Academic journal article Global Governance

The Ralph Bunche Centennial: Peace Operations Then and Now

Academic journal article Global Governance

The Ralph Bunche Centennial: Peace Operations Then and Now

Article excerpt

A century after the birth of a father of peacekeeping, Ralph Bunche, UN peace operations have changed dramatically. The narrowly defined, lightly armed, strictly neutral operations of Bunche's day have become complex, multidisciplinary state-building operations. Then, peacekeeping buttressed essentially self-enforcing cease-fires; now, it aims to build the foundations of a self-renewing peace. These changes reflect six deeper shifts: the end of the Cold War; engagement with "internal" conflicts; rising regional organizations; North-South politics; the U.S.-UN relationship; and changes in peace operation mandates. These shifts create three future challenges: state building; the reconception of sovereignty; and the need for realism. The December 2004 High-Level Panel report proposes modest steps toward meeting those challenges, but the burden of realizing the proposed framework rests squarely with UN member states. KEYWORDS: peacekeeping, peacebuilding, state building, High-Level Panel, Ralph Bunche.


Scholar, civil rights activist, and Nobel Peace Laureate, Ralph Bunche left his most enduring legacy in the field of United Nations peace operations. The centennial of his birth in either 2003 or 2004 (1) served not only as an opportunity to celebrate that legacy, but also as the occasion to reflect on the changes that have occurred in UN peacekeeping since Bunche's day.

In Bunche's day, peacekeeping was a term narrowly defined and clearly understood. Today, UN peace operations cover a multiplicity of UN field activities in support of peace, ranging from essentially preventive deployments to long-term state-building missions. In this article we analyze the major shifts in UN peace operations since the mid-1900s. After describing how peacekeeping operations looked in Bunche's era, we seek to identify continuities and changes in today's peace operations. We then analyze the reasons for these changes and conclude by examining the consequences of these changes for the UN's involvement in world politics today and speculating on the shape of future UN peace operations.

Peacekeeping Then

Peacekeeping emerged not by design but out of necessity. The founding members of the UN had included in Chapter VII of the UN Charter provisions (Article 42) that allowed the UN to take "action by air, sea, or land forces as may be necessary to maintain or restore international peace and security." The vision of a body of national military forces permanently available to the Security Council "on its call" (Article 43) and serving as the instrument of collective security did not materialize due to Cold War antagonisms. Paradoxically, Cold War tensions served to increase the need for an independent and impartial actor on the world stage, ensuring that conflicts did not spiral out of control and further fuel the confrontation between capitalist and communist camps.

Bunche--and a cast of other notables, including secretaries-general Trygve Lie and Dag Hammarskjold; members of the UN Secretariat, such as Brian Urquhart; and key players from the member states, particularly Lester Pearson, Canadian minister for external affairs (and later prime minister)--stepped into that gap. They generated an operational capacity for the UN that had not been imagined for the organization. The Secretariat staff "started from scratch," as Bunche himself suggested, unaware of what peacekeeping would involve, improvising as they went along, and making mistakes. (2)

The system of peacekeeping they generated involved UN missions staffed by lightly armed Blue Helmets (as they came to be known), operating under the strict instruction to use force only in self-defense. Falling between Chapter VI (Pacific Settlement of Disputes) and Chapter VII (Action with Respect to Threats to the Peace, Breaches of the Peace, and Acts of Aggression), these peace operations were creatively crafted "Chapter VI 1/2" and required, in principle, invitation or consent on the part of the recipient state(s). …

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