United Nations Peacekeeping: A Metamorphic History

A Brazilian U.N. peacekeeper walks with Haitian children during a patrol in Cite Soleil, a section of Port-au-Prince (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class David A. Frech ®).

United Nations (U.N.) peacekeeping is a commonly misunderstood concept, due to its ever-varying nature and lack of concrete referencing in the U.N. Charter. Popularly recognized as having originated during the Suez Canal Crisis in 1956, peacekeeping has cemented its importance within the U.N., to the point where its success has become a critical determinant of the organization’s repute. Although initially generated in a seemingly improvised fashion, peacekeeping has played a fundamental — and at times controversial — role in issues of international peace and security over the past six decades.

U.N. peacekeeping arose as a response to the Suez Canal Crisis of 1956. The conflict — charged with multiple instances of bitterness between Egypt and the canal occupiers, Britain and France — escalated as a result of Egyptian President Nasser’s nationalization of the Suez Canal Company (Meisler, 94). Said maneuver prompted a secretly-concocted Israeli invasion of the Sinai, followed by the deployment of British and French paratroopers to recapture the Suez Canal (supposedly to protect their nationals’ economic interests); nonetheless, to the dismay of the European powers, the true nature of the affair was soon divulged. Seeking to salvage a glimpse of their dignity, the aggressing parties condoned the deployment of the U.N. Emergency Force (UNEF I), the first U.N. peacekeeping operation in history (Meisler, 111). Orchestrated by Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld and his sidekick Ralph Bunche, UNEF I played a critical role in maintaining the peace between Israel and Egypt for more than a decade.

UNEF I represents the prototype of the so-called Classic Peacekeeping missions. Classic Peacekeeping operations are enacted under several well-defined constraints, including: dealing specifically with inter-state conflicts; having the presence of a stable cease-fire; having the consent of all parties involved; and consisting of the deployment of lightly armed, impartial and neutral troops (i.e. not from any P-5 country) with restricted rules of engagement. Classic Peacekeeping was termed “Chapter VI ½” Peacekeeping, as it stemmed from an interpretation of Chapter VI of the U.N. Charter, which deals with the peaceful settlement of international disputes.

Although new forms of peacekeeping arose over time, Classic Peacekeeping has remained relevant, due to its record of relative success. As a matter of fact — with the sole exception of the Congo Intervention in 1960 (ONUC) — the U.N. exclusively mandated Classic Peacekeeping missions between 1956 and 1988, partially due to the constraints imposed by the Cold War (which prohibited interference by any superpower under the auspices of the U.N., and thus facilitated this impartial form of securing the peace) (Bellamy and Williams, 86). In addition to UNEF I, other recognized Classic Peacekeeping missions include: the U.N. Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP), the U.N. Disengagement Observer Force in the Golan Heights (UNDOF), and the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) (Bellamy and Williams, 86). Although these operations have had their fair share of controversies — particularly due to the fact that all of them are still being carried out — U.N. Classic Peacekeeping missions have not resulted in any major catastrophe for the organization, which is why — whenever possible — they are usually favored over other peacekeeping machinations.

The diminishment of the Soviet Union’s influence in the latter portion of 1980’s — and the concomitant newfound willingness for cooperation between Soviets and Americans in the Security Council — fostered the development of a new form of peacekeeping: sponsored by Secretary-General Pérez de Cuéllar, the U.N.’s “New Peacekeeping” — while still sanctioned under Chapter VI of the U.N. Charter — dealt with an unprecedented array of issues that arose as a result of the Cold War’s termination. The Soviet Union’s retreat essentially halted multiple ongoing Civil Wars in leftist countries, as belligerents no longer saw a purpose for the continuation of armed engagements. Consequentially, the U.N. was faced with a broad set of new tasks, including: disarming armed factions, monitoring elections, developing adequate police corps and dealing with countless refugees (Meisler, 252).

At the time, the U.N.’s novel undertakings were quite revolutionary, particularly due to the organization’s seemingly groundbreaking — we must not forget the Congolese mission — involvement in intra-state environments; hence the term “New Peacekeeping”. Nonetheless, in full awareness of the U.N.’s more radical pursuits in the 1990’s — i.e. the actual “New Peacekeeping” — it feels more appropriate to categorize the U.N.’s endeavors in the tail-end of the Cold War as “Javier’s Peacekeeping”.

Javier’s Peacekeeping, in a similar fashion to its Classic counterpart, has attained widespread success and is still utilized today. Javier’s Peacekeeping missions were facilitated by the fact that U.N. peacekeepers intervened in intra-state conflicts where all belligerents actually favored reconciliation. As a result, various “Javier Missions” — UNTAG in Namibia, ONUSAL in El Salvador, ONUMOZ in Mozambique, and UNTAC in Cambodia (albeit to a lesser degree) — serve as modern standard-bearers for what constitutes a successful U.N. peacekeeping mission (Meisler, 252).

