The UN Security Council has agreed to dispatch observers to Syria to oversee the cease-fire that began Thursday. But what role do such missions play, and how do they work?
"The decisive factor is whether the parties involved in a conflict have the political will to truly restore peace," said Ekkehard Griep, vice-chairman of the United Nations Association of Germany and primarily responsible for UN peacekeeping projects at the organization. "UN peacekeeping missions can only support the peace process and help the parties in conflict come together, nothing more," he said.
The United Nations has voted through 66 such peacekeeping missions since 1948, 15 of which are still underway. These are divided into observer, peacekeeping and peace enforcement activities, the latter having occurred only four times: during the Korean War from 1950 to 1953; in the Gulf War concerning Kuwait and Iraq in 1990; in 1999 in Kosovo; and in Afghanistan since 2001. In contrast to observer or peacekeeping missions, peace enforcement is permitted against the will of the country concerned or the parties involved in conflict.
No approval, no observers
Should a nation oppose such an operation, the UN Security Council has no authority to dispatch a peacekeeping mission. Should a mission gain access to the country, observers' freedom to move about must be ensured, which is why the UN normally organizes its own drivers, translators and guides.
An observer mission's mandate is determined by a distinct UN Security Council resolution, with observer activities drawn up based on the particular circumstances of a country. Observers - normally officers donning blue headdress with UN insignia - ensure that a ceasefire is being kept, check how militias are being disarmed, determine how the parties in conflict are interacting or check whether elections are being conducted according to international principles.
They are not permitted to get involved. Their sole mission is to observe, assess, write reports and pass them on to the UN Secretary General, who relays them to the Security Council, which confers over further steps. In this way, an observer mission is distinct from a peacekeeping one. Observers are supposed to act as the eyes and ears of the Security Council, not its fists.
"An observer mission normally does not receive a mandate to fan out and illuminate every corner of every village," Griep said, adding that it is still essential for observers to speak to the people in the country. Just how far a mission can penetrate also depends on the size of the country and the number and configuration of the observer troops. "In Kosovo, for instance, a small region with a major international observer presence, it was easier to advance inward than it was in the Democratic Republic of Congo," Griep said. Observers must "have a knack for diplomacy, have the ability to keep cool in critical situations and always remain aware of the limits of their mandate," he explained.
Peacekeeping model has changed over time
Drawing a line between an observer and a peacekeeping mission has meanwhile become difficult, said Griep, who worked in the Department for Peacekeeping Operations at UN Headquarters in New York. "Modern peacekeeping is different from the peacekeeping of the past," he noted. "It's multi-dimensional these days - with elements of ensuring that human rights are respected, to helping establish a constitutional framework or national police force, to offering counsel on humanitarian or equality issues. In the past, it was about separating squabblers."
Generally, all members of the United Nations are called on to participate in peace missions. Right now, some 120 countries - about two-thirds of UN members - are providing peacekeeping personnel: from Algeria to Zimbabwe. Strikingly, most of the around 120,000 peacekeepers - of which about 100,000 wear uniforms - come from developing countries or emerging markets, such as India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. One important reason is likely that the countries providing troops receive compensation from the UN. The United States ensures more than a fourth of the financing of the UN peacekeeping budget, while Japan provides about one-fifth and Germany about one-tenth.
Success in Liberia, patience for Cyprus
Ekkehard Griep cites the west African nation of Liberia as a good example of a successful peacekeeping operation. Since 2003, the UN mission there has been monitoring where the peace agreement remains in place. It's a success because democratic elections have been held twice now. The number of civilian and military peacekeepers have been reduced from 15,000 to 8,000 over the years.
Cyprus, on the other hand, cannot boast diplomatic success. "If there weren't a UN presence there, there would be no peace between North and South," Griep said. It's a similar situation for smaller observer missions in Kashmir or in the Middle East.
Griep himself participated in various election observer missions in Kosovo, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Afghanistan. He noted the advantage of UN observers not carrying weapons: it underscores credibility and "no one can discern an offensive, invasive character" to the mission, he said.
Author: Tobias Oelmaier / als
Editor: Spencer Kimball