The “UN Q&A” video series engages experts from the UN system to provide answers to frequently asked questions about the United Nations. The episode on UN peacekeeping features Nick Birnback, Chief, Strategic Communications Unit, United Nations Department of Peace Operations. 

What is United Nations peacekeeping?

Nick Birnback: United Nations peacekeeping operations are deployed once the UN Security Council authorizes the deployment of the mission, and a resolution is passed that enables us at the Secretariat to pull together all the resources that we need, that the Council has authorized, to go off and complete the specific tasks that they have assigned us. So, we go where they send us which means that it is ultimately a question of the political will of the international community. In some ways that is the great strength of UN peacekeeping, that we represent the political will and the legitimacy of the international community when we deploy. 

Each mission has its own mandate that is designed by the Security Council and by us to try to address the specific issues that are happening on the ground in each particular situation. So, each mission is its own universe in a way, but they fall into three basic categories, what we call Chapter 6, Chapter 7 and Chapter 8. Chapter 6 is sort of monitoring and observation. Sometimes we call them classical peacekeeping operations. It tends to be missions that were authorized in the 1960s and 70s and 80s. Chapter 7 is more peace enforcement and Chapter 8 is in collaboration with other multilateral institutions that we authorized to perform the missions on our behalf. 

Peacekeepers themselves come from all over the world. There are over 150 countries that either participate or have participated in peacekeeping and break down into three basic categories of personnel: military, civilian and police. Civilian is both international and national; police can be both individual police officers or individual police monitors and formed police units which are like riot police; and militaries can be contingent personnel - sort of infantry battalion-type things or other specialized units. All of this is designed by the Security Council based on what the specific situation is on the ground. So different mandates, different chapters under which they are authorized by the Council and different configurations, but all designed to do the same thing, which is to fulfill the tasks that are given to us by the Security Council to try to promote peace and security in the individual country that we are sent to. 

Now this has happened about 70 times in the course of the last seven decades or so where the council has authorized a peace operation to deploy. We have forces and personnel from over 150 countries, and the fact that we represent so much of the world is one of our great strengths, that we don't only represent the political will of the international community, but we physically are the manifestation of that will. Mandates end when its tasks are achieved or when it is decided that the mission is no longer needed. Most of the missions that have been authorized have closed. Most of the missions have closed successfully and the missions themselves perform a variety of tasks from protection of civilians to guaranteeing a political process or an electoral process, to doing what it can to ensure human rights and to help to protect delivery of humanitarian assistance and a variety of other things as designated by the Security Council. But the bottom line is that UN peacekeeping deploys when asked by the United Nations Security Council to try to promote peace and security in a particular context using forces that are given to us or basically lent to us by the international community themselves. It is a partnership and it is a partnership that helps to protect civilians in some of the world's most dangerous places.

How are UN peacekeeping operations established?

Nick Birnback: When a particular situation is brought to the attention of the UN Security Council, the Council has a range of responses that are available to it, from dispatching a good offices mission or negotiators or things like that or in particular cases where the situation has become so bad that the international community has to act, and it has the political will to act, sometimes it will authorize a United Nations peacekeeping operation. Once that mission is authorized, it is then the job of the Secretariat to go and to get contributions from Member States of personnel that can essentially be lent to us in order to allow us to execute these really complicated tasks that we are assigned by the Security Council when we deploy as a peacekeeping mission.

Who are the “Blue Helmets”?

Nick Birnback: So, the blue helmets - and you can see a blue helmet over my shoulder right there - blue helmets are women and men, civilians, military and police, who are serving under the UN flag in the implementation of the mandate of a peacekeeping mission. They perform a wide range of tasks such as protection of civilians, such as helping to build institutions of governance,  promoting the rule of law, human rights, civil affairs, gender equality, children's rights - all of the various aspects that make up the work of a peacekeeping mission. But everything that they do is in service of the ultimate goal of implementing the mission's mandate as laid out by the Security Council. Now, the blue helmets themselves are made up of personnel from all over the world: women and men, civilians, military, and police all working together to implement the specific requirements that are set out in the mandate of the mission by the Security Council. 

What are the principles of UN peacekeeping?

Nick Birnback: UN peace operations and UN peacekeeping missions have different mandates based on the circumstances on the ground and what the Security Council authorizes. But each mission operates on the basis of a number of consistent principles, regardless of how big or small the mission happens to be, and those principles are: impartiality, use of force primarily in self-defense or defense of the mandate, and consent of the parties. With those basic principles in mind we continue to execute the tasks that were given by the Security Council. Now, that doesn't mean that there aren't times where peacekeepers, in accordance with what's called their rules of engagement, don't have to use force - they do sometimes, but it is always along those lines. In general UN peacekeeping is not a warfighting institution. Our job is to try to promote peace and security and buy time for political process to take root. We are always in service of the political. We sometimes call it the “primacy of the political” and it is a watchword for United Nations peacekeeping. We accompany but cannot substitute for political process.

How can young people contribute to peacekeeping?

Nick Birnback: Young people are critical to the future of the United Nations, the future of the planet, and the future of UN peacekeeping. The Secretary General's Youth, Peace and Security agenda underpins everything that we do. Youth, peace and security is the subject of this year's theme for United Nations Peacekeepers Day which we celebrate on the 29th of May. We work very closely with youth activists all over the world to try to promote our message of peace and security and what we need is for youth activists and for youth to help us by echoing our messages, by amplifying our messages, and by themselves becoming activists, by engaging with the political class in the countries in which people are from and by demanding that what is important to the youth are addressed by political leadership, and by echoing the messages of the United Nations, by pushing forward the idea that the promotion of peace and security is critical to our future. Peace and security ties into the whole UN agenda, everything from economic inequality to environmental degradation. Peace and security is interlocked with that and we need youth activists and we need the youth to help us spread the message of the criticality of addressing the important issues that are part of the peace and security agenda and to help us to promote the good work that is being done by United Nations peacekeepers all over the world.

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