Peacekeeping in today’s ‘complex emergencies’: Why it still matters that UN peacekeepers strive to adhere to the core principles of UN Peacekeeping

Eric Harsch, King’s College London, UK

Eric holds an MA in International Peace and Security from the War Studies Department from King’s College London. He obtained his BA degree in History and Political Science from the University of Glasgow and McGill University in Montreal and has previously worked with the Human Rights Council. 


The three core principles of consent, impartiality and the use of force only in self-defence have been a distinct and defining feature of United Nations Peacekeeping. Notwithstanding their partial reconceptualization in the wake of new post-Cold War realities, the ever-more ambitious tasks that peacekeepers undertake in complex environments put into question the value of adhering to the core principles, and the identity of peacekeeping itself. This article argues that current practices, especially the protection of civilians, increasing ‘robustness’ and stabilization-type missions undermine the principles and create a mismatch between doctrine, strategy, and practice. Advocating a shift towards more politically-oriented interventions, it is shown how the departure from the core principles has adverse consequences for UN missions in the pursuit of political solutions, which ought to represent their ultimate strategic objective. The article posits that stronger adherence to the core principles can, to some extent, remedy this disconnect and provide a solid basis for UN peacekeeping missions to support political processes, which should act as a reference point for UN peacekeeping practices.


In 1956, UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld outlined the three core principles of peacekeeping, namely consent of the host parties, impartiality and the use of force only in self-defence, in the context of the deployment of UNEF (White, 2015, p.48). Almost 60 years later, the High-level Independent Panel on UN Peace Operations (HIPPO) (2015, para.122) reaffirmed the salience of the core principles, though the content of each principle has decisively changed. Indeed, peacekeeping as a whole has significantly evolved, from a buffer force to a polyvalent instrument used by the international community to manage and solve conflicts (Findlay, 2002, p.4). Peacekeepers now operate in complex emergencies, pursuing more ambitious objectives and fulfilling a wide range of tasks. The increasing ‘robustness’ of UN peacekeeping missions, the centrality of protection of civilians mandates and the recent move towards stabilization-type missions, are vivid illustrations of its changed nature. In view of these far-reaching transformations, the question of whether it remains reasonable to expect peacekeepers to adhere to the core principles deserves closer attention.

Ideally, doctrine and practice are aligned, buttressed by a strategic vision for UN peacekeeping. Some contemporary mission mandates and activities disregard the three core principles, creating an unreasonable state of affairs where principles, practice and objectives do not seem to support each other, potentially hampering the effectiveness of peacekeeping. Bellamy and Hunt (2015, 1281-82; 1285) remark for instance that missions tasked with stabilization, usually comprising robust capacities and protection of civilians mandates, contravene the principle of impartiality by openly siding with the state, hence discriminating a priori against some parties, and stretch the use of force beyond self-defence. The challenges arising from this discrepancy between doctrinal and strategic considerations on the one hand, and operational practices on the other will undermine peacekeeping if these elements remain misaligned (Peter, 2015, p.352). This essay will argue in favour of a re-alignment of practice with the core principles, tied to a clear sense of political purpose. It will claim that the current practice of peacekeeping, with its departure from the core principles, undermines UN peacekeeping and impedes it from engaging meaningfully in political processes. The first section will outline the transformation of peacekeeping and consider the concurrent evolution of the core principles. The next section will look at three particular elements of contemporary peacekeeping, principally within the context of the UN mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), analysing the mismatch between doctrine and practice. The final part will outline some adverse consequences flowing from the above, and propose a more restrained use of peacekeeping more strongly aligned with the core principles.

Peacekeeping and its core principles in complex emergencies

Peacekeeping was conceived as one of the tools to pursue the UN’s obligation to maintain international peace and security within the Cold War context, in the absence of the operationalization of the collective security provision (Thakur, 2006, p.34). Traditional peacekeeping missions had the fairly straightforward purpose of acting as a buffer force between two opposing sides, usually states, monitoring a cease-fire and stabilising the situation, with a view to enable a political solution (Thakur, 2006, p.35). The three core principles, sometimes referred to as the ‘holy trinity’, defined their behaviour and were indeed central to their existence, making them both legally and politically palatable in the context of the Cold War: consent to the UN’s presence and activities allowed them to act impartially in their dealings with the parties, which equally meant that there was no need for the use of force beyond self-defence (Sloan, 2014, p.678). The underlying principles guided and reflected practice and were geared towards peacekeeping’s purpose.

