In a world where blowing up a factory seems to be the only anti-poverty measure Western governments won’t spare any expense for, the worst thing you’re likely to hear about the United Nations’ blue helmet–clad peacekeepers is that they’re ineffective. Like the UN itself or the idea of international law, its peacekeepers are generally viewed as a force that would be mostly unobjectionable if it only worked or was — snicker — actually taken seriously.
This simple story masks two crucial facts. One is that, far from a ramshackle fighting force, UN peacekeepers have had some genuine successes in their seventy-year history. The other is that the nature of UN peacekeeping has drastically, and alarmingly, changed in the last few decades.
Technically, there’s no basis for peacekeeping in the UN Charter. The doctrine was developed largely by the organization’s second secretary-general, Dag Hammarskjöld, as well as institutions like the International Court of Justice.
The 1956 Suez Crisis was the first time the United Nations sent peacekeepers to supervise a ceasefire, doing so largely at the urging of Canada and to no small amount of controversy. For the rest of the century, the body would define, refine, and slowly expand what exactly “peacekeeping” meant, its limits, and when it was appropriate, deploying peacekeepers at an ever-increasing rate and often to objections from various members.
Overnight, it seemed, peacekeeping became one of the UN’s chief functions. After authorizing only thirteen missions in the first four decades of peacekeeping operations (starting with the 1948 observer mission in Palestine), the Security Council set in motion twenty-seven missions between 1988 and 1995 alone. Last year, 100,945 troops were deployed at the cost of $6.7 billion.
The nature of those missions changed, too. They were no longer determined strictly on the basis of the original “holy trinity” of guiding principles: consent, impartiality, and non–use of force. Peacekeepers were now entering situations where neither a peace treaty nor even a functioning state existed to give consent. In Timor-Leste, the United Nations effectively became the governing body from 1999 to 2002. In Mali or Somalia, peacekeepers fought for governments against extremist militants. And elsewhere, like in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, peacekeeping has become increasingly a matter of offense, using drones, air strikes, and military intelligence.
This mission creep has happened largely apart from public debate about its advisability. Given the United Nations’ lopsided domination by a handful of Western states, particularly the United States, which by itself provides nearly a third of the funding for peacekeeping operations, there are real questions about bias baked into the process.
The Security Council would never, for instance, send peacekeeping forces to the United States, despite its being plagued by issues over which any “Third World” nation would be inundated with blue helmets in the blink of an eye — from unfair elections to state violence. The US veto likewise saves Israel from facing a platoon of armed peacekeepers in the occupied territories, a suggestion made last year by the current secretary-general as a way to protect Palestinians from Israeli forces. Meanwhile, some UN deployments, like its 1994 intervention in Haiti, were little more than extensions of US geopolitical goals.
UN peacekeepers have at times made things worse. Various flaws in the Liberian deployments at the turn of the century saw conditions in the country deteriorate and even spill over into neighboring Sierra Leone. In the Central African Republic, the United Nations presence has inflamed deadly protests, and peacekeepers themselves have carried out war crimes against the civilians they were tasked with protecting. As peacekeeping takes on a more explicitly offensive character, the chances of already delicate tinderboxes becoming full-blown infernos grow.
The 2004–17 UN mission in Haiti was first directly responsible fora 2010 cholera outbreak that took nine thousand lives, before being engulfed in a sprawling sex abuse scandal that left behind disease and trauma in local communities. The latter is sadly neither a new nor a unique phenomenon, with peacekeepers leaving a similar trail of sexual abuse through earlier deployments in places like Cambodia and Timor-Leste and facing thousands of accusations across the globe in the last decade alone. Thanks to the United Nations’ opaque investigatory process, its lack of independent oversight, and its inability to punish and prosecute its own peacekeepers, these perpetrators have mostly gotten off scot-free, shuffled around by superiors to new assignments just as the Catholic Church did with its predatory clerics.
Then there are the effects peacekeeping operations have on the countries doing the deploying. The Brazilian-led mission in Haiti from 2004 to 2017, for instance, has not just meant having notoriously abusive and racist military forces in charge of maintaining order in a mostly black country in the throes of civil unrest; it’s given those same forces valuable practice in putting down internal disorder and rebellion, skills they have taken back home with them to the favelas of Rio de Janeiro and elsewhere. In 2010, eight hundred Brazilian troops, some of them fresh off peacekeeping activities in Haiti, took part in a massive “pacification” initiative in Rio that left thirty-seven dead.
Even for the lauded United Nations, it seems, bombs and troops are increasingly the first resort to deal with the problems created by an unjust, exploitative global economy.