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Two people are fighting, separated by a line drawn on the ground. If you stand between them, right on the line, you make it difficult for them get at each other.

If you’re careful not to take sides, you can 'keep the peace' between them in this manner. You and others can then try to solve the problem that led to the fight.
If the two sides really want to find another solution, your presence gives them a reason—or maybe even an excuse—to stop fighting. This example illustrates the 'traditional' concept of UN peacekeeping.

UN peacekeepers have separated fighting forces for many years in some places, such as in the Golan Heights, between Israeli and Syrian forces; and along the 'line of control' separating Indian and Pakistani forces in the dispute over Jammu and Kashmir.

In recent years, however, this 'buffer zone' peacekeeping has given way to much more complex operations. This is partly because the nature of conflicts has changed.


Some History

Between the Second World War and the end of the Cold War (from 1945 to about 1990), there were over 100 major conflicts that took the lives of more than 20 million people. Most were conflicts between sovereign States or former colonies. Many conflicts during this period were evidence of cold war tensions between the world’s major powers— particularly the former Soviet Union and the United States—and their allies. In many cases, the United Nations was powerless to deal with these crises because the Security Council (where China, France, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom and the United States had 'veto power') could not agree on a course of action.

On a number of crucial occasions, however, the countries of the world turned to the United Nations as a means for preventing conflicts from spreading and leading to direct confrontation between the world’s so-called 'superpowers'. For instance, during the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, tension between the two superpowers escalated to the level of nucear alert. The UN Security Council demanded a cease-fire and UN peacekeepers were sent to separate the warring sides and calm down the situation. From the Congo to Lebanon, UN peacekeepers played this role repeatedly during the cold war.

Although the cold war was a source of international tensions, it also tended to keep many potential conflicts 'on ice'. Once the cold war ended, new hostilities emerged, often between different ethnic, racial or religious groups. Such hostilities erupted in civil wars and international conflicts like those in the former Yugoslavia, and in parts of the former Soviet Union, as well as in Africa. Decades of political oppression and neglect during the cold war years led to the collapse and disintegration of some States, like Somalia, from within. Tension in and between countries has also grown as the gap between rich and poor has grown; and as people have become frustrated with undemocratic institutions and violations of human rights.

After the Cold War

In the post-cold war period, countries have turned to the UN with new aims for peacekeeping.
Rather than simply keeping fighting groups apart, UN peacekeepers have been called upon to help former enemies work peacefully together in order to:

a. rebuild the institutions and infrastructures of nations torn by civil war, as well as international conflict;

b. address the deepest causes of conflict: economic despair, social injustice and political oppression.

Two examples—in Haiti and in the Eastern Slavonia region of Croatia—demonstrate how UN peacekeeping has attempted to translate these goals into action:


Haiti: Human Rights and Institution Building

Human rights guarantees and institutions to protect them are key ingredients in bringing stability to a society emerging from conflict, especially where violations of human rights have helped cause the strife. For much of Haiti’s history, people distrusted the police and dreaded government security forces because of the deliberate terror they unleashed. The justice system barely functioned at all. Election results were disrespected by those in power and the country's first democratically-elected president was quickly ousted in a coup.

When an intervention by multinational forces restored the democratic government to power in 1995, one of the top priorities was to establish a new system for maintaining law and order. A new Haitian National Police service was organized with hopes that it would be a better instrument of justice. Without adequate training, however, the new police force repeated previous tactics.

Police reacted with unnecessary violence in many situations. One report from the field described how the police in the rice-growing district of Saint-Arbonite reacted to the torching of a police-substation by "driving around for three days in large groups, carrying shot guns, hauling many of the poorest residents back to the central station for heavy-handed interrogation."

Peacekeeping is difficult, dangerous and takes a lot of courage: even peacekeepers themselves are attacked by those opposed to peace. Peacekeepers are not miracle workers. They try to do their best in very difficult circumstances and risk their lives to restore peace and bring former enemies together.

That was before UN peacekeepers began a training programme for the Haitian police. With the help of experts of the Organization of American States and individual countries like Canada, France and the United States, the programme is working to make the Haitian National Police more professional and respectful of human rights.

People must have confidence in their institutions to maintain safety and security in any democratic society. Recourse to senseless violence always creates distance and distrust between the people and institutions—like the police and the courts--that are meant to deliver justice. The UN police training and monitoring programme UN in Haiti, like similar programmes in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the Eastern Slavonia region of Croatia and elsewhere, are intended to help the country move in the direction of stability and peace.

Croatia: Elections in Eastern Slavonia

If democracy is the paved road to peace and stability, then the main junctions on that road are the elections. Many UN peacekeeping operations have been called upon to support, monitor or organize elections.

This may mean providing technical advice on electoral laws and procedures, support with the transportation of voting materials and setting up of polling stations and communications networks, or sending international observers to make sure that the voting is free and fair. But beyond the words and concepts, how does all this come together in practice?

Below is a real description of the process from a member of the United Nations Transitional Administration in Eastern Slavonia, Baranja and Western Sirmium (UNTAES). Eastern Slavonia is a part of Croatia which was seized by Serb forces during the war in former Yugoslavia. In January 1996, a UN peacekeeping force, UNTAES, was given the task of making sure that the region was reintegrated peacefully into Croatia. Elections were an important part of bringing about the transfer.


The peacekeeper from UNTAES writes:

"How do you conduct an election where there is little, if any, tradition of free and fair elections; where media is tightly controlled; where nobody in the community is registered yet...
The first step was an enormous publicity push to encourage all local residents to get their citizenship papers and to convince them that voting was the only effective way to have their voices heard.

Voter registration offices were established, voter education programmes were begun. Then polling locations had to be determined and a station established at each one. Ballot boxes didn't exist so UNTAES bought them. Security arrangements had to be made...

Finally, the crucial Sunday—election day—arrived. But ballots were delivered late. Voter lists were not complete. Other problems emerged. There had to be fast, pragmatic decisions. More ballots had to be printed; voting hours were extended; voting was continued for a second day. The changes had to be communicated to the population—the UNTAES radio station and public affairs staff got the word out.

These decisions got the job done. Voter turnout was over 85 per cent. New leaders, fairly elected... a vital step to reintegration."

UN peacekeepers have supported elections in different ways in a number of countries emerging from conflict. From Namibia to Nicaragua, from Cambodia to Croatia, from Mozambique to Liberia, elections have helped open the way to democracy.


  1. Explain what is meant by 'traditional peacekeeping'. What are the 'new aims' of peacekeeping?

  2. The nature and scope of peacekeeping operations changed from 1989 onwards.
    What events made change necessary?
    How do you imagine the future of peacekeeping? what might lie ahead?

  3. Create a publicity campaign - radio programs, posters, information sheets - to get people to register and vote.

  4. Act as an election monitor. If there are local elections, or even school elections, go to the polling booths and note down everything you observe. In the end, assess whether the voting you observed was fair and free.

  5. Create your own peacekeeping map. Take a map of the world and mark all the UN operations, along with the dates of deployment and completion of operations. An example of such a map exists on-line http://www.un.org/Depts/DPKO/dpkomap.html

  6. Debate - In the years since World War II, there have been hundreds of wars and armed conflicts. Even though the United Nations has worked to promote international peace and security, the UN has sometimes been unable to prevent many of these armed outbreaks. Why?

  7. Research one of the peacekeeping operations mentioned in the text. Produce a country report, and include your own recommendations.
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