After the end of the Cold War, peacekeeping has changed almost beyond recognition. It has evolved from a primarily military model to multi-dimensional missions, whose various parts ought to work together to enable the achievement of sustainable peace (UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO), 2008, p.18). It no longer exhibits a clear consistency of purpose, but has rather taken on a variety of tasks in internal conflicts, against the background of the Security Council’s evolving view that threats to international peace and security can emerge from within countries (UN Security Council (UNSC), 1992). In this context, peacekeeping objectives broadened and, some would argue, explicitly politicized, swaying towards a more liberal agenda (Koops, 2015, p.3). At the same time, while the core principles continued to underlie peacekeeping, they have been adapted to fit the changed political and normative structure of the post-Cold War system.

This change, captured by the Brahimi Report and consolidated by the Capstone doctrine[1], stemmed from the realization that the traditional conceptual framework of UN peacekeeping could no longer further the goals of the international community in the post-Cold War era and deal with the changed operating environment. As peacekeeping was reconsidering its role in the post-Cold War world, the 1990s yielded crucial experiences and debates regarding the non-use of force (Rwanda, Bosnia-Herzegovina) and the excessive use of force (Somalia) (Findlay, 2002, p.1), the potentially tragic consequences of remaining neutral in the face of atrocities (Rwanda), and the right balance in gaining universal consent and retaining effectiveness (Bosnia-Herzegovina) (Gow and Dandeker, 1995).

While the Brahimi Report (UN General Assembly (UNGA), 2000, para.48) reaffirmed the core principles as the bedrock of peacekeeping, their meaning was significantly altered. At the heart of its vision for modern peacekeeping lay a new understanding of impartiality. As its traditional meaning of neutrality and equal treatment of all parties had supposedly become untenable, it was now to mean “adherence to the principles of the Charter and to the objectives of a mandate that is rooted in those Charter principles” (UNGA, 2000, para.50). Peacekeepers are considered referees, and the use of coercion is conceivable as long as peacekeepers deal even-handedly with all parties for the same infraction (DPKO, 2008, p.33). Rhoads dubs it ‘assertive impartiality’ and emphasizes that it shifted the substance and nature of peacekeeping, and has led to its politicization, with its authority now being derived from a set of human rights-related norms (Rhoads, 2016, p.198; p.2; p7). As von Billerbeck argues (2017, p.51), peacekeeping’s ultimate aim extended from the mere stabilization of the international system, towards building the foundations for sustainable peace by promoting democracy.

On the crucial issue of consent, the Brahimi Report (UNGA, 2000, para.48) recognized that it could be manipulated. Indeed, as Johnstone (2011) reports, there have been significant challenges to consent in recent times, ranging from complete withdrawal to hampering operational tasks. The distinction between strategic and tactical consent points to a novel understanding contained in the 2008 Guidelines, which underline that consent could break down at the local level, potentially requiring the use of force as a last resort (DPKO, 2008, pp. 31-33). The maintenance of consent is an increasingly potent challenge, and Gow and Dandeker (1995) discussed the potential need for limited enforcement measures, opposing a craven attachment to consent, which would undermine respect for and the effectiveness of the mission. In this context, the Guidelines refer to the desirability of obtaining consent from the ‘main parties’, as well as of their commitment to a peace process (DPKO, 2008). While the consent from the host state retains primary importance, not least as a fundamental legal requirement, seeking the consent from other relevant actors can be seen as a ‘practical cum political necessity’ to bolster UN legitimacy and efficiency (Tsagourias, 2006, p.475). In complex, internal conflicts, this is often premised on the existence of a peace agreement or some basic political process, in the absence of which the UN has no real reference point for impartiality beyond human rights-related norms, which cannot constitute a strategic objective by themselves. This logic underpins the challenges UN missions may face in cases where there is no peace to keep.

