The International Day of United Nations Peacekeepers, commemorated annually on 29 May, is a day dedicated to honouring and paying tribute to men and women who have lost their lives while serving in UN peacekeeping missions, both military and civilians. Peacekeeping has gone through several evolutions since the first peacekeeping mission was created more than 70 years ago. In the time since then, the United Nations Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO), a peacekeeping mission established in 1949 to monitor the Armistice Agreement between Israel and Arab States, peacekeeping missions, has increased in number and evolved in form.

There are currently 13 peacekeeping missions under UN auspices, including UNAMID, which is a joint AU-UN peacekeeping operation for Darfur. Of these, more than half are on the African continent. Overall, there have been over 70 peacekeeping missions since the beginning of the United Nations era. Of these, roughly 45% have been on the African continent. Of the peacekeeping missions established since 1990, more than half have been on the African continent. These statistics tell us that it is on the African continent where the effects of peacekeeping are mostly felt. As we commemorate the International Day of United Nations Peacekeepers, we should pause and reflect on the role that peacekeeping missions of the UN and AU have played over the years.

Peacekeeping is a tool, among many others, whose objective is to foster peace and facilitate a transition from conflict to peace. In this process, peacekeeping can help in the protection of civilians often caught in the crossfires of a conflict not of their making. Yet peacekeeping, for all the good it does and can do, is not without its challenges. For one thing, peacekeepers are often placed in harm’s way without adequate resources. There have been far too many cases where peacekeepers, outnumbered by a party to a conflict, have watched helplessly while innocent civilians have been killed. In 2000, the Report of the Panel on United Nations Peace Operations, called the “Brahimi Report”, identified a lack of resources and the need to strengthen the peacekeeping mandates as weaknesses in the UN system preventing the UN from meeting its principal objective of “saving succeeding generations from the scourge of war”.

While budgetary constraints remain an issue, the mandates of UN peacekeeping have become more robust, permitting peacekeepers to proactively use force in order to protect civilians. The UN reports that over 90% of its existing peacekeeping mandate contains a mandate for the protection of civilians. In fact, the UN has recently experimented with an even more robust form of “peacekeeping” with the establishment of what was called the Force Intervention Brigade in the Democratic Republic of the Congo – a mandate in which South Africa played a leading role.

Yet there is another side to peacekeeping. An uglier, more insidious side, which also requires greater attention. The problem of sexual abuse and exploitation by UN peacekeepers is one that is well-documented. The UN General Assembly has even established a committee, which incidentally I chaired from 2011 to 2012, that considered, amongst other options, the possibility of a treaty to address the problem of accountability of UN peacekeepers on Mission. One of the greatest contributors to the problem is the impunity gap, which is the inability of the situation country to exercise criminal jurisdiction over offenders and the fact that the UN itself is unable to exercise such jurisdiction. In the case of South Africa, legislation exists, which permits the authorities to prosecute South African peacekeepers who commit sexual offences while on mission – whether any prosecutions is less clear. The rather broad civil immunity with which the UN covers its operations is a separate problem. This immunity prevents victims of crimes committed by the UN peacekeepers on mission from instituting civil claims against the UN.

It has been 21 years since the birth of UN peacekeeping. In that time, we have strengthened the peacekeeping mandates to make them more responsive to the needs to protect civilians from warring parties. There is still much work to do on this front, but there has been noticeable progress. Yet, we have not made similar strides in promoting accountability where UN peacekeeping missions are responsible for abuses against the population. We have not done enough to make sure that peacekeepers stay true to the mantra of responsibility while protecting.

As we commemorate the International Day of UN Peacekeepers, and we remember those peacekeepers who fell while protecting civilians, we need to promote accountability, both of individual peacekeepers and the institutions under which they serve, when peacekeepers are themselves the source of abuses.  

Professor Dire Tladi is Professor of International Law at the University of Pretoria and a member of the UN International Law Commission. The International Day of United Nations Peacekeepers is commemorated annually on 29 May.