The Work of Peace: History, Imperialism, and Peacekeeping

By Thompsell, Angela | Insight Turkey, Winter 2019 | Go to article overview

The Work of Peace: History, Imperialism, and Peacekeeping


Thompsell, Angela, Insight Turkey


Introduction

The end of the Cold War dramatically altered the landscape of international peacekeeping, particularly in Africa. In the four decades between 1948 and 1988, there were only thirteen United Nations (UN) peacekeeping missions, two of which addressed African conflicts, whereas there have been 58 missions since that time, 30 of which were in Africa. (1) Many of those more recent missions have also been substantial, requiring thousands of personnel and massive financial outlays. The overall cost of African missions has been well in excess of $36 billion. (2) Peacekeeping is now "big business for the leading state funders of UN missions" (3) and, like international aid, has become an important axis for engaging with African countries and building regional connections.

The changing realities of peacekeeping have raised new questions about the intrusive nature of peacebuilding and its similarities to 19th and 20th century imperialism. Before addressing those connections, it is helpful to consider why peacekeeping changed in 1989. As the date suggests, the end of the Cold War was a critical factor, but the antagonism between the United States (U.S.) and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) only made multilateral peacekeeping difficult, not impossible. (4) By way of comparison, there were seven missions to the Middle East between 1948 and 1988, and only three since. (5) To understand the remarkable uptick in the number and scope of peacekeeping missions in Africa specifically, one must consider the changing notions of state sovereignty and the nature of conflicts on the continent.

In 1963, once the majority of African states had gained independence, they formed the Organization of African Unity (OAU) and agreed to treat the boundaries drawn during the colonial era as inviolable, a policy very few states violated. (6) Consequently, most conflicts in Africa were internal affairs, at least when they began. In several cases, foreign states, such as the former imperial powers and the U.S. and the USSR, subsidized or armed factions that supported their competing agendas. Such interference extended and exacerbated these conflicts, but they were still considered to be civil matters. This classification placed such conflicts beyond the purview of the United Nations because its Charter explicitly states that the organization is not authorized to intervene in "matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state" except in the case of an "act of aggression" or "threat to the peace." (7) Before 1989, the international community did not consider intra-state conflicts or human rights abuses as qualifying for this exception to the policy of non-interference. (8)

That changed with the end of the Cold War, and just as multilateral operations became more feasible, many states embraced a post-Westphalian view of sovereignty that permitted interventions to protect human rights. (9) This shift was most evident among Western states, but African governments also loosened their stance on sovereignty and dissolved the OAU in 2002 to form a more interventionist body, the African Union (AU). (10) By that point, growing fears of international terrorism had further amplified the global community's willingness to intervene in intra-state conflicts, as they now saw embattled states as potential breeding grounds of extremism and thus grave threats to international peace.

For these reasons, the United Nations and other regional blocs began authorizing more peacekeeping missions and greatly extending their mandates. Unlike earlier peacekeeping missions that sought to secure and enforce ceasefires, todays peacebuilding operations aim to prevent future violence by supporting post-conflict reconciliations and encouraging democratization. Without doubt, the record has been mixed, but research shows that such missions increase the probability of a lasting peace. (11)

The new, extended parameters of peacekeeping operations have also led, however, to frequent comparisons between today's peacebuilding efforts and the "colonial occupations" of the early 20th century. …

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