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by Andrew Whaley

8:00 a.m. January 15, 2001 PDT

If military intervention in conflict is to become the central plank of foreign policy, the implications of that action need to be fully appreciated. We must decide how far we are willing to go in the name of peace.

AP photoPEACEKEEPING IS BACK on the international agenda, this time in Afghanistan. Although it was the September 11th attacks on America that drew western countries into Afghanistan, there has been an increasing willingness in recent times to intervene in conflicts that would previously have been regarded as 'internal.' This trend is normally regarded as uncontroversial but it amounts to a fundamental re-evaluation of the role of peacekeeping. In light of this new approach, we need to give serious thought on how best to respond to conflict.

Traditional peacekeeping was developed at the United Nations in the 1950's. The idea was that peacekeepers would only be deployed with the consent of the warring parties. They should be, and be seen to be, non-threatening and impartial. They would only use force in very restricted circumstances, relying on moral authority rather than military power.

They would deploy in a war zone after the participants had decided to end hostilities. The immediate function of a peacekeeping force was to defuse a combative situation. They were to separate the belligerents, aid the withdrawal of troops from combat zones and discourage further military action. After the initial intervention, they would stay on, help to maintain calm and resolve further disputes. Finally, and most importantly, they would only be deployed with the agreement of all parties involved in the dispute.

The golden rule for a traditional peacekeeping force was that the one thing it did not do was fight. Minimum force would be used in self-defence and that was it. They would not 'enforce' peace. That is simply not the role that was envisaged.

Rather, they could prevent incidents between bellicose, trigger-happy troops that could otherwise easily escalate into a full-scale resumption of hostilities. When such incidents did take place, they could help to cool tempers. They would assist in reducing anxiety arising from the possibility of falling victim to a surprise attack. And they could change the political calculation about the desirability of a return to war because crossing a ceasefire line policed by an international force would involve upsetting many people other than just the enemy. Peacekeeping can play an invaluable role in facilitating a disposition among conflicting parties to live in peace.

The mandate of the long-standing UN mission to Cyprus (UNFICYP) states that the force should "use its best efforts to prevent an recurrence of fighting, in the interest of preserving international peace and security and, as necessary, to contribute to the maintenance of law and order and a return to normal conditions." The force was established in 1964 after the UN Security Council adopted resolution 186 which recommended the creation of such a force, with the consent of the Government of Cyprus, as the civil war on that island threatened to draw in Greece and Turkey. The resolution specifically noted the threat to international peace as justifying UN involvement.

The Secretary-General published 'guiding principals' for the peacekeepers on the basis of experience gained in the first six months of deployment. Regarding the use of force, he emphasised, "the United Nations force was dispatched to Cyprus to try to save lives by preventing a recurrence of fighting. It would be incongruous, even a little insane, for that Force to set about killing Cypriots...to prevent them from killing each other."

Heavy emphasis was placed on impartiality. UNFICYP would do all it could to prevent a resurgence of hostilities, but it would not attempt to force either side to act in any way either did not accept.

On 15th July 1974 under the direction of Greek officers, the National Guard staged a coup d'etat against the Cypriot government. In response, Turkey invaded and occupied the Turkish Cypriot areas of Northern Cyprus. Peacekeepers were then faced with a situation that had not been foreseen in their mandate. They had been constituted to deal with inter-communal violence in Cyprus, not large-scale hostilities. As a result, the peacekeepers were unable to stop the effective partitioning of the island.

This approach to peacekeeping meant that UNFICYP could not keep the peace beyond the point where the parties to the conflict resolved to use violence. This is not to accuse them of a lack of resolve, but rather to acknowledge that all fundamental decisions regarding conduct in any theatre of conflict will be made by the major players, which is why developments in the past fifteen years are so important. Behind them lies the assumption that it is possible, desirable and even imperative for democratic Western states to clamber onto the stage and rewrite the script.

This change of attitude began at the end of the 1980s. After the Cold War, the world's superpowers were more willing to see the UN adopt a more active role in world affairs. Meanwhile, the UN experimented with a new kind of operation, much more complex, varied and ambitious than previous operations, notably in Namibia and Cambodia.

The military component of the Namibian operation carried out all the traditional functions but also maintained a large civilian component to assist with national reconciliation, election oversight and supervision of the police force. The success of this mission in particular was a huge boost to the UN's confidence. Then Secretary General, Boutros Boutros Ghali's wrote in An Agenda For Peace about a wide range of ways in which the UN would resolve conflicts in the future. They would be involved in confidence building, fact-finding, preventative deployment and early warning. If war broke out, there would be mediation, economic sanctions and military intervention. After fighting had ceased, he saw a role for the UN in post-conflict peace building.

Peacekeeping would do more and in a more forceful way. It would shift from merely policing a ceasefire, relying on the goodwill of the parties to the conflict, to ensuring and maintaining the peace. The age of Peace Enforcement had arrived.

Subsequent events demonstrate that the question of what can be achieved by such interventions is not a simple one to answer. The fundamental precondition for a traditional peacekeeping deployment was the impartiality of the peacekeepers. This was important because of the psychology of conflict. There is an assumption in our culture that war is crazy, a result of communication breakdowns or lack of understanding. Or it is believed that they happen when an elite entity manipulates a people for its own ends. We assume that a peacekeeping intervention must necessarily be a good thing—war is hell so who wouldn't welcome peacekeepers?

