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Policing for peace: The law-and-order role played by blue berets

A Forensic team of the United Nations Police (UNPOL) and the Timor-Leste National Police(PNTL) use a panoscan photographic equipment to carry out an investigation

A Forensic team of the United Nations
Police (UNPOL) and the Timor-Leste
National Police (PNTL) use panoscan
photographic equipment to carry out an
investigation of the 11 February 2008
attack and ambush on Prime Minister
Kay Rala Xanana Gusmão.
UN Photo/Martine Perret

When the words ‘UN peacekeeping’ are mentioned, for many they tend to conjure up an image of a blue-helmeted military force dispatched to a conflict-torn area to help bring about peace and stability. Unknown to some, a vital part in such peace operations is played by growing numbers of UN policemen and women who help to establish law and order – not temporarily, but for the long haul.

The Story

In January this year, a widely published picture of a UN policewoman in a Darfur refugee camp alongside women and children highlighted the dangerous and sensitive role that the UN Police, known as UNPOL, is increasingly being called upon to play. The joint UN-African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) will field more than 6,000 UNPOL officers, the largest ever deployment of United Nations Police. As the UN Police take up their responsibilities to protect civilians in camps and carry out regular patrols, their presence is beginning to bring a sense of security and hope.  But expectations of the UN may be unrealistically high – and without adequate and qualified numbers and proper equipment, the mission will be one of the most challenging – and riskiest – in UN history.

Every day some 11,000 UN police officers worldwide go on patrol, provide training, and advise on national police, penal and human rights procedures as part of the expanded role UNPOL now plays to re-establish the rule of law for millions of people affected by conflict.  These numbers represent a historic high and an increase of around 65 per cent in the past two years alone.

Managing such rapid expansion is a major challenge that involves balancing the Three Q’s – “Quantity, Quality and Quickness”. Strategic initiatives to deal with these challenges include establishing a Standing Police Capacity (SPC), the first unit of which was sent to Chad in November 2007 to begin training recruits for a specialized national police unit; and providing increasing numbers of Formed Police Units (FPUs). These are highly trained, specialized units capable of responding to a variety of difficult situations – such as civilian unrest – with force both proportionate and sufficient to resolve potentially destabilizing localized conflicts. In cases where local security institutions are unable to respond effectively, these FPUs provide an invaluable “interim capacity” for the UN between a peace operation’s military component and the more traditional unarmed UN police monitors. The first all-female FPU was deployed from India in January 2007 to the UN Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) and has just been replaced with a new all-female Indian FPU. 

UNPOL has a presence in 18 peace missions, the largest units being in Haiti, Timor Leste and Kosovo. UN Police may be mandated to build capacity and eventually hand over to national police forces at the appropriate time – and they are sometimes assigned the task of interim law enforcement as part of transition arrangements, such as in Timor Leste and Kosovo.  They also have an important role to play in security sector reform and strengthening rule of law organizations, key to rebuilding the trust in state institutions in fragile post conflict situations.

The Context


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United Nations Police

United Nations Police magazine

Report of the Panel on United Nations Peace Operations (Brahimi Report)