Tue | Jun 6, 2023

Adekeye Adebajo | Farewell to arms? UN peacekeeping at 75

Published:Sunday | May 7, 2023 | 12:45 AM

In this 2019 photo, a girl holding a child walks past UN peacekeepers after heavy rains and floods forced hundreds of thousands of people to leave their homes in Pibor, Boma state, South Sudan.
In this 2019 photo, a girl holding a child walks past UN peacekeepers after heavy rains and floods forced hundreds of thousands of people to leave their homes in Pibor, Boma state, South Sudan.
Adekeye Adebajo
Adekeye Adebajo

This month marks the 75th anniversary of the birth of United Nations (UN) peacekeeping. The first mission in 1948 deployed military observers to monitor the ceasefire along Israel’s border, following conflict with its neighbours at its birth. Another UN operation, a year later, observed the ceasefire between India and Pakistan in Jammu and Kashmir, while a third, in 1958, monitored military movements into Lebanon. Peacekeepers were deployed to separate Egyptian and Israeli forces in the Sinai in 1956 and 1974.

Other observation missions were deployed to Lebanon (1956), Yemen (1963), and India and Pakistan (1965), while another mission administered West New Guinea’s transition from Dutch to Indonesian rule. Larger armed missions were deployed to keep peace in the Congo (1960) and Cyprus (1964), while smaller operations monitored the separation of Syria and Israel in the Golan Heights (1974), and established a buffer zone between Israel and Lebanon (1978). Almost half of these missions were deployed to the Middle East.

This ‘first generation’ of traditional peacekeeping, between 1948 and 1988, interpreted the rules in mostly inter-state wars, to allow for deploying an interposing force based on the consent of warring parties, in order to oversee an agreed peace, with the peacekeepers maintaining strict neutrality. The UN’s first peace-enforcement operation occurred in the Congo between 1960 and 1964, and involved both superpowers supporting local proxies, a situation the world body was determined to avoid repeating.


Peruvian UN Secretary-General, Javier Pérez de Cuéllar, initiated the ‘second generation’ of UN peacekeeping (1989-1999), deploying 10 missions between 1988 and 1991, which contributed to the thawing of the Cold War. These operations were mandated to: monitor the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan; observe a ceasefire between Iran and Iraq; oversee the withdrawal of Cuban troops from Angola; observe a ceasefire in Angola; supervise the independence of Namibia from South African rule; monitor the demobilisation of Nicaraguan Contras; conduct a referendum in Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara; oversee elections in El Salvador; prepare for a peacekeeping force in Cambodia; and monitor the buffer zone between Iraq and Kuwait.

Two African UN secretaries-general, Egypt’s Boutros Boutros-Ghali, and Ghana’s Kofi Annan, massively expanded UN peacekeeping in the post-Cold War era. Boutros-Ghali’s 1992 An Agenda for Peace established the post-Cold War framework for UN peacemaking, peacekeeping and peacebuilding, and innovated cooperation with regional bodies like ECOWAS. During this hyperactive ‘second generation’ of peacekeeping in difficult civil war contexts involving truculent warlords, 38 operations were launched. There were noteworthy successes in Mozambique, Cambodia, and El Salvador, and spectacular failures in Rwanda, Bosnia, and Somalia.


The ‘third generation’ of UN peacekeeping saw the deployment, from 1999, of peacekeepers to the DRC, Kosovo, East Timor, Sierra Leone, Ethiopia-Eritrea, Côte d’Ivoire, Liberia, Burundi, and Sudan. It ended in 2011 with the controversial NATO-led intervention in Libya and the outbreak of Syria’s civil war. The ‘fourth generation’ of UN peacekeeping (2012-2022) saw new missions deployed to Mali, Central African Republic, Haiti, Syria, and Sudan at an annual cost of $7 billion, under South Korea’s Ban Ki-moon and Portugal’s António Guterres. UN peacekeepers, however, introduced cholera into Haiti, leading to thousands of local deaths. Many troop-contributing countries also avoided putting their troops in harm’s way.

Half of the post-Cold War UN missions have been in Africa, while 84 per cent of its 87,000 peacekeepers are currently deployed on the continent. Half of these countries have tended to relapse into conflict within five years, as a result of inadequate peacebuilding. Typically, 80 per cent of funding for UN peacekeeping missions goes directly to support the needs of the operations, and significantly not to rebuilding war-torn countries to sustain peace. If this situation is not urgently remedied, despite some of the UN’s undoubted peacekeeping successes over the past 75 years, many conflict-wracked countries will be unable to bid a final farewell to arms.

- Professor Adekeye Adebajo is a senior research fellow at the University of Pretoria’s Centre for the Advancement of Scholarship in South Africa. Send feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com