years, agreeing to pay 30 percent of their costs and lending generous logistical assistance. In Indonesia, for example, the United Nations relied on the U.S. consulate in Batavia and an American communications vessel for its radio links with U.N. headquarters in New York.

But Moscow was becoming increasingly wary of the organization’s expanding peacekeeping role and the control the secretary-general exercised over these operations, which the Soviets felt served Western interests more than their own by stabilizing troubled parts of the developing world.

And it is significant that to this day, successive secretaries-general have entrusted day-to-day operational control of peacekeeping missions first to an American, Ralph Bunche, and then to two senior British officials, Sir Brian Urquhart and, after his retirement, Marrack Goulding.

The young Malaysian major drove the air-conditioned white Toyota Land Cruiser with its black United Nations insignia across the desolate moonscape of a modern battlefield. Villages had been reduced to little more than a brick-colored stain in the churned-up desert sand; nearby were the blackened stumps of palm trees. Piles of empty shell cases, tank tracks coiled like huge snakes, and the half-buried, burned-out hulks of armored vehicles dotted the scene. Observers, perching perilously on high steel towers, scanned the enemy’s lines through binoculars. Occasional clumps of green camouflage netting marked artillery batteries, and every few miles a squadron of Iraqi tanks was drawn up in a perfect square.

An immense wall of earth and sand, some 30 feet high and running the length of the Fao peninsula, marked the Iraqi front line against the Iranian army. Brandishing aloft a big blue-and-white U.N. flag, the officer shepherded his party up concrete steps to the top. Iraqi soldiers stood every 10 yards, rifles in hand, inside a narrow trench running along the top of the wall, with bigger guns in hollowed-out emplacements every hundred yards. Steps wound down to the soldiers’ sleeping quarters deep inside the earthen wall. The view was out across the Shatt-al-Arab, choked with the rusting hulks of sunken cargo ships resting on the bottom of the channel, to the piles of sandbags on the farther shore that marked the Iranian front line. Nothing stirred on that warm spring morning.

The year was 1989, and the truce ending the bitter eight-year Iran-Iraq war was some six months old. About 400 U.N. officers, members of the United Nations Iran-Iraq Military Observer Group (UNIIMOG), were monitoring a 700-mile front line that stretched from the burning deserts of the Gulf to the snow-covered mountains of Kurdistan. Their task was still the classic one of overseeing a cease-fire agreement and preventing either side from improving its military position while, somewhere else, diplomats searched for a political solution that has still not come. (UNIIMOG was withdrawn in February 1991, with the consent of both parties; a few observers remain.) But holding the ring between the two mightiest armies in the Middle East, armed with the most sophisticated weaponry that petrodollars can buy, is clearly a far cry from those earlier little observer teams tramping through the swamps of Indonesia and over the mountains of Greece and Kashmir.

That morning the old Shatt-al-Arab hotel at Basra, where these peacekeepers were headquartered, had shuddered to the distant rumble of artillery fire as the Iraqi guns opened up in an effort to keep the Iranian army from flooding areas of no-man’s-land to force back their forward observation posts. Iran replied with a barrage of mortar shells. Clearly the scale of operations and the risks involved were greater than anything undertaken in Kashmir or Greece. Peacekeeping had entered a new, more assertive phase.

The Suez crisis of 1956 marked the opening of this more assertive period, which saw the mounting of major operations in the Middle East, the Congo, and Cyprus. What had started with small, unarmed observer missions to oversee a truce was now evolving into much larger and more structured operations involving deployment of army units numbering thousands of men to serve as buffers between contending armies. The peacekeepers’ responsibilities grew more complex as they were required to patrol borders, maintain law and order, and manage day-to-day developments in an international crisis.

By the fall of 1956, it was clear that the U.N. efforts to maintain the armistice between Israel and its Arab neighbors were collapsing; violence flared along Israel’s borders with Egypt, Syria, and Jordan. In July, Egypt had nationalized the Suez Canal, after the West canceled financing for the Aswan High Dam. On October 29, following a number of armed clashes, Israel invaded Egypt through the Sinai with the avowed intention of cleaning out Palestinian guerrilla bases.