But in reality, people do not fight over nothing. Wars always involve a real conflict of interest. They don't happen accidentally; people choose war when they see it as the best way to obtain what they want, whether control of Sierra Leone's diamond mines, sovereignty over Kosovo, or survival itself in the face of genocide in Rwanda. And they have decided that what they want is important enough to kill or die for.

A common socio-psychological phenomenon in conflict is the tendency to see the world in black and white terms: "If you're not for us, you're against us." However, peacekeepers dispatched to enforce a political settlement want a particular outcome and are willing to use force to achieve it. If one of the warring parties decides that the intended outcome is in conflict with its interests, the peacekeepers will find themselves fighting a war.

This is what happened to the UN in Somalia and Sierra Leone. The finger of blame tended to point at the quality of the troops involved, heavy-handed Americans or unprofessional Indian and Kenyans. The answer is assumed to be more 'robust' deployments, an ever-increasing willingness to use force and military organisations like NATO instead of the UN. But this misses the point. In fact such problems are inherent in this type of operation.

UNAMSIL, the UN operation in Sierra Leone, was sent to support the government that was created at the Lome peace talks. Sierra Leone is a former British colony that has fallen victim to a particularly nasty civil war featuring a variety of private armies using the most appalling methods, such as amputation as a terror weapon, in attempt to control the country. The war began in 1991 when the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) attempted to overthrow the government. The Sierra Leone Army then staged a coup. When it was persuaded to hold elections in 1996, Dr. Kabbah was elected as President. The RUF continued to wage its war, and another coup was conducted in 1997. The new military government joined forces with the RUF and forced Kabbah into exile. The warring parties were eventually brought to peace talks at Lome in Nigeria. An agreement was reached under which a new government was formed, led by Kabbah that included members of the military faction that had overthrown him and the RUF.

New problems surfaced when the RUF withdrew its support from the accords and attempted yet again to grab control of the country by force. UN forces had been given a similar mandate and code of conduct as that in Cyprus, despite the fact that they had been sent to do a different job. As in Cyprus, they found themselves powerless to stop the new fighting. Some were even taken hostage.

However, on this occasion the British Army arrived on the scene with a different mandate. They made no attempts to be, or even appear to be, impartial. They defended Freetown, the capital of the country, fighting off attempted incursions. The RUF leader was captured and the militia retreated into the north. Britain is now training Sierra Leonian forces to retake the north, but it remains to be seen whether this intervention will work.

The British were able to intervene decisively when UNAMSIL could not because it did not attempt to be impartial. UNAMSIL acted as a traditional peacekeeping force although its mission to support the Lome Agreement placed it in a position where it ceased to be an uninvolved third party. It was there to support the government created by the Lome agreement. The RUF was opposed to that agreement. Therefore, UNAMSIL became the RUF's enemy.

Important questions then are raised for governments who want to pursue this course in Afghanistan. Once again, they will be intervening in a country with an insecure government that has been patched together from previously warring factions. In this case it even deliberately excludes one of those factions, the Taliban. Any mission that is intended to support the new government against any future rebellion will find itself in the same position as UNAMSIL. Any less ambitious mission will risk getting sucked into future conflicts as happened in Bosnia where UNPROFOR, which had been given the mission of protecting aid convoys and nothing else, found itself having to stand and watch ethnic cleansing while the western media berated them for not interfering. UNPROFOR found their mission growing steadily, until they were given responsibility for protecting ‘safe havens’ such Srebrinica. As would happen in Sierra Leone, their mission put them in direct conflict with one of the warring parties. When the Bosnian Serbs decided to clear Srebrinica, the UN was not prepared to stop them. The massacre that followed was the worst in Europe since the Second World War.

Clearly, intervening in a conflict to bring about peace is not as simple as it appears. Those who would do so must answer difficult questions. Do they have the will to fight, and to see people kill and be killed, in someone else’s war? Interventions that involve the likelihood of having to fight will be expensive—who will foot the bill? More to the point, can this sort of intervention play a useful role in the resolution of a conflict, or does it merely complicate matters by introducing a new party and a wide range of new elements such as the 'credibility' of the intervening body?

And the parties are more likely to remain opposed to an imposed settlement, or to one they have only agreed to under duress, than to one they have worked out themselves. Conflict resolution involves sacrifices; when people have been forced into an agreement, or are able to believe that they have been forced, they are less likely to uphold that agreement than if they had been allowed to make their own choices. Peace enforcement risks submerging the conflict rather than resolving it, only to have it to re-emerge when international resolve weakens and governments turn their attention elsewhere. If this happens, can an outside party ever hope to match the resolve of the original parties to the conflict in the long term.

The decision to pursue intervention involves the sacrifice of impartiality. This means committing troops to fight for something if necessary, not just to hold the ring. There is no middle ground between the two, and this is something Western governments and populations have failed to appreciate. If military intervention in conflict is to become the central plank of foreign policy, then the implications need to be appreciated. We need to decide how far we are willing to go in the name of peace.

Andrew Whaley is an independent journalist.

Article copyright © Andrew Whaley; all rights reserved
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The Avalon Project: A Decade of American Foreign Policy 1941-1949 (Yale University)

US Government Documents: Foreign Policy Resources (Columbia University)

U.S. Diplomatic History Resources Index (Texas A&M University)

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The New York Times: Foreign Policy

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Terrorism, the Future, and US Foreign Policy (FindLaw.com; pdf file)

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