International Peacekeepers Day, May 29, 2003: Blue Helmets, Blue Berets

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The first International Day of United Nations Peacekeepers was observed on May 29 with a pledge by Kofi Annan, UN secretary-general. In a videotaped message broadcast to peacekeepers around the world, Annan stated that the mission of the UN peacekeepers would continue because, even if it cannot by itself end war, it can help prevent recurrence of fighting. Paying tribute to the more than 1,800 peacekeepers who died in the 55 years since the first peacekeeping operation, Annan said, "Above all, it gives time and space for conflict resolution. It gives peace a chance."

Although the UN Charter does not specifically mention peacekeeping, it gives the UN Security Council primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security. The 29th of May was chosen for the celebration because on that day in 1948 the first mission, the UN Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO), began operation with a group of unarmed military observers in Palestine under a new flag and a new mission. "A mission of peace," Mr. Annan said. "That mission was without precedent in human history. It was an attempt to confront and defeat the worst in man with the best in man, to counter violence with tolerance, might with moderation, and war with peace." The Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the United Nations Peacekeeping Forces in 1988. There have been 56 UN peacekeeping operations, 43 of them established since then. On this day there are nearly 37,000 UN peacekeepers [all time high 78,744 in July 1993] from 89 countries deployed in 14 missions on three continents. The widespread tasks the missions now undertake include de-mining; policing and training; serving as judges and prosecutors; administering health and education; ensuring that human rights and gender equality are observed; building administrations, as in Kosovo and Timor-Leste (formerly East Timor); and helping the new authorities establish the rule of law, as in Afghanistan. To support the growth and complexities of peacekeeping operations, a UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) was created in 1992, with the mission to assist the Member States and the secretary-general in their efforts to maintain international peace and security.

The early "successes" led to an overly optimistic assessment of what UN Peacemakers could accomplish. The initial multidimensional operations were successful in El Salvador and Mozambique in providing countries with ways to achieve self-sustaining peace. In Cambodia, elections were organized to create a secure environment for the peace process to move forward. But in conflict areas like Somalia, the Security Council had dispatched peacekeepers without securing consent for ceasefires of the parties in conflict, and/or giving them large mandates without the manpower to operate them. The failures-the massacres in Srebrenica (Bosnia and Herzegovina) and Rwanda led to retrenchment and self-examination in UN peacekeeping. One answer appeared to lie in regionalization, where the UN worked in tandem with other international organizations, such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), to improve the international community's efforts to end conflicts in some areas. It helped restore international faith in the utility of UN peacekeeping. However, to establish a peacekeeping mission or change the mandate or strength of an existing mission, 9 of the Security Council's 15 member states must vote in favor. …