Two days later, working to a prearranged plan, Britain and France started bombing Egyptian airfields after demanding that Egypt and Israel withdraw 10 miles from their side of the canal so that the invasion force could take back control of it.

But this force was still five days’ sailing from Suez, giving opponents of their scheme time to organize a massive campaign of political resistance. The idea of sending in a U.N. force had been raised by the then secretary-general, Dag Hammarsjköld, at the very start of the crisis. And by November 3, as the strength of the opposition to their action became clear, even Britain and France were suggesting that their forces should join such a U.N. operation when they reached the canal.

Twelve years later U.N. peacekeepers were to pull the world back from a nuclear confrontation between the superpowers in this very same region. But this time the U.N. job was to provide a face-saving cover behind which Britain, France, and Israel could retreat from the Suez fiasco.

On November 4 the General Assembly formally asked Hammarskjöld to negotiate a cease-fire and explore the novel idea of deploying a nonviolent U.N. military force not just to monitor a cease-fire but to ensure the withdrawal of the invading British, French, and Israeli forces and preserve peace. For the West, this would remove any pretext for a rumored Soviet incursion into the region.

Speed and improvisation were needed. Curious problems arose that required imaginative solutions. With three foreign armies fighting on Egyptian soil, the U.N. troops needed clear identification, particularly as the peacekeeping contingent Canada offered would be wearing British battle dress. Berets of the same light blue as the U.N. flag was the agreed solution—until it was discovered that these would take months to manufacture. So the United States quickly spray-painted thousands of army helmet liners the right shade of blue and shipped them to Suez. The “blue helmet,” or “casque bleu,” was born.

With no logistical pipeline to the area, the United Nations solved its supply problems by buying food and equipment on ships blocked in the canal by the fighting. This first 6,000-strong United Nations Emergency Force maintained a buffer zone in the Gaza strip and Sinai between the Egyptian and Israeli forces. But in what was later to seem a costly mistake, Israel confined deployment to Egyptian soil and did not allow the Blue Helmets into territory it controlled.

Its size and complexity, as well as the speed with which it went in, made UNEF I the model for several subsequent operations. And its success—it kept the peace in the area for 10 years and guaranteed freedom of movement through the Suez Canal—encouraged Hammarskjöld to take a deeply pragmatic approach to peacekeeping, even rejecting a call from Secretary of State John Foster Dulles for a standing force because he feared this might “freeze a pattern of action.” The United Nations had improvised once; it wanted to be able to do so again. Above all, the U.N. involvement in Suez showed for the first time that even though countries might fear becoming involved in another Korean War, they were prepared to deploy substantial forces under the U.N. flag to keep the peace in troubled areas with the consent of the parties to the crisis.

But this first emergency force in the Middle East ended in controversy and, many would say, failure when on May 16, 1967, President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt abruptly demanded its withdrawal from Egyptian territory, confronting the new secretary-general, U Thant, with an agonizing dilemma. All the omens suggested Nasser wanted the force out because he planned to send his soldiers to help Syria stage a new confrontation with Israel.

Many have said U Thant should have refused to withdraw and summoned the General Assembly or Security Council into emergency session to discuss what was clearly a threat to peace. Whether either body would have been able to agree on concrete action to avert war in the climate of Cold War paralysis affecting the United Nations in those days remains questionable. But if Israel had allowed the force to be deployed in its territory, the secretary-general would have found it easier to play for time and resist Nasser’s demand.

In the end, after first warning Egypt in bellicose language that the force had a right to remain on its soil, Canada abruptly withdrew its contingent when Nasser said he could no longer guarantee their safety. Left without logistical support or aircraft, U Thant had no option but to withdraw his peacekeepers. Israel responded promptly with the massive preemptive strike that started the Six-Day War.

In 1958, within two years of UNEF’s formation, the United Nations began its long peacekeeping association with Lebanon when it dispatched the 600-strong United Nations Observer Group in Lebanon (UNOGIL) to investigate complaints that Egypt and Syria (both then known as the United Arab Republic) were infiltrating guerrillas into that troubled country. But by the end of the year, the internal situation in Lebanon appeared stable and UNOGIL was disbanded.