While framing the use of force as an exception, the Brahimi Report (UNGA, 2000, p.49) also calls for ‘robust’ peacekeeping missions, able to defend themselves and the mission’s mandates. The use of tactical force became sanctioned, but the Guidelines (DPKO, 2008, p.34) clearly noted that robust peacekeeping must not be confused with peace enforcement. While a number of peacekeeping missions are now authorized under Chapter VII, they are not meant to amount to peace enforcement, i.e. the imposition of a particular solution. Rather, missions are allowed to ‘use […] force at the tactical level, limited in time and space’ (UN General Assembly Special Committee on Peacekeeping Operations, cited in Karlsrud, 2015, p.43), though the line between tactical and operational use of force, which constitutes the threshold to peace enforcement, is sometimes very fine (Bellamy and Hunt, 2015, p.1281). The HIPPO (2015) explicitly states that peacekeeping missions should be cautious with regards to peace enforcement and are not suited for counter-terrorism or counter-insurgency activities, recommending outsourcing such tasks to regional partners, as has been done with the African Union in several instances. The latter has increasingly engaged in peace support operations on its continent since the early 2000s, raising questions about the potential impact of its missions on UN doctrine, addressed below.

Even as this new framework gave potentially more leeway to pursue more far-reaching objectives and activities, peacekeeping (and its practices) has continued to evolve, becoming more enmeshed with other activities under the umbrella of peace operations, and now threatens to grow out of the conceptual suit it is wearing. The HIPPO Report (2015, para.105) pointed to the increased use of peacekeeping for conflict management purposes, beyond its core role of preserving the peace and implementing agreements. While the Guidelines (DPKO, 2008, p.18; p.31) stress that the core principles set peacekeeping apart and allow it to make a distinct contribution, the next section will focus on how the new peacekeeping vision and three associated elements and practices, namely ‘robustness’, the protection of civilians (PoC) and stabilization-type missions, ultimately undermine the core principles, raising the question of whether it is still reasonable for peacekeepers to adhere to them.

Contemporary peacekeeping: wither the core principles?

The novel understanding of impartiality was supposed to establish a new purpose for the UN, yet is ultimately deeply contested (Rhoads, 2016, p.92). Peacekeeping has become a ‘politically fragmented practice’ (Rhoads, 2016, p.93), and the lack of agreement on its core purpose extends to and is reflected in the debates regarding the adequacy of the core principles as a basis for today’s missions. As the HIPPO (2015, para.121) indicated, a number of member states, including several large troop contributing countries, have fervently argued in favour of retaining the core principles, while others have emphasized that they are out-dated and need another readjustment, pointing to a held belief that current aims and practices are hindered by the core principles, whose normative value no longer fits policy. In order to assess these opposing claims, this section will consider three elements, namely the increasing robustness, the protection of civilians, and stabilization-type efforts, which have become an integral part of several recent missions, and their impact on the core principles and the practice and nature of peacekeeping as a whole, as a basis for formulating a way forward.

The call for more robust missions is both linked to the more fragile operating environments as well as to some practices of peacekeeping, namely the protection of civilians and the confrontation of spoilers (Bellamy and Hunt, 2015, p.1279). As the protection agenda gained traction within the UN, the PoC has become an integral part of many peacekeeping mandates, and sometimes indeed a central focus[2]. For example, UNMISS’ mandate under Resolution 2155 (UNSC, 2014a), reinforced by Resolution 2304 (UNSC, 2016), conceives PoC as a primary task of the mission, along with an increase of peacekeeping troops. This potentially encourages a more robust posture, and reflects the new assertive impartiality dictating the defence of human rights. Finally, stabilization mandates, providing ‘active support for consolidation and extension of state authority’ (Bellamy and Hunt, 2015, p.1279), reflect a move towards Afghanistan or Iraq-type missions. There are currently four such missions[3], and while they do not inevitably prescribe far-reaching actions, they raise pertinent questions regarding the core principles and the aims of peacekeeping.

