Peacekeeping: The Real Lessons Part 1

Peacekeeping is dead. Well, in the developed world at least. OECD countries’ contributions to peacekeeping have dropped precipitously, falling from 43 percent in 1998 to 8 percent in 2005. The Western world has not only ignored peacekeeping throughout the past decade, Western militaries have largely taken Afghanistan and Iraq as license to bury peacekeeping.

Developing countries and smaller nations have a somewhat different perspective. You see, they are the 92 percent. For many emerging countries, peacekeeping has become an important means of establishing national identity and participation on the world stage, leading to high representation of developing nations in peacekeeping activities. The pros and cons of this trend are a subject for another article, but as these nations build their experience and capacity in this area, it’s time to look back with a sense of rueful self-examination at the mistakes the developed world made. If peacekeeping has a future (and for many African and Asian nations, it surely does), what lessons can it take from previous failures? This series will explore the shape of the ideal peacekeeping unit in light of lessons learned.


The currently-predominant civil-military cooperation (CIMIC) paradigm stems historically from the American experience of administrating liberated territories in Europe during World War II. It is based on the idea that of a specialised team of administrators dealing with civilian issues in order to relieve the combat soldiers of the need to do so. CIMIC is thus a specialised branch serving the needs of the army, rather than an approach for the army as a whole. As noted, this has been the basis for most modern CIMIC operations, but fails to address both the needs of the military forces and of the situations in which they are deployed.

Civil-Military Cooperation (CIMIC) as currently envisioned by NATO and most military forces, emphasises civilian support for military objectives, rather than military support for political and humanitarian objectives. In Kosovo, for example, it was embraced on the basis of “winning hearts and minds” to create a more pliable operating environment. This, Zaalberg argues, has been largely due to a military desire to avoid “nation-building” projects. A further issue has been that CIMIC and its specialist teams have usually been incidental to, rather than coordinating, the relationship between the command structure and civil society.

A preferable model was developed by the British during the Malayan counterinsurgency. Robert Thompson, a British civil servant in Malaya, codified the principles of effective counterinsurgency. These included an overarching political response to the root causes of the insurgency, use of the minimum necessary force, cooperation and coordination between civil administration, military and police, and commitment to a long-term process were the key features. This line of thinking led to increasing acceptance of the idea that not only strategic but tactical decisions must be guided by the political situation. This culminated in Malaya with the “war by committee system,” in which, at every level, administrators would chair daily meetings with police and army commanders. Even today, the British approach assumes the primacy of civil and police authorities over the military in peace operations, and that it is the function of the military to support these branches.

Despite, and in some ways due to, the efforts of Western militaries to increase civil cooperation, it is clear that the close and unequal fusion of militarism and humanitarianism in the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts represent in many ways a new and deplorable model for military-civil interaction. However, it is increasingly unlikely that Western nations would repeat such overt military adventurism in the foreseeable future, a reality that opens up space for humanitarian organisations to strengthen their own positions and for militaries to reconsider the basis on which CIMIC is conducted in light of the complex ramifications it carries. The solution may lie in a dual system, with a peacekeeping force having some integral civilian expertise and reconstruction capacity, which would then facilitate coordination with external NGOs, thus allowing the latter to operate without directly coordinating with the military presence.

Permanent Peacekeeping Administration

Without a competent civilian leadership with which it can collaborate closely and to which it can look for guidance, a peacekeeping force is doomed to encounter many of the systemic problems into which UN missions fall. How much better then, if a competent, professional civilian agency were created alongside such a force. A tripartite structure, in which a trained and permanent civilian administration arm coordinates between a military/policing branch and a civil/reconstruction branch may seem to be merely a replication of the current UN mission structure. Yet, these branches would not be separate entities, but created to interoperate at every level on a permanent basis, taking tactical decisions jointly, similar to the “war by committee” system. Furthermore, a permanent administrative capacity for peacekeeping would be a significant improvement over piecework administrations in which senior appointments are usually determined by political jockeying among participating countries and interests. This structure would emphasise the role of the military/policing component in supporting humanitarian and political goals, and would provide a civilian point of contact for aid agencies, which would allow them to avoid concerns about subservience to a purely military agenda.

This structure would also allow the organisation to more comfortably acquire or cooperate with advisory talent from a broad range of disciplines, ranging from legal advisors to linguists to historians, sociologists, political scientists, anthropologists, psychologists. The knowledge resources available, particularly in UN missions, can be relatively impressive in terms of the research team; the problem is that this knowledge is not communicated to the individual peacekeepers. That “information… goes ‘up’ but never ‘down’” has been a common lament. To soldiers, this often means that they have no coordinates for the situation they have to deal with, nor, more dangerously, for who the enemy might be.

It is therefore critical for a peacekeeping force to not only incorporate some of its own research capacity and have efficient means of dissemination, but to cultivate a culture of knowledge-seeking. Of course, militaries already collaborate with academics in these fields, but usually as outsiders to some degree. It is necessary not only to widen the scope of basic (rather than pre-deployment) training considerably to incorporate these disciplines, but to make sure the force has credible civilian advice on the ground. The latter, of course, tends to provoke resistance in the academic community;* this could potentially be alleviated by a more careful definition of roles, as well as a strictly civilian reporting structure.