The largest, costliest, and most complex peacekeeping operation by the standards of its time resulted from the chaos in the Congo (now Zaire) after Belgium granted it independence in 1960. Within days the army mutinied, law and order broke down, Belgium sent troops back to protect its citizens, the copper-rich province of Katanga seceded under Moise Tshombe, and, overwhelmed by chaos and confusion, President Joseph Kasavubu and Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba sent a joint telegram to the United Nations appealing for help. But the U.N. involvement in the Congo became increasingly controversial as its forces had to deal not just with Katanga’s secession but with a full-scale civil war between supporters of the pro-Western President Kasavubu and those of the Moscow-oriented Prime Minister Lumumba. And Soviet frustration with U.N. peacekeeping reached new peaks as it watched Lumumba’s downfall while France, Britain, and the United States showed themselves lukewarm about suppressing Katanga’s secession.

Meanwhile, financial problems plagued the operation—a foreshadowing of things to come. For opposite reasons, the Soviet Union and France refused to pay their shares of the costs, almost bankrupting the organization and forcing it to issue bonds to stay afloat. The United States retaliated by threatening to deprive the Soviet Union of its General Assembly vote in 1964, a move that might have broken up the U.N. had a compromise not been found.

At the time the Congo operation seemed a disaster that had almost cost the United Nations its existence. The world body had intervened directly for the first time in a chaotic internal crisis and found itself out of its depth. Today, in retrospect, the operation seems to have been more successful than was thought at the time. It helped maintain the unity of present-day Zaire, averted an East-West confrontation in Africa, provided a wealth of valuable peacekeeping experience, and showed that U.N. peacekeeping techniques can dampen and ultimately extinguish a state of anarchy and civil war.

Although Hammarskjöld’s and U Thant’s running of the Congo operation annoyed the Soviet Union, ruffled French feathers, and precipitated a major financial crisis, the United Nations went ahead with new, smaller operations in a number of countries, at the rate of about one a year between 1962 and 1965. In 1962 it dispatched forces to help administer West New Guinea (West Irian) as the Dutch handed over their last Pacific colony to Indonesia. The following year U.N. observers were in Yemen trying to oversee a fragile cease-fire between royalists and republicans. It also attempted to play a role following America’s military intervention in the Dominican Republic to block a leftist government from coming to power. And in 1965 it increased its presence in and around Kashmir after fighting flared up again. Peacekeeping, clearly, had survived the Congo.

 

THE YEAR 1964 SAW THE START of an altogether more sophisticated and controversial exercise with the creation of the United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus, which is still in place today. After the island achieved independence in 1960 under a constitution that Britain, Greece, and Turkey guaranteed, intercommunal violence broke out on Cyprus between the Greek majority and the Turkish minority, arousing fears that Greece and Turkey, both NATO members, would be drawn into a war over the island’s future.

Plans to deploy the first-ever peacekeeping force involving NATO members collapsed because of resistance from Archbishop Makarios, the island’s Greek president. The Security Council then agreed in 1964 to deploy some 6,500 soldiers and policemen in a constabulary force throughout the island, which largely succeeded in restoring law and order. However, the Soviet Union, which had little interest in averting stresses within the NATO alliance and was certainly not going to pay money for doing so, insisted that the force be financed by voluntary contributions so that it would not be required to contribute to its upkeep.

The U.N. role in Cyprus changed dramatically after Turkey invaded the island in 1974, following a coup against the government of President Makarios, and divided it into separate Greek and Turkish states. This caused the Blue Helmets to revert to a classic peacekeeping operation, monitoring the cease-fire between the two armies deployed on either side of the “Green Line,” which bisects the island.

The United Nations sought a peacemaking role as well on Cyprus, appointing a resident mediator between Greeks and Turks and launching many diplomatic initiatives. But progress has been minimal so far, prompting some critics to complain that the force is really perpetuating the crisis, not solving it, by keeping the island divided into separate communities that have had no contact for over a generation.

This year, as the operation passed its 28th birthday, three of the troop contributors—Austria, Denmark, and Canada—have warned that they are losing patience and might soon pull out unless there is progress toward a political solution. The new U.N. secretary-general, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, Egypt’s former deputy prime minister, warned the Security Council that he will propose shutting down the operation altogether later this year unless the two sides compromise.