The implementation of such mandates and practices provides a vivid illustration of their contradiction with the core principles. MONUSCO, the UN mission in the DRC, strongly exhibits all these practices. It was deployed in 2010, as a successor to MONUC (established in 1999). While the latter’s mandate already contained a protection of civilians mandate since October 2004 (UNSC, 2004a), Resolution 1925 (UNSC, 2010) introduced the stabilization mandate. Additionally, Resolution 2098 (UNSC, 2013b) created the Force Intervention Brigade (FIB), allowing it to ‘take all necessary measures’ to ‘neutralize’ and ‘disarm’ groups that pose a threat to ‘state authority and civilian security’.

Firstly, stabilization mandates are inherently biased: as they support the host state in extending their authority against any challengers, they are self-consciously partial and indeed require the UN to differentiate between the parties a priori (Bellamy and Hunt, 2015, p.1282). There is an unstated ‘belief in the transformative agency of extending state authority’, relying on the power of institutions outside the realm of politics (De Coning, 2015, p.2). In the DRC, partiality is amplified by the FIB, which is explicitly mandated to eliminate particular parties. Similarly, MINUSMA supports the transitional authorities of Mali against insurgents and jihadist groups (Karlsrud, 2015, p.45), explicitly implying that parties are not to be treated alike.

Such mandates are generally not associated with a peace process, and the lack of comprehensive agreements creates uncertain relations with other ‘main parties’, whose consent is desirable for the effective operation of peacekeeping missions. Instead, as observed in the DRC, stabilization missions are fully concentrated on host state consent, while no attempt was made to secure strategic-level consent from other ‘main parties’. Certainly, obtaining consent from ‘main parties’, which are often in armed opposition to the state and may attempt to overthrow it, is arduous at best. If anything, such situations illustrate that the absence of political processes entails complex challenges for peacekeeping missions established in unstable conditions with no peace to keep, where the UN tends to manage conflict rather than keep the peace. Focussing on state authority extension assumes a premeditated solution, essentially precluding a political denouement other than on the government’s terms. However, overly close ties with the state can yield problems if the state, such as in the DRC, is being abusive itself, putting the UN in a difficult position (Bellamy and Hunt, 2015, p.1285).

Secondly, the protection of civilians can create perceptions of partiality. The associated threat or use of force is rarely directed against government troops, while its use against militias can make future cooperation more difficult (Bellamy and Hunt, 2015, p.1285). In the DRC, the UN’s inconsistency and failures to protect civilians, and in morally condemning particular actors, all while emphasising its impartiality, served to legitimise or delegitimise parties to the conflict, making it a potentially powerful and subversive tool for various actors (Rhoads, 2016, p.199). Also, the protection of civilians often raises expectations that missions are unable to fulfil, which can lead to a loss of confidence in and legitimacy of the UN[4].

Lastly, both stabilization and the PoC have contributed to calls for more robustness, with a potentially larger tolerance for the use of force, alongside the notion that the UN must be able to confront spoilers of peace processes[5]. A number of peacekeeping missions are now authorised under Chapter VII[6], which can allow the use of force without the consent of the ‘main parties’. Force can be used to defend the mandate, and with mandates expanding, it opens up the possibility for the increasing use of force, beyond individual self-defence[7].

Going further, some mandates seem to explicitly authorise the offensive use of force. The FIB does not depend on the particular behaviour of actors as a trigger to use force, but can take proactive measures to ‘neutralize’ armed groups (Müller, 2015, p.366). Besides departing from the core principle of defensive use of force, it equally reinforces the partiality of MONUSCO. The mandate of MINUSMA has authorised French contingents to use all necessary measures in support of the UN mission (UNSC, 2013a), thus putting the rest of the mission in close relation with the proactive use of force.

