International Day of United Nations Peacekeepers


"On this International Day of UN Peacekeepers we pay tribute to more than 113,000 ‘Blue Helmets’, UN Police and civilian personnel deployed to 16 missions. We acknowledge the contribution made by an ever-growing number of Member States to our operations. Their efforts on behalf of the international community are one of the most concrete expressions of the UN Charter’s determination 'to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war'." — UN Secretary-General António Guterres (1)




The International Day of United Nations Peacekeeper’s takes place on  the 29th of May and offers a chance to recognize the invaluable role they play and pay tribute to the fallen peacekeepers since 1948. In fact, the aims of this International Day are twofold. First, honor the lives and memory of more than 3 220 military, police and civilian personnel who have periled in the service of peace (2). Second, UN Peacekeeping operations take advantage of this day to “ strengthen bonds with the local populations that they have been deployed to serve” by organizing sports tournaments for example (3). The CIPADH will build on this International Day to explore the meaning of “peacekeeping”, its role and its evolution over time.


Brief history


The first peacekeeping operation was launched in the midst of the Cold War, in 1948, as an ad hoc response to  “monitor the Armistice Agreement between Israel and its Arab neighbours” following the recent Arab-Israeli war (4). The mission was called the “UN Truce Supervision Organization” and as its name suggests, it served as a neutral third party tasked to supervise the ceasefire. The second oldest peacekeeping mission was established in 1949 to observe the ceasefire in Jammu and Kashmir, between India and Pakistan. Both of these missions continue to exercise their engagements today (5). Starting in the 1960s and 70s, the UN Peacekeeping missions have evolved to mandate short term engagements. For instance the UN established a three months mission to guarantee the “implementation of the disengagement agreement between Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Republic” in Yemen (6). Moreover, peacekeeping missions have often morphed over time to peace-enforcement operations which involve the  use of force to ensure peace.  



Peacekeeping vs Peace-enforcement


There exists numerous substantial differences between peacekeeping operations and peace enforcement missions, at least in theory. On the one hand, peacekeeping missions are constituted of troops sent by the UN which have to adopt a neutral and impartial role in the conflict and require the prior consent of the state as a sine qua non condition for them to exercise their mission. On the other hand, peace-enforcement missions, are not neutral but rather politically involved as there aim is to defend a position and fight against the peace-obstructing party of the conflict. As a result the former are either unarmed or lightly armed only to defend themselves in the context of self-defense (7) but the latter are armed and are prone to use armed force to fight against one side.

In addition, both missions involve different means to achieve the ultimate goal of lasting peace. Peacekeeping missions aim to make a fragile peace endure by monitoring a ceasefire or peace agreement. In contrast, peace-enforcement measures aspire to use force to ensure and enforce peace by “taking a side” with a specific belligerent (8). Given their armed nature, peace-enforcement missions require the approval of the Security Council to counter the UN’s general prohibition of the use of force (art 2.4 of Chapter VII of the UN Charter) (9). Indeed, only with the latter’s explicit authorization can peace-enforcement’s coercive measures be put in place. In contrast, peacekeeping measures are set up in practice and do not require any legal authorization from the UN Security Council but are a response to mandates set by the UN. These mandates can vary greatly as they are are synonymous with a myriad of essential peacebuilding activities such as “disarmament, demobilization and reintegration of ex-combatants; mine action; protection and promotion of human rights or electoral assistance” (10). It is important to note that despite the genuine successes of most of the peacekeeping operations, some missions are tantamount to utter failures. For instance, the missions in Rwanda and Yugoslavia, in the mid-90s, point to the limitations of such missions (11). Indeed, the atrocities that unfolded in Rwanda in 1994 raise a simple question: why did the peacekeepers not get more involved to prevent the tragic  genocide of up to a million of people? The politics behind the missions of the “Blue Helmets” are likely to be part of the answer.




The distinction between both terms has become increasingly blurred over time, especially in the context of civil war with no peace to be kept.  In fact, the possible use of force has become more salient as the tasks given have become multidimensional. For instance, the current mandate to protect civilians and support transition processes in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA), which was authorized by the Security Council in April 2014, has a wide scope of action and can, if necessary, imply the use of force (12). Indeed, in the Security Council Resolution 2301, it is stipulated that the SC “Authorizes MINUSCA to take all necessary means to carry out its mandate within its capabilities and areas of deployment”. here, the “means” tacitly refer to armed force (13).



Having been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1988, “for their “decisive contribution” to the resolution of conflict around the globe” (14), UN peacekeeping troops continue to exercise a prominent role in ensuring peace around the world. Today, 16 peacekeeping operations are conducted to facilitate the path from conflict to peace (15),  this amounts to more than 120 000 “Blue Helmets”. Although the theoretical definitions of peacekeeping and peace-enforcers vary, the genuine difference in their roles is moot. Indeed, peacekeeping missions now also include mandates that require the use of armed forces to ensure peace.






(1), International Day of UN Peacekeepers, 29 May

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(2) Greeningtheblue, International Day UN peacekeepers, May 2017

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(3) Ibid


(4) UN website, United Nations Peacekeeping, The early years

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(6) Ibid.

(7) Encyclopedia Princetoniensis, “Peace Keeping/peace enforcement”

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(8) Ibid

(9) UN Charter, Chapter VII



(10), Mandates and the legal basis for peacekeeping

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(11) Telegraph, “What have been the successes and failures of UN peacekeeping missions?”, September 2015

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(12) UN Missions, MINUSCA

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(13) UN Security Council Resolution 2301, Adopted by the Security Council at its 7747th meeting, on 26 July 2016  

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(14), United Nations Peacekeeping Forces

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(15) UN data, available on Day of UN peacekeepers