 

PEACEKEEPING WENT INTO REMISSION between 1967 and late 1973, when not a single new operation was mounted, although existing ones continued. But the joint Egyptian-Syrian attack against Israel on October 6, 1973, shattered the calm, leading to the creation of two new forces: the second United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF Il), in 1973, which acted as a buffer between Israeli and Egyptian forces along the Suez Canal; and the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF), in 1974, which served much the same purpose between Israel and Syria on the Golan Heights. For the first time, U.N. peacekeepers played a critical role in pulling the world back from the brink of a nuclear confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union.

The opening of the war on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year, brought stunning reversals for Israel, as Syria penetrated the Golan Heights and Egyptian forces pushed across the Suez Canal deep into the Sinai. But the United States rushed in fresh military supplies, enabling Israel to launch a counterattack; as a result, its forces encircled the Egyptian Third Army in the Sinai and crossed the Suez Canal to threaten Port Said. On October 22, in an impressive display of joint statesmanship, the United States and the Soviet Union won Security Council approval for a resolution calling for a self-executing cease-fire between the belligerents, after a flying visit to Moscow by Henry Kissinger.

In his autobiography, A Life in Peace and War, Sir Brian Urquhart recalls that he was hardly popular when he pointed out to the Americans that in the United Nations experience such unsupervised cease-fires seldom worked. And he was proved right, with almost catastrophic consequences. The next day the Israelis broke the cease-fire by taking up new positions, to the fury of Egypt and Moscow. Although temporarily restored that night, the cease-fire collapsed again the next day when the Israelis started fighting again with the Egyptian Third Army. The precarious relationship that Washington and Moscow had established just three days before was in jeopardy, along with their unsupervised cease-fire arrangement.

Egyptian president Anwar Sadat asked the United States and the Soviet Union to intervene directly. But Washington refused to send troops to deal with Israel, while the Soviet Union began preparations to come to Egypt’s aid. President Nixon, determined to stop the Soviet Union from getting a military toehold in the Middle East, responded with a Def Con III alert, putting American forces everywhere on the highest state of alert in peacetime conditions. The superpowers seemed poised for confrontation in the explosive Middle East. “It was probably the most dangerous situation confronting the world since the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962,” the United Nations writes in its history of peacekeeping, The Blue Helmets.

But the peacekeepers rushed to the rescue, as Urquhart has described in detail in his autobiography. Yugoslavia and the nonaligned members of the Security Council demanded rapid deployment of a new force to separate Egyptian and Israeli forces. That averted the risk of a direct superpower clash. But at American insistence, troops from the five permanent Security Council members were excluded from the new peacekeeping mission, denying Moscow the possibility of sending forces to the Middle East under U.N. guise. Kissinger later placated Moscow by asking it to send 34 Soviet officers to the Truce Supervisory Operation instead, a gesture that for the first time gave the Soviet Union a constructive role in a peacekeeping operation and set a precedent for superpower cooperation in the Middle East. The United States also agreed to include a Polish contingent in the new emergency force as part of the logistical support unit—to the consternation of the Canadian government, which traditionally provided logistical support for peacekeeping operations and was reluctant to share the honor.

The new emergency force soon made a reality of the cease-fire in the field. It resupplied the surrounded Third Egyptian Army with badly needed food and water through Israeli lines, and its members even got into fistfights with Israeli soldiers who were trying to dismantle the U.N. roadblocks. It administered a wide buffer zone between the two sides. And it organized the “Kilometer 101 talks” that eventually rescued the marooned Third Army. It also monitored the partial Israeli withdrawals from the Sinai between 1974 and 1976. The Security Council allowed its mandate to lapse in 1979, as Egypt and Israel agreed to recognize each other in a political settlement that finally brought lasting peace to that part of the region. (The Camp David accords had foreseen a role for U.N. observers, but Arab and Soviet opposition blocked that.)