Confronted with increasing demands and challenges potentially requiring enforcement approaches the UN is not inclined to adopt, partnerships to maintain peace rise in importance, in particular with the African Union (AU), which engages in peace support operations since the early 2000s. Such a partnership potentially raises questions with regards to the UN’s core principles. As Fitz-Gerald (2017, p.630) notes, the UN’s core principles are quite unique as a doctrine and provide it with a very particular starting point compared to other organizations. Indeed, the AU’s African Standby Forces (ASF) adapt their approach according to function and purpose of the mission, rather than taking a principled approach (De Coning, 2017, p.169). At the same time, the UN’s authorization of such missions, i.e. in Burundi, Mali, or Somalia, means that it has to relate to the UN core principles. The current cooperation is largely complementary, wherein the AU deploy into on-going conflicts to stabilize the situation and create the necessary political processes, which the UN can subsequently support and protect through peacekeeping missions (De Coning, 2017, 155). From a UN view, the AU missions engage in peace enforcement activities to establish the conditions for UN-led peacekeeping missions. This functional division of labour circumvents hard questions about the core principles for now, but deeper partnership with more subsidiarity would require clarification on the relationship. In this context, the recently concluded Joint UN-AU Framework for Enhanced Partnership in Peace and Security (United Nations-African Union Annual Conference, 2017) recognizes the need of a ‘shared understanding of each other’s doctrines’.

As is plainly discernible from the above analysis, the practices of peacekeeping are in opposition to the core principles in obvious ways, raising precisely the question of whether it is still reasonable to adhere to them. As M. Peter (2015, p.351) pronounces a new era of ‘enforcement peacekeeping’, the mismatch between doctrine and practice, and the potential detrimental effect on peacekeeping, calls for a rethink in view of furthering peacekeeping’s strategic purpose. This essay is does not believe that the core principles are necessarily worth preserving for their own sake, as unchanging constitutional principles. Rather, it inquires about the purpose of peacekeeping in the context of recent trends and practices, questioning whether the practical departure from the core principles adversely impacts its effectiveness, legitimacy and possible contributions. If UN peacekeeping ought to restore, support, protect and implement political solutions and peace agreements, the above trends can hinder the UN from assuming this role. The final section will outline some of the negative consequences of the current approach and argue in favour of the continued relevance of the core principles for peacekeepers, in the framework of a politics-first approach for UN peacekeeping.

The future of peacekeeping: making the trinity holier again?

As posited in the introduction, the ideal configuration for peacekeeping is an alignment of doctrine, practice and strategy. While reality will likely not allow such a perfect alignment, the current mismatch is unsustainable. The conflicting views and the arising paradoxes are, however, rarely explicitly examined: as Findlay suggests (2002, p.16), there seems to exist a ‘taboo to openly question the principles of peacekeeping too rigorously for fear it might destroy a delicate instrument that was proving, despite its flaws, to be useful’. Rhetorical attempts to camouflage the contradictions or the outright denial of the latter are entirely unhelpful: what is needed is a frank discussion on the overall strategic purpose of peacekeeping and the ways to achieve it, and the principles or approach that can best enable any such approach.

This essay advocates for UN peacekeeping missions, whose operations and practices support political solutions at all stages (HIPPO, 2015, p.VIII). While it does not call for the complete retreat from the above activities, the latter should be driven with a view to further the political process, which aims to establish lasting peace. The current practice and disregard for the core principles impede the UN’s effective engagement towards political solutions, as will be shown below. Instead, the essay will argue in favour of an approach more firmly rooted in the consent of both the host state but also other relevant parties, linked to political processes. This would allow the UN to be impartial in relation to a generally agreed course of action, and guide the use of force towards strategic, political objectives.

The increased ambitions of UN peacekeeping, displayed by the more far-reaching notion of impartiality and the three developments outlined above, have inevitably raised expectations regarding UN peacekeeping. On a micro-level, civilians now expect missions to protect them against armed groups, while the international community developed an inflated sense of what Peace Operations ought to be able to achieve in mitigating and solving today’s conflicts (Bellamy and Hunt, 2015, pp.1283-84). In addition to the perennial resource problem, these expanded ambitions were not accompanied by ‘concomitant work to clarify the strategic purpose of UN Peace Operations and what peacekeepers ought to do to achieve them’ (Bellamy and Hunt, 2015, p.1284).

