1995 massacre of more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men in Srebrenica was a notable failure of the UN peacekeeping operation
United Nations peacekeeping operations began in 1948 and the light blue helmets and berets have been deployed to many of the world’s trouble spot from Papua New Guinea to Haiti ever since, with varying levels of effectiveness.
An internal UN study last year found that UN peacekeeping missions routinely avoid using force to protect civilians who are under attack, intervening in only 20 per cent of cases despite being authorised to do so by the UN Security Council.
While some peacekeeping missions perform adequately, others have failed to protect civilians – notably at Srebrenica, where Dutch peacekeepers watched on powerless as thousands of men were murdered.
Of the 69 UN peacekeeping missions over the past 68 years, there have been some notable failures – and cases of successful intervention.
Where peacekeepers have succeeded – and failed
On July 11, 1995, towards the end of Bosnia’s 1992-95 war, Bosnian Serb forces swept into the eastern Srebrenica enclave and executed 8,000 Muslim men and boys in the days that followed, dumping their bodies into pits. It was the worst massacre in post-Second World War European history. The UN had previously declared the town one of the safe areas, to be “free from any armed attack or any other hostile act”. 600 Dutch infantry were supposed to be protecting thousands of civilians who had taken refuge from earlier Serb offensives in north-eastern Bosnia.
As Serb forces began shelling Srebrenica, Bosnian Muslim fighters in the town asked for the return of weapons they had surrendered to the UN peacekeepers but their request was refused. The Dutch peacekeepers were obliged to watch as the killings began. The failure led in part to the creation of the United Nations Peacebuilding Commission and set the West on a new course of ‘liberal interventionism’.
Potocari memorial, Srebrenica, Bosnia and Hercegovina
Another major failing of the UN peacekeeping organisation was not doing more to prevent the 1994 Rwandan genocide that left up to one million people dead. A 1999 inquiry found that the UN ignored evidence that the genocide was planned and refused to act once it had started. More than 2,500 UN peacekeepers were withdrawn after the murder of ten Belgian soldiers. In one case, the peacekeeping forces deserted a school where Tutsis were taking shelter – hundreds of people inside were immediately massacred.
Kofi Annan, who was then head of UN peacekeeping forces was accused of failing to pass on warnings of the massacre. UN soldiers did not return to Rwanda until June, by which time hundreds of thousands of people were dead. The UN was accused of “leaving Rwanda to its fate”.
The UN operation was the first time the peacekeeping force had been used for “humanitarian intervention”. However, the peacekeepers were met with a hostile reception in Mogadishu. Several of them were killed and the bodies of dead US soldiers were paraded through the streets on the orders of the Somali warlords.
When an American Black Hawk helicopter was shot down as part of the Battle of Mogadishu, the US withdrew its troops. In 1995 the UN withdrew all peacekeeping troops. It was described at the time by one UN official as “the greatest failure of the UN in our lifetime”.
The UN peacekeeping force that operated in Sierra Leone from 1999 to 2005 is hailed as a success. It was created to help implement a peace agreement after the country’s devastating civil war.
Mr Ban officially closed the UN offices in Freetown in 2014, declaring a “successful conclusion” to the organisations work in helping to bring peace to the country, calling it a “triumph for the people of Sierra Leone” after what had been a decade of warfare. “Our blue helmets disarmed more than 75 000 ex-fighters, including hundreds of child soldiers. The UN destroyed more than 42,000 weapons and 1.2 million rounds of ammunition – a potentially deadly arsenal that is now itself dead,” Mr Ban declared.
Burundi is also frequently cited as a success story for the UN peacekeeping operation, helping it recover from decades of ethnic war. Ban Ki-moon, UN secretary-general, hailed Burundi’s “substantial progress, overcoming formidable challenges since the end of the civil war”. But in 2014 he extended the peacekeeping mission for a year to help the country through elections, that took place earlier in July, and cautioned that the gains made under the UN’s watch were not irreversible.