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UN Peacekeeping: 'Blue Helmets' Wear New Hats as Challenges Grow

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When an author I met today during an overseas visit gave me a copy of his recently published book, he said writing it was very special since it recounted his involvement in a project that he could be truly proud of. His sentiment was echoed by others in the room, which bore little resemblance to your usual book-signing scene.

The venue was the Indonesian Defence Forces Peacekeeping Center in Jakarta, and the author, and about 50 of his colleagues attending the meeting, were former military and police personnel who had served with UN peacekeeping operations in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Sudan, Lebanon and other hot spots around the world.

With Indonesia being a major troop contributor to UN missions (it ranks 17th), the conversation soon focused on an upcoming event that, my hosts stressed, had special significance for them. They were referring to the International Day of United Nations Peacekeepers that is marked on 29 May. It was established in 2002 by the General Assembly to pay tribute to the professionalism, courage and dedication of all men and women serving in UN peacekeeping operations and to honour the memory of those who have lost their lives in the line of duty. The date was chosen to mark the start of the first UN peacekeeping mission, the UN Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO), in Palestine in1948.

The tasks performed by UNTSO and an array of operations that followed it contributed to the creation of a popular image of "Blue Helmets" - lightly armed troops deployed along a tense border helping to separate former warring parties. Indeed, with the Security Council often deadlocked by Cold War rivalries, UN peacekeeping was largely used in monitoring and confidence-building roles to support ceasefires and limited peace agreements.

When the Cold War ended there were high hopes for lowering tensions and dwindling crises. Tragically, a reality check followed as the nature of conflicts changed, but not their lethal intensity. Envisaged as a means of dealing with conflicts between States, UN peacekeepers were increasingly thrust into civil wars and conflicts within States. The variety and complexity of their tasks grew. No longer limited to observer functions, new missions were mandated to protect civilians, promote national reconciliation, assist in disarming former combatants and reintegrating them into civilian life, supporting elections, protecting human rights and restoring the rule of law. As their mandates expanded, the demand for peacekeepers' services also multiplied.

Figures speak for themselves. Some 10 years ago, UN peacekeepers numbered 20,000. Since then, the total has grown more than six-fold: Today, UN operations involve over 124,000 peacekeepers that hail from 115 countries. Some people find the latter figure particularly revealing, especially when they discover that the list of troop contributing countries is lead by such nations as Bangladesh with 10,852 uniformed personnel, closely followed by Pakistan with 10,733 and India with 8,783. Troop contributions from the next three countries on the list -- Nigeria, Egypt and Nepal -- range from 5,837 to 5,186. Ghana, Rwanda, Jordan and Uruguay round out the top 10 contributors.

It's a broad-based effort, with numerous nations, large and small, pooling their resources. But there are also inherent challenges in this undertaking since each national military or police force has its own rules and procedures. Ensuring that they all work in unison presents obvious problems. The task looks even more daunting when one takes into account the fact that the UN has no standing army of its own and thus cannot dispatch a mission immediately. After a new operation is approved by the Security Council, the process starts from scratch. Based on the mission's mandate and make-up as defined by the Council's resolution, the UN Secretariat invites Member States to contribute personnel, equipment and other vital elements of a functional force. The UN's Department of Peacekeeping Operations has vast experience in making this process work, but there's only so much it can do if there is no commitment of troops or materiel.

So the challenges abound as demand for peacekeeping grows while dangers persist. Already this month three UN peacekeepers have been killed in ambushes. The past 14 months have brought more grim news. Last January, 96 members of the United Nations Stabilization Force in Haiti perished when a devastating earthquake struck the island nation where they were working to bolster security and support political stability. In one blow, that number nearly matched the deadly record of 2009 when 121 UN peacekeepers had lost their lives.

The old-timers in Jakarta promised to teach the younger generation about their experiences with UN peacekeeping to keep the sense of mission alive and to make sure that Indonesia would be ready, once again, to serve in the future. As Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon once said, "I wish that one day we will not have any necessity to deploy UN peacekeepers." But before that day comes, Blue Helmets will continue to be where there is a need to bring peace and keep it safe.