The increasing robustness and use of force may suggest that local, political problems could be solved by external military responses (Bellamy and Hunt, 2015, p.1284). Berdal and Ucko (2015, p.10) argue that the use of force in UN operations is constrained by a lack of political and strategic purpose: the FIB found it challenging to transform tactical successes into larger strategic progress, given that the mere creation of a secure environment does not address the root causes of the conflict itself. Such an approach is largely Sisyphean and misunderstands the utility of force, which derives its core value from the contribution it can make towards enabling or protecting political processes or peace.

Similarly, the PoC, while inherently valuable, should be driven by a political purpose (HIPPO, 2015, p.IX). It is sometimes portrayed as an apolitical, impartial response to violence, which is perceived as an evil to be countered (Rhoads, 2016, p.102). Such approaches disregard the complexity of violence and its potentially political nature, and hence pose as a technical response to a deeply political problem, rendering peacekeeping ‘reactive and palliative’ (Guéhenno, in Rhoads, 2015, p.103). Cloaking PoC as a supposedly impartial activity is unhelpful, and can counterintuitively lead to perceptions of partiality.

While the claim is one of impartiality, force is generally only used against non-state actors (White, 2015, p.50). The blue helmets have become a very conspicuous symbol of the UN, whose authority and unique position will be damaged by perceptions of the partial use of force (Thakur, 2006, p.37). It cannot aim to be an impartial broker while attempting to neutralize one or more of the parties to the conflict at the same time. Indeed, the use of force, bordering on peace enforcement, means that the UN itself becomes a party to the conflict.

UN peacekeeping missions’ close ties with an incumbent government, though understandable given its desire to uphold the state system, can make strategic success elusive if that government is part of the problem. The 2015 Review of the United Nations Peacebuilding Architecture (United Nations, 2015, para.21) recognizes the potential pitfalls of promoting the extension of state authority, possibly deepening a conflict. In pushing for a particular outcome, and creating a partial reality, the UN might overlook the ‘many-sidedness’ of the conflict (Rhoads, 2016, p.159). Openly siding with the government can create further legitimacy problems in the eyes of some parts of the population, which in turn can be exploited by armed groups the UN opposes, creating an unhelpful vicious circle and a seeming impossibility to come to a comprehensive agreement.

Ultimately, the current practices dispute peacekeeping’s identity, and the resulting conceptual mismatch and its challenges, if left unaddressed, will ‘create a wall between operational activities and strategic/doctrinal considerations’ (Peter, 2015, p.352). Deciding on a way forward is tightly related to one’s overall conception of peacekeeping. It is indeed easy to see how the core principles can be considered unsuitable, and hence in need of revision, to guide more ambitious operations, which can be portrayed as the natural progression of peacekeeping in order to remain relevant in the face of new realities. At the same time, failure to deliver on its ambitious promises may dilute peacekeeping’s potential (Rhoads, 2016, p.189).

A focus on technical, military-centred protection approaches has had decisively mixed results in the past decade, including in the DRC, South Sudan, and Darfur. As contended above, tactical victories in the DRC did not yield strategic gains, mainly because they were not connected to an overarching political purpose. The strong emphasis on extending state authority, at the expense of seeking more politically oriented solutions with armed groups, contributed to this. It is true that not everyone ought to be engaged; yet an overly partial approach closes off potential rudiments for political involvement. In terms of consent, international law tends to privilege incumbent governments (Tsagourias, 2006, p.475), however, outright deference to their wishes can prove counterproductive, and host state consent can be fluctuating.

In South Sudan, for example, UNMISS went through a tumultuous period with changing mandates and situations. Having cultivated close ties with figures within the government, it first proved unwilling and unable to prevent the impending return to conflict, and was subsequently accused of partiality from both sides, with the UN becoming side-lined in the political process and increasingly hampered in its operations due to government restrictions (Rhoads, 2016). Further, the PoC proved to be a double-edged sword. Though it sheltered over 200.000 civilians at UN bases, adopting a new practice and certainly saving many lives, such a state of affairs is ultimately unsustainable. To make matters worse, its performance beyond its bases was poor, and a 2016 UN Special investigation (United Nations, 2016) into the July 2016 crisis found that ‘the lack of preparedness, ineffective command and control and a risk-averse or ‘inward-looking’ posture resulted in a loss of trust and confidence [vis-à-vis various South Sudanese actors]’. Finally, the Regional Protection Force mandated by Resolution 2304, is seen by some commentators as yet another military band-aid to a fundamentally political wound (Williams, 2016).