First Principles

Mackay notes that the fundamental challenge is to teach soldiers that they are sent in to serve a population. The unsuitability of military ethos and codes to the moral environment of peacekeeping have been frequently observed, yet there are fairly straightforward approaches to resolving this. During the 1990s, the massacre at Srebrenica, in which Dutch peacekeepers stood aside and allowed Serb forces to slaughter Bosnian Muslims, as well as the Rwanda genocide, exposed a lack of will on the part of the international community, but also of the militaries involved, to intervene to protect civilians. While many authors have located the problem in the international community’s unwillingness to reinforce peacekeeping operations as needed, at least one author persuasively disagrees.

According to Paolo Tripodi, an ethicist teaching at Quantico, the issue is more fundamental. While it was technically lawful for the peacekeepers to abandon civilians knowing they would be killed, he argues that the presence of peacekeepers represents an implicit promise of protection, and that in refusing to provide it, whatever their disadvantages, the peacekeepers were fundamentally complicit in and consenting to the murders. He points to counterexamples in Rwanda, of Senegalese and Tunisian soldiers who, though gravely outnumbered, were effective in saving thousands of lives. Fundamentally, what is lacking is not only the will to die to save those constructed as strangers, as was certainly the case with the Dutch, and was manifested in Rwanda by the greater care taken for Western expatriates than for locals.

In response to the shortcomings of peacekeeping in the 1990s, the 2000 Brahmi Report recommended that peacekeepers be authorised to protect civilians with force, though this is still short of an explicit mandate to do so. The difference, for example, between the wording of UN and EU mandates in DR Congo, whether to “ensure the protection of civilians” or “within its means and capabilities… to contribute to the protection of civilians,” illustrates this disparity.

Any future peacekeeping force must have a clear principle to fall back on when situations deteriorate, emphasising protection of civilians, just as there is already a clear code to fall back on in conventional warfare, emphasising discipline and national security. This code must be clearly advertised and understood by the military and policy-makers alike, and from this perspective, it is futile to construct a new norm for peacekeeping forces without also addressing the unwillingness of contributing nations to sustain casualties. Likewise, it is clear that such martial values as courage and steadfastness must continue to be emphasised, though in a reoriented form.

This idea in itself highlights several more obstacles, such as how to instil an ethos of protection without objectifying the local population, and how to bridge the gap between the soldier who enlists to defend the national interest, and the one who enlists to promote the good of the global community. Military law would need to be changed as well, since there are currently no legal grounds to disobey an order to leave civilians to die. Rules of Engagement should reflect the priority of protection of civilians. It appears that rules of engagement that allow only force protection create a feeling of ineffectiveness among deployed units, which often manifests in provocative behaviour; soldiers seek to provoke attacks upon themselves so they can have an excuse to carry out their mission.

The deficiencies of the mandates under which peacekeepers must operate are well-known. Thus, a strong case can be made that any dedicated peacekeeping force should come to rely rather on a professional code of its own, culled from the lessons learned over the history of peacekeeping, which should supersede specific mandates when these fall below that standard. When a peacekeeping force is placed, for example, under United Nations command, the discipline of the service remains in force, and that is precisely where these standards should be located. The key areas here are professional ethics, as previously mentioned, and coordination with other components of the mission, humanitarian organisations and host country civil society.

* A full discussion of the reactions to the Human Terrain System (HTS) project, exemplified by the American Anthropological Association’s press release on the subject (31 October 2007), would be an article in itself. It seems clear that the greatest problems were a) participation in the Iraq War and b) the fact that the role of the anthropologists was not thought out with an eye to academic integrity and independence and the protection of anthropological subjects. Future ventures of this type would have to be much more carefully thought out and preferably be not subordinated to military command structures.


Sandra Whitworth, Men, Militarism and UN Peacekeeping: A Gendered Analysis, (Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2004)

Daniel Blocq, “Western Soldiers and the Protection of Local Civilians in UN Peacekeeping Operations: Is a Nationalist Orientation in the Armed Forces Hindering Our Preparedness to Fight?” Armed Forces and Society 36 no. 2 (2010)

Thijs Zaalberg, “Countering Insurgent-terrorism: Why NATO Chose the Wrong Historical Foundation for CIMIC,” Small Wars and Insurgencies 17 no. 4 (2006)

Dyan Mazurana, “Gender and the Causes and Consequences of Armed Conflict,” in Dyan Mazurana, Angela Raven-Roberts and Jane Parpart eds. Gender, Conflict and Peacekeeping, (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2005)

Beatrice Pouligny, Peace Operations Seen from Below: UN Missions and Local People. Bloomfield: Kumarian Press, 2006)

Angela Mackay, “Mainstreaming Gender in United Nations Peacekeeping Training: Examples from East Timor, Ethiopia and Eritrea,” in Dyan Mazurana, Angela Raven-Roberts and Jane Parpart eds. Gender, Conflict and Peacekeeping, (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2005).

Paolo Tripodi, “Soldiers’ Moral Responsibility in Peace Support Operations,” International Journal On World Peace, 25 no. 1 (2008).

Claire Duncanson, “Forces for Good? Narratives of Military Masculinity in Peacekeeping Operations,” International Feminist Journal of Politics, 11 no. 1 (2009).

Full referencing available upon request.


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