Who are the Blue Helmets? UN peacekeeping, explained

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Spencer Feingold, Digital Editor, Public Engagement, World Economic Forum


In 1988, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to an unusual recipient: a military force.

Yet the decision to honour the United Nations peacekeeping forces was in line with past laureates as UN peacekeepers are not deployed to fight wars. Rather, they help countries navigate peace processes and transition out of conflict.

As then-UN Secretary-General Javier Pérez said at the time, “the essence of peacekeeping is the use of soldiers as a catalyst for peace rather than as the instruments of war.”

How peacekeeping operations are formed

The formation of a peacekeeping mission can be an onerous process.

First and foremost, peacekeepers can only be deployed with the consent of the warring parties. This can be extremely challenging to obtain when conflicts are raging as governments and political groups are often reluctant to have international actors interfere in their affairs.

UN peacekeeping operations must also be authorised by the Security Council, the UN’s principal body for dealing with international peace and security. This requires a passing vote by the fifteen-member body without a single veto from one of the five permanent members: China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States. This, too, can be challenging as creating consensus around conflict is often difficult.

If agreed upon, the Security Council creates a resolution that details a specific mandate for the operation and names senior leaders to lead the mission.

The General Assembly, the UN’s main policymaking and representative organ, then determines the financing and staffing of the mission. The burden of peacekeeping operations is split between all UN member states, with some countries covering more of the cost while others provide more military and police personnel. As of 2022, Bangladesh, Nepal, India and Rwanda are the top personnel-contributing countries while the United States, China, Japan and Germany are the top financing countries.

Since the UN has no standing peacekeeping force, each peacekeeping operation is formed on an ad hoc basis. As former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan once said, UN peacekeeping is “the only fire brigade in the world that has to wait for the fire to break out before it can acquire a fire engine.”

What does peacekeeping entail

All peacekeeping operations are guided by three core principles: consent of the parties engaged in conflict; complete impartiality; and non-use of force except in self-defence and defence of the mandate.

Peacekeeping mandates can differ significantly as they are tailored to specific conflicts. Objectives can include tracking violence, disarming and reintegrating fighters into society, monitoring elections, establishing judicial systems and facilitating reconciliation processes, among others. The size of peacekeeping missions can vary, from a force of tens of thousands or just a few hundred.

Operations are largely staffed by military personnel who are equipped in UN-blue coloured helmets—earning the forces the Blue Helmets moniker. Police personnel and other experts such as humanitarian specialists, legal advisors and economists are also often deployed.

The UN peacekeeping mission in El Salvador in the early 1990s was one of the organisation’s most comprehensive operations.

The mission began after the Salvadoran government and a leftist insurgent group invited UN peacekeepers into the country to help end a 12-year civil war. A mission of several hundred peacekeepers was deployed in 1991. Over the next several years, the peacekeepers helped create peace accords, monitored ceasefires, reformed military and judicial institutions and established a peace and reconciliation body to investigate war crimes.

More recently, in 2004, thousands of UN peacekeepers were deployed to Côte d’Ivoire to help the country transition out of civil war. For over a decade, peacekeepers monitored multiple presidential elections, facilitated the disarming of over 70,000 combatants and helped more that 250,000 Ivorian refugees return to the country. The mandate concluded in 2017.

Since the UN’s first peacekeeping missions were authorised in the late 1940s, the UN has deployed over 1 million peacekeepers in more than 70 operations. Over 4,000 UN peacekeepers from some 120 countries have died while serving in various missions.

“They face enormous challenges. Rising violence against peacekeepers has made their work even more dangerous. Restrictions due to the pandemic have made it more difficult,” UN Secretary-General António Guterres said in May. “But United Nations peacekeepers continue to serve with distinction as partners for peace.”

Current peacekeeping operations

As of 2022, there are 12 ongoing UN peacekeeping missions around the world.

This includes several longtime operations such as the truce-observing mission in the Middle East, which was formed in 1948 as UN’s first ever peacekeeping operation. That mission was followed by the ongoing peacekeeping operation along the border of India and Pakistan, which was deployed in 1949 and today consists of just over one hundred peacekeepers who monitor violence in the border region.

UN peacekeeping deployments. Image: Statista

Today, half of ongoing UN peacekeeping operations are in Africa. This includes operations in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Western Sahara, Mali, the Central African Republic, South Sudan and Sudan’s Abyei region. The mandates largely entail protecting civilians, monitoring ceasefires, overseeing elections and reforming governing systems, among other directives.

Other peacekeeping missions are active in Cyprus, Lebanon, Kosovo and along the border between Israel and Syria.

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