This article originally appeared in the Summer 1993 issue of the Harvard International Review. 

This June will mark the forty-fifth anniversary of the deployment of the first United Nations Peacekeeping Force. It would be appropriate, even if the events of the moment did not compel us, to reflect upon the path that we have trodden and the directions in which it might yet lead us. When faced with situations as compelling as Somalia, Cambodia and Bosnia, the exercise becomes not merely appropriate, but essential.

At no time since its inception has the nature or concept of peacekeeping been as open to redefinition as it is at this juncture. Of the 27 operations mounted within the last 45 years—and the 13 still running—nine have taken shape within the last two years alone. As the number of operations increases, our perception of the essence of peacekeeping changes from what it was during the first four decades of the United Nations’ growth.

What factors have generated this proliferation and directed this development? The end of the Cold War has substantially expanded the scale of peacekeeping operations; its consequences, along with the inherent evolution of the United Nations and of peacekeeping itself, have brought about a conceptual change. To understand the importance and reciprocal influence of these two lines, we should examine, if only briefly, peacekeeping’s sources, situation and prospects.

Principles and Precedents

It is almost impossible to define a technique that has differed nearly each time that it has been practiced. Through improvisation over time, peacekeeping has been used to investigate and report on volatile situations, to monitor truces and ceasefires, to verify compliance with agreements, to establish buffer zones between hostile armies, to help create the conditions necessary for the implementation of complex settlements and to provide humanitarian support to local populations caught up in war. Furthermore, peacekeeping as we have come to know it is neither defined nor proscribed in the Charter itself; the only reference there to United Nations activities involving military force is in Chapter Seven, which has rarely been invoked in peacekeeping. Instead, peacekeeping is a tool that has largely been used in situations where application of Chapter Six of the Charter was not adequate and utilization of Chapter Seven was not possible. Peacekeeping thus became, in Dag Hammarskjold’s memorable phrase, “Chapter six and a half.”

The only way to define peacekeeping as it has been practiced is to take a cross-section of the characteristics of operations pursued to date. In this context, peacekeeping appears as “the use of multinational military personnel, armed or unarmed, under international command and with the consent of the parties, to help control and resolve conflict between hostile states and between hostile communities within a state.” Clear as that definition seems, events are now rendering parts of it contentious.

Historically, peacekeeping acquired the characteristics just quoted because they reflected the tasks that member states were prepared to let the United Nations assume. The lack of unanimity among the members of the Security Council throughout the Cold War necessitated careful navigation. A fine line had been left for us, and a certain amount of finesse and flexibility was needed to follow it. 

Only with the end of the Cold War did the metamorphosis in peacekeeping really begin. There are two reasons for this: new accord within the Security Council made broader action possible, and the new political landscape, in which wars were ending for lack of support and states were dissolving in the absence of the repression that had long held them together, made it necessary. 

Present Parameters

In these changed circumstances, the principles and practices that had evolved in the Cold War period suddenly seemed needlessly self-limiting. Within and outside the United Nations, there is now increasing support for ‘peacekeeping with teeth.’ As lightly-armed peacekeepers are made to look helpless in Somalia and Bosnia, member states and public opinion increasingly support more muscular action, a greater number of situations seem to require it, and the UN Charter affords the legal cover for it. 

So how should these ‘teeth’ best be bared? The temptation to bite into various problems is more firmly compounded by the disintegration of different elements of the definition of peacekeeping cited earlier. Formerly, a tradition had developed by which operations required the consent of the parties involved. In the current conflicts, how should we define a party? Does each faction in the former Yugoslavia qualify? Does every tribe in Somalia? Article Two warns us against infringing upon sovereignty, but it becomes difficult to apply in situations where there is no recognized or recognizable sovereign. Previously, peacekeeping limited the use of force to self-defense, even though self-defense could be construed to mean defending the ability to carry out one’s mandate. However, the idea of peacekeeping was always subject to the principle of minimum use of force and was represented by contingents and equipment that made more extensive measures impractical. Peacekeepers were deployed to keep peace, not to make war; their major weapon was moral authority, not military strength. 

Today’s conflicts in Somalia and Bosnia have fundamentally rearranged the parameters of peacekeeping. It is no longer enough to implement agreements or separate antagonists; the international community now wants peacekeepers to demarcate boundaries, control and eliminate heavy weapons, quell anarchy, and guarantee the delivery of humanitarian aid in war zones. These are clearly tasks that call for ‘teeth’ and ‘muscle,’ in addition to the less tangible qualities that we have sought in the past.

Further, there are many who believe that the future will demand an even greater involvement in conflicts occurring within borders, as well as a wider use of force. Somalia is the first case in which both of these developments are involved, and it is worth examining in that context. International action in Somalia was initiated by a traditional peacekeeping force, the United Nations Operation in Somalia (UNOSOM), which subsequently made way for a more substantial military operation in the form of the Unified Task Force (UNITAF). UNITAF has been comprised of contributions from many member states (marking yet another innovation in this arena). The violence which persists despite UNITAF’S mandated effort to create a secure environment has limited the success of efforts to deliver humanitarian aid and alleviate suffering in the region. The success of aid delivery has been substantial, but it has not gone unimpeded.

As the secretary-general [Boutros Boutros-Ghali] noted in his report on Somalia to the Security Council on March 3, “I must emphasize that the unique features of the situation continue to prevail. There is still no effective functioning government in the country. There is still no organized civilian police force. There is still no disciplined national armed force. As recent events have tragically demonstrated, the atmosphere of lawlessness and tension is far from being eliminated.” In response to the unique quality of this situation and the anarchy at its core, another important precedent was required: the Security Council, for the first lime, found that a humanitarian disaster constituted a threat to peace and security.

