UP EXPERT OPINION: Farewell to arms? UN peacekeeping at 75

Posted on May 08, 2023

From first mission in 1948 along Israel’s border to missions to Sudan, funding is a conundrum amid successes

This month marks the 75th anniversary of the birth of UN peacekeeping. The first mission in 1948 deployed military observers to monitor the ceasefire along Israel’s border after conflict with its neighbours at its birth.

Another UN operation a year later observed the ceasefire between India and Pakistan in Kashmir and Jammu, while a third, in 1958, monitored military movements into Lebanon. Peacekeepers were also deployed to separate Egyptian and Israeli forces in the Sinai in 1956 and 1974.

Other observation missions were deployed to Lebanon (1956), Yemen (1963), and India and Pakistan (1965), while another mission administered West New Guinea’s transition from Dutch to Indonesian rule.

Larger armed missions were deployed to keep peace in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (1960) and Cyprus (1964), while smaller operations monitored the separation of Syria and Israel in the Golan Heights (1974), and established a buffer zone between Israel and Lebanon (1978). Almost half of these missions were deployed to the Middle East.   

This “first generation” of traditional peacekeeping, between 1948 and 1988, interpreted the rules in mostly interstate wars to allow for deploying an interposing force based on the consent of warring parties, to oversee an agreed peace, with the peacekeepers maintaining strict neutrality. The UN’s first peace-enforcement operation occurred in the DRC from 1960-1964, and involved both superpowers supporting local proxies, a situation the world body was determined to avoid repeating.

Truculent warlords

Peruvian UN secretary-general Javier Pérez de Cuéllar initiated the “second generation” of UN peacekeeping (1989-1999), deploying 10 missions from 1988-1991 that contributed to the thawing of the Cold War. These operations were mandated to monitor the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan; observe a ceasefire between Iran and Iraq; oversee the withdrawal of Cuban troops from Angola; observe a ceasefire in Angola; supervise the independence of Namibia from SA rule; monitor the demobilisation of Nicaraguan Contras; conduct a referendum in Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara; oversee elections in El Salvador; prepare for a peacekeeping force in Cambodia; and  monitor the buffer zone between Iraq and Kuwait.

Two African UN secretaries-general, Egypt’s Boutros Boutros-Ghali and Ghana’s Kofi Annan, expanded UN peacekeeping in the post-Cold War era. Boutros-Ghali’s 1992 An Agenda for Peace established the post-Cold War framework for UN peacemaking, peacebuilding and innovative co-operation with regional bodies such as the Economic Community of West African States. During this hyperactive “second generation” of peacekeeping in difficult civil war contexts involving truculent warlords, 38 operations were launched. There were noteworthy successes in Mozambique, Cambodia and El Salvador, and spectacular failures in Rwanda, Bosnia and Somalia.

The “third generation” of UN peacekeeping caused the deployment, from 1999, of peacekeepers to the DRC, Kosovo, East Timor, Sierra Leone, Ethiopia-Eritrea, Ivory Coast, Liberia, Burundi and SudanIt ended in 2011 with the controversial Nato-led intervention in Libya and the outbreak of Syria’s civil war.

The “fourth generation” of UN peacekeeping  (2012-2022) caused new missions to be deployed to Mali, Central African Republic, Haiti, Syria and Sudan at an annual cost of $7bn, under South Korea’s Ban Ki-moon and Portugal’s António Guterres. However, UN peacekeepers introduced cholera into Haiti, leading to thousands of local deaths. Many troop-contributing countries also avoided putting their troops in harm’s way.

Half of the post-Cold War UN missions have been in Africa, while 84% of its 87 000 peacekeepers are now deployed on the continent. Half of these countries have tended to relapse into conflict within five years due to inadequate peacebuilding. Typically, 80% of funding for UN peacekeeping missions goes directly to support the needs of the operations, not to rebuilding war-torn countries to sustain peace.

Unless this situation is urgently remedied, despite some of the UN’s undoubted peacekeeping successes over the past 75 years, many conflict-racked countries will be unable to bid a final farewell to arms.

Professor Adekeye Adebajo is professor and senior research fellow at the University of Pretoria’s Centre for the Advancement of Scholarship. 

This article first appeared in Business Day on 8 May 2023.

- Author Professor Adekeye Adebajo

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