Modern peacekeeping has evolved as a response to civil conflicts that have erupted since the end of the Cold War but the methods are still often largely improvised in the countries where peacekeepers are deployed. Many things can still be done to make both peacekeeping and peace building more effective, writes Louise Fréchette

The invention of peacekeeping is widely credited to Lester B. Pearson, a Canadian Foreign Minister who put forward the concept as a way out of the 1956 Suez crisis. Pearson would be surprised by the extent to which the concept, which merited him the Nobel Peace Prize, has changed since that time.

The original peacekeeping formula was fairly straightforward: when parties to a conflict agreed on a ceasefire, an international force could be deployed to observe and report on whether or not they lived up to their commitment. The deployment would take place only with the consent of all the parties and the mandate would be quite restricted. The peacekeepers would use force only for self-defence and would stay on the sidelines if combat resumed.

Concerns for sovereignty and the principle of non-intervention in the internal affairs of states circumscribed the function of peacekeeping for over 40 years. All this began to change in the late 1980s. In rapid succession, the world witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall, the reunification of Germany and the end of the Soviet empire. One after the other, countries emerging from decades of authoritarian regimes and civil conflicts dedicated themselves to creating free, fair and open societies where the rights of people would trump those of the state. Meanwhile, the advent of CNN and the 24-hour news cycle brought the world into our living rooms. Scenes of atrocities brought on demands for governments to ‘do something’.

The impact of these developments on international relations and particularly on the United Nations was nothing short of dramatic. The Security Council, which had been paralysed by Cold War rivalries, was now able to find agreement on bold action of the sort that would have been unthinkable just a few years earlier. The last years of the 20th century became a period of great innovation and reform, a period of broken taboos and daring enterprises.

Almost overnight, the international community got itself involved in situations such as civil wars and humanitarian crisis that used to be considered totally off-limits. Peacekeepers were deployed not only to keep combatants apart but also to stop gross human rights abuses and to place countries destroyed by decade-long civil conflicts, on a path of political and economic stability.

Peacekeeping missions were charged with a long list of tasks like disarming combatants, training the police and armed forces, strengthening the judicial systems, organising elections, relocating returning refugees, kick-starting the local economy and many more. Unsurprisingly, the implementation of such complex mandates has proved extremely challenging. There is no blueprint for the successful rebuilding of war-torn societies, only a growing body of experience which needs to be adapted each time to thespecific conditions encountered by the peacekeepers.

Hard lessons were learned in Somalia and Bosnia on the perils of deploying peacekeepers in the middle of combat situations. The rules of engagement of modern-day peacekeeping have changed as a result. Force can be used not only for the self-defence of peacekeepers but also to permit the implementation of the mission’s mandate and protect the civilian populations as much as possible. Heavy equipment, never seen in traditional peacekeeping, has become part of the standard kit to enable peacekeepers to engage in combat operations when challenged by rogue elements.

There has never been as much peacekeeping done as there is today. At last count, the UN was supporting 17 peace operations involving close to 120,000 military, police and civilian personnel – an all-time high. Regional organisations such as NATO, the European Union and the African Union are also leading peacekeeping missions mandated by the Security Council.

On the face of it, this is good news. It suggests the international community is still committed to brokering the end of conflicts and protecting innocent civilians. But making peacekeeping operations truly effective remains a challenge. Peacekeeping missions are composed of military, police and civilian staff from dozens of nations and from numerous organisations. Twenty years into the new peacekeeping era, these missions are still largely improvised affairs, with too few resources devoted to preparing the peacekeepers for their tasks. Many large deployments authorised by the Security Council fail to meet their goal because the necessary resources are not forthcoming.

Many things can be done to make peacekeeping missions more effective. Many ideas have been put forward over the years such as guaranteed standby arrangements to permit more rapid deployment, more extensive joint training of mission leadership prior to the beginning of the mission and more secure and generous financing for essential peace building activities. UN peacekeeping missions would also greatly benefit from the participation of a greater number of well-trained and well-equipped Western troops which have been conspicuous by their absence in recent years.

Louise Fréchette is Chair of the Pearson Peacekeeping Centre and a Distinguished Fellow at The Centre for International Governance Innovation. She was Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations from 1998 to 2006.

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