Updated: 06-Aug-2001 NATO Review

Web edition
Vol. 49 - No. 2
Summer 2001
p. 6-8

Peacekeeping past and present

Espen Barth Eide (1) examines the way in which peacekeeping has evolved since the end of the Cold War and the nature of the challenge today.

High five: comprehensive peace-building has to go beyond the most immediate military and humanitarian concerns
( © NATO - 109Kb)

Peacekeeping is no longer what it used to be. The actors involved, the practices associated with it, even the concept itself have been transformed. In the process, it has become a more complex, comprehensive and dangerous activity. Moreover, the scale of the task, the resources involved and the skills required are such that all institutions involved, military and civilian, are seeking to adapt their working procedures to rise to the challenge. The change has been particularly prominent in Europe.

While peacekeeping has traditionally been carried out under the auspices of the United Nations, it is not explicitly referred to in the UN Charter. The concept was effectively invented in the United Nations during the Cold War by extending the interpretation of the powers in the Charter's Chapter VI on the peaceful resolution of conflicts. To a large extent, it served as a creative way of overcoming the problem of superpower rivalry, which all too often left the Security Council deadlocked and prevented it from exercising its authority under Chapter VII on actions with respect to threats to the peace.

In the early years, peacekeeping was literally about keeping a specific peace. This was usually the result of international mediation in an armed conflict, where warring parties had signed a cease-fire or peace agreement and wanted it to last, but did not trust the other side to live up to its word. The United Nations would be called in to patrol and monitor the "buffer zone" between the two parties, who were reassured by the "neutral" and non-offensive nature of the organisation's presence. While not all Cold War peacekeeping operations were equally successful, the presence of UN peacekeepers did help prevent a return to hostilities in some cases, where fighting might otherwise have broken out again.

Cold War security thinking focused on stability. The best one could hope for was the maintenance of the status quo. On a macro level, this meant balance between the superpowers; on a micro level, that existing peace agreements were kept. In this connection, containment became a buzzword during this era. Given the alternative, an all-out breakdown in the balance of power system and superpower confrontation, it could hardly have been otherwise.

Today, security thinking has moved on. Rather than maintaining the status quo, the keywords now are transition, enlargement and integration -- all dynamic rather than static concepts. The dynamics of change are affecting peacekeeping, too. The classical task of serving as a "neutral" buffer between consenting parties has evolved into operations geared towards managing political, economic and social change, often under difficult circumstances -- a trend fuelled by the fact that most modern peacekeeping operations are responses to intra-state, rather than interstate, conflicts.

Operational planning and conflict-management strategies need to take into account the changing dynamics of peacekeeping. In many cases, it is neither possible nor desirable to seek to re-establish the situation that existed before the conflict. Instead, the parties need help to build a new society. Often, it is difficult to find clear, coherent and reliable partners with genuine control over their own forces. Frequently, the situation is complicated by the presence of warlords and conflict entrepreneurs, prepared to exploit myths and instigate violence to help seize or retain power. Political and financial motives overlap, sometimes blurring the lines between politics and organised crime. Moreover, the key issues at stake in many current conflicts concern the very nature of the state. Since such issues often remain unresolved at the end of open hostilities, the international community finds itself called upon to reform dysfunctional institutions, including the state administration, the legal system and even the local media.

Contemporary conflict management is complex. In addition to the military aspect, many other activities have become integral parts of a peace-building operation. Only a careful, well-planned and coordinated combination of civilian and military measures can create the conditions for long-term, self-sustaining stability and peace. This need for a new approach to peacekeeping has led to debate about the respective roles of the United Nations and regional organisations in crisis management. This is especially the case in Europe, where several regional and sub-regional organisations actively pursue different aspects of crisis management and the issues of cooperation and division of labour are particularly relevant.

The institutional strength and financial resources of Europe made it a logical place to begin the process of relieving the United Nations of some peacekeeping responsibilities. Europe is not inherently better at dealing with conflicts, nor have tried-and-tested models of peace-support operations been developed here that are easily transferable to other parts of the world. But Europe's experience matters, not least because events in the Balkans and international responses to them have been central to the development of contemporary doctrine on post-Cold War peace-support operations. Indeed, the Balkans have, in many ways, become Europe's security-policy testing ground. Nearly all issues dominating the European security debate today -- transatlantic relations, the future of NATO, the role of the European Union and the United Nations, and relations with Russia -- have a Balkan dimension.

The wars of Yugoslav dissolution and international responses to them highlighted the shortcomings of Europe's security architecture at the end of the Cold War. In the absence of credible regional organisations ready or willing to rise to the task, the United Nations deployed the original UN Protection Force to Croatia in February 1992. Soon after, its mandate was extended to Bosnia and Herzegovina (Bosnia) and later, in 1993, to the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.(2) What was originally envisaged as a six-month deployment lasted for four years.

The United Nations was the principal institution attempting to broker an end to hostilities, keep the peace in regions where a cease-fire had been agreed and alleviate the suffering of non-combatants in conflict areas between 1992 and 1995. Over the years, NATO became more involved through its various air and sea-based support operations and a close partnership gradually developed between the two institutions. After the Dayton Agreement, the peace accord ending the Bosnian War, came into force on 20 December 1995, military responsibility transferred to the NATO-led Implementation Force (IFOR). This was the Alliance's first military engagement on land and has contributed greatly to reshaping its identity. Indeed, in only a few years, NATO has transformed itself to take on an almost entirely new role and become an increasingly effective instrument for military and political crisis management.

