In the midst of all the worldly chaos, conflict and disaster, both natural and induced by mankind, lies those that sacrifice their safety, comfort and homes to embark on what the global community knows as blue helmet missions – UN peacekeeping operations. Today marks the observation of the international day of UN peacekeepers.
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres commemorates the 70th anniversary of the first UN peacekeeping mission:
Let us now take you on a short journey into some of the UN’s peacekeeping successes and failures.
On July 11, 1995, towards the end of Bosnia’s 1992-95 war, Bosnian Serb forces swept into the eastern Srebrenica enclave and executed 8,000 Muslim men and boys in the days that followed, dumping their bodies into pits. It was the worst atrocity in post-Second World War European history. The UN had previously declared the town one of the safe areas, to be “free from any armed attack or any other hostile act”. 600 Dutch infantry were supposed to be protecting thousands of civilians who had taken refuge from earlier Serb offensives in north-eastern Bosnia.
As Serb forces began shelling Srebrenica, Bosnian Muslim fighters in the town asked for the return of weapons they had surrendered to the UN peacekeepers but their request was refused. The Dutch peacekeepers were obliged to watch as the killings began. The failure led in part to the creation of the United Nations Peacebuilding Commission and set the West on a new course of ‘liberal interventionism’.
Another major failing of the UN peacekeeping organisation was not doing more to prevent the 1994 Rwandan genocide that left up to one million people dead. A 1999 inquiry found that the UN ignored evidence that the genocide was planned and refused to act once it had started. More than 2,500 UN peacekeepers were withdrawn after the murder of ten Belgian soldiers. In one case, the peacekeeping forces deserted a school where Tutsis were taking shelter – hundreds of people inside were immediately massacred.
Kofi Annan, who was then head of UN peacekeeping forces was accused of failing to pass on warnings of the massacre. UN soldiers did not return to Rwanda until June, by which time hundreds of thousands of people were dead. The UN was accused of “leaving Rwanda to its fate”.
The UN operation was the first time the peacekeeping force had been used for “humanitarian intervention”. However, the peacekeepers were met with a hostile reception in Mogadishu. 157 of them were killed, including 24 pakistani soldiers and 18 American. The bodies of dead US soldiers were paraded through the streets on the orders of the Somali warlords. When an American Black Hawk helicopter was shot down as part of the Battle of Mogadishu, the US withdrew its troops. In 1995 the UN withdrew all peacekeeping troops. It was described at the time by one UN official as “the greatest failure of the UN in our lifetime”.
The UN peacekeeping force that operated in Sierra Leone from 1999 to 2005 is hailed as a success. It was created to help implement a peace agreement after the country’s devastating civil war. The then secretary general Ban Ki-Moon officially closed the UN offices in Freetown in 2014, declaring a “successful conclusion” to the organisations work in helping to bring peace to the country, calling it a “triumph for the people of Sierra Leone” after what had been a decade of warfare. “Our blue helmets disarmed more than 75 000 ex-fighters, including hundreds of child soldiers. The UN destroyed more than 42,000 weapons and 1.2 million rounds of ammunition – a potentially deadly arsenal that is now itself dead,” Mr Ban declared.
Burundi is also frequently cited as a success story for the UN peacekeeping operation, helping it recover from decades of ethnic war. Ban Ki-moon hailed Burundi’s “substantial progress, overcoming formidable challenges since the end of the civil war”. But in 2014 he extended the peacekeeping mission for a year to help the country through elections, that took place earlier in July, and cautioned that the gains made under the UN’s watch were not irreversible.
Within both the successes and failures of UN peacekeeping missions – the safety, security and vulnerability of UN blue helmets, and those subject, is at times compromised. The transparency, accountability and responsibility of the UN in whole and blue helmets specifically in conducting humanitarian work has not been appreciated or implemented to a degree that protects those that are most vulnerable.
Andrew MacLeod, visiting professor of war and security studies at King’s College London and former chief of operations at the UN’s Emergency Coordination Centre in Pakistan states:
There needs to be a systematic change. I want to see prosecutions by police and the current wilful blind eye become an illegal act of aiding and abetting by negligence.
Furthermore, those responsible for peacekeeping operations must exhaust all avenues to fortify the safety of personnel on the ground. For 3,700 blue helmets to have paid the ultimate price on their missions, is 3,700 too many.
The UN must channel its efforts to safeguard both those within the institution and those subject to it.