Australian Forces that participated in the UNTAG Operations in Namibia (from Wikipedia ®).

While Javier’s Peacekeeping installed intra-state operations as part of the U.N. agenda, the entire essence of U.N. peacekeeping was revolutionized by the development of Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali’s “Chapter VII Peacekeeping” in 1992. The radical nature of Boutros-Ghali’s Chapter VII operations fomented its consequent branding as “New Peacekeeping”. Following the trend of denominating Classic Peacekeeping as “Chapter VI ½”, Boutros-Ghali’s New Peacekeeping was termed “Chapter VI ¾”, as it was inspired on the content of the more robust Chapter VII of the U.N Charter. Boutros Boutros-Ghali consolidated the essence of New Peacekeeping in the report titled An Agenda for Peace, presented to the U.N. in June of 1992 (Meisler, 286).

It is important to recall that the U.N. had indeed previously deployed an intra-state peacekeeping mission under Chapter VII: ONUC in Congo (1960–1964). Nonetheless, the operation proved to be quite devastating; not only did Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld perish amidst the turmoil, but the mission’s lack of neutrality and impartiality also threatened to rupture the core and reputability of U.N. peacekeeping (Bellamy and Williams, 87). Consequentially, U.N. diplomats basically turned a blind-eye to the Congolese precedent.

Unlike the conducive climate under which Javier’s Peacekeeping missions were being deployed, New Peacekeeping operations usually lacked general consent from all belligerents and were immersed in environments bereft of stable cease-fires. Consequentially, New Peacekeeping was characterized by the deployment of heavily armed troops — including from P-5 countries — which lacked impartiality and operated under more lenient rules of engagement (Meisler, 287).

As the U.N.’s variety of peacekeeping missions expanded, the amount of operations the organization deployed increased substantially. Thus, in response to the greater demand for peacekeeping, Boutros-Ghali developed the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) in 1992, appointing British diplomat Marrack Goulding as its head. Nonetheless, Goulding was soon dismissed from his post — and replaced with future Secretary-General Kofi Annan — due to his unwillingness to sanction Chapter VII Peacekeeping operations in Somalia, which displeased the American delegation (Meisler, 301).

New Peacekeeping’s stage time was short, and quite sour. Boutros-Ghali was solely able to deploy a mere handful of unsuccessful Chapter VII missions during his tenure: UNPROFOR in Bosnia, and UNITAF alongside UNOSOM II in Somalia (Bellamy and Williams, 98). Although UNITAF — aided by extensive American support through Operation Restore Hope — halted the widespread famine in Somalia, its failure to disarm the Somali warlords catalyzed UNOSOM II’s demise. UNOSOM II — a forgettable attempt at “nation-building”, characterized by an irreconcilable gulf between mandate and resources — was fundamentally abandoned after the Mogadishu firefight that propitiated “Black Hawk Down”, which lead to the withdrawal of the all-important U.S. contingent from Somalia (Meisler, 308). Finally, UNPROFOR’s inability to secure the Bosnian Safe Areas — which led to the genocide in Srebrenica — further embarrassed the entire organization, and all but ensured the prompt termination of New Peacekeeping operations (Meisler, 331).

UNPROFOR checkpoint in Bosnia and Herzegovina (from Stari Vitez ®).

Scholars disagree as to the exact “death date” of Boutros-Ghali’s New Peacekeeping. Some argue that the death of eighteen U.S. Rangers during “Black Hawk Down”, and the consequent unwillingness of the U.S. to sanction future Chapter VII peacekeeping operations, effectively signaled the end of New Peacekeeping. Others believe that Clinton’s Presidential Decision Directive 25 (PDD-25) — which established extremely rigorous guidelines for what was required in a U.N. peacekeeping mission to guarantee U.S. support (be it financial or military) — essentially undermined the possibility for New Peacekeeping endeavors (Meisler, 309). Regardless, Boutros-Ghali himself conceded that New Peacekeeping was fundamentally extinguished in the Supplement to the Agenda for Peace (1995), albeit blaming the failures of the Bosnian and Somali missions on Member States’ reluctance to supply necessary resources (Bellamy and Williams, 306).

The fall of New Peacekeeping fomented the development of “Peacekeeping through Subcontracting”. Basically, rather than attempting to pursue U.N.-led missions, the organization would now grant regional “coalitions of the willing” (typically led by a regional first-world godfather) permission to intervene in intra-state conflicts within their sectors of the globe. In 1994, the United States — alongside other Organization of American States (OAS) participants — launched an intervention in Haiti under the mechanisms of Subcontracting Peacekeeping (Bellamy and Williams, 100). Similarly, responding to the escalating turmoil in East Timor following a successful independence referendum during the summer of 1999, Australia led a U.N. intervention to halt the violence (Meisler, 354). Moreover, NATO’s Kosovo interference in the spring of 1999 is also usually categorized as Subcontracting Peacekeeping, even though the operation lacked U.N. approval (Meisler, 353).

