The UN Fire Brigade: How Good?

Jean-Marie Guéhenno (center), then the UN’s undersecretary-general for peacekeeping operations, at a meeting at the UN Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea, with deputy special representative Joël Adechi and military adviser Major-General Randhir Kumar Mehta, Asmara, Eritrea, December 2005
Rick Bajornas/UNMEE/Reuters
Jean-Marie Guéhenno (center), then the UN’s undersecretary-general for peacekeeping operations, at a meeting at the UN Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea, with deputy special representative Joël Adechi and military adviser Major-General Randhir Kumar Mehta, Asmara, Eritrea, December 2005

The UN has never had a standing army ready to carry out the directives of the Security Council. It has instead engaged, with varying success, in different kinds of “peacekeeping,” using forces recruited by the UN Secretariat. This started in 1948 when the first two UN military observer missions were dispatched to monitor truces in Palestine and Kashmir. A revised form of such missions—one that would serve as a model for many of the contemporary practices of peacekeeping—was developed by the then UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld and the Canadian diplomat (and future prime minister) Lester Pearson in response to the botched Anglo-French-Israeli invasion of Egypt in 1956. The UN observers were assigned to monitor the Egyptian border following the withdrawal of the attacking troops.

UN peacekeeping was conceived as a way of using soldiers “as the catalyst for peace rather than as the instruments of war.” This was the definition of Sir Brian Urquhart, the UN official who was largely responsible for turning Hammarskjöld and Pearson’s ad hoc concept into one of the core functions of the United Nations. But as Urquhart has always emphasized, there is no mention of such peacekeeping in the UN Charter.

In fact, peacekeeping worked reasonably well throughout what Urquhart called “the paralyzing rigors of the Cold War.” There were failures, of course, notably in the Congo in 1961 when the deposed president Patrice Lumumba was killed and when Hammarskjöld died in a plane crash soon after. Some operations worked well for a time but were eventually rendered ineffective when peace agreements fell apart. This was the case in Sinai when the UN Emergency Force1 that had been deployed there since the end of the Suez Crisis in 1956 was ordered out by Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser prior to the Six-Day War of 1967.

But these failures were outweighed by peacekeeping’s many successes, notably in Cyprus, where the UN presided over the division of the island between Greece and Turkey. With the exception of the Congo, all of the sixteen peacekeeping operations undertaken during the cold war involved the UN sending troops to monitor international borders, in order, as Urquhart put it, “to provide the pretext for peaceful conduct and the atmosphere for negotiation,” while remaining resolutely impartial and never using weapons except in self-defense.

All this changed at the end of the cold war, the era of Secretary-General Boutros Boutros Ghali’s 1992 paper…



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