This adaptation and learning process is evident in the way in which peacekeeping in Bosnia under IFOR and the Stabilisation Force (SFOR) has evolved and has fed into the approach adopted when the Kosovo Force (KFOR) deployed in June 1999. Two remarkable trends can be seen. The first, is an expansion of the understanding of what constitutes the military's mandate. In the early days of IFOR, the emphasis was on avoiding "mission creep", or the tendency for a force to begin taking on tasks perceived as civilian. Eventually, however, it became increasingly clear that there could be no military success in isolation.

If the overall peace-building effort failed to produce conditions for a stable and lasting peace, this would be perceived as much as NATO's failure as that of the civilian agencies. This helped forge closer links between the peacekeeping force and its many civilian counterparts. Moreover, by the time KFOR deployed, the lesson had been learned and was reflected in the broad mandate given to the force from the outset and in the good and flexible relationship that rapidly developed between KFOR and the UN Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo.

The second trend is the gradual Europeanisation of NATO's peacekeeping operations. UNPROFOR was largely European in composition, but also included considerable numbers of soldiers from Third World countries. In the wake of the transition from UN to NATO control of the peacekeeping mission, troops from most Third World contributors left. Meanwhile, US soldiers arrived, making up one third of the 60,000-strong IFOR, a ratio that has steadily fallen in recent years. KFOR, on the other hand, was unmistakably European from the beginning. In stark contrast to the Kosovo air campaign, which was dominated by the United States, the ratio between European and US troops was 34,000 to 8,000, once the ground peacekeeping operation had fully deployed. Moreover, while the SFOR commander has always been an American, the KFOR commander has always been a European.

The Balkans have become Europe's security-policy testing ground

Security and stability in the Balkans is a paramount issue for Europeans. It is therefore natural that Europeans assume a major share of the responsibility for this operation. This meets US calls for greater burden-sharing within the Alliance and for Europe to take on more responsibility for its own security. But, while the US presence has been reduced, the continued commitment and active involvement of the United States to peace and stability in the region remains essential both for finding lasting solutions in the Balkans and for Europe's long-term stability and security.

Just as NATO has come a long way in adapting to the challenges of contemporary peacekeeping, similar developments can be found elsewhere. Today, it is accepted that while military measures may be necessary to control violent conflicts, they have to support, be supplemented by and closely coordinated with civilian instruments, if a peace-making mission is to be successful. This would not have been so self-evident ten or even five years ago, when it went against the grain of both traditional military and humanitarian thinking. Then, traditionalists objected to soldiers carrying out civilian tasks, and many non-governmental organisations did not want to "sully" their hands by working with the military. The Balkan conflicts, however, have made it abundantly clear that purity of tasking in traditional peacekeeping operations is a thing of the past.

The European Union has been working to build a military crisis-management capability and to improve its civilian crisis-response structures in recent years. As a result, this institution may be in a position to take the lead more often in crisis management in the future. Indeed, Norway and other European countries that are not EU-members have committed themselves to close collaboration with the European Union in managing complex crises because of the range of policy tools at the European Union's disposal. In addition to its military and civilian assets, the European Union can, for example, use the promise of future membership, association and partnership agreements, and economic investment as leverage.

The United Nations has also begun an overhaul of its peacekeeping operations in the wake of the publication of the Brahimi report last year. This report aims to revitalise the way in which the United Nations becomes involved in and conducts peacekeeping operations. Moreover, the institutional evolution of the European Union and NATO and the increasingly close cooperation between the United Nations and regional organisations, both on the ground and at the political level, will no doubt contribute to the reform of UN peacekeeping triggered by Brahimi and help define the United Nations' role in the world today, at least in institution- rich regions like Europe.

There are, of course, limits to the capacities of any individual organisation, be it the European Union, NATO or the United Nations. As a result, institutions will almost certainly have to continue working together and forging closer links with each other in response to future crises. Ongoing discussions between the European Union and NATO reflect this point. Here, solutions to the thorny issue of EU access to NATO assets may materialise on the ground, in response to the crisis in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (2) and the continued peace-building exercise in Bosnia and Kosovo.

Experience in the Balkans has shown that the prime task in securing peace today is to assist in the long-term and complex political and social transformation of war-shattered societies. Comprehensive peace-building needs to address not only the most immediate military and humanitarian concerns, but also the longer-term tasks of statebuilding, reforming the security sector, strengthening civil society and promoting social reintegration. While the regionalisation of peacekeeping has paid dividends, there is no universal model governing the relationship between regional organisations and the United Nations. Moreover, it would be wrong to assume that regional states and organisations are always the best placed to solve problems in their region. Rather, it is essential that peace-making around the world draws on accumulated experience, competence and resources, that lessons learned in Kosovo could perhaps be applied in East Timor and vice versa, and that global and regional organisations, humanitarian and development agencies, and governments and civil society in the countries in question pull in the same direction.

  1. Espen Barth Eide is state secretary in the Royal Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
  2. Turkey recognises the Republic of Macedonia with its constitutional name.