The practice of United Nations peacekeeping began in 1948 when the Security Council deployed observers to the Middle East to monitor the 1949 Armistice Agreement between Israel and its Arab neighbors. Since then, UN peacekeepers have been deployed in around 70 different operations. The peacekeeping practice has historically proven to be one of the UN’s most effective tools. The peacekeepers provide both security and political peacebuilding support to help countries make the difficult transition from conflict to peace.
The limitations of these peacekeepers’ power, however, have recently come into question. Specifically, should the United Nations give peacekeepers the power to engage in offensive operations?
Those who answer yes believe that if UN peacekeepers were only allowed to act in self-defense, they would be forced to wait for anticipated attacks to happen.They would therefore endanger their lives and the lives of others by putting both at risk of harm by the aggressor. Permitting UN peacekeepers to engage in offensive operations would protect both their lives and the lives of innocent civilians.
Supporters of offensive operations cite the 1995 Bosnian War as proof for why this power should be granted to peacekeepers. During this war, a peacekeeping force was put in place to protect the Bosniaks from the Serbian forces. At one point, the Serbian forces surrounded the Bosniak safe-zone with tanks, soldiers, and artillery pieces. Because the peacekeepers could not carry out offensive operations, they were unable to respond. The Serbs invaded the area, causing over 20,000 Bosniaks to flee. Many Bosniak women were raped and many more were murdered. By July 18th, 7,800 Bosniaks were dead.
A senior United Nations official stated that “these failings were…..rooted in a philosophy of neutrality and nonviolence wholly unsuited to the conflict in Bosnia,” suggesting that the power to engage in offensive operations could have prevented the anticipated attack.
Why do many people argue that UN peacekeepers should not be granted the power to engage in offensive operations?
The main argument against the use of offensive operations is that they jeopardize the UN’s reputation for impartiality. Gert Rosenthal, a member of the UN Security Council, stated, “[Offensive peacekeeping efforts] may compromise the neutrality and impartiality which we find essential to the [UN’s] peacekeeping. Its presence should be perceived by all parties as that of an honest broker, and not a potential party to the conflict.”
Moreover, many people worry that allowing peacekeepers to engage in offensive operations could lead to both significant backlash against UN intervention and abuse of power by UN peacekeepers. In general, those against feel that allowing UN peacekeepers to engage in offensive operations is not a risk that should be taken with something as crucial to world stability as the UN.
According to Thierry Vircoulon, a project director for International Crisis Group, “if an offensive operation fails to bring peace, there will be a backlash, and it will discredit the U.N.” Seventy years since the first peacekeeping operation, it may be time to consider whether the rules of conduct that worked in the past are still applicable in today’s dangerous conflicts. At the least, many feel that each peacekeeper’s operation should be reviewed individually, with the flexibility to engage in offensive operations if needed.