The UK and UN Peacekeeping: Back in Blue?


For those of us who are getting slightly older than we care to admit, it does not seem so long ago that the UK was championing new UN peacekeeping for a new era and pledging its full support to UN efforts to halt the slide of failing states into collapse. For the briefest of moments in the early 1990s the UN was propelled to centre-stage and, for the first time since the early 1950s, there was genuine optimism that it could fulfil its central role. All seemed possible as increased international consensus paved the way for extremely ambitious new peacekeeping missions in some of the world’s most dangerous conflicts. Fast forward 5 years and optimism had been so severely dented by the tragedies in the Balkans, Somalia and Rwanda that, for many, the reputation of UN peacekeeping lay in tatters. The UK military, bruised by its own experience of wearing the blue beret in Bosnia, continued to support efforts to strengthen UN peacekeeping but stepped back from the actual operations. Since UNPROFOR, fewer and fewer British military personnel have actually served in a blue beret: currently the UK contributes 285 troops and 4 police to a total of 106,817 uniformed UN personnel deployed worldwide. Even this figure is deceptive as only 10 UK troops are currently serving in a blue beret anywhere outside of UNFICYP in Cyprus. However, with the Prime Minister pledging UK troops to support two of the most problematic UN missions, in Somalia and South Sudan, last year and promising to contribute to the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO) in Egypt just last week, this short blog explores the UK’s peacekeeping heritage and asks whether it is time that the UK military once again dons the blue beret.

Perhaps surprisingly, there are good reasons why the international community may actually be wary of British involvement in PSO. The UK brings military credibility and tremendous planning expertise but has far less actual peacekeeping experience than is often assumed. It is twenty years since the UK’s last serious military commitment to a UN peacekeeping operation and the belief that there was a long-standing UK peacekeeping tradition that preceded these 1990s deployments is largely a myth. There are numerous states much more closely associated with the evolution of UN peacekeeping than the UK. UN peacekeeping evolved over nearly fifty years with negligible British military involvement. With the exception of UNFICYP into Cyprus in 1964, the British military mainly remained in khaki rather than UN blue throughout the entire Cold War. The UK simply assumed that training for high intensity warfare coupled with its long history of colonial policing and involvement in ‘low-intensity operations’ would, by definition, make it good at peacekeeping but it was not until Bosnia that the UK really engaged with the concept in any meaningful way. To the UK military’s surprise, it was not well prepared for what it faced.

Of course, misplaced self-confidence was not the primary cause of the UK’s woes in the Balkans during the mid-1990s. UNPROFOR was simply ill-suited to the challenges that it faced in intervening in an on-going civil war in a failing state. Further, the very definition of success in peacekeeping was changing so that it became associated with the rapid establishment of a sustainable (usually democratic) state in environments where the problems encountered were no less intractable than in the past. Expertise in such complex peacebuilding was limited but ambitions were not. From Bosnia to Rwanda and Somalia in the early 90s to Sierra Leone and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in the late 90s, the narrative of UN peacekeeping during this period is one of failure. In reality, this is a harsh and partial analysis of UN operations throughout their most challenging decade. To its credit, the UN learnt quickly and undertook a series of important reforms, making it a still imperfect but much improved actor today and it is in this context of reform that the UK played one of its most important supporting roles.

The UK remained committed to international peace support efforts throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s though both its contribution to KFOR in Kosovo and its unilateral intervention in Sierra Leone in 1999 (Op PALLISER), which helped shore up the failing UN mission (UNAMSIL) at a critical moment, illustrated an increasingly commonplace reluctance to place national forces directly under UN control. The UK also remained (and remains) one of the highest financial contributors to UN peacekeeping which is itself by far the most expensive UN activity. However, perhaps even more important than its physical and financial contributions, the UK assumed an increasingly prominent role in revitalising thinking about peacekeeping and revising it for the new challenges. JWP 3-50, The Military Contribution to Peace Support Operations (1998 and 2004) remains widely acknowledged as one of the most important conceptual contributions to the practice of twenty-first century peacekeeping while Op PALLISER together with the near-simultaneous Australian-led UN-sanctioned intervention in East Timor (INTERFET) were practical manifestations of a new approach to modern peace support that Kofi Annan, then UN Secretary-General, cited as evidence of the requirement for the UN to adopt what he and others termed ‘robust peacekeeping’. Britain’s historical contribution to UN peacekeeping may be overstated but its influence at a critical time was substantial.

However, before we Brits pat ourselves too heartily on the back for these influential interventions, let us ask the question “what have we done since?” 10 UN peacekeepers outside of Cyprus? Cherry-picking the best staff jobs in missions without any British contingents? Criticising the efforts, motives and capabilities of those states that do put large numbers of troops forward for what remain extremely challenging and dangerous missions? The tragic loss of 456 UK service personnel in Afghanistan between 2001 and 2016 has quite rightly dominated the media in the UK but how many of us are aware that 1,733 UN peacekeepers have also died in the line of duty during the same period? UN peacekeeping may rarely attract the headlines that it did in the 1990s but it is every bit as difficult and necessary in the DRC, Somalia or Sudan today as it was in Cambodia, Haiti or Ethiopia then. On the one hand there is wariness about the political baggage and potential risks that the British bring with them from their high-profile roles in current conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria, but on the other, British forces are needed every bit as much today as they were twenty years ago.

To date, the mid-1990s has been the high-water mark of British involvement in UN PSO. No surprise, of course, because of the way in which first Iraq and then Afghanistan dominated the UK defence and security agenda but it is remarkable how quickly PSO, which the UK saw as core business during the 1990s, dropped off the to-do list. Successive governments and defence reviews paid lip-service to UN commitments but counter-insurgency and stability operations dominated. Further, there was an almost audible sigh of relief from some quarters as the more familiar spectre of Russian aggression in continental Europe hove back into view. Difficult as such threats are, they are also much more closely aligned to traditional perceptions of the role of the military. However, the drawing down of operations in Afghanistan and the advent of the Building Stability Overseas Strategy (BSOS) in 2011 together with the various MoD vision statements of the future conflict environment and the changing role of the military all highlight the importance of defence engagement, stabilisation, peace support and international good citizenship. British forces back in UN Blue? This question still often meets with a snort of derision but the strategic imperative to reduce international instability, preferably in less controversial and risky ways, coupled with a strong desire to restore some damaged international friendships and clear UK interests in regions high on the UN priority list means that the prospect of the UK donning UN blue is once again very, very real.

Image: US Army Colonel Richard Dillon, Head of USA Mortuary Affairs, and US Air Force Colonel Dennis Ployer, Commander, 447th Air Expeditionary Group (AEG), secure a UN Flag over the transfer casket of UN Chief Ambassador to Iraq, Sergio Vieira de Mello, prior to a memorial service at the Baghdad International Airport. Sergio Vieira de Mello was a victim of a suicide truck bombing at the United Nations Office of Humanitarian Coordinator in Baghdad, Iraq. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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