Journal Essay

What Can Peacekeepers Do If There Is No Peace to Keep?

Dennis Jett

Winter 2016, Volume XXIII, Number 4

Ambassador Jett (ret.) is a professor of International Affairs in the School of International Affairs at Pennsylvania State University.

They have a combined annual cost of $700 million, have been around for decades, are staffed by 14,000 soldiers and civilians and today do not seem to be accomplishing much of anything. What are they? The four peacekeeping operations (PKOs) in and around Israel. Put another way, why do all four of these operations continue to exist if there is currently so little peace to keep? There are a number of reasons for this paradox of peacekeeping, and an explanation requires taking a look at each of the four PKOs: the UN Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO), the UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF), the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) and the Multilateral Force and Observers (MFO), which is not a UN operation.

Considering how peacekeeping and wars have evolved more generally will also help explain why these four PKOs exist, even though there is good reason to doubt they are worth the cost. It will also illustrate three other things. First, the United Nations is inflexible when it comes to adapting to changing circumstances. Second, peacekeeping has become an exercise in which poor countries send their troops off to perform tasks they cannot accomplish, while rich countries pick up the tab but refuse to put their own troops at risk. Third, peacekeeping as currently practiced would be incapable of making any contribution to implementing a peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians, were one ever to be drawn up.


The United Nations got its start in peacekeeping in 1948 with the establishment of UNTSO, which was created to supervise the ceasefire ending the war that erupted when Israel was first established. Over the years, the other three PKOs were established to help monitor agreements resulting from other conflicts between Israel and its neighbors. UNDOF was created in 1974 following the Yom Kippur War with Syria and Egypt. After fighting erupted between the Palestine Liberation Organization and Israel in southern Lebanon, UNIFIL was established in 1978. The MFO came into being in 1981, after the Camp David Accords brought about peace between Israel and Egypt and required Israel to return the Sinai.

All four of these PKOs arose from wars between countries over territory. Of the 17 currently active UN PKOs, however, only five deal with territorial disputes, and none of them are new. There are the three UN operations around Israel, which are 68, 42 and 38 years old, and two more, which have been going for 67 years (UNMOGIP between India and Pakistan) and 52 years (UNFICYP in Cyprus). The reason these operations have lasted so long is that national pride, as well as national security, is involved in conventional wars between states over territory. It is easier for countries that have fought that kind of war to accept peacekeepers and an unresolved dispute than it is to draw an imaginary line on a map delineating the border. Invariably one country or the other will feel it has lost out in this demarcation. And since the United Nations is footing the bill for the peacekeepers, the political cost of a settlement is seen to be greater than not having one. Thus, the peacekeepers just soldier on year after year, whether or not there is any political process underway to resolve the underlying dispute.

One exception to this scenario of endless peacekeeping was the UN Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea (UNMEE). It came about in the traditional way: a war between countries over their common border. That PKO was begun in 2000, but it ended in 2008 after Eritrea imposed restrictions on UNMEE and cut off its fuel supplies, making it impossible for the peacekeepers to function.1 The United Nations responded by shutting down the PKO even though the boundary issue remains unresolved, tension in the region is high, and fighting occasionally breaks out.2

UNMEE was also an exception because wars between countries over territory are rare today. Of the 28 UN PKOs initiated in the last 20 years,3 only UNMEE was the result of a war between countries. All the others have been the result of civil wars. This distinction between inter- and intra-state wars is important; the stakes, combatants, victims and weapons are different. The starkest difference involves the demands placed on the peacekeepers in dealing with these conflicts.

The stakes in a war between countries is the territory being fought over. It pits the armed forces of one state against those of another. They can use any and all the weapons at their disposal, from naval and air assets to armor and heavy artillery. While the fighting is often intense, those killed and injured are usually soldiers. When the conflict is brought to a halt, the peacekeepers are tasked with the relatively straightforward job of monitoring the space between the armies to ensure neither side is violating the agreement that separated them and brought about a ceasefire. The peacekeepers report their observations to UN headquarters and facilitate communications between the parties, to try to prevent the conflict from starting again.

Civil wars pose a different challenge to the international community. The combatants are the army of the regime in power and whatever group is violently opposing it, whether they are called rebels, freedom fighters, insurgents or terrorists. And the conflict is over political power, which, unlike territory, cannot easily be divided. Often in a poor country, the winner takes all and the loser is out of luck. Because these wars usually occur in poor countries with minimally trained combatants, the arms used are typically the ubiquitous AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades. The weapons in a civil war are the kind a soldier can carry, and rarely rise above the level of something that has to be mounted on the back of a pickup truck.

Since political power can be measured by the number of people under the control of a group, the victims of these wars are most often civilians. Killing, or driving off, the supporters of the other side is one way to weaken the opposition. The soldiers of both the government and the rebels are almost always poorly trained, equipped and led; therefore, they quickly discover another advantage of attacking civilians — they don't shoot back. And if there is an ethnic or religious difference between those who support the regime and those who do not, it makes targeting civilians even easier.

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