Similarly, decision-makers that established UNAMID have been accused of inflating hopes regarding the impact of an international force for protection purposes, without considering the wider strategic objectives (de Waal, 2006, p.1044). As de Waal (2006, p.1046) states, the sequence of planning was reversed, subordinating the pursuit of political and diplomatic objectives to the deployment of a peacekeeping mission, whose overall strategic purpose consequently remained vague in the absence of political or peace processes to support. In this context, though African Union missions employ force amounting to peace enforcement in UN terms, they are a

‘political-strategic undertaking that require a sustained approach. Military force is only useful to the extent that the temporary security and safety it creates can be transformed into lasting stability and peace. When it is not, military imposed stabilization generates negative and perverse side-effects’ (De Coning, 2017, p.154).

While it does not guarantee success in any way, it does represent a more sensitive approach regarding the use of force and stabilization.

This essay believes that contemporary UN peacekeeping lacks strategic direction, and its departure from the core principles make the desired politics-oriented approach all but impossible. It is crucial to acknowledge its limits−operational, financial and strategic−and while the flexibility of peacekeeping is an asset, it is worth considering whether overstretching it does not entirely change peacekeeping and undermine the particular contribution it is able to make.

It is not suggested that peacekeeping returns to its initial state: it can play an important role in today’s complex emergencies. Nor are the core principles considered to be untouchable. However, there ought to be a clearer strategic approach linked to seeking political solutions, guiding peacekeeping missions and its individual practices as a whole. Against this background, and in view of the above analyses, adherence to the core principles can provide a reasonable basis to conceptually underpin that effort, and provide the UN with a source of authority.

Directing practice towards a political process will not dispel accusations of partiality or doubts about the UN’s legitimacy: the core principles, however formulated, will leave some ambiguity and political contestation. Nonetheless, seeking the consent of the ‘main parties’, though inevitably tricky, is constitutive of efforts to impartially broker a peace process, while dealing even-handedly with all parties requires some type of peace process in the first place. This means to ground impartiality stronger in the consent of the parties, rather than in a set of human rights-related norms, and reinforces the view that peacekeeping missions operating in situations with no peace to keep will face strategic and tactical difficulties. The use of force will always be difficult to reconcile with the UN’s diplomatic and political engagements (Tardy, 2011, p.153), yet will prove more palatable to more actors if clearly inscribed in a strategic vision.


This essay has argued that it is still reasonable to expect peacekeepers to adhere to the core principles of peacekeeping. Considering MONUSCO’s and other missions’ robust postures, and PoC and stabilisation activities, it was demonstrated that current practices undermine the doctrinal underpinning, and argued that this mismatch is detrimental to UN peacekeeping. Remedying this situation will involve either readjusting the core principles or re-aligning practice with doctrine. After positing that UN peacekeeping ought to pursue a ‘politics first’ approach, it has attempted to show that the current, ambitious mandates and practices and their varying disregard for the trinity entail adverse impacts, and deny its ability to politically engage in the conflict situations within which peacekeeping missions are deployed. With a view to recalibrate peacekeeping’s activities towards supporting political solutions, the core principles are deemed to provide a good basis to support this approach, reinforcing the UN’s legitimacy and authority.


[1] Several member states strongly opposed the formulation of an official doctrine, leading to its reconfiguration as the Guidelines, an internal DPKO document

[2] See S/RES/2155 (2014) for UNMISS, S/RES/2149 (2014) for MINUSCA

[3] MINUSTAH: S/RES/1542 (2004); MONUSCO: S/RES/1925 (2010); MINUSMA: S/RES/2100 (2013); MINUSCA: S/RES/2149 (2014)

[4] UNMISS fell into this trap, especially after the 2016 July crisis

[5] Though such peace processes are now often absent in the first place, as noted above

[6] See for example S/RES/2149 (2014); S/RES/1996 (2011)

[7] Though in practice, the effect has been limited


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