From Bosnia to Rwanda, United Nations peacekeepers have always faced tough choices that come with operating in complex, dangerous environments. Today, the climate is no less challenging. Record fatalities and injuries for U.N. personnel have increased pressure from some quarters to embolden U.N. peacekeeping and political missions with stronger, more aggressive mandates. But recent decisions made by the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, such as a mandate to support a regional, non-U.N. counterterrorism unit in Mali, the G5 Sahel Joint Force, risk plunging blue helmets into the quicksand of unwinnable wars. This short-term thinking poses considerable long-term risks that could destroy U.N. peacekeeping as we know it.
In deciding how it does and doesn’t engage in war zones, the U.N. should heed the shortcomings and ongoing failures of counterterrorism campaigns and stabilization interventions from Afghanistan and Iraq to Libya, Somalia and Yemen. Buying further into the doctrine of counterterrorism is not the answer.
The U.N.’s added value in countries torn apart by conflict is to try to support meaningful peace processes, protect human rights and build trust with communities and influential actors. Requiring peacekeepers to support and side with non-U.N. counterterrorism or “stabilization” forces carries huge risks. As U.N. peacekeepers become active protagonists in a conflict on the ground, their potential to play protective, peacemaking roles is radically undermined.