An example of what peacekeeping means to people affected by conflict comes from troubled South Sudan where a recent survey had 80% of respondents “felt safer” with United Nations (UN) peacekeepers in their country.
This, the senior UN official tasked with peacekeeping maintains, is part and parcel of the multitude number of tasks undertaken and successfully completed daily by civilian and uniformed personnel of the UN Department of Peacekeeping and its missions around the world.
“UN peacekeepers work to protect hundreds of thousands of vulnerable people in the world’s most fragile political and security situations,” Jean-Pierre Lacroix, under-secretary-general wrote in a special International Day of UN Peacekeepers message.
“Our civilian and uniformed personnel support ceasefires, prevent and respond to violence, investigate human rights violations and abuses and help build peace, recovery and development in conflict-affected countries.
“There is no doubt lives are saved and changed by their presence.”
The South Sudan example apart, he noted: “Communities in other conflict zones also testify about the impact of peacekeeping”.
“During operation ‘Let Peace Reign’ in the Central African Republic (CAR), local leaders reported increased patrols deterred armed groups while the provision of clean water, medical assistance and road rehabilitation by peacekeepers significantly improved their lives.
“In some peace operations, a primary task is to provide robust protection of civilians due to the nature of the threat. Our military and police personnel make every effort to carry out this mandate in challenging and often dangerous, conditions with the ultimate objective to create conditions for political solutions and sustainable peace. That is the true measure of our success.
“Achieving that outcome is becoming more difficult in an increasingly tense global political and security climate.
“Conflicts are more complex and multi-layered with local tensions fuelled by national, regional and international forces acting in their own interests. An increasing number of actors are involved in violence, including criminal, terrorist and other armed elements. It is difficult to engage with these individuals and groups, with diverse motives and objectives and often links to transnational organised crime, because they have no real interest in reaching political settlements that foster lasting peace.
“We are witnessing a less united approach to conflict resolution among global powers due to widening political divisions which, in turn, takes pressure off warring parties to end violence and make concessions. These divides are exposed in Security Council resolutions relating to peacekeeping mandates, with less unanimity in Member States’ decisions, notably on mandate renewals, but also less support to missions when they face challenges on the ground.
“A surge in mis-and disinformation creates new and growing threats to the safety of UN personnel and the communities they serve. In places like Mali, CAR and Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), fake news fuels fighting as well as hostility towards peacekeeping missions. We experience an increase in attacks on bases, convoy ambushes and increased use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs).
“In this environment, the iconic blue flag that should provide safety for peacekeepers now risks making them a target.
“Despite best efforts to keep personnel safe, more peacekeepers are injured or killed in these volatile conditions. The frequency of malicious attacks against peacekeepers increased from 280 in 2020 to 463 last year. In 2021 there were 24 fatalities due to these violent acts.
“Among those lost are eight peacekeepers who died when their helicopter went down in the eastern DRC in March during a reconnaissance mission to help protect civilians.
“Many partners work alongside the UN in the cause of peace” he said naming humanitarians, women, youth and the partnerships forged with them.
“Peacekeeping,” Lacroix adds, “is an imperfect tool that can never meet all needs or expectations”.
“There are times when UN personnel are prevented from, or fail to carry out mandates letting ourselves and those we serve down, including in cases of misconduct by own personnel.”
He asks: “If not peacekeeping, what else?”
Lacroix’s response is by way of another question: “Does a better solution exist today to maintain ceasefires, protect civilians, prevent chaos and support peace efforts in the complex, conflict-affected environments where UN operations are deployed?”
“Despite these questions and in the face of many challenges UN peacekeeping will persevere alongside our partners to be a strong force for change in a collective effort to achieve peace and progress for all peoples.”