Once the cease-fire had been secured on the Suez front and superpower confrontation avoided, Kissinger switched his attention to stabilizing the situation on the Golan Heights through deployment of another U.N. peacekeeping effort there. While Syria wanted only an observer group, Israel demanded a large-scale force to act as a buffer against the Syrian army. The compromise, hammered out by Kissinger in five weeks of shuttle diplomacy, was the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force. This provides for a central buffer zone between the two belligerents that is occupied only by U.N. forces, buttressed by a “limited-armaments zone” on each side where the two sides agree to restrict deployment of offensive weapons.

Syria had difficulty accepting the new force at first, and there were many early disputes over such matters as the United Nations force’s blowing up unused fortifications in the buffer zone and checking Syrian vehicles entering its area. But its presence probably helped prevent renewed fighting in the area in 1978, when Israel invaded Lebanon and later accused Syria of deploying missiles in the Bekåa Valley. At the height of the missile dispute, Israel and Syria each quietly asked UNDOF to verify that the other side was not preparing for an attack by moving forces into the limited-armaments zone.

 

ON MARCH 11, 1978, A PALESTINE Liberation Organization terror squad left southern Lebanon by boat, landed undetected in Israel just north of Tel Aviv, commandeered a bus on the Haifa—Tel Aviv road, and ended up in a firefight with Israeli security forces in which 37 Israelis died. The attack brought to a climax mounting Israeli anger over the frequent assaults Palestinians had been making against Israel since the early 1970s from southern Lebanon. Defense Minister Ezer Weizman ordered the army to cross the border into Lebanon, where it quickly overran most of the territory south of the Litani River except the city of Tyre. But this Israeli invasion also threatened to torpedo the Camp David peace process on normalizing relations between Egypt and Israel. President Sadat could not afford to recognize Israel if it was occupying part of another Arab state.

The United Nations had thought about deploying a peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon to decrease the constant clashes between Israeli forces and the PLO forces based there, but it dismissed the idea as impractical because neither side seemed interested in a truce. But the United States, anxious to salvage the Camp David talks, brushed aside such reservations and pushed the Security Council into approving the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), ostensibly to oversee Israel’s withdrawal from the south. An Israeli plea that the United States wait until Prime Minister Menachem Begin arrived in Washington the next day was rejected, thus ensuring Israeli opposition to the deployment from the start.

Meanwhile, Lebanon removed a provision from the resolution giving the force the right to exclude armed personnel from its zone, which would have put a brake on Palestinian guerrilla operations there. This in turn gave Israel justification for establishing a security zone in southern Lebanon, under the control of its Christian Lebanese allies after its own forces had withdrawn. As a result of these restrictions on its activity, UNIFIL has proved anything but interim—existing to this day, without being able to stop or even significantly reduce the endemic violence in the region. The force had to stand aside in 1982 when Israel launched another large-scale armed incursion into Lebanon. And it was humiliated again in February 1992 when an Israeli armored column punched through its roadblocks on its way to punish Hezbollah guerrilla groups.

The Lebanese operation illustrates how little U.N. peacekeeping forces can do when the parties to a conflict are not seriously interested in stopping their fighting—a lesson the organization was to learn again years later when it tried to promote peace in Yugoslavia. As a result of its ineffectiveness, the U.N. force in Lebanon has been plagued by poor morale. Its soldiers, aware that they are virtually powerless to stop the hostilities, put survival first. And governments sending troops have often undercut the U.N. commander by giving their forces special instructions to stay out of danger and minimize casualties.

 

THE UNITED NATIONS launched no further peacekeeping operations for a decade, but these were still eventful years for the peacekeeping concept because they witnessed the beginning of the end of the Cold War and the radical shift in Soviet policy that paved the way for the resurgence of peacekeeping in the 1990s. As East-West tensions eased, the Soviet Union under Mikhail S. Gorbachev came to see the United Nations as a cornerstone of its new foreign policy and realized that the world organization could play a useful role in helping the Soviet Union extricate itself from conflicts around the globe that it could no longer afford. Thus, at a time when the Reagan administration was still denigrating the United Nations as an enemy of American values and refusing to pay its dues, the Soviet Union announced in 1987 that it would start paying off all its own unpaid obligations to the world organization—which then amounted to some $200 million.