Subcontracting essentially perished following NATO’s Kosovo campaign. Not only was the legality of NATO’s operation questioned, but the U.N. also realized that the proliferation of successful Subcontracting Peacekeeping missions would seriously hamper the relevance of the institution in the realm of international peace and security. Partially as a direct consequence of Subcontracting Peacekeeping’s demise, Secretary-General Kofi Annan embarked on a campaign to establish “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) — an ideal fathered and feverously championed by Australian diplomat Gareth Evans — as an emerging international norm, thereby attempting to redefine the core purpose of U.N. peacekeeping (Meisler, 352).

The inability of the U.N. to respond to mass atrocities during the last decade of the twentieth century — particularly in Rwanda and Kosovo — fueled the rise of R2P. Secretary-General Kofi Annan basically argued that the U.N. — rather than being tasked to serve the governments of sovereign nations — was supposed to serve the people of said states, thereby making it the organization’s responsibility to intervene in affairs where humanitarian concerns warranted it (Meisler, 352).

Although its ideological importance remains undisputed, the U.N. has solely employed R2P twice; the Security Council sanctioned the deployment of the UNOCI peacekeeping mission to Cote d’Ivoire in response to the post-electoral violence engulfing the country during 2011, and authorized the “use [of] all necessary means to protect life and property” (Bellamy and Williams, 373). Unfortunately, the U.N.’s over-stretched involvement in Libya during the same year proved to be a seemingly fatal blow for R2P. While the U.N.-sanctioned NATO mission was initially popular amongst Member States — due to the growing civilian casualties in the Libyan Civil War — the measure ultimately lost support, as NATO’s execution of regime change in Libya appalled China and Russia (Meisler, 389). The Libyan debacle has apparently sentenced R2P to irrelevance, as the previously emerging international norm has not been invoked since.

NATO’s execution of regime change in Libya led to the downfall of R2P (from The Intercept ®).

In a parallel sequence of events to that of R2P’s rise and fall, the U.N.’s new-millennium peacekeeping missions assumed a greater degree of robustness, aiming to avoid the troubles of the prior decade. The U.N.’s modern adherence to vigorous Chapter VII peacekeeping missions can be partially attributed to the Report of the Panel on U.N. Peace Operations, more commonly referred to as the “Brahimi Report”. The Brahimi Report changed the mentality surrounding the Security Council’s formulation of U.N. peacekeeping operations, as it emphasized the need to diminish the gulf between the mandates tasked to U.N. missions and the actual resources devoted to the campaigns (Bellamy and Williams, 130).

As a direct repercussion of the Brahimi Report, the U.N. has most recently relied upon robust Chapter VII peacekeeping operations, which allow for more generous rules of engagement and the deployment of a greater number of troops. Exemplars of said contemporary missions — which have been carried out exclusively in Africa — include UNAMID in Darfur and MONUSCO in Congo (Bellamy and Williams, 144) The latter has proven to be an exceptionally innovative endeavor, as the organization’s presence in Eastern Congo includes a pioneering U.N. Force Intervention Brigade, which is authorized to embark on offensive endeavors; the U.N. Force Intervention Brigade has launched multiple successful assaults against rebels from the Movement of March 23 (M23) since its inception (Verini). In general, the success of recent robust operations has served to partially restore the brand of U.N. peacekeeping, although said improved standing has been mitigated by a handful of sexual abuse scandals involving U.N. peacekeepers in both the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo (Verini).

As proven by MONUSCO’s ventures, U.N. peacekeeping appears to be sliding towards the Chapter VII nature of operations, and will most likely continue to do so in the absence of a devastating calamity. Such a proceeding concludes the fluctuating and controversial history of U.N. Peacekeeping up to this point; spanning the trajectory from its Classic origins in 1956 to the development of robust Chapter VII missions in the new millennium, linked by the development of Javier’s operations and the short-lived apparitions of Boutros-Ghali’s New Peacekeeping and Subcontracting Peacekeeping, it is only fair to frame the ever-metamorphosing legacy of U.N. peacekeeping as both muddled and mystifying.


Bellamy, Alex J., Paul D. Williams, and Stuart Griffin. Understanding Peacekeeping. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2004. Print.

Meisler, Stanley. United Nations: The First Fifty Years. New York: Atlantic Monthly, 1995. Print.Bellamy and Williams

Verini, James. “Should the United Nations Wage War to Keep Peace?” National Geographic 27 Mar. 2014: n. pag. Print.