You are here: Michael Harwood considers the future evolution of UN peacekeeping

To keep the peace in a conflict situation, there are two options, the first of which is quick: surrender. The second is complex: make a stand, risk our own lives, and potentially take the lives of others. The international community – a term we sometimes mock as it suggests a level of desired co-operation that often does not exist – is almost united on one thing: the wholesale slaughter of civilians must be prevented.

In recent months, our attention has been turned towards Syria and the scourge of chemical weapons. Quite possibly, therefore, you may not have noticed a significant development for UN peacekeeping: resolution 2098 of the United Nations Security Council and its mandate for an “intervention brigade” in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Within its 9,000 words, the resolution provides the United Nations Organisation Stabilisation Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUCSO) with the authority to “carry out targeted offensive operations” and assume “the responsibility of neutralising armed groups”.

These are testing times for UN peacekeeping. Armed groups such as the Mouvement du 23-Mars (M23) will doubtless be hoping that mere words in a resolution will mean nothing on the ground. However they will discover that “robust peacekeeping” will involve “the use of forces”, “the use of force”, and even “the use of lethal force” – each bringing different meanings and implications to MONUSCO operations. With this development, traditional peacekeeping approaches are under the microscope. This is the time for the very best thinkers to get involved and for nations with experienced commanders and forces to step up to the plate. We need peacekeepers who:

  • are unafraid of being in harm’s way and can create stability by their very presence;
  • do not exploit the Security Council’s robust language nor take the softest possible interpretation;
  • can intelligently utilise capabilities in all domains: maritime, land, air, cyber and information; and
  • understand the necessity of military and civilian agencies working in cooperation.

There is an urgent need for states to make this intensely human investment in conflict resolution. Unfortunately, it seems that the phrase responsibility to protect has become more directed at our own deployed forces than the civilian populations we are mandated to safeguard. It is as if we dress like firefighters but do not actually attend fires for fear of getting burned. The result is that bit by bit, year by year, those who commit wanton acts of violence think they can continue to act with impunity.

In the war-weary UK, we talk of “returning to contingency” – preparing for scenarios but not actually deploying. My plea is that the UK and others should be reconsidering their approach to UN peacekeeping operations. This must take into account the views of those states that contribute to the peacekeeping budget (predominantly ‘rich’ powers) as well as those that contribute troops (mostly so called developing and emerging nations).

Much time has passed since the UK fielded its largest military contribution of UN peacekeepers in recent years, for Bosnia-Herzegovina in the 1990s. To its credit, China now contributes more peacekeeping personnel than the rest of the permanent members of the Security Council put together. The UK, however, has fewer than 300 service personnel committed to current UN peacekeeping missions, almost all of whom are with the UN Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus. Is this not questionable given the presence of more than 90,000 uniformed peacekeepers serving in today’s 15 UN peacekeeping operations?

In order to address future challenges, traditional peacekeepers should combine their expertise with that of traditional warfighters. Valuable and compelling lessons can and should be learned from both UN troop-contributing nations and those nations whose troops have recently served in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Mali. The Democratic Republic of the Congo is a test; the new mandate need not be translated into a licence to kill. With the right ‘peacekeeping warriors’ involved, we can ensure an effective, legitimate and courageous stand against those who exercise power through violence. We can fight for peace.

Air Vice-Marshal (Retd) Michael Harwood retired in 2012 after 34 years in the RAF. His last tour of duty was based in Washington DC, as the Head of British Defence Staff, United States; this included the role of UK representative to the UN Military Staff Committee in New York

© UN Photo/Sylvain Liechti. The Force Commander of the UN Organisation Stabilisation Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) takes part in an observation mission with Military Observers on Munigi Hill, DR Congo.