By 1988 the United Nations was sending a 50-officer mission to monitor the Red Army’s retreat from Kabul as Moscow pulled out of its long Afghan adventure, opening the way for a flood of new peacekeeping operations over the following years. With the Soviet Union and the United States now trying to resolve conflicts that they had previously sought to exploit, the U.N. peacekeeping role began to change. Increasingly these operations became more complex exercises in political reconciliation, with the United Nations sending in soldiers, policemen, and civilian administrators to oversee peace plans worked out by the parties to a dispute who had finally agreed to settle their differences through the ballot box.

Of the 13 peacekeeping operations set up before Cold War tensions started fading in 1988, all but one were of the traditional kind, in which a U.N. force oversees a truce while efforts are made to find a political solution to the underlying conflict. But eight of the 13 launched since then have been new-style operations, set up to help implement a political settlement already negotiated by the peacemakers. The United Nations has increasingly found itself in the business of creating the conditions in which free and fair elections can be held. This means the peacekeepers have been expected to disarm guerrillas, confine regular forces to barracks, preserve law and order, and monitor election campaigns. In 1989, for example, it set up the United Nations Observer Group in Central America (ONUCA) to monitor the agreement that Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua had made to cease aid for guerrilla movements in the region. But its mandate was then expanded to permit it to help in the voluntary disarming of the Nicaragua contra forces while a separate U.N. civilian operation supervised free elections. The United Nations subsequently took on very similar responsibilities under the agreement that ended the long civil war in El Salvador.

The same year, after protracted diplomatic efforts by the United States, Cuba began a staged withdrawal of the 50,000 troops it had sent to Angola to help the nominally Marxist government there against the South African—backed UNITA rebels of Jonas Savimbi. In exchange, South Africa agreed to give independence to the southwest African territory of Namibia, which it had administered since shortly after World War I.

The result was the United Nations Angola Verification Mission (UNAVEM), a 60-member observer team monitoring the Cuban pullout, and the United Nations Transition Assistance Group (UNTAG), a far more sophisticated year-long mission that organized Namibia’s first free elections to choose the government that would lead it to independence.

While typical of the new style of peacekeeping operation, in which the U.N. presence in a country is part of an agreed political solution to a dispute, the Namibian mission also illustrated a trend that was to assume increasing importance in the 1990s: mounting concern about their cost. Although ultimately deemed a success, the Namibian operation got off to a rocky start after cutbacks in the military component of the U.N. teams. This attempt to save money infuriated African leaders who feared that a smaller U.N. presence would allow South Africa to manipulate the elections.

But fewer soldiers also meant fewer patrols along the Angolan border. As a result, a heavily armed party of some 300 SWAPO guerrillas successfully infiltrated the country, only to be gunned down by the South African army instead of being stopped and disarmed by the United Nations on the frontier. After that incident, however, the operation proceeded more smoothly, with the United Nations successfully disarming the SWAPO guerrillas, monitoring the local police, and keeping the regular army confined to barracks while it organized free elections.

In late 1991 and early 1992, the United Nations was committed to four major new peacekeeping operations, and there was serious concern that the demand for its services as the breakup of the Soviet Union unleashed a new wave of old ethnic tensions would outstrip its members’ willingness to meet the bill. In Cambodia, the United Nations was starting the biggest of the new-style peacekeeping operations it had ever undertaken, deploying some 20,000 soldiers, police, and administrators to oversee the operations of this war-torn nation, disarm the dreaded Khmer Rouge and the other parties in that country’s 22-year civil war, and organize free elections. Simultaneously, in Western Sahara, a U.N. operation was organizing a referendum to decide on that territory’s future. Meanwhile, a large force was deployed in Croatia in the hope that a cease-fire would hold while the European Community countries tried to broker a political settlement to the Yugoslav civil war. But it quickly spread to other former parts of the federation, particularly the republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the United Nations found itself unable to stem the violence. Finally, at the urging of the secretary-general, the United Nations negotiated a fragile cease-fire in Somalia, then made plans to deploy observers to monitor the cease-fire, as well as a force of military guards to supervise the distribution of food and humanitarian supplies to a country that had slipped into almost total anarchy.

