Beyond Self-Defense: United Nations Peacekeeping Operations & the Use of Force

Article excerpt


Since the end of the Cold War, the role of United Nations (UN) operations in the area of international peace and security has increasingly become a topical issue for the different nations of the world. In particular, the use of force by, and in support of, peacekeeping has raised questions concerning the future role of UN peacekeeping operations in the resolution of international and internal conflict. During the Cold War there were two accepted forms of United Nations operations: peacekeeping and peace-enforcement. Since the end of the Cold War, however, despite increasing difficulties faced by UN peacekeeping operations, no accepted mode of action beyond these two operations has emerged. This has become problematic as the UN has consistently chosen to use peacekeeping forces as its primary tool in its effort to restore peace and security; despite the fact that peacekeeping, in itself, is not always an effective means to achieve these ends.

Why did peacekeeping come to be used in situations that increasingly necessitated the use of coercive force? Primarily because peacekeeping provided a legal and `palatable' form of intervention in intrastate conflicts, which have erupted with greater frequency in recent times. The use of UN peacekeepers to intervene and resolve conflict was acceptable to Member States and met with their growing demands and expectations that action be taken to contain State fragmentation and resolve humanitarian crises. Due to their acceptability, such forces were authorized and implemented. The circumstances into which the UN intervened, however, were often volatile and not conducive to effective peacekeeping: situations where, for example, the consent of the warring factions could only be obtained conditionally or where there was no governmental authority in existence with whom the UN could negotiate and work. The Security Council authorized the use of force by and in support of some of these UN peacekeeping operations to enable their mandates to be achieved. Ultimately this has meant that UN peacekeeping has moved beyond the three main legal principles upon which it was originally based, notably the principles of consent, impartiality and non-use of force except in self-defense. Arguably, peacekeeping has outstripped its original doctrinal justifications and as a result now flounders without guidelines and with ill-defined purpose.

The use of force by and in support of UN peacekeeping operations has narrowed the gap that previously existed between peacekeeping and coercive peace-enforcement. Yet the use of force in such instances is controversial, primarily because there is no universally accepted agreement as to how and when force should be used. This gives rise to many legal issues. For example, how broad is a peacekeeper's inherent right to self-defense? When does force used in `self-defense' become an enforcement measure? When does peacekeeping become coercive peace-enforcement? One way to address these questions is to clarify the legal issues that have emerged due to these developments. Their clarification is not only of theoretical interest, it is of great practical importance. Determining the legal basis for the use of force enables a conceptual framework to be built up regarding its use. A sound legal understanding of this issue would provide the basis for comprehensive policies to be formulated concerning the way in which force is used by UN peacekeepers. It will help address the current problems facing United Nations peacekeeping by ensuring that Security Council resolutions are translated into clear and effective rules of engagement, which will be adhered to by troops in the field.

Not surprisingly, if a peacekeeping operation's mandate is not clear, its rules of engagement will not be clear. Lack of clarity in a mandate or its legal basis invariably gives rise to problems in interpreting or implementing the objectives of the operation. …