In this and other respects, Somalia does not necessarily embody a model that all subsequent operations will follow, but it does reflect the range of flexibility and possibility that they might need. All visible signs seem to indicate that, when UNITAF withdraws and the United Nations takes full charge of UNOSOM II later this year, internal order will still need to be pursued through an external body and enforcement action will remain a very necessary option in its pursuit. The secretary-general, in his report, has identified “disarming the factions and placing their heavy weaponry under international control“ as “the most urgent task for UNOSOM II.” Here, the United Nations will pursue political reconciliation through disarmament and humanitarian support as well as traditional negotiation, but it cannot guarantee success.

The will to attain peace can be neither compelled nor coerced; it must be expressed by the Somali people themselves. Regardless of the good will and brave acts of the international community, irrespective of innovation and evolution in peacekeeping itself, wholehearted commitment of the peoples concerned must always remain the keystone of peacekeeping. Without it, no reconciliation can be achieved, no order can be restored, and no hope can flourish.


From whichever perspective one starts, the first and most formidable obstacle facing peacekeeping has been, is, and most probably will continue to be translating commitment into action. In light of the new possibilities that peacekeeping projects, member states are now encouraging commitment of a breadth and depth previously unimagined in the international community. In recent weeks alone, a new battalion has been added to the Kuwait Observer Mission (UNIKOM), the Somalian Operation (UNOSOM) has been reconceived on a more ambitious scale, the Protection Force in the former Yugoslavia (UNPROFOR) has overtaken the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) as the largest peacekeeping operation in history and a mission to Mozambique has commenced.

This breadth of action is matched by the depth of activity envisaged. Just over a year ago, in January 1992, the United Nations deployed 11,500 peace-keepers to cover all the operations then extant. Today, plans for UNOSOM II anticipate the need for a force of at least 28,000 in Somalia alone. At the same time, plans for UNPROFOR espoused by member states would necessitate a force of at least 60,000 (an augmentation of 50,000) in Bosnia-Herzegovina and a strengthening of the existing 15,000 in Croatia. This indicates more than just an enlargement in scale; it reflects an expanded approach to the use of military force in the name of the United Nations.

Yet at the moment when the world has united behind peacekeeping in principle, it has failed in many respects to take commensurate steps in practice. Until recently, peacekeeping activities were reined in tightly from two sides—possibility and permissibility. The expanded mandates to be exercised in Somalia—and perhaps in the Balkans—might help redefine the second problem. A persistent lack of material resources and contributions has done nothing to ameliorate the first.

In 1992, the report of the secretary-general to the General Assembly showed US$723 million unpaid in obligatory assessments, the equivalent of 62 percent of the 1993 general UN budget. The present arrears in the peacekeeping budget is US$1.094 billion, or 64 percent of the 1992 peacekeeping budget. Beyond this situation lies an even more daunting scenario.

Peacekeeping as we know it has no capital fund, no reserve of equipment, and no reserve force. If we are to surmount the frustrations of delay, structure, and scale, if we are to rise to the challenge that renewed interest and widened mandates present us, we will need the means to do so. The ‘teeth’ of peacekeeping are of necessity two-edged: they must have both mandate and means.

These are the requisites for the fulfillment of the tasks that lie before us. But what of the challenges that have yet to appear? Just as an increasingly global healthcare crisis has made us look to preventive medicine with greater hope and interest, the international body politic is evolving toward a point where, perhaps, it will be able to move to treat situations of conflict and their attendant problems, notably humanitarian suffering, quickly in their nascent phases. In the “Agenda for Peace” that he published last year, the secretary general identified two means of treatment: preventive diplomacy and post-conflict peace-building. Given necessary support, their greater use will permit us to hone our foresight and avert grave situations before they occur or recur.

Near the moment when peacekeeping came into being, Eleanor Roosevelt posed the question “[w]hen will our consciences grow so tender that we will act to prevent human misery rather than avenge it?” One possible answer might be found by looking at the common thread that ties together peacekeeping’s past, present and future. In many different ways over a broad span of time, the United Nations has struggled to neutralize vengeance wherever and whenever it could. Recent developments, as in Somalia, have called for action that at once minimizes conflicts while simultaneously preventing further deterioration of the humanitarian situation. Expanding the parameters within which peacekeeping must function has allowed us to take our first steps toward answering Mrs. Roosevelt‘s query.

Hopefully, the progress in peacekeeping that we are now witnessing will generate further momentum in that direction. But we are far from finding a full answer to this question, and even further from realizing that answer. For this is more than a question; it is a goal. And as long as it stands unattained, a very vital challenge remains before us all.

Note from the Editor

This article was written barely two years after the fall of the Soviet Union. Annan notes that this new world led to the changing role of peacekeeping; a “new accord within the Security Council made broader action possible,” and the dissolution of states “made it necessary.” Though the United Nations once yielded only moral power, Annan claims that it now also needs military strength. However, the UN's limitations that he identifies remain salient today: it is difficult to tread the line between being a meaningful influence in international conflict resolution and inspiring peaceful resolution tactics, while at the same time balancing some necessary military intervention. 

Shortly following the publication of this article in 1993, the failure of the United Nations Operation in Somalia (UNOSOM I) made way for the Unified Task Force (UNITAF) and UNISOM II forces to begin new operations. Ending in 1995, UNISOM II was considered a mismanaged operation from which lessons could be learned. The Protection Force (UNPROFOR) sent to former Yugoslavia was also largely unsuccessful in its efforts to bring about an end to the conflict; not until the signing of the Dayton Accords in 1995 did the Bosnian War end. The problems faced by UN peacekeepers in the former Yugoslavia led this to be both the first and last conflict in which UN peacekeepers were solely tasked with such an important mission.