These four new operations, together with the eight others under way in different parts of the world, have produced what can only be described as a crisis over the future of United Nations peacekeeping. The crisis shows itself most clearly in financial terms, with the international community’s peacekeeping bill expected to jump from some $421 million in 1991 to almost $3 billion in 1992. But the new republics that succeeded the Soviet Union have been unable to pay anything at all, while the United States, paralyzed by the onset of a presidential election year, has fallen deeply into arrears, owing $112.3 million in unpaid peacekeeping dues and a further $555 million to the regular U.N. budget.

Meanwhile, deep-seated ethnic animosities have continued to flare up in the Balkans, elsewhere in Eastern Europe, in Central Asia, and in many parts of Africa, suggesting that while the Cold War might be over, the world still faces a new wave of low-intensity ethnic conflicts that could create a growing demand for peacekeeping. At the same time, the manifest success of many U.N. peacekeeping operations has produced an upsurge of interest among academics and other experts in this aspect of the organization’s work, as well as a flood of ideas and proposals for strengthening it. Some have favored giving the United Nations a kind of rapid-deployment force, which could be rushed in to quell conflicts as soon as they erupt. Many hope member countries will earmark troops and matériel on a standby basis for peacekeeping tasks so the secretary-general will always have forces at the ready. There also have been suggestions for more preventive peacekeeping, for instance by deploying observers along the frontier of a country that feels threatened. Paradoxically, at the very moment the United Nations appears to be standing at the verge of bankruptcy, its prestige and the public’s interest in its work have never been higher.

The secretary-general’s reaction to the crisis has been to call a halt to all new peacekeeping operations as of the spring of 1992, saying the organization lacks the resources to take on any more crises. If France and Germany really want to expand the Yugoslav operation across the entire territory of the former federation, they have been told, they will have to find the men and money themselves.

At the same time, the United Nations has also urged regional organizations to do more to put out brushfires in their areas of the world. In the former Yugoslav federation, for example, the United Nations secured a limited truce in Croatia and sent in monitors but handed the peacemaking process over to the European Community, which continued its efforts to organize a conference to negotiate a settlement between the newly independent republics and the remainder of Yugoslavia. Similarly, the United Nations arranged the initial truce in Somalia and agreed to send in monitors. But the task of finding a long-term solution to the anarchy and tribal violence plaguing that country was given to the organization of African Unity, the League of Arab States, and the Organization of the Islamic Conference. In the crisis in Haiti, it was the Organization of American States that tried to find a political solution.

This approach is in strict conformity with the United Nations Charter, according to which the states of a particular region should try to settle their differences peacefully before taking disputes to the Security Council. In addition, regional organizations such as the European Community and the Arab League have far more money and other resources than the United Nations at present. And while they may lack experience in dispute resolution, as the secretary-general has argued, experience is gained only by trying.

Meanwhile, the emphasis at the United Nations is switching subtly away from classic, costly peacekeeping operations toward what is known as “preventive diplomacy,” or expanding the secretary-general’s “good offices.” This means that instead of sending in the Blue Helmets to clean up the mess after a fight has begun, the secretary-general will try to keep the belligerents from coming to blows in the first place—clearly a less expensive solution. To this end, Dr. Boutros-Ghali is seeking to consolidate the many separate offices that the United Nations and its specialized agencies maintain around the world into single establishments, which could also serve as his ears and eyes in future trouble spots.

Nevertheless, the U.N. peacekeeping operations continue. Some, such as those in Central America, Cambodia, and Western Sahara, will end once the agreed political solutions have been put in place and their tasks are finished. In other parts of the world, the U.N. peacekeeping role is still ahead of its peacemaking function, and the Blue Helmets must continue their difficult, lonely task with no terminal date in sight. That is why General Jeremiah Enright will be rotating his headquarters again this year with the onset of winter in Srinagar, while his peacekeeping monitors continue a vigil over the mountains of Kashmir that began 44  years ago. MHQ

PAUL LEWIS is the United Nations correspondent for the New York Times.

This article originally appeared in the Autumn 1992 issue (Vol. 5, No. 1) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: A Short History of United Nations: Peacekeeping

 

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