Peacekeeper Impartiality: Standards, Processes, and Operations

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It is a commonplace (at least among those concerned with peacekeeping) that peacekeeping operations (PKOs) have changed dramatically since the end of the Cold War. At the same time, UN peacekeeping is still ostensibly governed by the “holy trinity” of principles developed earlier in its history – consent, impartiality, and minimum use of force. Understandings of impartiality, in particular, seem to have shifted in response to the increasing prominence of intrastate conflict, and to expectations that peacekeepers will stop human rights abuses and protect civilians as much as oversee an end to open conflict between parties. Impartiality in this context cannot mean simply standing aloof from the conflict – but what then does it mean? UN officials, analysts, and peacekeeepers in the field have given different answers. I have my own – impartial peacekeepers should take the impact on the peace process as their primary standard for deciding when and how to take action; should create structured consultations with local parties (armed and otherwise) for deciding how to act when people disagree over what the peace process requires; and should be willing to put all elements of their power, including but not limited to the use of force, in the service of the peace process.

My answer is frankly normative and revisionist, based in reflection on the best concept of impartiality. I will discuss the varieties of answers given publicly, and in my own research to questions about what impartiality means, but I take that variety as evidence that there are many plausible interpretations of “impartiality,” and that some reflection on the space of possible meanings and the arguments that can be given for one interpretation or another can help us make good decisions about how we should understand the concept. If nothing else, I hope that clarifying that space of possible meanings may help clarify things and help someone come up with a better answer than mine.

Clarification is needed as peacekeepers undertake more complex and dangerous missions, and are called on to use more force. Lack of consensus is present in the field, and this puts peacekeepers in literal danger if they are not resourced properly for the missions they will undertake and also in danger of failing in the eyes of the international public because expectations were not clear.

The discussion here has implications far beyond the context of UN peacekeeping proper, though. First, UN practices cast a long shadow over peacekeeping/peace enforcement missions undertaken by other organizations, such as the African Union and NATO. Second, national militaries are increasingly involved in irregular contests with intrastate forces, generating increased interest in “peace and stability operations,” even if these are not labeled “peacekeeping.” The UN's peacekeeping principles were developed to respond to the need of maintaining legitimacy for operations designed to quell conflict in situations not that different from the ones international forces currently face in places like Afghanistan and Iraq. While national militaries may not be constrained by a historical fidelity to impartiality, or by quite the same interests and norms that govern UN peacekeeping, any intervention force that hopes to present itself as “on the side of the people” and not just a foreign conqueror can learn from the issues that have arisen with UN impartiality.