Should the UN fight in a war?

The core values of peacekeeping lie in the principles of consent of the parties, impartiality and the non-use of force except as a last resort. If the very blue berets that work to keep peace indulge in active combat against one of the entities in conflict, would it not render redundant the principles on which it is deployed?

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Conflict Background


By Kirthi Jayakumar

I happened to read this article on The Economist a little while back today. It spoke about the fact that the UN is all set “to fight its first war, and that it is a gamble worth taking.”

It is no news that the DR Congo has been a huge human rights black hole over the past decade and nine years – following the Rwandan genocide of 1994. Sexual violence thrives untrammelled, and a backdrop of armed conflict keeps the crime alive. The DR Congo, like the rest of Africa is not poverty ridden when it comes to resources: it is a land of abundance if you look at its mineral wealth and agricultural potential. And yet, it is poorly managed. An unhindered process of “war-mongering business” continues to thrive, as the war is kept alive through the trade in conflict minerals. For a long time, the rebels that kept the state of armed conflict alive had support coming in from Rwanda. But following a considerable amount of pressure from the international community for its complicity with keeping war and all the crimes it encourages alive, Rwanda has stepped back. It now appears, as this article suggests that the UN troops are in the DR Congo even more actively now than ever: and no, it isn’t about the peacekeeping mission (MONUSCO) that has been in action in the country that sought to end the conflict in the DR Congo. This time, it appears that they are deploying to fight the rebels.

This set of soldiers constituting the troops that have come in are effectively a “United Nations’ Troop of Soldiers”. Up until now, peacekeeping forces comprised troops that were deployed by the United Nations, no doubt, but supplied only by the countries that were willing to supply troops. Up until now, the United Nations, through the Security Council, has only authorised the use of force under Collective Security (Chapter VII), or, has allowed the use of all necessary force or all means necessary in the past to remedy (or attempt to remedy) a conflict situation. Here’s the sockdolager in the current turn of events: this time around, the soldiers that are coming in from South Africa, Tanzania and Malawi will all be fighting against the rebels under the banner of the UN, and not trying to restore peace.

What does this look like under the UN’s own founding document? Well, to start with, and in my own understanding, inappropriate. Setting out to restore peace and security as its main preambular aims, the UN was established as an organisation that strived to restore peace in the aftermath of the world’s worst war. Ironically, the UN is now trying to intervene in its own capacity as a fighter in the world’s worst war in the aftermath of the Second World War. The UN is, in that sense, supposed to be a neutral entity. Some may say that there is a need for the UN to intervene – especially because several years of peacekeeping have not helped restore a state of peace in the DR Congo. It is understandable that what has happened in the DR Congo is not like the Arab Spring, and the continued protraction of the conflict for several years now as a lot of countries worried – countries that supported the Security Council’s initiative by voting in favour of it. But doesn’t this set a precedent? Doesn’t this create room for a pockmark on the faith that countries can repose in an organisation that could use this as a precedent to get around war?

Assuming that it is a valid thing for the UN to do, and that the situation in the DR Congo is deserving of a UN participation in the war, even then, by the UN’s later developed rules and standards, such conduct would be a violation. The core values of peacekeeping lie in the principles of consent of the parties, impartiality and the non-use of force except as a last resort. If the very blue berets that work to keep peace indulge in active combat against one of the entities in conflict, would it not render redundant the principles on which it is deployed?

This is understandable – but the use of force as combatants in the war is not necessarily useful as a tool in restoring peace. At any rate, any intervention of a military nature in the armed conflict in the DR Congo cannot fix anything. The overarching war is not the only problem for the country: thanks to the war, society has been shattered, its political infrastructure is weak as corruption is rampant. The country clearly needs reforms as much as it needs peace. The DR Congo instead, might be able to stave off war if the “business” that it has become, ceases to be. This is a difficult task, indeed – but what if all units on the demand side of conflict minerals could be called upon to stop seeking supply from the country? There are fiercely strong questions about how a supply chain can be traced, which are not unfounded at all. But what if every stake-holding unit could be brought to the table to see what they are causing, and then if they could stop it? Idealistic, indeed. Uphill, indeed. Impractical – perhaps. But not that impossible.

Kirthi Jayakumar is a Lawyer, specialized in public international law and human rights. A graduate of the School of Excellence in Law, Chennai, Kirthi has diversified into research and writing on public international law and human rights. She has worked as a UN Volunteer, specializing in human rights research in Africa, India and Central Asia and the Middle East. She also runs a journal and consultancy that focuses on international law, called A38.

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4 Responses

  1. I understand the dilemma you outline. But basic to any understanding of peacekeeping is recognizing that not all parties to a conflict are equal. Spoilers must sometimes be dealt with. Also, the UN is an organization of sovereign states formed to help keep the peace between – and increasingly over the years – within sovereign states. Under the UN Charter, the UNSC has the authority (Chapters 6, 7 and 8) to intervene to help keep or restore the peace. Indeed, it is far better for armed intervention to take place per the mandate of the Security Council rather than unilaterally by this or that country or organization. The precedent might be that putting troops into the middle of armed conflict should only be done under the UN Charter, by the community of states?

  2. davide d.

    The UN already fought wars on one of the sides: Corea 1950 and Iraq 1991. Why couldn’t/shouldn’t do it again?
    AND the UN is a state-based organisation. It is not supposed to stand aside, in a conflict between a government and a rebel group (unless this impinges on decolonisation – which is not the case here).

  3. Pingback : Syria - to intervene or not to intervene? | TransConflict

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